Manchester City 6-0 Tottenham: Spurs’ centre-backs constantly exposed as City run riot

November 25, 2013

The starting line-ups

Manchester City continued their superb home form with a crushing victory over Tottenham.

Manuel Pellegrini fielded his expected line-up – Martin Demichelis continued at the back, in the absence of Vincent Kompany.

Andre Villas-Boas used Erik Lamela from the start for the first time in the Premier League, and played Aaron Lennon over Andros Townsend. He also used Michael Dawson and Younes Kaboul together at the back, for the first time in the league.

City went ahead within 15 seconds and were completely dominant throughout the game.

City dominant throughout

City went ahead before the game had settled down into a clear pattern, and they effectively started the proper tactical battle with a one-goal head start.

This meant Spurs immediately had to take the game to their opponents, which explains why they dominated possession against a side that generally retains the ball so effectively at home – but the more Spurs pushed forward, the more they were vulnerable to quick attacks.


Spurs lined up with Sandro as the main holding player, Paulinho ahead to his right, and Lewis Holtby as the most advanced of the trio. The structure in this central zone was rather uncertain – Holtby was theoretically the most attacking player but often dropped deeper than the other two to collect possession, and the trio frequently shifted between a ‘2-1′ and a ‘1-2′ format.

Sandro’s positioning was particularly interesting – although on paper Paulinho should have been offering him protection towards the right of the pitch, Sandro was constantly dragged over towards that side, often to deal with Samir Nasri, who drifted inside dangerously from that wing. It meant Spurs’ midfield didn’t cover enough lateral ground – often Sandro was sweeping up in a position Paulinho should have been occupying, while Holtby was tooadvanced to offer any defensive support. Throughout the first half, the Spurs midfield was a mess.

Spurs did, at least, have a 3 v 2 in this zone. But City got around this by asking Alvaro Negredo to drop back on Sandro when Spurs had possession – this meant Sergio Aguero could stay higher up and use his pace in behind the defence.

No protection for the centre-backs

Villas-Boas’ real area of concern was at the back, where Spurs were without a spare man against a two-man strikeforce. Dawson frequently looks uncomfortable in a high line against anyon, let alone when playing against someone as quick as Aguero, while this was Kaboul’s first league start for 15 months. They desperately needed protection, but were left badly exposed by the midfield three.

It was also amazing to see Spurs’ full-backs attacking so energetically throughout the first half, when City looked so dangerous on the break. Kyle Walker had some promising moments down the right, but this opened up space for Nasri to break into. On the other flank, Jan Vertonghen is a natural centre-back and could have tucked inside to offer more support to the two centre-backs.

One early moment, when Sandro made a last-ditch tackle on Nasri, who was through on goal, summed up Spurs’ problems – the Frenchman was instigating the breaks, and Sandro was forced to make a succession of extremely risky tackles. When he was booked midway through the first half, the situation became even more desperate, and a little like Lucas against Everton the previous day, Sandro needed a teammate to come and sit alongside him for a while.

A more specific problem for Spurs, for the second goal, was them being caught out at the transition between two formations. Holtby briefly dropped into the back to form a back three, to get around the press of City’s front two. But he then trotted forward into midfield, Spurs lost the ball, and Holtby found himself in the centre of a back three, and about eight yards out of position – this allowed Aguero space, and eventually City scored.

This was similar to Dortmund’s problems against Napoli – if a midfielder drops into a back three as the centre-backs spread, he must be sure his side will be able to work the ball forward before rejoining the midfield, or else his side can leave the most dangerous zone of the pitch entirely open.

City quick on the break

This game was more about Spurs’ struggles, but City were brilliantly ruthless at exploiting their weaknesses. The balance throughout the City side was absolutely perfect – they played with two strikers yet didn’t become overrun in midfield, they had one wide player drifting inside and the other staying near the flank, they had two central midfielders who could burst forward, but primarily remained in position and protected their centre-backs.

Navas was a key player throughout the game. Vertonghen is a peculiar stand-in at left-back – as a converted central defender one might expect him to be cautious going forward but solid defensively – in fact, he’s excellent on the ball in the final third, but gets caught out in wide positions. Navas started and ended the scoring, and also set up Aguero for a fine low finish.

City’s performance was a perfect example of the value of using (a) a direct winger on one flank and (b) a creator drifting inside from the other flank. Navas and Nasri’s chances created demonstrates that nicely.

City fluidly filled the number ten role, despite basically playing a 4-4-2. Negredo was the number ten at transitions, but then motored forward to become a second striker, with Nasri moving inside to play that role. On other occasions, although mainly in the second half and less frequently than you might expect, Yaya Toure stormed forward to become the attacking midfielder, too. City distributed their players evenly across the pitch, both from flank to flank, and from back to front – it was reminiscent of the way Pellegrini’s Villarreal side worked.

Second half

Villas-Boas’ half-time substitution, removing Holtby and bringing on Emmanuel Adebayor, and going 4-4-2, seemed amazingly naive. Spurs were being torn apart in the centre of midfield – despite, on paper, having a one-man advantage in that zone – and leaving Sandro even more exposed was suicidal.

It didn’t take long before Toure waltzed through the midfield and defence, squaring for Aguero to make it 4-0. When Negredo turned past Dawson and made it 5-0, Villas-Boas saw sense and put Gylfi Sigurdsson on for Roberto Soldado, giving Spurs a third midfielder again, which stemmed the flow for half an hour, before Navas added the sixth on the break. The game was over by half-time, though, which made it amazing Villas-Boas went chasing it.


When Villas-Boas’ system fails, it fails quite spectacularly. His insistence upon a high defensive line is always likely to expose his centre-backs against pace, but here the problem was how poorly Dawson and Kaboul were protected, with the midfield shape completely indecipherable, and the full-backs pushing high up. Villas-Boas’ strategy can’t be blamed for the early concession, and it’s understandable that Spurs felt they needed to take the game to City, but they were crying out for some caution, rather than this naive, ambitious approach which played into the hands of City’s attackers.

It’s difficult to tell precisely what Villas-Boas is trying to do at the moment – whether Tottenham are meant to be controlling games through possession dominance, or transferring the ball quickly into attack. He’s also in a peculiar position where he has multiple players in the same position of roughly the same ability, even if they’re of different styles. It means he’s chopped and changed constantly, and it’s difficult to pinpoint one area of the pitch where there’s a good relationship between two players – probably only Walker and Townsend, and Sigurdsson and Soldado, have combined consistently this season. None of those ‘partnerships’ were on show today.

This was a fine City performance, but even they must be slightly confused how they won 6-0 without having to move into top gear. The defining feature of Pellegrini’s strategy is the effective use of space, and the way players shift positions as moves unfold. That was particularly obvious today, particularly with Negredo and Nasri’s movement. The away form remains a huge concern – and it’s something probably not best explained through tactics – but City’s peak is greater than that of any other Premier League side.

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