Tottenham Hotspur – Manchester City: City Finally Shatter The Tottenham Hotspur Spell (0-1)
The Tottenham Hotspur Stadium hasn’t been kind to Manchester City, but their five-game losing streak was finally broken in the FA Cup. They dominated the proceedings right from the outset, with a dynamically fluid approach, but ultimately, Nathan Aké’s toe poke made the decisive impact.
Tactical analysis and match report by Rahul Madhavan.
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Almost two decades back, a classic FA Cup fourth-round encounter unfolded between Tottenham Hotspur and Manchester City. Despite being three goals down and a man short, City mounted a comeback in the second half, scoring four to snatch the victory away from Spurs at White Hart Lane.
Fast forward to 2024, and these two teams find themselves on different ends of the spectrum. Nevertheless, their attractive football styles continue to captivate millions worldwide. Ange Postecoglou, the former manager of the City Football Group’s Yokohama Marinos, has become the talk of the town since his arrival. Under his guidance, Tottenham appear to have finally found a manager capable of getting the best out of his players. Despite grappling with injury concerns, Postecoglou has defied expectations, with just three points separating them from City in the Premier League.
On the other end, Manchester City, following a barren run to end 2023, have capitalized on stumbles from Liverpool and Arsenal, to position themselves back in the title race. The return of the influential Kevin De Bruyne and a rejuvenating warm weather camp in Dubai couldn’t have come at a better time. However, the new Tottenham Hotspur Stadium has been nothing short of a source of despair for them. Not only have they failed to win on this ground, but they haven’t even managed to score, prompting Pep Guardiola to hysterically remark that a victory here is his biggest challenge.
Postecolglu welcomed several players back from injury during the break. Guglielmo Vicario continued in goal, while Micky Van de Ven, Cristian Romero, Destiny Udogie, and Pedro Porro started in defense once again. In midfield, Dejan Kulusevki stepped in for Oliver Skipp, while Timo Werner and Brennan Johnson kept their places despite the return of James Maddison.
On the Manchester City side, their regular cup keeper Stefan Ortega replaced Ederson. With Manuel Akanji and John Stones still recovering, the back four remained unchanged from their 3-2 victory over Newcastle United. Phil Foden, Bernardo Silva, and Mateo Kovačić also retained their positions, while Oscar Bobb took over from Jérémy Doku on the flanks. City also had a formidable bench with Stones’ return further increasing their strength in depth.
City’s midfield overload pins Spurs
In the absence of De Bruyne and Stones Guardiola has tinkered with various approaches to achieve the right balance. At the start of the season, Walker was tasked with providing width, allowing Foden to roam centrally. However, that left City lacking a regular threat from the right side, ultimately making them predictable. Additionally, Walker advancing forward left them vulnerable on the break.
Guardiola has also used Kovačić and Silva higher up the pitch, with Akanji playing the ‘John Stones’ role, but teams have been able to exploit them largely due to their failure to move the ball swiftly and the lack of precision in midfield.
Ultimately, City resorted to using both Kovačić and Silva alongside Rodri in what appeared to be a 2-3 structure in the first line. The full-backs (Walker and Gvardiol) were instructed to maintain width, while this setup capitalized on the strengths of City’s interiors – Foden, Álvarez, and Bobb – in tight spaces. Against Tottenham, who typically started in a 4-4-1-1 shape and looked to press, Pep employed a similar strategy, in the belief that positioning Silva and Kovačić deeper while pushing the full-backs forward outweighed the risk of being exposed on the break.
Similar to the game against Newcastle, City enjoyed numerical superiority in midfield against Spurs, with Silva and Kovačić alongside Rodri. They played a pivotal role in drawing Tottenham’s wingers, thus creating a two-versus-one situation on the flanks. This allowed City to exploit the spaces with their floating interiors, Foden and Bobb, who were adept at receiving passes between the lines on the half turn.
Minute 25: City’s offensive sequence: As Kovačić receives possession, Johnson engages with him, pressing with an angle to block the pass wide. Gvardiol, rotating with Bobb, peels away from Porro, who fails to jump due to a two-versus-one situation on the flank. City ultimately break Tottenham’s press to find the interior and advance to the final third.
What City executed brilliantly was their understanding of their strengths and weaknesses, leveraging them to their advantage. The hosts clearly dominated in terms of larger spaces, as they had the better pace and physicality. If City attempted to exploit Spurs’ high defensive line with a direct approach, the game would have become more open, favoring Postecoglou’s team.
Consequently, City utilized their midfielders in the pockets, initially drawing Spurs’ press with backward passes before playing through the lines to the likes of Álvarez, Bobb, and Foden, who consistently pulled away from their markers to receive the ball on the turn. Spurs’ defenders were reluctant to engage aggressively, and as a result, it created gaps between their usually compact midfield and defensive line.
As the match progressed, City increasingly targeted Spurs’ right side, but clear-cut chances were limited. Despite City’s precision in midfield, their actions in the final third were subpar, while Spurs’ defenders also made crucial interventions to deny their opponents.
City’s success out of possession
In his post-match interview, Postecoglou expressed that his side lacked conviction, especially in the first half. While City’s dominance in possession, winning battles in tight spaces, and creating numerical superiority were contributing factors, their approach out of possession also played a huge role.
Guardiola’s adjustments out of possession, tailored to the opponents, have been a hallmark of City’s success in the past season. In this clash, Pep inadvertently adopted a fully man-oriented approach, with a heavy impetus on limiting time on the ball for Spurs’ defenders and midfielders. Additionally, City pressed the goalkeeper aggressively, highlighting their recognition of Vicario’s significance in the buildup. Their success largely relied on their aggressive approach, which forced Spurs to resort to longer passes towards Richarlison, Werner, and Johnson.
Minute 28: City use a man-oriented approach, with Aké tracking Bentancur all the way to midfield. As Álvarez initiated the press, Vicario utilized Bentancur to find third-man Romero, who drifted wide. Despite Romero having space to carry, all City players stuck close to their man, while Álvarez tracked back to close down the center-back.
The crucial difference between City and Spurs’ approaches lay in the timing of triggers to initiate pressure. While the visitors began with an extremely aggressive stance, forcing their opponents onto the backfoot, they gradually chose their moments to press as the game progressed. On the other hand, Spurs were constantly caught in two minds, especially in the first half.
Tottenham attempted to counter City’s man-oriented approach through rotation between their full-backs (Udogie and Porro) and midfielders, typically Kulusevki and Bentancur. However, the effective communication among City’s players regarding when and whom to engage made a significant difference.
Nonetheless, City did have issues with an unorganized high defensive line when Spurs managed to bypass their press on occasions. Porro and Kulusevski had numerous opportunities to exploit space behind City’s defense, but their execution was largely lacking, hindering their ability to capitalize on these openings.
Set-piece settles the game
City’s midfield consistently overloaded Spurs’, prompting Postecoglou to reassess his team’s approach at halftime and make slight adjustments. In an effort to restrict access to City’s three midfield orchestrators, Spurs adopted a man-oriented approach, with Bentancur, Højbjerg, and Kulusevski.
The hosts also started with high intensity, with ball-sided wingers pressing City’s center-backs, forcing them to play longer passes. However, the issue here was that it left City’s full-backs open to receive possession. After facing early pressure from Spurs, Gvardiol and Walker adjusted their positions and dropped deeper, often becoming the free man. City’s progression early in the second half largely relied on their full-backs, with Ortega’s clipped passes proving valuable as well.
Just as Spurs began to commit men forward in the hopes of winning the ball higher up the pitch, Guardiola brought on his agents of chaos in Jérémy Doku and De Bruyne, indicating that City were willing to play Spurs in their own game – an end-to-end one with opportunities to counter. With Doku into the game, City’s method of progression also changed; with Spurs attempting to block out any central access with their wingers narrow, it created an opening in the wide areas, where Doku was isolated against Porro.
Minute 65: City’s offensive sequence. Johnson engaged with Aké, while Spurs closely marked City’s midfield trio. Doku, dropping deeper, drew Porro with him, while Gvardiol, positioned on the blindside of Bentancur, made a run behind, pulling Romero away and creating space for Foden. Doku then found Foden, whose deflected cross narrowly missed found the back of the net.
Despite controlling proceedings once again, City struggled to convert clear-cut chances, mirroring their previous experiences at the Tottenham Hotspur Stadium. However, as stoppage time approached, they took the lead from a well-worked set-piece situation.
Throughout the evening, Dias positioned himself near Vicario during corners, but Álvarez’s deliveries lacked accuracy. With De Bruyne’s arrival, the dynamic shifted, and his cross troubled Vicario, who, with Dias in front of him, fumbled the ball, allowing Aké to score from close range. After an anxious VAR check, the goal was awarded, ultimately breaking City’s curse at the Tottenham Hotspur Stadium.
Spurs have often held the upper hand against Manchester City in recent encounters, but this time, the disparity was glaring. They struggled to make any inroads against City, as their approach with and without possession appeared disorganized. Registering just one shot throughout the ninety minutes is certainly a cause for concern after a two-week break, but Postecoglou will be banking on Maddison’s return to reignite his team’s spark.
Meanwhile, Manchester City’s resilient mentality appears to have resurfaced at a crucial juncture of the season. With seven consecutive wins and five clean sheets in those matches, there are a lot of positive signs, but this victory holds particular significance given City’s previous struggles at the Tottenham Hotspur Stadium. With the return of key players like De Bruyne, Haaland, and John Stones from injury, all indications point towards another strong push for the treble.
Match plots to be added shortly.