London: How hard do Tottenham press?
There are two ways to play against Manchester City. You can press high up the pitch, as Liverpool and Lyon have with some success over the past two seasons, and try to force their defenders actually to defend, or you can sit deep, look to absorb pressure and hit them on the break. Jurgen Klopp may have dismissed the bunker mentality as being akin to looking to win the lottery, attempting to restrict the number and quality of the chances City have but essentially accepting they will have some and hoping they will miss — but it worked for Newcastle, Crystal Palace and Wolves. Pressing probably is the best way of disrupting City’s flow, but it is an approach fraught with risk: when it went wrong for Liverpool last season, they lost 5-0. Huddersfield pressed hard at the Etihad last May and were rewarded with a 0-0 draw; when they tried the same again in August they lost 6-1.
More pertinently, when Tottenham pressed high against City at the Etihad last season, hemming them in at every goal-kick, they found the ploy negated by the long passing of Ederson, who hit 19 long passes against a season average of 4.0 per game, and lost 4-1. In two games against City at Wembley since, Spurs have seemed unsure in their approach and on both occasions have been a little tepid, losing 3-1 and 1-0.
Shaking City out of their rhythm is difficult, but when opponents have managed to do it, it’s often been by sitting a creator on Fernandinho and preventing him being the metronome at the back of midfield. Leicester, perhaps, were most successful with the ploy, James Maddison moving off the flank into the centre and imposing himself on the Brazilian. City are a too-gifted and flexible team for that to be a sure-fire way of upsetting them but it does seem a role to which Dele Alli is ideally suited.
City and the early goals
Whereas Liverpool’s pursuit of the league title has been characterised by anxiety, drama and late winners, since the turn of the year City have been gracefully efficient at tearing into opponents, getting an early goal and so being able to control a game. Gabriel Jesus’s header against Brighton in the FA Cup semi-final on Saturday was the sixth goal City have scored this season inside five minutes, the 12th before the 10th minute and the 26th before the 20th. That is clearly part of a policy: rip into opponents, prevent them settling and have the game won before any doubts can begin to creep in. It may be that in a two-leg tie there’s less impetus to do that — but then an away goal can make a huge difference.
City, particularly in the opening stages, if they are chasing that foothold of an early goal, will surely press Tottenham hard. Although Spurs have the fourth-best pass completion rate in the league, they are clearly vulnerable under pressure, something that was clear in that league meeting at Wembley. That plays into another trait: Tottenham’s inherent capacity for sloppiness at key moments. Call it a witch’s curse, call it Spursiness, call it a lack of experience at the very highest level, it afflicts them again and again at key moments: against Juventus in the Champions League last season, in the FA Cup semi-final against Manchester United last season, in the league defeat at Anfield this season. Spurs always give a sense that under real pressure, they will make mistakes.
Attacking City wide
Louis van Gaal said last year that the difference between his teams and Guardiola’s was that Guardiola was happy to send both full-backs forward at once whereas he would always keep one back as cover. Guardiola has compromised on that this season, notably at Anfield where Kyle Walker at times played almost as a third central defender, but full-back is an area where Tottenham may be able to get at City, particularly if Walker is kept out by his hamstring injury. That said, if Alli (or Christian Eriksen) is deployed to handle Fernandinho, it would be a very bold move for Spurs to play the 4-2-3-1 necessary also to attack City wide.