Pep Guardiola’s Man City looked for a return to the title race via a home victory against Tottenham who were on a six-game winning streak and second in the league heading into gameweek 22.
Despite a dominant performance, it was City who were once again left to rue missed chances and defensive frailties as Mauricio Pochettino’s side came back from two-goals down to earn an unlikely draw.
It was an attacking formation by Guardiola as the Spaniard looked to put Tottenham on the back foot like he tried, and largely succeeded, against Chelsea’s similar 3-4-3 set-up. Playing Leroy Sane and Raheem Sterling in the wide positions nullified Kyle Walker and Danny Rose’s impact in the final third which has often allowed the likes of Christian Eriksen and Dele Alli to do their damage from central areas.
Yaya Toure – whose recent reputation wouldn’t put him down as a ground covering, all-action midfielder – was in the ‘holding’ position as Fernandinho continued to serve his suspension.
Kevin Wimmer replaced the injured Jan Vertonghen for Tottenham. Given Ben Davies’ experience in that position for Wales and being naturally left-footed, the former Swansea player may have been a more suitable option to provide the balance across the three-man defence that served Pochettino so well at home to Chelsea and West Brom in recent weeks.
Issues at both ends
Like a bad case of food poisoning, City have had trouble at both ends, as the nine league games where they’ve failed to win has proven.
Guardiola’s side are the second best in the league for shots conceded per game yet their total of 28 goals against is joint-ninth in the division. That suggests that it’s a quality over quantity matter which quite rightly questions the team’s defending, which hasn’t been helped by the criticism of goalkeeper Claudio Bravo who has failed to display the shot stopping capabilities of his counterparts.
The table above shows all nine league games where Man City have failed to win this season. Of the five losses and four draws, it’s only the first defeat, coincidently at Tottenham, that saw the Citizens have fewer attempts at goal than their opponents.
They created a total of 15 clear chances but only managed to score eight goals, some of which didn’t come from those great opportunities. At the other end, City had 11 clear chances against them and a total of 19 goals conceded.
Dominance of the play was never in question with only Tottenham and Liverpool having more than 40% of possession. Guardiola loves his side to retain possession for both attacking and defensive reasons. It’s the simple theory that it is harder to concede when you have the ball and of those nine games, City averaged 65.4% possession, which is more than their 60.3% season’s average.
The idea is to pass with a purpose and recycle the ball until a gap appears for a full-back, midfielder or attacker to penetrate. Hence why City had a greater number of completed passes in the attacking third than any of those who took points off them during the campaign – although, Liverpool were close. Unfortunately for him and to a lesser extent, Jurgen Klopp during January, teams in England have proven to be particularly good at setting up an organised and disciplined defence whilst possessing a real threat on the counter-attack. Leicester City provided the clearest example of this as they were able to go back to the style that won them the league last season.
In the last eight winless matches, Man City have conceded just 24 attempts on target but seen 17 of them end up in the back of Bravo’s net…hence the scrutiny. Whilst the Chilean keeper has been heavily questioned, the protection provided by his teammates even when they’re in possession should also be brought to light. Klopp on Monday Night Football stated that his players “should either be an option or protection” when they have the ball. Given recent form, both the former Borussia Dortmund and Bayern Munich managers could do with reiterating that to their respective sides.
Of course, some of the above matches were decided on minor details – like most are in football. The 1-1 draw with Everton saw two missed penalties, Middlesbrough scored an injury-time equaliser, and Kevin De Bruyne was inches away from doubling City’s lead against current league leaders, Chelsea.
Dominance not converted
City should have taken the lead on more than one occasion as they peppered the Tottenham goal and often saw promising moves break down due to poor pass selection or execution. This may have been in part to some anxiety developed before kick-off following last week’s 4-0 defeat at Everton.
Spurs on the other hand were grateful to have got in on level terms as Pochettino used the half-time break to adjust his side’s formation by introducing attacking midfielder Son Heung-min for defender Wimmer.
Tottenham started the second-half with a conventional flat-back-four as Son provided extra support for the quiet Harry Kane.
But within four-minutes of the restart, Man City scored the opener their dominance deserved with the help of some hesistant play by the normally reliable Hugo Lloris.
De Bruyne’s long ball over Spurs’ high line gave the speedy Sane something to chase and as Lloris debated whether to come or not, the former Schalke winger closed down the sweeper keeper’s attempted headed clearance before tapping in from close range.
On the 53rd minute, City had doubled their lead with Lloris again making a mistake as he fumbled Sterling’s cross for De Bruyne to squeeze home and score his first league goal since the mid-September win over Bournemouth.
Spurs then pulled one back as Alli got on the end of Walker’s inviting first time cross. It was the visiting side’s first attempt on target and ensured that Alli already surpassed last season’s impressive tally of 10 league goals with his 11th in 21 appearances.
Pochettino’s side suffered another injury to a key defender as Toby Alderweireld came off with half an hour to play. Harry Winks replaced the Belgian which forced the makeshift centre-back pairing of Victor Wanyama and Eric Dier – a partnership that has been commonly found in midfield.
City were most threatening down the right with Pablo Zabeleta regularly providing the overlap which was used as both a decoy and a target. As a result, Rose was unable to support attacks as often as he’d had liked, particularly during the second period.
Pochettino’s change worked in terms of reducing the opportunities for Guardiola’s men as they managed just six attempts. But the home side could conceivably have been awarded two penalties after the break, especially when Sterling was pushed in the back by Walker as the England international ran clear of the defence.
Controversially, less than a minute later, Spurs were level with their second and final attempt on target. Harry Kane flicked the ball into Son’s path for the South Korean to steer into the far corner. Replays showed Kane was slightly offside which only further incensed Guardiola on the sidelines.
The positives for Guardiola can be found in Man City’s general performance against one of the league’s strongest and in-form sides. But not being ahead at half-time had a big impact on the result despite taking the lead soon after as Pochettino took advantage of the break. His tactical changes improved Tottenham’s performance but they didn’t deserve to come away from the Etihad with anything and this will go down as one that got away for a manager who’s used to winning leagues but now needs to focus on finishing in the top four.
Tottenham, meanwhile, are still in an unfavourable title race that Chelsea appear determined to end before spring even begins.
EPL Results (Gameweek 22):
Liverpool 2-3 Swansea
Bournemouth 2-2 Watford
Crystal Palace 0-1 Everton
Middlesbrough 1-3 West Ham
Stoke 1-1 Man Utd
West Brom 2-0 Sunderland
Man City 2-2 Tottenham
Southampton 3-0 Leicester
Arsenal 2-1 Burnley
Chelsea 2-0 Hull