Hopefully you’ve all seen the game. If not, it’s worth watching on-demand if you can find it.
City, as mentioned, is the best team in the BPL. Their attack is so potent–3 goals per game–that it makes their above average D a non-factor. Led by former Barca and Bayern Munich manager Pep Guardiola, they quickly adopted his tactics, won 9 of their first 10 games, and looked unstoppable though unpolished. Pep is the best manager in the game. He has only coached at Barca (junior team then senior team) and Bayern and in just those 400 top flight games he’s had a win percentage of 75%. That’s insane. His player proteges have basically been the core of the winning and losing teams of each of the last two world cup finals. He is a truly transformative manager who takes talent and puts a high polish on them. Strategically, he’s known for build up play and controlling the channels that are between defenders. It looks like this:
He tries to put no more than 2 guys in any “box” and actively works to dominate the light shaded channels. He tends to put numbers forward, and leave a defensive trio plus a sweeper-keeper GK to clean up anything that squirts through the midfield. That was why Joe Hart was pushed out in favor of the less technically proficient Claudio Bravo in goal. Bravo can pass and doesn’t mind the ball at his feet. Hart loves to shank punts into the fifth row at midfield. (Just for fun, here’s Zlatan punishing Hart for not being better as an outfield player: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Ck5P30zC3Z0). Guardiola’s teams line up in a 4-2-3-1 or a 4-1-4-1, but really it operates as a W-M or W-W shape like this pass map from their 4-0 win over Bournemouth:
Spurs had two advantages going into this game. First, Kevin De Bruyne–the best attacking player in the game–was injured. Second, City haven’t looked good on D. They give up goals, they give up chances, and their offensive pressure leaves them vulnerable to counter-attacking teams. Spurs are a team that create chances through pressing, and are scary on the counter. This was definitely an interesting match up and several notable pundits flagged it as a potential Spurs win.
Spurs were without Harry Kane and Mousa Dembele, but Sissoko, Dier, and Rose made it back from injury. Among the Spurs-fan pundits there was a lot of agitating for a more defensive lineup (Dier/Winks at the pivot with Wanyama, Erikson/Son/Lamela at AM, Janssen at striker). Instead, Poche decided to tango. Get it?! He’s Argentinian! We lined up like this:
Lamela, Alli, Sissoko
Rose, Vertonghen, Alderweirald, Walker
Spurs came out like a shot and immediately put City on their heels. Son and Alli were really aggressive on the press and Son created a few quick chances in the opening minutes. Janssen has been playing the lone striker/holder role with his back to the basket, so to speak. Son, positioned himself wider, faced the goal and made very vertical runs. City’s defenders, Stones and Otamendi were not handling it well. It forced a lot of passes to Bravo that didn’t lead to much. Bravo was supposed to be City’s supplemental defender who would turn back passes into outlet passes and allow the wing backs to stay higher up the field. Because of Son’s pressure, the wing backs were dropping ever deeper making City’s passes through the midfield longer and easier to pick off.
Erikson and Wanyama were incredible. They harried the passing lanes and positioned well off of each other. I’ve been harsh on Wanyama for most of the season but his game this weekend was everything we could have hoped for. While Erikson was covering box-to-box and sideline to sideline, Wanyama was defending the “False 8” or central attacking midfielder. Without the injured De Bruyne, City played Silva in the role and he was effectively controlled the entire match through solid defending and timely fouls to stop build up. He even had a few forward runs into the box which I hadn’t previously noticed from him. With Wanyama anchoring the midfield, Erikson out-hustled and out-passed Fernando and Fernandinho. Look at his activity map, he was everywhere:
And his passes received show how much ground he was covering. Short passes everywhere:
And this was his defensive presence in a game that was free-flowing but in an attack-and-parry way and not possession attacking. His performance was compared to Luka Modric which is the highest praise available to a creative holding midfielder.
In the first Erikson action map, note how vertical his attacking half passes were. Absent from some of our previous matches was the threat of vertical attacks. After the CSKA match I tried to show that our passing gets really flat around the top off the opposition box. Typically we’re facing a flat back 4 holding the line and rebuffing our advances. I’m not sure if it was City’s positioning or our strategy, but we rarely controlled the ball with methodically advancing passes and the D never quite got organized to oppose us. It resulted in more vertical runs from the midfielders (Son and Alli in particular) and City never got comfortable.
As their D separated further and further from their O, it opened up space for Walker and Rose on the sidelines and in the channels. Both men exploited acres of space and Rose got lucky with a hopeful cross to the back post that Kolarov bungled in for an own goal. It was a lucky break but fit the momentum of the opening few minutes. You can see the goal here: http://cartilagefreecaptain.sbnation.com/2016/10/2/13137302/watch-aleksandar-kolarov-s-own-goal-give-spurs-lead-vs-man-city I think it’s relevant to note that Rose was further upfield than Lamela when he received the pass and Alli and Sissoko were unmarked in the box during the cross. We had numbers and pressure and they were not adequately prepared to defend against it.
The second goal was also a product of pressure and hustle and pushing numbers forward. http://cartilagefreecaptain.sbnation.com/2016/10/2/13137460/watch-dele-alli-put-spurs-two-goals-up-over-man-city Rose’s recovery tackle in the middle of the pitch slows the counter-attack down enough for Lamela to pry it away from the defender. Lamela then continues to stay on the action until the ball comes back to him. He feeds Son who feeds Alli, while Lamela continues his vertical run at the far post and pulls two defenders out of position. Alli runs into the space when he sees his intercepted pass fall to Son and Son lays off an inch-perfect assist at his feet. I love that the video is the full sequence, but I wish it had the replay from the other side of the field. You can see how Alli and Son spy the passing window opening up and how their movement happens before possession actually comes to Son. Great anticipation.
On defense we were ferocious. Normally, I think Vertonghen looks a little haphazard and Alderweirald mops up. On Sundaythey were both equal to the challenge of facing the best offense in the BPL. They stayed at home more and rarely ventured up field. Normally Toby gets up the field a little as a second central midfielder and uses over the top passes to try and soften up defenses that have packed it in. Instead, our guys were packed in. Here’s Toby’s action map. Only once did he attempt a long pass from the attacking half of the pitch. More notable is how many clearances (green circles) he made from our danger area.
So for the first 70 minutes we pressured their back line, and bottled up their central midfielders, effectively strangling their midfield and playmaking. It was beautiful. Here was their pass map for the first 70 minutes.
Compare that to their W-W shape from the first pass map and you can see how disruptive we were to their midfield and how pulling them out of shape and interrupting the flow out of the back prevented their attackers from doing anything. I think this heat map is even more effective. They were stuffed into the central third of the pitch while we occupied all of the open space. Our shape offers obvious passing lanes and theirs violates Pep’s channel/spacing strategy.
Gundogan was subbed on for Fernando for the last 35 minutes of the game and around the 70 minute mark things opened up a bit for City. I think our legs were getting tired and we shifted into protecting our 2-0 lead instead of keeping on the attack. Gundogan and Iheanacho started creating chances for Aguero and there were some nervy moments. Lloris did well in the face of pressure and came up with some crucial saves. Somehow the game ended with City having 58% possession and a lot more passes than us. I guess that happened but until late in the game I felt like possession was all us. In hindsight we weren’t playing for possession but for attacking runs. It knocked our stat total down from their usual lofty tallies but the results speak for themselves.
Here is our passing map:
Normally we see more possession passing (bigger circles, thicker connecting lines as noted in the CSKA and Middlesbrough passing maps below). I think this reflects a wholesale tactical change from a very familiar 4-2-3-1 configuration. That’s awesome to see and a great development from last season when we were one-dimensional, and if that wasn’t working our only option was to hope that a sub would shake things up. The new tactics also made our attacking shape much more balanced. I’d like to see more from Sissoko on the wing–he doesn’t seem to send many passes back into his teammates–but at the least he represents a more muscular, but slower version of Son which still fits our bully lineup.
Going forward we have two sets of tactics from the same configuration, and each one slightly favors a different set of personnel. Based on last year’s success, I would describe them as:
Erikson, Alli, Lamela
Rose, Vertonghen, Alderweirald, Walker
Lamela, Alli, Sissoko
Rose, Vertonghen, Alderweirald, Walker
It will be interesting to see how N’Koudou, Winks, and Janssen figure into these plans. Hopefully Poche can figure out modifications that play to their strengths in addition to straight swaps. Both of our 4-2-3-1 can functionally play as 4-3-3 and 4-1-4-1 lineups and have resembled them for stretches (Kane dropping deeper than Alli; Son and Alli simultaneously pressing; starting Kane, Son, Lamela, Alli, and Erikson in attack; etc). That tactical flexibility will be necessary for taking on the other good clubs and whatever else awaits us in the CL. We should be destroying the shit BPL teams with whatever lineup finds the field.
Player ratings (-5 to +5)
Son (+4) – High energy press, no lack of confidence in take-ons and shots, so happy he’s on our team
Alli (+4) – An excellent game with some excellent runs. Still trying to make too many clever passes and youtube highlight shots. Maybe that audacity is what makes him so good. Drew the PK with a really smart run through the middle.
Lamela (+1) – Hustle was key to the AM level press. Terrible, terrible miss on the PK that would have put us up 3-0 and ended the game 20 minutes early. Not his best passing or shooting game.
Sissoko (+0) – Some nifty solo runs up the wing but at no point did I feel like he was actually creating anything. Had some good tackles but spent too much time rolling around on the ground not getting a call and not getting the ball.
Erikson (+5) – Omniscient and omnipotent. Fantastic game. Took Fernando and Fernandinho out of the game simultaneously. Man of the match.
Wanyama (+5) – Heavy and punishing in his tackles. Took Silva out of the game. Brings an interesting variation on Dier’s game. Would hate to be a small guy playing against them.
Rose (+3) – Lucky to force the Kolarov own goal. Created some good chances. Neutralized the always dangerous Raheem Sterling. Sterling was lucky not to get a second yellow card.
Vertonghen (+4) – Impenetrable at the back despite facing the best offense in the league
Alderweirald (+4) – See Vertonghen
Walker (+4) – Is looking better going forward every week. I was listening to a soccer podcast today and they put him forward as the best right back in the world. No one could come up with a better alternative based on current run of play.
Lloris (+3) – Some great reaction saves and kept a clean sheet against the best offense in the league.
Dier (+3) – Came on for the last 20 minutes when legs were getting tired. His hammy looks fine. Was a good box-to-box defender
NKoudou (+1) – Late sub for Lamela. Brought tons of energy and pace but spent his possessions trying to do it all himself. It looked like it annoyed City more than worried them.
Janssen (+0) – Very late sub. Didn’t do anything except body slam a few guys. Fun to watch but didn’t contribute anything.
Next up is a runaway hype train and the international break. Most of our guys will be playing for their national teams in WC qualifying. Our next real match is October 15th away to West Brom and we follow up with matches every 4 days until the end of November. Hopefully the guys can find some rest and Dembele and Kane’s recoveries come along on schedule.