Ken Early: Defeat to Spurs exposed Manchester City’s limits
Tottenham zeroed in on City’s weaknesses, and Guardiola will need to look at his backline
Tottenham’s victory over Manchester City felt like a result the Premier League really needed. Unlike some other big-name managers, Pep Guardiola avoids confrontation and makes an effort to be gracious, but after starting off with six league wins in a row he was making it look too easy.
Spurs reminded everyone that although it might be Guardiola on the bench, City’s team still largely consists of the same players that performed so badly last season. Celtic had gamely exposed some frailties in the City backline last week and Spurs zeroed in on the same weaknesses with greater energy, precision and ruthlessness.
Had Erik Lamela scored that second-half penalty to make it 3-0, the defeat could have matched Guardiola’s worst-ever results in league football. He has coached in 261 league matches, and he has only lost by three goals twice.
The first of those was a 3-0 home defeat to Borussia Dortmund after Bayern had already won the 2014 title. The second was a 4-1 defeat to Wolfsburg in January 2015, when Kevin de Bruyne produced a famous two-goal performance that went a long way to winning him Germany’s Player of the Year award.
De Bruyne missed the games against Spurs and Celtic with a hamstring injury and City’s struggles in these matches suggest that he is about 50 per cent of their team. He is the player opponents fear, and without him City are a far less fearsome prospect.
Negative moveGuardiola’s respect for Tottenham was clear in the decision to field Fernando alongside Fernandinho and David Silva in the middle. It was an unusually negative move – Fernando is a competent defensive midfielder but when you already have Fernandinho on the pitch his qualities are redundant. He’s meant to be Fernandinho’s deputy, not his partner.
Ilkay Gündogan, if he’s fully fit, might have helped City to control the game better in the first half. But when a team is coming at you the way Tottenham were in the first half, there is no controlling the game. You just have to cling on and hope you survive until they start to get tired.
Guardiola remarked after the Celtic game that in the dressing room afterwards his players were so tired they couldn’t speak. The ferocity with which Spurs closed down City in the first half suggests that their dressing room after the game must have been silent as the grave.
Faced with such furious pressure from Tottenham, City’s usual response was to play the ball backwards to their goalkeeper-playmaker, Claudio Bravo. In 90 minutes they played 24 backpasses, compared to 10 by Spurs, and the top pass combination in the City team was John Stones to Bravo.
Watching pass after pass go back to the keeper, you wondered if maybe there comes a point when a goalkeeper can be considered too accomplished with the ball at his feet. The knowledge that you’ve got a slick footballer like Bravo behind you creates a temptation for a defender, comparable to the temptation defenders often feel to launch long balls towards a tall centre forward. It encourages buck-passing, and the more you do it, the more likely it gets that your goalkeeper makes a mistake that costs you a goal.
Stones got Bravo in trouble with one such back-pass in the first half, though at least he usually gave the keeper plenty of time. Guardiola will have been more concerned with the performance of his other defender, Nicolás Otamendi.
Fighting qualitiesOtamendi is a classic tough-guy Argentinian central defender, good at tackling, heading the ball hard, and smashing into people. Guardiola has spent the past couple of months trying to reprogramme him. He praises Otamendi for doing the things he wants him to do and downplays the importance of his fighting qualities. After City won at Old Trafford last month, Guardiola said “Otamendi was amazing, amazing. I knew he has a lot of character, he deals with long balls, and fights. But with the ball, he showed his quality as well.”
True enough, Otamendi had completed 91 per cent of his passes against Manchester United. But José Mourinho’s team didn’t press the City back line like Tottenham did. With Lamela and Son getting right up in his face, Otamendi’s pass completion rate slumped to 63 per cent. That is dangerously close to Joe Hart territory.
You could tell Otamendi was rattled when he lunged in at Dele Alli just outside the box and presented Spurs with a great chance to score from the resulting free kick. This was a bad moment for him because he knows he has been warned about that sort of thing before.
Back in mid-August he nearly gave away a penalty in the Champions League play-off against Steaua Bucharest, and Guardiola made a point of saying afterwards: “I don’t like it when central defenders go down on the pitch.”
City now go into the international break with their formidable aura much diminished. It won’t have escaped the notice of the chasing teams that four of their six wins have come against the bottom four teams in the league. Spurs have proved the vulnerabilities are there, if only the competition can expose them.