Pochettino outwits Guardiola by pressing Eriksen into Spurs midfield role

Tottenham went man-for-man in midfield, denying Manchester City passing options from the start, and the visitors never appeared tempted to go long

The concept of pressing has never been so revered in English football and this meeting between the Premier League’s top two teams was largely about compressing space and winning possession quickly.

Tottenham Hotspur essentially won this game in the first half. They started at blistering speed, storming into midfield tackles with tremendous tenacity and closing down higher up the pitch to trouble the Manchester City goalkeeper, Claudio Bravo, when attempting to play out from the back.

Mauricio Pochettino’s shape was unusual – Christian Eriksen was in essence playing as a conventional midfielder, although he sometimes alternated positions with the right‑sided Moussa Sissoko. This rotation sometimes left Victor Wanyama isolated in front of the defence but the Kenyan was the game’s outstanding player in a destructive defensive midfield role. In a sense Spurs’ shape was not particularly important, as they were happy to go to man-for-man in midfield, denying City passing options – and they never appeared tempted to go long.

For all Tottenham’s brilliance at regaining possession, they were often rather panicked in the opposition third. Son Heung-min twice shot from acute angles when team‑mates were begging for a pass and Spurs’ goals came when Aleksandar Kolarov clumsily turned a cross into his own goal under little pressure, then when Son teed up Dele Alli after the midfielder had initially lost the ball with a poor pass.

Their decision-making without possession was more impressive than the decision-making with possession.

Pochettino and Guardiola react after Tottenham beat Manchester City

City struggled badly in the first half and Pep Guardiola’s decision to start Fernando in the side in the holding role, with Fernandinho deployed slightly higher, did not prove successful. Fernando was uncomfortable receiving the ball when pressed heavily and, though David Silva showed flashes of magic, City have looked so dangerous this season when using him alongside another creative midfielder, like Kevin De Bruyne, absent through injury, or Ilkay Gündogan, left on the bench. In the first half, Sergio Agüero received no service.

Pressing so intensely early on inevitably results in a second-half slump, however, and Spurs did not cope particularly well after the break. City dominated possession inside the opposition half and Pochettino was surprisingly slow to use his bench. Guardiola inevitably introduced Gündogan for Fernandinho, which meant he and Silva found pockets of space either side of Wanyama, but it took 20 minutes for Pochettino to respond by bringing on Eric Dier as a second holding midfielder. Later, Spurs required fresh legs with Son and Danny Rose tiring, but Pochettino waited until the final five minutes before using his other two substitutes.

City created chances, particularly in their inside left-channel, with Fernandinho and Silva slipping through-balls to Agüero and the substitute Kelechi Iheanacho respectively. Both were foiled by Hugo Lloris. Guardiola’s use of two strikers meant City switching to a diamond shape, the first taste of a genuine plan B.

Tottenham’s performance will be cited as the blueprint for playing against Guardiola’s City and their pressing was clearly effective in the opening stages. Sustaining that intensity over 90 minutes is impossible, however, and managers looking to follow suit must also prepare for a second-half City onslaught.


Michael Cox

The GuardianTramp

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