Premier League Tactical Preview: Manchester City v Spurs

The game that decided it might seem like it happened just yesterday, but things have changed drastically since Spurs beat City to fourth place back in 2010.

Roberto Mancini's side picked themselves up from that defeat - courtesy of a Peter Crouch strike - and then went on to lift their first Premier League title in May. Meanwhile, Spurs were robbed of their Champions League spot this term by Chelsea, who won last season’s tournament. They've since changed managers, and are desperate to punch their weight with English football's new big four.  

Fast forward to the present, and having lost ignominiously against Wigan last time out, Spurs will be aiming to take at least a point from The Etihad this Sunday lunch time, especially as they have the North London derby, away at Arsenal the following week.

City are yet to hit full stride this term, and will want to get three points having failed to beat West Ham last Saturday, a draw that leaves them in third place, a point behind Chelsea and two behind rivals United.

How will the sides’ line-up?

As ever, City have many options to chose from, but following the midweek draw with Ajax in the Champions League, this is how I expect them to line-up on Sunday. One variation is if they decide to recall Balotelli for Tevez and shift Aguero back into a deeper role. Either way it will be a variation of the narrow 4-2-3-1 formation that brought them league success last season. 

It will be an injury hit Spurs side in a 4-3-3, or more likely 4-5-1 for the majority this game. Andre Villas-Boas' midfield options, in particular, look sparse:  Parker and Dembele are out, while Livermore and Sandro are doubts, meaning that Sigurdsson could be required to fill in one of the deeper roles.

Who will lead the line for Spurs?

I expect AVB will use this game to recall last season’s top scorer, Emmanuel Adebayor, who looked in good touch off the bench against Wigan last week. Villas-Boas' is unlikely to waiver from his lone striker formation, and within an attacking system that relies on the pace of Lennon and Bale on the wings, and the power of Dempsey arriving late in the box, it is essential the lone striker holds the ball up and links the play intelligently - Adebayor is an expert in such arts.

This would seem unfair on Jermaine Defoe, who has scored five league goals already this campaign. But in an away game of such stature the team will likely perform better as a collective with the taller and stronger Adebayor leading the line up front. The Togolese forward proved last season how adept he is at linking the play, with his record of 11 assists and 17 goals serving as solid proof.

If we compare the heat maps of the two competing strikers we can see this contrast in their styles of play. Defoe likes to play on the shoulder of the last defender and get in behind, something he did well away at Reading as we can see below:

As you can see above, Defoe's movement is almost entirely focused around the centre circle, with him clearly spending his time trying to spin in behind, rather than dropping deep to link up. Defoe has only averaged 13 passes per game this season, which suggests what a peripheral figure he can become in games where Spurs are not on the front foot. In comparison, Adebayor averaged 34 passes per game last season.

Defoe’s style of play is not well suited for a tie like Sunday's, where City will press high and dominate possession. In this instance, Spurs need a striker willing and able to drop deep, run the channels and link the play with his back to goal.

Talking of which, let's contrast Defoe's heat map with that of Adebayor from last season’s 5-0 win over Newcastle, a game in which Adebayor got 5 assists:

Adebayor covers a much greater surface area, often peeling off to the wings, dropping deep, getting very involved in support play and dragging his marker out of position. The fact that he naturally moves into the channels also paves the way for a significant interchange in the Spurs attack, whereby Bale capitalises on the space left by Adebayor and comes inside to operate in more dangerous positions.

Adebayor also wins around 50% of his aerial duels, compared to just 17% for Defoe, who is the smaller and slighter of the two forwards. With this tough game at City likely to consist of long periods of concentrated deep-lying defence, an enhanced aerial outlet may be the best option for when Spurs are under the cosh.

The midfield battle

Against Man United earlier in the season, Spurs showed how strong they can be in midfield, especially during transitions of play. Much of this was down to the addition of Moussa Dembele, who broke up play and carried the ball with purpose. But the Belgian, along with Scott Parker will be hugely missed at The Etihad this weekend. That Livermore and Sandro are also doubts is nothing short of a disaster for Spurs, who were dominated in this most crucial of areas last week against Wigan.

Meanwhile, they are now up against the Premier League champions, who boast the best box-to-box midfielder in the league in the imposing shape of Yaya Toure. His raw athleticism will be a problem for a Spurs side bereft of their two best holding players. And, If Yaya is pushed higher up the field into his preferred attacking midfield role, whoever plays for Spurs in the corresponding role - either Dempsey or Sigurdsson - will have to work very hard, dropping back into a midfield three, to help nullify the big Ivorian’s powerful runs.

Mancini is not without his own problems in this department, though. The Italian allowed Nigel De Jong to join AC Milan during the summer, and was desperate to bring in his countryman Daniele De Rossi in his place. But instead, Mancini settled for Jack Rodwell (now injured) and Javi Garcia (still yet to convince in his few opportunities.) All of which means that his own defensive midfield pivot is vulnerable.

We have seen in recent weeks how City have been far from their best defensively; much of this is down to a lack of control in the middle of midfield. The side have only managed around 11.6 interceptions per game this year compared to 16.6 last year, which illustrates that replacing De Jong - the king of the interception - has been tougher than Mancini may have envisaged.

Spurs' width versus Man City's narrowness 

Other than benchwarmer Scott Sinclair, City don't really have any natural width in midfield. Most of their width is instead provided by their full-backs on the overlap. The result of this is that the side can become quite narrow in the immediate aftermath of winning possession, as was the case frequently against West Ham. Samir Nasri tends to cut inside when he receives the ball, as does Tevez; traits that can cause the midfield to become quite congested, and leave City banging their collective head against a brick wall.

In fact, for all of his faults, Mario Balotelli's willingness to take players on the outside and tendency to invade wide areas is actually more valuable to City than a lot of people realise - just look back to when they so desperately needed a goal to win the league against QPR last May: with Rangers defending narrowly and resolutely in the latter stages, it was Mario who provided the attacking quirk from which Aguero pounced, peeling off into the outside left position ad committing defenders with his unpredictable dribbling style.

Such desperation may not be required this weekend. Indeed, Tottenham's injuries in midfield may mean City can simply overpower them and dominate proceedings from their narrow core. But if they need a plan B of width, the onus will be on Zabaleta and Clichy to stretch the game out wide, especially if Balotelli is not in the team.

City's narrowness may in-turn suit Spurs, who instinctively play with a great deal of width in the attacking third. Bale, like Balotelli, has the ability to round his man on the inside or outside, as does Lennon. This has an effect going both forward and back, as now Clichy and Zabaleta will have to restrict their own marauding runs forward to nullify Spurs flying wingers. This clash of styles will be one of the main areas to watch on Sunday, and it will be all the more important if Spurs are forced to adopt a counter-attacking style of play.


- With such a brilliant home record, it is difficult to look past a Manchester City win - at short odds of 1.57 - in this fixture.

- The Citizens do have weaknesses, notably in centre midfield as well as with a lack of width, but without Dembele, Parker and potentially Sandro too, Spurs will have their work cut out trying to dominate City's midfield trio that consists of the dynamic Yaya Toure.

- Spurs main area of strength is out wide, they can come at City with pace through Bale and Lennon who are not shy to run at defenders. These two will need to have a good game if Spurs are to get anything from the Etihad.

- Adebayor, if selected, will also be a crucial figure, with his ability to hold the ball up and link the play. Selecting him over Jermain Defoe will certainly strengthen Spurs as a collective, despite the latter’s good form in front of goal lately.

- Another area where Spurs could have joy is at set-pieces, as City have been incredibly vulnerable from corners this season as was highlighted against Ajax on Tuesday.

- All in all, City will probably just have too much power against a make-shift and injury-ridden Tottenham side, who are outsiders at odds of 5.75 to repeat that famous Crouch-inspired victory of 2010.

Amit Sing is Editor of Think Football, the thinking person's football website. You can follow him on Twitter @think_football