The Cityzens were on the backfoot for most of the games as they faced a wave of pressure from the Lilywhites.
The stage was set. Tottenham Hotspur’s newest stadium, a breathtaking feat of engineering and ingenuity welcomed the Premier League champions who had destroyed everyone in their wake last season and reached a mind-boggling 100 points in the league.
Mauricio Pochettino relished this duel with Pep Guardiola and absolutely ran away with it, tactically outclassing the Catalan manager who is regarded as one of the greatest, if not the only one, of this generation.
There was a sense of extreme conservation and caution from Guardiola’s side- as it has always been in Champions League away knockout ties and one still struggles to figure out the reason why. It is almost as if he overthinks too much and chooses to exercise caution and restraint and not attack the opponent freely. Why wouldn’t he let his players allow more expression and head into the game with the intent to win? His last away quarterfinal victory was when he was still in charge of Barcelona, against Shakhtar Donetsk in 2011.
It came as a surprise when he left Leroy Sane and Kevin De Bruyne on the bench. It was even more surprising to see him bring those two on at the 88th minute when City were trailing 1-0 to a wonderful Son Heung-min goal against the run of play. The South Korean winger has been on a wonderful run of form and having scored 66.66% of all goals there, is the hero of the hour at Tottenham’s new stadium.
Harry Kane went off injured in the second half and looks to be in serious trouble with his recurring ankle injury while Hugo Lloris saved a tame Aguero penalty in the opening quarter of the match after VAR intervention decided that Danny Rose had handled the ball in the penalty area.
It took work, Pochettino’s men were relentless throughout the night and they got their reward- a treasured 1-0 lead to protect and pounce on away at the Etihad in a week’s time.
Son Heung-Min: A gem of a versatile player
In the absence of Bernardo Silva, Guardiola decided to start with Mahrez on the right instead. Riyad Mahrez has failed to hit the ground running at Manchester City and looked clueless and out-of-sorts again on the flank yesterday. He got suffocated when on the ball and therefore, didn’t contribute to the creation and was only helpful when tracking back on Danny Rose’s runs.
While Tottenham’s form coming into this game has been horrible (only 1 win and 3 losses in their last 5 games), Pochettino fielded his gala XI regardless. He set his team up brilliant to almost mimic City’s 4-2-3-1 in possession and tried to counter City’s build up from the back by maintaining the same shape and keeping it compact.
Meanwhile, Manchester City started the game in their typical style, trying to build up from the back. Their centre backs were stretched, fullbacks placed high and wide almost acting as auxiliary midfielders and Fernandinho acting as the lone pivot.
Tottenham Hotspurs countered this with a compact 4-2-3-1 structure with wide midfield/wing presence in Christian Eriksen and Heung Min-Son pressing City’s fullbacks while Danny Rose and Kieran Trippier kept a close watch on Riyad Mahrez and Raheem Sterling.
Following moments of pressure and a few scares, Guardiola asked Fabian Delph to drop deeper and asked Ilkay Gündogan to form a two-man defensive midfield with Fernandinho. Following this, Spurs shifted a more 4-1-4-1 shape. This resulted in City’s full-backs having to take up more conservative positions at the back in order to help out Laporte and Otamendi which failed to generate depth in build-up. This made it easier for Eriksen, Alli, Son and Kane to occupy spaces and press or choose to block passing channels.
The missed penalty from Sergio Aguero is going to cost Manchester City
Following this suffocation, City’s creative force in David Silva had to drop deep to see the ball but he was kept on a leash by Moussa Sissoko who did a close job of marking Silva and taking him out of the game completely.
David Silva being isolated up in midfield meant City’s positional structure was a mess and could not generate the triangles and diamonds shape that they use for ball circulation which hampered their natural game.
Manchester City playing with inverted fullbacks also meant Delph coming into central areas where a lot of possession was lost. Spurs recovered balls in this zone and often channelled it to the left with Son or Kane and then switch it to the opposite flank to a free Dele Alli or Eriksen.
In the second half, Tottenham being low on energy as compared to the first half did not press City as proactively. Instead of focussing on central zones to press, they cut off passing supplies in the midfield and made City play down the wings through Mahrez and Raheem Sterling. But with Gundogan dropping to assist Fernandinho and David Silva being marked out of the game, there were no players to help out the wingers in the flank and half-spaces and try to create a numerical overload.
What this meant is that Sterling and Mahrez were quite often left 1v1 with Danny Rose and Kieran Trippier. Tottenham fullbacks held their ground and were very solid and Eriksen and Son dropped back to help them out. Sterling and Mahrez, as a result were forced to look for options in the central areas where Tottenham had won the midfield battle.
A frustrated Riyadh Mahrez dropping a lot of crosses into the box without no clear central target emphasised how well Poch’s plans were working and how out of ideas Pep’s side were.
With Sterling and Mahrez having to come in centrally, it depended on Walker and Delph to stay wide and stretch the defence. This meant space for the Tottenham fullbacks to attack into, especially via Danny Rose who ran up and down all game tirelessly and were able to catch City’s defence on the back-foot with pacey counters using Son, Alli and Kane.
Manchester City conceded during a period of the game when they were actually on top of the game and knocking on doors. With Benjamin Mendy and makeshift left-back Zinchenko almost out unavailable, the spot has become a glaring flaw in the City system that needs fixing. Fabian Delph is far from being a solid and reliable defender and this became obvious once again when Heung Min-Son teased and twisted Delph and Gundogan that beat Ederson. Aymeric Laporte should start at left back at the Etihad with Nicolás Otamendi and John Stones in central defence.
Going down on the 81st minute, one would have expected a quick response from Pep who was awfully subdued. He brought on De Bruyne and Sane in the 88th minute. They were more impressive than what Mahrez and Gundogan had been all night but too much was left for too late.
Manchester City’s attacked lacked structure and a clear idea of exploiting space or targeting a particular defensive flaw and was more reliant on individual ability. In many attacking switches, the players were extremely slow to push forward and take up advance positions and kept losing to a coordinated Spurs’ pressing. City’s areas of penetration between the lines and in the half spaces were closely guarded by Spurs who were concentrated and disciplined in defence and quick on the transition.