Football Features

Spurs’ tactical plan to take down Man City could hinge on the 3-5-2 formation

By Muhammad Butt

Published: 14:34, 15 August 2019

On Saturday, Manchester City will make their home debut this season against the impressive Tottenham Hotspur.

It’s a blockbuster tie for the second gameweek of the Premier League, and already it seems like a David and Goliath clash. Manchester City have been so overwhelmingly superior to everyone over the last couple of years and have begun the season with such authority that already even a side as amazing as Spurs seem like they have a mountain to climb.

So how do Mauricio Pochettino’s men scale this particular peak? What tactical tweaks do they have to be aware of, or maybe make themselves, in order to take down English football’s mighty juggernaut? Read on and find out!

1. Cut out the cut-back

In many ways, Manchester City are a predictable side. They have consistent attack patterns and the structure of their build-up play is remarkably consistent from game-to-game. The trick is that they execute their gameplan to such a high level that even though you know what is coming you don’t know exactly where and when it will arrive. And what is coming? Why, it’s the cutback.

City love the cutback. It’s their primary weapon. By now you’ve seen the goal dozens of time; City pass the ball short, working it all over the pitch probing for a weakness. The centre-mids push up into the half-space and overloads are created in wide areas. This allows the wingers or full-backs to get in behind the defence in space to cross.

But City don’t have big forwards. None of their strikers are especially good in the air, neither are their midfielders who could be making forward runs. So of course instead of lifting crosses as most sides do, City peel off cutbacks. Low, hard crosses that rocket across the turf at great speed and provide wonderful opportunities for their players to arrive and grab a simple tap-in finish.

At the base defensive level, this is what Spurs have to stop. These cut-backs destabilise your defensive shape (as centre-backs flank out to chase down the loose winger before he crosses, dragging the back-line out of position) and create havoc from which City punish you. Preventing them would be huge to shutting down City, so how to do it? A back three will be effective.

By playing three at the back, you can easily switch to a back five when out of possession. This is crucial to stopping Guardiola’s system. The back three ensures you can match up man-to-man against his side’s front three whilst also having wing-backs to handle the overlapping full-backs or central midfielders.

The natural inclination for a Bielsista like Pochettino would be to always have a spare man at the back (i.e. match up a back four against a front three) but the way Pep uses his full-backs/midfielders as auxiliary forwards makes this almost impossible. So a back three (or five) puts so many bodies in the way that City will have to work overtime to find their traditional cutback.

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2. Press the middle

Of course, whilst the cutback is the endgame of most of City’s attacks, the middle of the park is their genesis. By controlling the middle of the pitch through a combination of precision passing and tactical fouling, Pep Guardiola’s men are always ready to seize control of a game at a moment’s notice and begin long passing attacks that allow them to work the positions that create their deadly cutbacks.

So Spurs need to press the middle. They need to do so relentlessly. By disrupting safe passage of the ball through the middle of the pitch, Spurs can basically prevent City from creating the cutbacks and, indeed, any other attacks. Cut off that attacking avenue and Guardiola’s men will look for other ways to get the ball into the box, other ways that will be easier to defend.

The newness of Rodri to England in general and City specifically will greatly aid Spurs here. Once Rodri is fully settled then City’s ability to navigate a mid-block press will increase tenfold, but we have already seen that for all the silky passes he is not yet fully synced up with his team-mates and can be forced into making mistakes, mistakes that Spurs should position themselves to take full advantage of.

3. Unleash Lo Celso

Tanguy Ndombele, Harry Winks and Moussa Sissoko are almost certain starters for Spurs at the Etihad. And fair enough the three of them are perfectly suited for the mid-block press that Pochettino’s men need to apply. Ndombele has even proven himself a capable match-winning presence having played just one game in the English top flight.

Playing three at the back with wing-backs and a midfield three means that there is two more spots to fill in attack. One is obviously Harry Kane, but the final spot? Well Heung-min Son would be an obvious pick for it but he is still suspended. Lucas Moura could work but would be best saved to come off the bench if needed. What Spurs really need is the creative prowess of Giovani Lo Celso.

Lo Celso is a phenomenal player who thrives in the space between an opponent’s midfield and defence, and that’s where Spurs need to really look to damage their opponents. Obviously Kyle Walker-Peters and Danny Rose could find joy on the flanks, but attacking the vast spaces behind Kevin de Bruyne and David Silva and supplying Harry Kane with direct passes is Spurs’ best bet to hurt City without risking the solidity of their defensive structure as well.

With Lo Celso playing off Kane, Spurs would have a talented forward two that could expose the big gaps left by City. Not with pace, but with intelligent runs, precise movement on the ball and lethal finishing. Both men are exemplary passers and this would also help them to retain possession in the face of City’s counter-press, meaning that Spurs wouldn’t be constantly turning the ball over after winning it. That’s a surefire way to heap the pressure onto your defence in such a way that it will eventually crack – it is in fact the very mistake that Aston Villa made against Spurs in the opening gameweek of this season. So having just seen it in action, there’s no way they’d want to make the same mistake themselves and using Lo Celso with Kane is the best way to go about that.