Spurs show why Guardiola must rethink his tactics

By Alex Keble 3 Dec 2023
Man City players

Alex Keble says it may be time for Man City manager to ditch his four centre-back strategy

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There was universal acknowledgement in the pre-match predictions that a depleted Tottenham Hotspur side would be blown away at the Etihad Stadium, but with the benefit of hindsight, perhaps we should have seen this coming. 

Ange Postecoglou’s team are incapable of being normal, and, although this one has sneaked up on us, Manchester City are no longer capable of calmly dominating a full 90 minutes. 

To put it another way, Dejan Kulusevski’s 90th-minute equaliser in a weird and wild 3-3 draw was just another day for Spurs and, now on a three-match drawing run defined by frenetic football and complacent defending, it was just another day for the hosts, too. 

Here’s how Man City threw away their first-half advantage, how Spurs bravely played their way back into the contest and why it might be time for Pep Guardiola to consider some major tactical changes.

Haaland’s first-half misses costly

Erling Haaland stormed down the tunnel at full-time, but his fury with the referee for failing to play an advantage in the dying seconds was simply an outlet for frustration at himself. 

Had Haaland scored his two big chances in the first half, Man City would have gone into the break 4-1 up and cruising, fulfilling those pre-match expectations and surely winning at a canter. 

Instead, for the first time in his career, Haaland failed to produce a single shot on target from any his five attempts. 

Those chances came thanks to Man City’s excellent man-to-man press in the first half and Spurs’s stubborn refusal to stop playing high-risk passes around their penalty area, no matter how many times they lost the ball. 

Which, incidentally, happened a lot: 11 times in their own half in the first 45 minutes, compared to Man City’s two.  

Man-marking wingers was Guardiola’s trick 

Guardiola’s tactical tweak was to instruct his two wingers to man-mark the Spurs full-backs at all times, meaning both Phil Foden and Jeremy Doku (later Jack Grealish) often appeared in central midfield to join Destiny Udogie and Pedro Porro.

Man City wingers

Not only did this shut down the centre for Spurs, penning them in and forcing turnovers, it also meant Man City’s wingers were in dangerous central positions to receive the ball when it was won back. 

It created many chances for City, including their third goal, as Grealish was found in the centre of the box only because he had been pulled into the middle to track Porro moments earlier.

Grealish goal

It wasn’t the only problem for Spurs.  

With Man City’s hard pressing keeping Spurs pinned back, the narrowness of Postecoglou’s shape meant Doku had far too much room in the first half and the makeshift Spurs centre-backs struggled with him – hence Ben Davies making a positional error that allowed Julian Alvarez to get in behind and assist Man City’s first goal. 

Spurs were lucky to only be a goal down at the break having faced 12 shots, their second-most in the first half of a Premier League game this season. 

Man City tire as Lo Celso takes control 

The match flipped completely in the second half thanks to a mix of Man City lethargy and a small change from Postecoglou, who brought on Pierre-Emile Hojbjerg for Bryan Gil.

Man City stopped pressing as well, tiring either physically or emotionally, perhaps after a difficult midweek game against RB Leipzig or because the post-Treble hangover is taking effect. 

As the press waned, Spurs’ remarkable passing out from the back became increasingly successful as Yves Bissouma, evading a defender, was able to find the spare man Giovani Lo Celso, who excelled in the middle after switching into the No 10 role at half-time. 

He was brilliant at finding space between the lines and, with the first Man City defensive line bypassed, spreading the play into the Spurs forwards. 

Spurs enjoyed 61 per cent possession between half-time and Lo Celso’s equaliser, a goal that showcased his ability to find pockets of space. 

The flip side of this was City’s own midfield configuration, which had Alvarez and Bernardo Silva high up the pitch, leaving Rodri alone to cope at the base. Again, this was evident in that second Spurs goal.

Lo Celso goal

Man City were sloppy but Spurs were relentless in their methodology and Postecoglou deserves huge credit for sticking to his guns.  

That Bissouma gave the ball away so many times, yet kept playing until he conceded the ball for Grealish’s goal could be seen as madness. But there is method in it, and without this attitude, Spurs would not have ended their three-match losing streak. 

Guardiola might need a major rethink 

All of a sudden, Man City are in a bit of trouble.  

Three league draws in a row having been in front in each match, for the first time since November 2009, has left them three points off Arsenal at the top of the table ahead of a difficult trip to Aston Villa on Wednesday evening. 

The title race

Position Pos Club Played Pl GD Points Pts
1 Liverpool LIV 26 +38 60
2 Man City MCI 26 +33 59
3 Arsenal ARS 26 +39 58
4 Aston Villa AVL 26 +21 52
5 Spurs TOT 25 +14 47
View More

More worrying than that is a record of 10 goals conceded in their last four games in all competitions and only 12 points from their last eight matches in the Premier League (W3 D3 L2). 

In the 1-1 draw with Liverpool, the 4-4 draw at Chelsea and now a 3-3 draw against Spurs, Man City have slowed down considerably, allowing games to drift and seemingly coasting along in third gear. 

Are they unable to lift themselves, unconsciously lacking a spark of motivation following the heights of last season?  

Whatever the reason, it is approaching the point at which Guardiola must change something – and it’s easy to see where to start: playing four centre-backs across the defensive line no longer looks like the masterstroke it was in the spring. 

First of all, without flying full-backs, Man City miss an attacking option out wide to back up Doku and Foden, who historically would have had Kevin De Bruyne bursting out to the flanks to help them. 

Second, and more importantly, the use of a centre-back alongside Rodri means there is less dynamism or press-resistant agility at the back of midfield. Guardiola could do with a more progressive and inventive player here, especially now that Ilkay Gundogan is no longer at the club. 

Using four big centre-backs, with one also being a co-orchestrator in midfield, seems to have slowed Man City down and made them a little passive as they safely recycle the ball.  

It also makes them a strange outlier in a fast-paced, transition-heavy modern Premier League. It is interesting, for example, that using four centre-backs is the exact inverse of Spurs' use of four full-backs, two of which act like marauding No 8s. 

There is a common acceptance that Guardiola will find a way, and that Man City, as in previous seasons, will put together an imperious run in the New Year. 

But what if that trust in City’s seemingly robotic winners is misplaced? 

Similarly, by simply expecting things to work out we fail to notice poor form creeping in and, perhaps, we are too slow to call out when change is needed. 

Man City might be doing exactly the same thing. This 3-3 draw is a warning sign, and not the first. It is time for Guardiola to take decisive action. 

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