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Adapted press kept Manchester City in control against Spurs, even without the ball

The magic of the FA Cup: at the sixth attempt and after 102 shots, Manchester City finally scored a goal and won a game at the Tottenham Hotspur Stadium.

Manager Pep Guardiola had joked that this feat was the final frontier for his treble-winning side. In actuality, it was a game they had full control of, especially without possession.

Spurs had similar build-up issues to the 3-3 draw at the Etihad in December. That day, injured first-choice centre backs Cristian Romero and Micky van de Ven were covered by nominal full-backs Emerson Royal and Ben Davies. They struggled to get the first pass through the press.

On Friday night, they had Ange Postecoglou’s first-choice back four, with Destiny Udogie and Pedro Porro the full-backs, either side of Romero and Van De Ven. Udogie and Porro took up their typical advanced, central positions.

The problem this time was not the first pass but the second pass. Yves Bissouma (Mali) and Pape Matar Sarr (Senegal), Spurs’ primary central midfielders, are both at AFCON, so Postecoglou stuck with the pairing of Rodrigo Bentancur and Pierre-Emile Hojbjerg, who played away to Manchester United. Spurs’ record when Bissouma and Sarr start is excellent. Without them, not so much.

Spurs, all competitions, 2023-24

Metric Sarr & Bissouma start Without Sarr & Bissouma starting









26 (2.2)

5 (1)

14 (1.2)

6 (1.2)

Neither Bentancur nor Hojbjerg offer Bissouma’s press resistance or self-assurance in deeper positions. Postecoglou has praised Sarr for playing a “multi-functional” midfield role, as he tends to rotate out to the right when Porro moves infield, with Bissouma as the single pivot.

Instead, partly because City locked on aggressively, Spurs had to drop Bentancur alongside Hojbjerg, into a double pivot, from an initially advanced position.

“We had to minimise what they (Spurs) do with the ball. The speed they have, how direct they are, it is an exceptional team,“ said Guardiola.

City adapted their press. Left-winger Oscar Bobb dropped down to cover Porro. Right-winger Phil Foden moved to the edge of the box next to Julian Alvarez to mirror Spurs’ centre-backs and press. This needed Bernardo Silva to slide across and mark Udogie, as City went man-for-man in midfield and on the half-way line. Left-back Nathan Ake jumped up to Bentancur.

When Alvarez pressed goalkeeper Guglielmo Vicario, he passed into Bentancur and the next ball would always be wide to Romero, in space as Alvarez had stepped forward. It became predictable, and while it worked early on, Spurs struggled to access the front three and make passes stick.

It was a stark reminder of the absence of Harry Kane, harking back to his outstanding pass for the opener in the 3-2 win at the Etihad under Antonio Conte, when he dropped in to receive a long pass from the full-back and whipped a first-time through ball for Son Heung-min.

Spurs were without Son, too, who is at the Asian Cup. Postecoglou has shifted him back to left-wing, but Son started the season revived as No 9 and this was the type of game where Spurs needed a better technician to receive long balls. After all, the super-strength of the front three is its pace, with excellent off-ball runners in Timo Werner and Brennan Johnson, added to the fact that Ake stepping out meant City were prepared to leave a three-v-three.

Richarlison was physically mismatched against Ruben Dias, and, when he did get the ball into feet, could not spot the pass in-behind to Werner. Johnson managed to receive at times out on the right, but facing his own goal and with the looming presence of 6ft 1in Josko Gvardiol at his back. Spurs’ front three had a combined 43 first-half touches (and just one in the City box), fewer than Romero, Hojbjerg, Van de Ven and Bentancur had individually.

Spurs did not go in-behind enough, nor did they target the wide channels to isolate their wingers, though this would have been harder down the left where Werner was up against Kyle Walker, a “proper defender” by Guardiola’s terms, with phenomenal recovery pace. Postecoglou said Spurs were “too passive in the first-half, with and without the ball. The thing we’ve been good at this year is we’ve started every game really well — high tempo, high intensity, it wasn’t there.”

Not only did they end up not scoring for the first time under Postecoglou, but Spurs failed to register a first-half shot. The last time that happened, in all competitions, was February 2020; ironically, that was against City, and they went on to win 2-0.

City made their most high turnovers (10) in a game this season, which are open-play sequences starting within 40m of the opponent’s goal. They also made their most fouls (19), often from players being overly aggressive when going touch-tight in the press, which prevented Spurs building up but also meant City could not make regains and turn defence into attack — it also led to Guardiola getting booked for sarcastically clapping a second-half foul.

Interestingly, based on opposition passes allowed per defensive action (PPDA) in the Premier League, City are at their least physically intense this season under Guardiola (12.5, was 10 in 2018-19), but have their highest per-game final-third regains tally (6.8, was 5.4 in 2018-19).

They often set up in a high block, with their back-line on halfway, but more than ever pick their moments to press, waiting for triggers and employing traps. They routinely allowed Vicario to have possession without pressure, before jumping when the ball went to a centre-back, for example.

City’s press should have won them the game before Ake poked in late on. They kept the pressing structure but shuffled individuals after subs, with Kevin De Bruyne and Jeremy Doku (who Guardiola went livid at on one occasion for not counter-pressing) replacing Bobb and Alvarez. When Romero angled a pass into Hojbjerg in deep build-up, Bernardo was close enough to force the midfielder to take his first touch backwards, which was wildly heavy and went into Foden. He squared it to De Bruyne, who shot wide.

Bernardo Silva spoke last April about the necessity for City to show consistency and defend well. Those comments were in relation to the Champions League, but as a knockout tournament the same thing applies to the FA Cup. City have won the FA Cup twice under Guardiola, but never retained it, with a streak of three semi-final exits between 2019-20 and 2021-22.

Keep pressing this well and City can repeat last season’s treble.

(Top image: Getty Images)

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