Manchester City continue their title defence with what is the most difficult game of an otherwise relatively easy opening to the season, taking on Champions League finalists Tottenham Hotspur.
Pep Guardiola set up his team in a slight alteration to his usual 4-3-3 formation, as Ilkay Gundogan, more of a central midfielder than an attacking one, played a more withdrawn role than David Silva usually would in this role, while Kevin De Bruyne balanced this out by staying in attack, playing up alongside Sergio Aguero when City were defending. Mauricio Pochettino set up Tottenham in a 4-4-1-1 shape, with Erik Lamela playing off of Harry Kane in attack.
Spurs played quite passively. Other than the odd counter-pressing opportunity, they didn’t really press City, with only Kane pushing forward to close down the two centre-backs and Ederson, while Lamela stuck tight to Rodri and the rest sat back in two narrow banks of four.
The match was a familiar affair then: City passed the ball around while their opposition sat back and tried to stop them from scoring.
City’s attacking these days is mainly based around stretching the opposition backline with wingers and looking to exploit the gaps that open up between them, with five attackers overloading the opposition back four. Here, the City defenders, under little pressure, would pick out long passes to Raheem Sterling and Bernardo Silva hugging the touchline, easily eliminating Spurs’ midfield line, and look to combine with their teammates to work the ball into the box.
Rightly so with the threat of De Bruyne and Kyle Walker, Spurs seemed particularly wary of City attacking their left side. When the ball was passed out to Silva, Danny Rose would go out to meet him, but Davinson Sanchez would follow behind him to plug the gap that opened up between them, and Christian Eriksen and Tanguy Ndombele also tracked back close to the defenders to form a tight square of players where City were trying to find space. Sanchez moving across in support of Rose meant that Spurs were often left outnumbered three to two by City attackers at the back post, with Gundogan joining Sterling and Aguero in the box, however it helped to stop those crosses from flashing across the face of goal, as De Bruyne or Walker couldn’t underlap without being immediately confronted by Sanchez.
It was on the left that City found most of their early joy then. Toby Alderweireld didn’t move out to support Kyle Walker-Peters like Sanchez did to Rose, as Gundogan rarely tried to drive through the gap between them in the manner of De Bruyne, so, with Moussa Sissoko not doing a great job of helping him either, Walker-Peters was often left one-against-one with Sterling. He looked a little bit out of his depth, as you would expect from a youngster going up against one of the best attackers in the league, however he was just about holding on, as although Sterling was looking dangerous, especially with the support of Oleksandr Zinchenko, he wasn’t really creating any real chances.
Nevertheless it was from the right that City found their opener. De Bruyne flicked the ball out to Silva on the right flank and as those four Spurs players swarmed the area, the Belgian, rather than get crowded out between them, instead moved backwards, hovering around the edge of the area. Silva returned the ball to him and he swung in a cross towards the overloaded back post, where Sterling headed the ball into the net.
The support of Eriksen and Ndombele did make it difficult for City to get to the byline, yet it also left space around the edge of the box to be exploited. Walker had exposed this in the opening minutes, but he had taken a touch forward that cut away at his available space and sent in a poor cross. Sixteen minutes later, De Bruyne replicated his attack with a touch more quality and City got their goal.
Spurs offered little going forward. Firstly, City’s pressing made it difficult for Spurs to pass the ball out and so they often resorted to long balls, which City’s defence easily mopped up time and again, their cover at the back allowing the defenders to be very aggressive in winning the ball so that Kane had little chance of holding it up. Secondly, too much was being asked of Kane to hold up the ball – City were pushing the Spurs’ midfield back so deep to defend that they couldn’t get forward fast enough to support Kane and counter effectively.
Despite this, they managed to equalise just minutes after City had taken the lead. They won a throw-in on the right then recycled the ball out to the left, getting City to back off from their pressing and drop back into their 4-4-2 shape. Sterling didn’t bother to tuck inside though, so Ndombele, under no pressure, slid a pass straight into the feet of Lamela, who placed a shot just out of the reach of Ederson.
City soon went ahead through an attack down the right again though. The ball was played out to Silva and that defensive square was formed again, so the Portuguese passed back to Walker lurking deeper. Eriksen moves out to close him down, although Walker has little interest in crossing the ball and returns it to Silva. The pass back to Walker saw Sanchez tuck into the centre though, presumably in anticipation of a cross, yet he fails to move back out when the ball goes back outside to Silva, allowing De Bruyne space as he makes a run behind Rose. Winks rushes to try to make up the ground but can’t stop De Bruyne before he fires a low cross along the six yard box, out of the reach of the stretching Sanchez as Aguero nudges in ahead of Alderweireld to finish.
The game largely continued as it had in the first half. Spurs had been getting more comfortable on the ball as City’s pressing became less intense – Aguero will press the centre-back and block the pass into the midfield but once the ball goes past him he makes little effort to track back, meaning Tottenham could pass the ball into Ndombele or Winks on his side if they moved it out wide first – and Spurs also pressed better, with Eriksen and Lamela pushing up to flank Kane as he closed down City’s defenders and Sissoko joining them if a City midfielder rushed back to help out. Still, it was City who were on the attack and came close to extending their lead several times at the start of the half.
Instead, Spurs cancelled out that lead. Lucas Moura came on for Winks immediately before a corner and headed home an equaliser with his first touch. City’s set-up for the corner seems a little odd: they have four men lined up along the six yard line (five if you include Rodri, although really he’s guarding the near post) where three would probably do, and De Bruyne, Sterling and Aguero all mark the near side of the box, where there’s only two Tottenham players. That leaves only two men to block runners ahead of the main defensive line, where there’s four Spurs players lurking, and they both do a pretty terrible job: Silva is gripping tight to Alderweireld then simply gives up as he sprints towards the near post, moving back towards the back post to try and pick someone else up, while Kane easily shrugs off Gundogan who doesn’t bother to follow him any further. Lucas wasn’t even picked up, able to wander between the pair and get on the cross. It’s a questionable set-up made worse by the fact many of City’s technical players are physically weak.
After the goal, the pattern remained the same however the game felt different. City attacked and Spurs defended, but Spurs looked more dangerous than they had previously, as the pace of Lucas posed a threat whenever they countered. The City supporters were nervier and that atmosphere seemed to transmit to the players: they snatched at shots or attempted audacious rather than simple passes as they hunted for their winning goal.
Substitute Gabriel Jesus thought he had got the winner in extra time only for VAR to rule it out. 30 shots to 3 shows that City had done enough to usually win the game, yet they didn’t: football can be unforgivable sometimes and Tottenham punished their mistakes.