For months it’s been an almost forgone conclusion that Manchester City would be lifting this season’s Premier League title in May. Hell, even with their recent loss to United and embarrassing Champions League exit at the hands of Liverpool, City’s coronation as league champs remains a nailed-on certainty.
That doesn’t mean that every team they face until the end of the year has to just lay down and die for them, though. Next up for the blue team from the north west…Mauricio Pochettino’s high-flying Tottenham.
Can Spurs avoid becoming the footnote in City’s title triumph when they entertain Pep’s squad this Saturday? I’m here to talk it out.
A tale of two form charts
Tottenham haven’t lost a game in the league since December 16th, 2017. Their opponents that day were, you guessed it, Man City. Over these past several months of solid league form, Poch’s squad have managed to beat United, Arsenal, and Chelsea while avoiding defeat to fellow red-hot top 6 club Liverpool. Spurs’ purple patch hasn’t been limited to the league alone, either. They were arguably the better team over 2 legs despite losing to Juve in the Champions League, and they’re currently in the semi-finals of the FA Cup with United as their next opponent. All told, Spurs are running about as smoothly as could be expected at the moment and will be very confident going into Saturday’s proceedings.
City, meanwhile, have struggled to maintain their peerless form in the last couple of weeks. Their loss to United in the last round of league fixtures wasn’t just a bad result, but an immature performance as well. 2-0 up and cruising, they should never have allowed United to even draw level, let alone beat them. The collapse suggests a strain of nervousness has finally set in amongst a locker room of players who’ve looked unbeatable for the vast majority of the season. As if their title delay wasn’t bad enough, though, Pep’s men proceeded to get knocked out of the Champions League by Liverpool last week. Though I’ll admit they played quite well in that game (and were not helped at all by the officiating), the fact is they still lost to an objectively inferior team in a competition where most expected them to reach at least the semi-finals.
Form advantage: Spurs
Pep vs Poch: round two
When City last met Spurs at the Etihad in 2017, they outplayed the visitors quite handily. Pep matched Poch’s trademark pressing game with a frenzied high press of his own, allowing his players to effectively strangle Spurs’ midfield and prevent dangerous chances from being created. It was a textbook example of how a team can beat Poch’s Spurs, albeit via a method few are capable of employing. City, however, possess more than enough quality to execute that high press strategy, and it’s possible they’ll go for it again this weekend.
That said, Poch tends to be a quick study when it comes to his tactical approach to matches. While I’ve lambasted him all season for his in-game tactical decisions, his pre-game preparations are on par with Pep’s. He knows damn well how we were beaten at the Etihad and will look to avoid a repeat performance this time around. Since our two-striker system failed last time out, he’s likely to opt for a lone-striker set-up with a five-man midfield for this game. Moussa Dembele’s involvement is also a marked improvement over the previous game, where he was limited to a late sub appearance due to fitness issues. There’s no doubt our midfield is stronger with the Belgian running it, and by using him in combination with Dier, Poch will look to neutralize De Bruyne and Sane.
For his part, I think Pep will approach this match a bit more conservatively than one would expect. His side’s collapse against United will influence his tactics; perhaps he’ll see a steady, measured game plan as safer and more likely to produce a win than the gung-ho tactics that left his team exposed against their cross-town rivals. Spurs are a very dangerous side on the counter, so Pep’s preferred method of dominating possession in the opposition half will be very risky on Saturday. None of City’s CB’s have the pace to match Son, and if their fullbacks get caught upfield it will just leave huge gaps for Poch to exploit. Where Spurs tend to struggle, however, is against teams that sit men behind the ball. Pep is certainly smart enough to realize this, so look for a deeper, more nuanced defensive line from the cavalier Catalonian’s team this weekend.
Tactical advantage: Pep
Key match-up: Eriksen vs Fernandinho’s replacement
Honestly, there were a lot of good choices here. Son vs Walker. Kane vs Laporte. Dembele vs De Bruyne. Ordinarily, I’d say the battle that will decide the fate of this game rests between City’s Brazilian enforcer and Spurs’ playmaking Dane. Eriksen has stepped up in a big way for Spurs in recent weeks, scoring several goals while playing provider for nearly all the ones he didn’t score himself. Dele’s brace against Chelsea was enabled by Eriksen’s brilliance, and the attacking midfielder basically beat Stoke himself by scoring both goals in our 2-1 win (sorry, Harry…no matter what the league says I’m giving that second one to Eriksen).
Fernandinho, however, will miss Saturday’s match through suspension. Whoever takes up his role of screening the City back four will thus likely bear the brunt of the defensive work required to shackle Eriksen and prevent him from playing those killer passes. It’s a job the Brazilian would be well-suited to; he’s got a great engine that allows him to roam the center third of the pitch tirelessly all game. His replacement may not be quite up to par, though, and Eriksen is the type of player that will drift all over the place to find space. The man sitting in front of the City back line will need to either track those runs himself or ensure he communicates the Dane’s movements effectively to teammates.
If Fernandinho’s understudy succeeds, a major cog in the Spurs’ attacking machine will be essentially shut down. If Eriksen wins out, though, the City back line will be in for a nightmare as they try to intercept the Dane’s passes into the runs of Kane, Dele, and Son. On current form, I’m giving Eriksen the edge here.
Writers’ Note: Excuse the edits to this section. Fernandinho is suspended through disciplinary accumulation for Saturday’s match, but at the time of writing, team news had not yet been released.
Verdict: Spurs could squeak it
This one is really tough to call. City are the best side in the league without a doubt, but their form has stalled at a crucial time. Spurs are the firm underdogs, yet have the form and venue advantage. I’m obviously biased, so I’ll call this one 2-1 to Spurs. It will be far from a simple victory, though, so expect plenty of thrills come Saturday.