Tactics Thursday: Spurs make it easy for magnificent City

Jamie McDonald

Under Andre Villas-Boas, Tottenham Hotspur were ripped apart by Manchester City while playing a suicidally high line. Under Tim Sherwood, Tottenham Hotspur were ripped apart by Manchester City while playing a totally different yet equally crappy system.

I don't have the time or depth of self-loathing to review this game in detail. I just don't. Sorry, I'm not sorry. But I would like to briefly highlight what has been a consistent problem for Spurs under Tim Sherwood: a lack of defensive organization.

Spurs under Andre Villas-Boas had a very clear defensive structure; forwards and midfielders pressed relentlessly, defenders compressed the pitch with a very high line, and Hugo Lloris swept up the passes played behind the defense. For the most part, this plan worked well; it was not until the last few weeks of AVB's reign that Spurs' defense well and truly collapsed.  AVB's system failed eventually, of course, perhaps because of injuries or because other teams had figured out how to properly attack it, but it was at least clear what he was trying to do.

Sherwood has vanquished the high-line but it remains unclear what he is trying to accomplish defensively. Spurs forwards and midfielders no longer press but neither do they drop off into the archetypal "two banks of four" defensive structure that is so commonly seen across the Premier League. If anything, the defining feature of Spurs tactics when out of possession under Sherwood has been the massive gap between Spurs' midfielders and defenders.

This gap has been evident in almost every game Spurs have played since Sherwood took over, regardless of whether Spurs played with two central midfielders like they did against Southampton or with three like they did against Swansea. In winning five and drawing one of the six Premier League games prior to Wednesday under Sherwood, Spurs had been able to overcome this flaw, due to some good attacking play, a bit of luck in converting their chances (and the opposition not converting theirs), and playing largely inferior opponents.

Against City, the lack of defensive organization was horribly exposed.  Some of the most egregious examples are below; sensitive readers may wish to avert their eyes now.

We pick up in the 4th minute. Navas comes infield from the right wing and finds Fernandinho in acres of space in the center of the pitch. Fernandinho can pass to any of Silva, Aguero, or Dzeko, eventually choosing Aguero.  Despite nominally outnumbering City in midfield, Spurs leave Fernandinho completely alone. It's unclear who exactly is at fault here - perhaps one of Mousa Dembele or Christian Eriksen should have dropped off into the center of the pitch.

Just a minute later, Kyle Walker is sucked into a 1-2 after a throw-in. When Nabil Bentaleb moves over to cover, a gaping hole is opened in the center of the pitch. David Silva accepts Spurs' generous invitation and steps into that zone, leaving City with a great chance that Aguero eventually fluffs. There are multiple breakdowns on this play - Walker is too easily tricked with the 1-2, Lennon doesn't track Silva (or anyone), and Vlad Chiriches steps up a bit too rashly.

In the buildup to City's first goal, Vincent Kompany has plenty of time and space to find Silva who has come across the pitch into the half-space between Spurs' central midfield and left flank. Unpressured, he has time to turn and find Aguero who has made a good run behind the Spurs defense. Dembele or Bentaleb should probably be marking Silva but the real culprit is a lack of organization and communication among the Spurs midfield.

Finally, in the build-up to the penalty and red card, Etienne Capoue is dragged wide while tracking Stevan Jovetic, leaving yet another massive gap in midfield. Silva find Fernandinho and the rest is history.

*          *          *

I've highlighted the defensive breakdowns by Spurs in the above examples, but I don't meant to imply that if Spurs had better defensive cohesion they would beaten or drawn City. City have magnificent players with an excellent understanding and would thus be favored to win no matter how well Spurs set up defensively. What I'm trying to show is that, as good as City are, Spurs made it easy for them by repeated defensive breakdowns.

These breakdowns have been evident since Sherwood took over. Spurs can get away with them against a Jonjo Shelvey or Charlie Adam, but a David Silva, Adam Lallana, or Mesut Ozil will make them pay more often than not. If Tim Sherwood wants Spurs to qualify for the Champions League and thereby keep his job, the key lies in fixing the defense. And fast.

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