There is probably no higher compliment that can be paid to Manchester City right now than the fact that Barcelona are shaking in their boots ahead of facing Manuel Pellegrini’s side in the Champions League last sixteen. Although their porous defence makes them far from invincible, their record-shattering attack makes them arguably the scariest side to face in the world at the moment.
Pellegrini is only just starting to get the credit he deserves for turning Roberto Mancini’s under-motivated and tentative team into a ferocious unit so hungry for goals that they got into triple figures in mid-January at an average of four per game. It says everything that even though Watford were 2-0 up at the Etihad at the weekend, the world and his wife knew that the Hornets really needed at least two more to be in with a shout of victory.
In much the same way that Tim Sherwood has discarded many of André Villas-Boas’ more complicated ideas in order to make his team more efficient at creating and converting chances, Pellegrini has kept the same 4-4-1-1 setup that Mancini typically favoured and simply told his players to trust in their talent and throw the kitchen sink at the opposition.
Tactically, they do not seem to have a plan other than to attack a lot: they have more shots per game than any other side and rank highly in the charts for crosses per game and through-balls per game, while only Swansea and Southampton have more possession of the ball. In most other metrics City rank somewhere in the middle of the charts, lost among the white noise of meaningless data. Theirs is relatively simple football played extremely well.
Indeed, some of the interchanges and moves Manchester City put together have been positively breathtaking. One may argue that they will need to show more sophistication and perhaps sacrifice a striker to add another body to the midfield battle if they want to win the Champions League, but Manuel Pellegrini is continuing where Alex Ferguson left off in showing that tactical creativity comes a distant second to straightforward and ruthless quality in the Premier League.
At this stage of the season, with fixtures coming thick and fast and rotation the order of the day, the line-ups are more or less anyone’s guess, but City are most likely to play their strongest possible eleven at White Hart Lane. Everyone at the Etihad will remember the 3-1 defeat suffered in North London in April 2013 that all-but crowned Manchester United champions and will go all-out to avoid a repeat of that disaster.
This means that Joe Hart will take his place in goal ahead of Costel Pantilimon, who played typically badly in the weekend’s FA Cup scare at home to Watford. The struggles of England’s number one this season have been well-documented but he remains a talented if somewhat overrated and overconfident goalkeeper.
The marvellously consistent Pablo Zabaleta will play at right-back and will doubtless have his work cut out defensively, with his direct opponent, be it Christian Eriksen, Gylfi Sigurðsson or Nacer Chadli, certain to drift inside and link up with Emmanuel Adebayor and Roberto Soldado. This attacking movement of Spurs’ left-sided player does, of course, mean that the Argentine will have ample opportunity to overlap and support Jesús Navas, something that could prove decisive.
On the left, Aleks Kolarov has found a new lease of life under Pellegrini, his natural attacking tendencies indulged to their fullest extent. Only City’s four strikers and David Silva take more shots per game than the Serbian while his crossing ability has seen him used as by far the more attacking of City’s full-backs this season, creating 1.2 chances per game and racking up four assists in the process.
The central defensive partnership will presumably be Vincent Kompany and Martín Demichelis, although the latter’s horror-show against Watford could see him dropped in favour of Matija Nastasić. In either case, Emmanuel Adebayor and Roberto Soldado should fancy their chances.
What with Pellegrini’s gung-ho tactics allowing the central midfield duo more attacking freedom, City’s central defensive partnership has regularly been left exposed this season and the effect it has had on Kompany in particular has been dramatic. Spurs can definitely expect to at least have chances in this game.
The problem, of course, is that while City’s midfield duo is likely to allow Tottenham to make chances at one end, they are near certain to make up for it at the other end. Yaya Touré’s status as the best box-to-box midfielder in the league has rarely been in doubt since his arrival and, after an understandably shaky bedding-in period, Fernandinho has started to show his class in recent weeks.
On the right, Jesús Navas will look to use his famously devastating pace to get in behind Danny Rose, who will face arguably his biggest test since Theo Walcott destroyed him in the North London derby at the start of the season. Their duel will be fairly straightforward but, as previously stated, with Spurs’ left-midfielder unlikely to provide any real cover, it could decide the game.
On the other flank, David Silva will resume his playmaking duties and use his intuitive understanding of space and unparalleled vision to create chances for the strikeforce. The diminutive Spaniard is back to his best after a quiet 2012-13 campaign and while it is fantastic for the neutral to see a player of his class at the peak of his powers, it will not be much fun for those in attendance at White Hart Lane if he continues his recent form.
Speaking of form, only Luis Suárez can hold a candle to Sergio Agüero this season. The Argentine, who will return to the starting line-up at the Lane, has 25 goals in 24 appearances and looks absolutely deadly whenever the ball arrives at his feet. Perhaps worryingly, Tim Sherwood probably will not preoccupy himself with trying to stop the Argentine or his partner, Álvaro Negredo, preferring to try and score one more than them.
In that sense, there is not a great deal to preview tactically: both managers seem to prefer to do the majority of their work on the training pitch, motivate their players on match day and trust in them to interpret relatively simple systems correctly and get the job done. It will be an entertaining affair, without any shadow of a doubt, but whether or not Sherwood’s men will be set up to stop City firing home another three or four goals remains to be seen.
Name – Rob Brown
Twitter – @Robbro7
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