Mauricio Pochettino followed up a shrewd first-half tactical shift with a disastrous piece of half-time tinkering to seemingly hand victory to Pep Guardiola. But Manchester City’s familar defensive vulnerability, coupled with some poor refereeing, salvaged a fortunate point for Tottenham Hotspur.
City’s early dominance
Outpressed and outgunned in a 2-0 defeat at White Hart Lane in October, City doled out some of Spurs’ own medicine prior to Pochettino’s 26th-minute tactical shift.
Although the sub-80% pass-completion ratios highlight how both sides looked to the direct approach to bypass the other’s press, City did enjoy significantly more midfield possession in the early stages thanks to Pochettino’s chosen shape.
Guardiola’s return to a one-striker system rendered Tottenham’s 3-4-2-1 hugely overstaffed in the centre-back department, and undermanned in the centre of midfield, where Victor Wanyama and Moussa Dembele struggled against City’s central three.
Striker Harry Kane had to wait until the 21st minute to touch the football, underlining the difficulty with which the visitors worked it from back-to-front.
Pochettino enacts a shrewd change…
A possession share of 36% prior to Eric Dier’s mid-half move into the holding role of a 4-3-2-1, increased to a dominant 60% afterwards, as the Argentinian manager immediately reaped the rewards of admitting his error.
Inserting an extra body into midfield also reduced Tottenham’s early vulnerability to the through-ball, which wasn’t helped by Dele Alli and Christian Eriksen holding their central positions in the defensive phase.
The resultant lack of pressure on City players in inside-left and inside-right positions, coupled with Spurs’ usual high defensive line, spelled danger for the visitors — earning Dier a 13th-minute yellow-card for preventing Sergio Aguero from connecting with Raheem Sterling’s through-ball.
The regular absence of wide midfielders in the defensive phase also left City’s full-backs free, forcing Toby Alderweireld into a last-man tackle on Pablo Zabaleta, and permitting Sane to head Gael Clichy’s unpressed cross wide at the back-post.
…and one not-so-shrewd one
Alas for Tottenham fans, that remedial band of three central midfielders did not last long. A half-time switch to 4-2-3-1, facilitated by Heung-Min Son’s left-wing introduction in place of centre-back Kevin Wimmer, saw Dier once again revert to a central defensive role.
Again undermanned with only a two-man band in front of their high defensive line, Tottenham re-opened the door to the City through ball; which de Bruyne walked through, with an unpressed chip for Sane that sweeper-keeper Hugo Lloris failed to stick his broom on.
Lloris’ subsequent spill to let de Bruyne in for City’s second goal represented further punishment for Pochettino’s unnecessary half-time change.
City throw it away
That City almost immediately allowed Spurs back into the contest, with their first shot on target, owed much to the hosts’ own structural problems in front of defence.
Yaya Toure, a disaster at the base of Guardiola’s diamond against Everton — and at least partly at fault for the Toffees’ first three goals — allowed Alli to receive the ball behind him, forcing Nicolas Otamendi to leave his defensive line to confront the 20-year-old.
The loose ball dribbled its way out to right-back Kyle Walker, free of the absent Sane, whose cross was converted by Alli — also free of a switched-off Otamendi, who failed to stay with Toure’s man.
Tottenham remained ultra-prone to simple balls in behind their defence, as evidenced by the lead-up to referee Andre Marriner’s decision to deny Sterling a clear penalty — and dismiss Walker.
A lovely interchange of positions from Eriksen and Son for the latter’s leveler, removing a bamboozled Kolarov and facilitating Kane’s deft flick, compounded Guardiola’s understandable anger, and further illustrated his blindingly-obvious central-defensive woes.
Weathering the late introduction of Gabriel Jesus, and the loss of Alderweireld through injury, Spurs’ fruitful second shot on target was enough to salvage an incredibly fortunate point for the visitors from the wreckage of their manager’s needless half-time tinkering.