UEFA Champions Quarter Final 2nd Leg, April 17 2019
Sterling (4, 21)
Bernardo Silva (11)
Son Heung-min (7, 10)
Where to start? In one of the great Champions League encounters, Tottenham Hotspur somehow emerged as VAR-assisted victors over Manchester City to book a semi final against fellow surprise package Ajax. Spurs arrived at the Etihad defending a one-goal lead from the first leg, but in a borderline insane first 20 minutes the tie took on a whole new level of drama. Raheem Sterling had the hosts in front within the first five minutes, but two superb strikes from Son Heung-min – playing alongside Lucas Moura in the absence of Harry Kane – saw Spurs take control of the tie in the next five. Back came Pep Guardiola’s men, with Bernardo Silva equalising on the night and Sterling levelling the tie with a smart finish from an exquisite Kevin De Bruyne cross only moments later. Tottenham regrouped and took an away-goals advantage into half-time, but fell behind in the tie for the first time when Sergio Aguero thrashed home just before the hour. Substitute Fernando Llorente restored the Spurs advantage with 20 minutes to go, a Kieran Trippier corner brushing his arm before his hip did the rest – VAR ruled the goal as good, before stepping in as time ran out to rule out Sterling’s apparently winning goal for an Aguero offside earlier in the move. The City quadruple dream is thus over, with the teams scheduled to meet again in the Premier League on Saturday.
18 / 8
SHOTS / ON TARGET
11 / 7
Passes / Accurate
8 / 0 / 0
Fouls / Yellow / Red
13 / 4 / 0
Pep Guardiola set Manchester City up in a 4-1-4-1 formation, with Ilkay Gundogan between the defensive and midfield lines. Bernardo Silva, Kevin De Bruyne, David Silva and Raheem Sterling operated behind Sergio Aguero, who led the attack.
The hosts sent long passes in behind the Tottenham defence in the early stages, with the visitors’ out-of-possession structure making it difficult for them to play through. City noticed immediately that Spurs had set up to screen passes into De Bruyne and David Silva in the half-spaces, and quickly adapted to this by dropping them out into false full-back positions and moving the full-back inside; this allowed their more creative players to get on the ball and face forwards. Within a minute of this change, De Bruyne had received the ball in this area and started the move that led to Sterling’s opening goal.
City also looked to move the ball to one side of the pitch and draw Tottenham players over to that side before quickly switching, either through a long diagonal pass to an attacking midfielder or through shorter, quick passes across the pitch – as was seen for the Bernardo Silva goal that made it 2-2 on the night.
In the second half, City again adapted to Spurs’ changes as the visitors moved to a flat 4-4-2 out of possession. This meant that the half-spaces could still be screened and the players occupying the wide areas were easier to press, so Aguero began dropping deeper to receive and create the overload in midfield areas. This allowed him to link with his attacking midfielders and draw Tottenham defenders out of their units. Creating these overloads made it difficult for Tottenham to screen all of them, and allowed City to pick out the free man between the lines based on who hadn’t been screened – just as Gundogan was able to do when he found De Bruyne to set up City’s fourth goal.
The hosts also looked to use their inside attacking midfielders to drive at the Tottenham full-backs. This worked to narrow the defensive line, allowing City to slip an overlapping wide player in behind the Spurs full-back to create the opportunity to cross or cut back. This strategy very nearly resulted in another goal for the excellent Sterling in the second half.
Out of possession, City set up in a 4-1-4-1 shape and switched between a high press and a mid-block depending on the state of the game. In the opening 20 minutes they used a high press, with David Silva often joining Aguero on the top line to press Toby Alderweireld and Jan Vertonghen. If and when Silva joined Aguero on the front line, Gundogan would jump to press Christian Eriksen.
The issue here was that Victor Wanyama was not picked up, meaning Spurs were able to bypass the first line of the press by finding him. As a result, when Aguero or Silva went to press the Spurs centre-backs, they would try to use their cover shadow to screen Wanyama; the inside attacking midfielders would screen Tottenham’s central midfielders, and the wide attackers would ensure they could press the Spurs full-backs. Gundogan’s role was to step in front of any Tottenham attackers dropping towards the ball. He did this well, and would only move once the ball was travelling to avoid being caught out.
After City went 3-2 up in the 21st minute, they moved from the high press into a 4-1-4-1 mid-block in order to conserve some energy after an intense opening period. They looked to deny Spurs opportunities to play through, waiting for passes into wide areas or slow square passes to restart the press. The first two goals they conceded were due to mistakes in possession rather than any great play from Tottenham; the absence of Fernandinho in the starting XI was perhaps one reason as to why City weren’t as effective as usual at restricting any counter-attacks against them.
Mauricio Pochettino set Tottenham up in a 4-4-2 diamond formation, with Victor Wanyama at the base, Moussa Sissoko on the right, and Dele Alli and Christian Eriksen rotating between the left side and the tip. Defending a one-goal lead from the first leg, Spurs had limited possession and played mostly on the counter-attack in the first half; they looked to get numbers forward in transition in search of a crucial away goal, and managed to score not one but two through the impressive Son Heung-min in the opening 10 minutes.
In the phases when the visitors had good possession, Son would drift wide and towards the ball, while Alli looked to make penetrative runs beyond and receive in behind. This restricted the likelihood of City defenders following Son, as they would want to protect the space in behind as a priority. With Fernando Llorente on after injury to Sissoko, Spurs were able to play more direct and had an outlet when they cleared the ball. The big forward looked to bring the ball down and link with his midfielders; alternatively, he would chase the ball into the channels and look to hold it up there – particularly in the final 20 minutes, with Tottenham defending their lead in the tie for dear life.
Out of possession, Tottenham initially set up in a 4-4-2 diamond. When City tried to play out, Eriksen would mark Gundogan; Alli and Sissoko looked to screen passes into De Bruyne and David Silva, while Wanyama picked up Aguero whenever the Argentine forward dropped. This left Moura and Son to mildly close on Vincent Kompany and Aymeric Laporte, but leave passes open to Kyle Walker and Benjamin Mendy out wide.
As the ball travelled wide, the outside midfielder in the diamond would move out to press the City full-back; as they were moving towards the ball, the nearest striker would drop in to cover the passing line into City’s inside attacking midfielder. This only worked if Spurs didn’t press City high up the pitch, but instead waited for the hosts to progress towards halfway, meaning the forwards wouldn’t have too much distance to cover when the outside central midfielder moved out to press.
Tottenham encountered problems when City dropped their attacking midfielders deeper and wider, so eventually switched to a flat 4-4-2. This allowed them to access the wide areas with more ease and still be able to affect any central movement; it also meant that they had to become more compact between their defensive and midfield lines, to restrict the space Aguero had if dropping off the top line. In this structure, as the ball travelled wide, Spurs were able to create three-on-two overloads with their full-back, wide midfielder and nearest centre-back or central midfielder moving out to press and cover against City’s wide attacker and inside midfielder. It also meant they had numbers in these areas should the hosts’ full-backs join the attacks too.
Towards the end of the game, with Spurs defending their away-goals lead, they fell into a low block with few or no outlets. As a result, they would simply clear the ball back to City’s defensive line or out of play, and look to concede possession in less dangerous areas.
Author: Tony Hodson