With a mere thirteen games left to play, Tottenham are second in the Premier League table, one point above fourth place Manchester City.
Prior to the season, people might have looked toward Sunday’s match between Tottenham and City as one that could go a long way to deciding the title. Few, however, would have a guessed that Tottenham would have had as much or more of a chance than City at said title though.
Consequently, this match is arguably the most important of Tottenham’s season so far. They go into it on an absolutely lethal run of form, one that has seen them win each of the last four matches in all competitions since the 1-0 loss to league leaders Leicester City in mid-January.
City have had the reverse situation. A good run of form ended abruptly on Saturday morning with a hapless effort against Leicester that ended 3-1 in league leaders’ favor. Whether that loss will proof demotivating or invigorating remains to be seen.
The last time these two sides met, back in September at White Hart Lane, the match ended 4-1 in Tottenham’s favor. While Mauricio Pochettino got a lot of praise for the win, it was a match that was as much decided by poor officiating and City’s woeful defending as it was Tottenham’s superiority on the day.
Tottenham can’t rely on the same good fortune in this weekend’s contest. They will need to be on top of their game if they hope to keep a City team that is packed to the gills with talent contained.
From a purely tactical perspective, there are a few key things that Tottenham will have to do in order to get the best of City.
Test City’s centre-backs
With Vincent Kompany only just returning to training this week after his injury, Tottenham are most likely going to face off against Martin Demichelis and Nicholas Otamendi in the center of City’s defense. Neither have proven to be at the absolute height of their game, with Demichelis making some crucial errors in particular in the match against Leicester.
Tottenham tend to favor a narrower game anyhow, so putting pressure on the centre-backs only comes natural anyhow. How the pressure is applied, though, will be different than what we’ve seen at, say, Watford on Saturday.
Crowd the area in front of the defense
City are uniquely equipped to quickly and lethally move the ball up field and onto the feet of someone who knows how to score goals, whether it be Raheem Sterling, Kevin De Bruyne or Sergio Aguero. For Tottenham to combat that, they’ll have to sit deeper than usual and sacrifice some of their usual midfield possession. Eric Dier and Mousa Dembele have proven themselves capable of playing in a deeper midfield role, breaking up attempts to play the kind of balls City usually thrive on.
Without Dembele or Dier pushing upfield, this will likely fundamentally change how Tottenham attacks. Rather than the high-pressure, high line attacking mentality most lesser teams than City would permit Tottenham to play, another approach will have to be taken.
While Maurico Pochettino doesn’t usually vary Tottenham’s make-up or tactics week to week, he has been known to make minor tweaks that exploit what he – and most everyone – know to be the weakness of the upcoming opposition. The fielding of Kieran Trippier against Watford, for instance, was pure pragmatism, and it clearly paid off.
City’s weakness mostly resides in a relatively plodding defense. And it’s not just the centre-backs either. Yaya Toure and Fernandinho aren’t known for their blistering pace, after all. And Tottenham can use that fact to their advantage in a way that, at first blush, might seem regressive: the long-ball.
The Alderweireld-Alli Nexus
Twice this season – in matches against Newcastle and West Brom – Tottenham have found a way into the game through combining Toby Alderweireld’s skill with a long pass and Dele Alli’s talent for one-or-two touch football.
While those are only two examples, Tottenham have wielded the long ball to great effect otherwise this season. Particularly in an away game against a team like City where Tottenham might not expect to dominate possession, the ability to quickly and directly transition play from defense into attack is absolutely vital.
In Alli, Tottenham have found a player who is willing and able to play both playmaker and second striker, a duality that allows him to thrive in most environments. At the Etihad he’ll likely be tasked with testing City’s offside trap in hopes of getting on the end of quick, accurate balls out of defense.
At this point it might just be easier to advise Tottenham to play like Leicester did on Saturday. Claudio Ranieri’s team relied on a combination of quick, reactive football that heavily favored long balls and some well-taken set pieces.
Tottenham lead the Premier League in set piece goals this season with twelve. Eriksen has had a hand in a good amount of those goals, though his effectiveness hasn’t been quite up to par in recent weeks. He’ll need to rediscover some of his form from the first half of the season if Tottenham can hope to benefit as much as Leicester from City’s weakness in defending dead ball situations.