It’s always frustrating to lose a game to a late goal but there is very little doubt that Manchester City deserved their win over Tottenham Hotspur at the Etihad stadium. Despite leading for a large portion of the game, the visitors were second best throughout and did not perform to anywhere near what they are capable of. It might have taken another late winner from Edin Dzeko to earn the victory but City were undoubtedly the better team.
Tottenham Hotspur’s goal came via Steven Caulker’s head from an excellent Tom Huddlestone free-kick, and with a helping hand/chest from Joe Hart, however they were poor otherwise. Contrary to the reaction of some of the media, and indeed a portion of the fans, the decision to start with Emmanuel Adebayor over Jermain Defoe was the right one. Of course it seems harsh to drop a player having scored a hat-trick in his previous outing but for the specific game plan that Spurs tried to implement the Togolese international was the right choice. Adebayor’s link-up play was good and the poor performance was no result of his presence.
Instead, Spurs simply failed to play to their strengths. Their greatest threat comes from their two wingers, especially with Clint Dempsey and Tom Huddlestone failing to impose themselves on the game, yet they never seemed to utilise this enough. It was obvious from an early enough stage that City recognised this threat, with Aleksander Kolarov doubling up on the left with Gael Clichy to stifle Aaron Lennon while Pablo Zabaleta looked nervous early on against Bale.
Twice within the first two minutes, Zabaleta dived in at the feet of Bale as the Welshman ran directly at him, so when he picked up a booking after a tussle with Emmanuel Adebayor he should have been targeted by Tottenham. But Spurs failed to get the ball to the wide players quick enough and neither Bale nor Lennon offered any substantial threat as the game went on. Huddlestone in particular has the ability to spray accurate passes wide quickly, yet he seemed to lack the confidence to do so.
I have often defended Andre Villas-Boas this season and in fact praised him several weeks ago for taking a more adaptable approach to games this season, specifically with his defensive line. However, against City he got this all wrong. In certain games this season, Spurs have dropped deeper and defended closer to the edge of their box – they did it in away trips to Reading and Manchester United – and against City it would have been sensible.
I can understand the desire to compress the midfield space by pushing up but it was always such a dangerous tactic against the brilliance of David Silva, the driving runs of Yaya Toure and the movement of the forward players. It was obvious early on that City highlighted this as an area to be exploited, continually trying to play balls in behind the Spurs defence. Had it not been for a few close offside calls going in the favour of the visitors and Sergio Aguero’s touch letting him down, Manchester City would have broken through earlier.
Indeed, when City switched to their 3-5-2 shape, it was doubly clear that the defensive line needed to drop deeper. Toure was freed from the restrictions of operating in a midfield two, while Silva was moved into the centre and began to influence the game further. And it was these two players that provided the creative spark needed for both goals. Ageuro’s goal resulted from a Toure surge while Dzeko’s winner was assisted by a delicious lofted pass by Silva.
While we’re talking about City’s tactical switch, credit must be given to Roberto Mancini. He has taken a lot of stick for using the 3-5-2, often rightly so as he’s chosen some particularly bizarre moments to action it, but this was the perfect occasion. Against a team that was offering so little going forwards, it afforded his side an extra man in attack. City may have won anyway, there was plenty of time left in the game, but the change certainly increased the pressure on Spurs.
Maicon’s introduction, which enforced the switch, was also a shrewd move. With Jan Vertonghen clearly struggling and Bale unwilling to offer any kind of defensive cover, the Brazilian injected pace which helped stretch the Spurs defence.
This is the reason Mancini has wanted to add this shape to his armoury this season. When it’s used correctly, it can have the effect of seeming like there is always an extra man in defence and in attack. He still needs to control his instincts a little better and use it in the right situation, rather than making the switch at moments which hamper his team, but on this occasion he got it right. He’s been under a little pressure recently due to the struggles in the Champions League but Mancini deserved his victory yesterday.