Manchester City 3-2 Tottenham Hotspur: a close game that could have gone either way

January 23, 2012

The starting line-ups

Mario Balotelli’s late penalty gave City a crucial victory.

Roberto Mancini’s side was as expected, although he continues to be attack-minded with the use of Samir Nasri on the flank and James Milner in the middle, rather than opting to name the more defensive-minded Nigel de Jong in the starting XI. City are still without the Toure brothers and Vincent Kompany.

Emmanuel Adebayor is still owned by City so couldn’t play against him – so Harry Redknapp chose Jermain Defoe to start upfront alone.

The game broadly fitted the pattern of the other Premier League game on Sunday (Arsenal v Manchester United) – tame first half, exciting second half.

Opening battle

Early on, the game didn’t quite take the expected pattern. City usually clearly dominate possession at home, whilst Tottenham often form two banks of four quickly and get compact in their own half.

However, Tottenham have been a little more proactive this season, and it was notable how much they pressed high up the pitch in the opening moments. Defoe was joined by another player – sometimes Rafael van der Vaart but more often Gareth Bale, as they shut down City’s centre-backs to try to stop them playing out from the back. Tottenham ended up completing marginally more passes than City in the first half – 234 to 222.

Pressing City

Pressing City at goal-kicks has been a tactic opponents have often used at the City of Manchester Stadium in the past couple of seasons, partly because City often haven’t had a target man to thump the ball to, and long goalkicks therefore usually concede possession. Although they now have Edin Dzeko, he’s not the best at competing with strong centre-backs, and in Younes Kaboul, Spurs have the centre-back who wins more aerial duels per game than any other in the league.

Anyway, with the game played at a relatively slow tempo early on, City persisted with playing the ball out from the back, with Tottenham pushing up to close them down.

The most important impact of this was that Luka Modric looked to start his pressure high up, often leaving Scott Parker alone in front of the back four. This caused Spurs problems, with Nasri, David Silva and Sergio Aguero all looking to move into that zone. The wide players drifted across the pitch to combine, the same tactic City used very well in their 6-1 win at Old Trafford. The patterns of Silva’s passes (received and played) formed a strange diagonal band across the pitch.

Although Tottenham passed the ball quite well when they had it, the strategy of starting pressure high up was arguably not the right approach. Spurs, after all,were going to be at their best when playing on the break, with pace in attacking positions and City lacking their star centre-back. Furthermore, City played no real holding player (and Gareth Barry often looks uncomfortable when having to break up quick counter-attacks) so Tottenham might have been better trying to soak up pressure, forcing City to leave gaps at the back, before pouncing.

It was 0-0 at half time, a fairly quiet half.

Second half

The second half was much more frantic. First, it was that Silva-Nasri combination that opened up Tottenham in the second period, with Silva providing a pass so straight along the centre of the pitch for Nasri that it’s crazy to think they were the two wide players in City’s formation. A second came from a corner kick – Kyle Walker’s positioning could be queried for both goals – and City seemed in command.

Those two goals, rather than an obvious strategic shift, were the catalyst for changing the game. At 2-0 up City could have kept the ball better, but Tottenham came back well – Defoe got a goal after a long ball over the top that Stefan Savic couldn’t deal with, then Bale’s brilliant strike got the equaliser.

That contribution aside, Lennon had a disappointing game, and it was surprising Tottenham didn’t put more effort into playing the ball out to him on the right. Gael Clichy picked up an early yellow card which meant he was reluctant to make a tackle (and also reluctant to try to jump ahead of his opponent to win the ball, his trademark), but he had few difficulties for the remainder of the game.

Final chances

The match could have gone either way – Bale and Defoe managed to waste an excellent opportunity (yet again, on the break, catching City’s defence out high up). Mario Balotelli’s introduction proved crucial, and he’s still probably a better bet against good defences than Dzeko. Dzeko’s clever movement to drag Younes Kaboul out from the back for Nasri’s goal shouldn’t be forgotten, but overall Balotelli’s movement is at least equal to Dzeko’s, his first touch is better, and he’s more of a physical threat too. He won the penalty that he converted himself, but the obvious problem is his lack of discipline, which could have got him into trouble once again. If City could combine Balotelli’s skillset with Dzeko’s mentality, they’d be sorted.

It’s difficult to see too much the managers could have done differently. Redknapp brought on Jake Livermore for another body in the centre of midfield, as van der Vaart had a quiet game and often tires late on, but other than that and Balotelli’s introduction, little changed. Both managers wanted to play their own game, take the match to the opposition, and – aside from a brief five-minute spell late on before Defoe’s chance, when everything suddenly calmed down – both wanted to win the game.


That mentality is prevalent in the Premier League this season, which is partly why there have been so many goals in the games between big sides. No-one quite knows (or wants to accept) their position as underdogs and be cautious. All of the top six want to dominate games, control possession and score goals.

As seen here, it results in brilliantly exciting, open matches – but not particularly fascinating tactical battles.

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