Manchester City – Tottenham Hotspur – Pochettino’s Bravery Produces A Bonkers Start That Led To An Absolute Champions League Classic (4-3)
Tottenham went through to the Champions League semi finals after Mauricio Pochettino’s tactical choice led to a record-breaking opening stage that produced five goals in twenty-one minutes. Despite gradually gaining control and having reached the score line that would see them through, Manchester City found themselves at the wrong end of two VAR decisions and lost the chance of a quadruple.
Tactical analysis and match report by Cem Soylu.
After a cagey first leg with limited goal scoring chances for both sides, this was the complete opposite. Thanks to Pochettino’s choice of tactics to start with a 4-4-2 diamond shape, both teams were exposed in different ways that resulted in five goals within the opening twenty minutes. Pep Guardiola reverted back to his 4-3-3 formation, which resulted in a Manchester City display that we are much more accustomed to see. All in all, both managers contributed to an absolute Champions League classic that will be remembered for years to come.
Guardiola made four changes to his team for the second leg, with Vincent Kompany, Benjamin Mendy, Kevin de Bruyne and Bernardo Silva coming into the side. Fernandinho was only fit for the bench – İlkay Gündoğan played as the number six. Pochettino’s 4-4-2 diamond formation had Lucas Moura and Heung-Min Son up top in the absence of Harry Kane. Contrary to the previous times we have seen a diamond from Tottenham, Christian Eriksen played behind the two strikers with Dele Alli moving to a left-of-center midfield slot. Victor Wanyama replaced the injured Harry Winks at the base of the diamond.
Tottenham drills City through the middle, City punishes lack of width
In the frantic opening stage, both teams looked extremely dangerous, exposing each other’s weak spots. Manchester City, as usual, used the whole width of the pitch and pushed David Silva and De Bruyne into the wider areas in possession. Tottenham stayed in a medium block A medium block refers to a team that retreats in their own half out of possession, generally only disrupting their opponents some way into their own half. with the forwards blocking access into Gündoğan, and Eriksen dropping deeper.
As is the norm with a 4-4-2 diamond system when the ball is played wide, the midfield shifted towards the ball side to block passing options. This left plenty of space on the far side wide forward – mostly Sterling – for Manchester City to leave one on one against the fullback and get in a shooting position, but the ball had to pass through Tottenham’s entire block to get there. Although Guardiola will rightfully get stick for his little usage of Leroy Sané over the two legs, he did at least have a rationale to play opposite footed wide forwards thinking they would get these shooting opportunities.
Tottenham’s source of danger was the middle of the pitch – they had a spare man in midfield and had no trouble playing through Manchester City’s lines into their front two, especially with Gündoğan’s lack of defensive prowess compared to Fernandinho. City could neither disrupt Tottenham’s buildup play, nor defend between their lines. Tottenham simply overloaded that area with their attackers and an exposed duo of Kompany and Laporte were helpless in the opening stage.
Tottenham’s 4-4-2 diamond formation.
Nature of the goals
The first four goals were scored exactly due to the areas of exposure described above. Starting with City – for the first goal, De Bruyne received wide during buildup and played a cutting pass to Agüero, received back from him, played it beautifully to Sterling who had a lot of space wide left. Sterling dribbled at Trippier, cut in to his right and slotted home into the far corner.
City’s second goal came after play was switched from the left to the right – David Silva received from Mendy in front of Wanyama, played Agüero in between the lines, De Bruyne’s decoy run took Rose away and Bernardo Silva was completely open wide right for the through ball from the Argentinian to score the equalizer. In both instances, Agüero showed excellent linkup play dropping deeper and played a key role in breaking Tottenham’s lines to get the ball into the wide opening.
4th minute – De Bruyne in possession before Manchester City’s first goal. Agüero drops into space and plays a one-two with De Bruyne. De Bruyne dribbles towards defense, Trippier is drawn into David Silva, which leaves Sterling wide open on the left, who receives a through ball from the Belgian to score the opener.
For Tottenham’s opener, Gündoğan was poorly positioned and Sissoko easily played Eriksen between the lines. After a one-touch pass from the Dane, Lucas turned from De Bruyne and all of a sudden the quartet of Son – Lucas – Alli – Eriksen swarmed around the center of City’s defence. The other three attacked Alli’s final pass into the box and a poor touch from Laporte set Son up for a low finish through Ederson’s legs.
Laporte was at fault for the second crucial away goal, as a terrible touch gave the ball away to Lucas who broke forward. Lucas had a moment to pause, again Eriksen – Son – Alli were all available and overloading the City defense. Eriksen played Son in, Alli took Walker away with his decoy run, Son finished beautifully. Attacking City with numbers through the middle proved highly effective in Fernandinho’s absence and left the center-backs very exposed. Especially for the second goal, close followers of Manchester City can picture in their minds Fernandinho stopping Lucas with a foul after Laporte’s mistake and getting a yellow card, keeping the score at 1-1.
City’s familiar 4-3-3 formation, with both central midfielders pushed up high and wide.
The mystery behind Manchester City’s third goal
A lot of articles will probably mention Pochettino switched to a 4-2-3-1 formation right after City scored their third goal. As a matter of fact, he actually switched seconds before.
In the thirtieth minute, during City’s buildup, we can still see Son as the right sided striker and Tottenham in a diamond shape. City progressed the ball with a Walker dribble, and Walker got fouled inside Tottenham half. Using this gap in the play, Pochettino switched to a 4-2-3-1 shape with Son left and Eriksen right, aiming to stop City’s dominance in wide areas.
Seconds before the goal when Bernardo Silva received on the right following the free kick, we can clearly see both Son and Eriksen in their new positions. Son and Rose are positioned to defend De Bruyne’s overlap as the formation switch aimed to do, but in an unfortunate fashion, Son slipped and fell down! De Bruyne sliced one of his deadly low crosses to Sterling on the far side, and City took the lead. This was a very interesting moment in the game, and shows football’s cruel side for a coach. Pochettino’s side continued with the 4-2-3-1 shape after kick-off.
Sissoko big blow for Spurs, City take control
Following City’s third goal, it was a pretty balanced contest with Tottenham’s tactical precaution pulling the breaks on the frantic game. Tottenham looked safer off the ball with more protection in wide areas, but much less threatening in possession. However, compared to the first game in which they had a double pivot, 4-2-3-1 is one of the most frequently occurring formations in football. The two most defensive midfielders are called a ‘double pivot’. City were much better here in their buildup play and progressing the ball, with De Bruyne and David Silva active on both halfspaces If you divide the field in five vertical lanes, the halfspaces are the lanes that are not on the wing and not in the center. Because there is no touchline like on the wing, players have freedom to go everywhere. But this zone often is not as well-defended as the very center. This makes it a very valuable offensive zone to play in and a lot of chances are created by passes or dribbles from the halfspace. to receive, and City gradually took control of the game.
Tottenham’s troubles increased when Sissoko was forced off through injury late in the first half, which meant target man Fernando Llorente came on to form a 4-4-2 shape with Lucas playing off him, with Alli moving deeper. Spurs heavily missed Sissoko’s physicality in the midfield. On top of that, Llorente’s footwork when he receives in pressure and Alli’s lack of positional knowledge in a deeper role further hampered Tottenham’s situation in the game.
Second half – City dominates, before the drama favors Tottenham
The second half saw Guardiola switching his side into more of a 4-2-3-1 with De Bruyne moving deeper next to Gündoğan. This produced the same team shapes as the first leg, but this time City was completely dominant and looked incredibly dangerous in the opening stages of the second half. De Bruyne was moving forward from his deeper position and caused all sorts of problems to his direct opponent Alli, who looked very uncomfortable in an unusual deeper position. De Bruyne first won a dangerous free kick, then forced Lloris into a difficult save with a strong strike right outside the box. After a flurry of chances – including one for Tottenham through Llorente – finally in 59th minute, De Bruyne received from Gündoğan behind Alli, dribbled past Wanyama, slipped a through ball – his third assist – to Agüero who smashed it past Lloris from a tight angle.
58th minute – Gündoğan in possession before Manchester City’s third goal. After a casual and slow defensive transition from Tottenham, Gündoğan slips the ball through to De Bruyne, who moved forward from the double pivot, positioned behind an unaware Alli and provided the assist.
Guardiola introduced Fernandinho for David Silva Fernandinho in the 63rd minute, placing him next to Gündoğan in the double pivot and moving De Bruyne into the number ten position. Although still in control, City looked more reserved in their approach. Not looking dangerous by any means in this second half, Tottenham won two successive corner kicks after a good run by Son and Llorente converted the second one to bring back the advantage for his team through away goals.
Pochettino brought in Ben Davies for Lucas Moura and defended the left flank with two left backs, while Guardiola only brought Sané in the 84th minute to play alone on the left, replacing Mendy. The game still had room for further drama after Eriksen’s mistake bounced into Agüero’s path in the final minute. Sterling’s goal sent the Etihad Stadium into ruptures, before getting dramatically chalked off by VAR for an offside.
This game will be remembered for many years to come, and the world of football should thank Mauricio Pochettino for choosing a brave approach. With his starting 4-4-2 diamond formation, he chose to search for away goals to increase the cushion, rather than parking the bus like many coaches would do away at Manchester City to protect a lead. Both teams using the other’s exposed areas brilliantly and clinically resulted in a record breaking opening stage, followed by an injury and some tactical tweaks that gradually handed control to City.
Despite deserving a lot of credit over the two legs and missing arguably their best player, Tottenham really got away with that second half especially after conceding the fourth goal. A parenthesis should be opened here for Llorente, who receives plenty of criticism at times but proves an excellent plan C for Tottenham. He played a role in more than a few late pushes during this season, most notably during the late comeback win against PSV Eindhoven, and here again he came up with the crucial third goal. His critics should consider that perhaps having a plan C with such a decorated career, who does not mind sitting on the bench and can create havoc in the box when needed, is not that bad.
Guardiola will be very disappointed that this tie slipped through his hands in the second half, as his side did enough to win the tie in this second leg at home. He will inevitably regret his very reserved approach that resulted in a 1-0 loss in the first leg, which gave the decisive advantage to send Tottenham through in this 4-4 aggregate result. His side still looks vulnerable against strong sides with top level coaches, who are capable of making a game plan to counter him.
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