Tottenham 3-1 Manchester City: Villas-Boas’ second half formation switch changes the game

April 21, 2013

The starting line-ups

Manchester City dominated the first half, but some clever substitutions from Andre Villas-Boas meant Tottenham had a storming final 20 minutes.

Villas-Boas was able to select Gareth Bale from the start, although Aaron Lennon is still unavailable. Emmanuel Adebayor was favoured over Jermain Defoe.

Roberto Mancini was without David Silva and Sergio Aguero wasn’t 100% fit, so Edin Dzeko started upfront.

This was a game of two halves – Spurs eventually recorded a fine victory, but City had been very impressive before half-time.

Similar sides

You wouldn’t generally consider these sides to be similar when at full strength, but with attacking absences, Tottenham and Manchester City lined up with very similar starting XIs.

There was a standard back four, then a hard-working scrappy English defensive midfielder (Scott Parker and Gareth Barry) playing alongside a midfielder renowned for their ability to break forward in possession (Mousa Dembele and Yaya Toure). On the flanks, both fielded players that came inside to the centre – Spurs’ Gylfi Sigurdsson and Clint Dempsey because Spurs lacked their usual width, City’s Samir Nasri and James Milner because that’s how Mancini asks them to play. Upfront, with Defoe and Aguero not providing pace in behind, both sides featured ‘number nines’ with number ten on the back of their shirt (Emmanuel Adebayor and Edin Dzeko) – they stood upfront and contributed little.

Bale v Tevez

Therefore, the battle in the first half came down to which player ‘in the hole’ could influence the game more – Gareth Bale or Carlos Tevez. Clearly, the duo are significantly different players – Bale is a converted winger still getting used to playing in the centre of the pitch, while Tevez is a versatile forward that thrives in tight situations.

Bale was given too much space between the lines early on, but once the game settled down into a calm tempo, he struggled to get space as Barry and Toure sat deep. Part of the problem was that Dempsey and (in particular) Sigurdsson came inside too quickly (as they did against Everton in Spurs’ previous home match), crowding the centre of the pitch. Bale can be a threat in a central role, but his style means he needs space – either between the lines, or in behind the defence, as he found against Arsenal recently, continually sprinting onto balls played behind Arsenal’s suicidally high defensive line. Although a different type of player, Bale could learn from how Ever Banega found space in a 4-2-3-1 v 4-2-3-1 battle when his side’s wingers crowded the centre of the pitch.

Tevez brilliance

Tevez adapted to the situation much more effectively. From the opening moments, the Argentine drifted in behind Scott Parker to receive possession between the lines, causing Spurs’ centre-backs considerable problems. They were pinned back by Dzeko, who may have contributed little, but having scored four times in this fixture last year, it was understandable he received close attention.

A key feature of Tevez’s performance was the way he drifted laterally across the width of the pitch. He provided a brilliant pass to Milner, who cut the ball back for Nasri’s opener, and then two minutes later he was on the opposite side of the pitch, providing a pass for Barry’s overlapping run.

Spurs were unable to cope with his movement, with Parker particularly poor with his positioning. He too frequently allowed Tevez to get too much space away from him, and Villas-Boas could be heard shouting at Parker and Dembele to drop deep in order to minimise the space between the lines. Parker, while a good ’scrapper’ in front of the back four, lacks the positional discipline to neutralise a dangerous attacker playing directly against him, and Tevez created excellent chances for both Nasri and Dzeko before half-time – City could have been more than 0-1 ahead.

Villas-Boas’ initial change

Villas-Boas recognised that Bale was unable to find space in his central role, so decided to move him wide. However, rather than shifting him to his customary left-wing position, Villas-Boas instead switched Bale and Dempsey – so Bale was wide-right, Dempsey was in the middle.

However, Villas-Boas’ switch unwittingly played into City’s hands. Mancini had been forced to replace the injured Milner with Aleksandar Kolarov, who played on the left with Nasri moving to the right. Therefore, with Bale sandwiched between Gael Clichy and Kolarov – two left-backs – Spurs’ most dangerous player was being shut down easily.

Formation switch

No Tottenham midfielder or attacker ended the game in the same position they'd started in

After an hour, Villas-Boas made the crucial switch from 4-2-3-1 to 4-3-3.

First, Tom Huddlestone replaced Parker and sat in a deep holding position. The way the midfield was now formatted – with a strict holder rather than a more flexible two-man combination – meant Huddlestone could concentrate on tracking Tevez across the pitch. Huddlestone did a much better job than Parker – Tevez barely received the ball. Huddlestone was also excellent with his distribution.

Lewis Holtby replaced the disappointing Sigurdsson, and played on the same level as Dembele – the two drove forward from central positions, overpowering Toure and Barry in midfield.


Those changes got Tottenham back into the game, and meant they were now dominating possession from the centre of the pitch. Villas-Boas’ next change was also crucial – Defoe on for Adebayor. It was a predictable and logical change, as Adebayor had contributed nothing, but Villas-Boas deserves credit for resisting the temptation to go with two strikers. He could have removed Dempsey or Dembele to inject extra goalscoring potential, but understood that the new system was having the desired effect.

Now, Defoe provided pace upfront – and the 4-3-3 meant Bale could play higher on the right, too. Now, Spurs were more like the Spurs Villas-Boas wants to build: direct, pacey and ‘vertical’ with their play.

Whereas the first half 4-2-3-1 saw Dempsey and Sigurdsson drifting inside and slowing attacks, now everyone was attacking with purpose. Huddlestone sprayed positive passes forward, Holtby and Dembele ran powerfully, Defoe and Bale provided pace for through-balls. Dempsey became a penalty box presence, and got on the end of a superb Bale cross for the equaliser.

Then, the momentum was with Spurs, and pace in behind the defence became crucial. Defoe got into the space behind Pablo Zabaleta for the second, Bale collected a pass from Huddlestone on the run for the third.

No City changes

Mancini was amazingly passive throughout the second half. He’d made his firstchange because of injury, but had two substitutions remaining. There were various points where the Italian could have recognised the shape of the game was changing, and that action was required – Villas-Boas made three changes, and Spurs scored three goals, before he decided to bring on Scott Sinclair for Edin Dzeko.

That, in itself, was a bizarre change considering City were now 3-1 down and likely to launch the ball long – and City were so lacking in a tall centre-forward that Mancini decided to introduce Joleon Lescott as an emergency striker in the closing minutes, in the most surprising late Manchester City substitution since Stuart Pearce did similar with a goalkeeper…


This was a fantastic game of football, both in terms of entertainment and strategy. The similarity of the two sides in the first half was obvious, and the battle between Bale and Tevez – although they weren’t directly in combat – was clearly won by the latter.

Villas-Boas’ changes worked brilliantly, however. Although the initial Dempsey-Bale swap didn’t alter much, he saw the problem, devised a solution and implemented it while there was time for Tottenham to get back into the game. Tevez was nullified, Holtby and Dembele drove Spurs forward, while Defoe and Bale injected pace in behind – something missing from the first half. In the final quarter of the game, Spurs were reminiscent of Villas-Boas’ supreme Porto side of 2010/11.

Mancini didn’t react until it was too late, and City were convincingly beaten having dominated the first half. Toure was content to stroll around without really influence the game – Javi Garcia was an unused substitute – while Vincent Kompany was extremely poor. An interesting stat from the game was the fact Kompany wasn’t involved in a single aerial duel – don’t play to his area of strength, and he appears a much poorer centre-back.

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