The Season So Far
Manchester City’s 2015-16 campaign has been somewhat disappointing: a quadruple remains mathematically and theoretically possible, but it would be a shock if City converted their massive potential into unfathomable glory over the next few months. Their season has been extremely affected by injuries, with their entire spine – Joe Hart, Vincent Kompany, Yaya Touré, David Silva, Sergio Agüero – either rendered unavailable for long spells or hindered by chronic niggles throughout.
Kompany’s absence has been particularly keenly felt: Nicolás Otamendi has begun life at the Etihad not partnered by City’s captain, but by the fish-out-of-water Eliaquim Mangala or the long-since finished Martín Demichelis. Expensive new boys Raheem Sterling and Kevin De Bruyne, the latter now injured himself, have barely had time to form an understanding with Silva and Agüero and have had to carry City’s attack by themselves. Wilfried Bony will have been happy to see an increase in minutes played but has found it hard to integrate and now finds himself third choice behind the exciting Kelechi Iheanacho and, most probably, surplus to requirements.
It hasn’t really been a bad season, per se, but it certainly hasn’t been one to remember and it’s not really a surprise that the powers that be at Man City have decided to hire Pep Guardiola for next season.
The Season Ahead
As previously stated, the rest of the campaign has the potential to be the most glorious in not just City’s history, but all of football’s, but few people expect City to win any silverware beyond the League Cup. Their collapse at home to Leicester last weekend suggested that certain key players are still a long way from full fitness. Others seem ready to call it quits and head to the beach for a long summer now
The Tottenham game therefore has the potential to shape the rest of Man City’s season: a good performance and a good result here could spur (no pun intended) them on to finish the season in style and give Pellegrini a good send-off. More likely, however, is another few months of inconsistent and bitty displays heavily reliant on Agüero pulling rabbits out of hats.
Manuel Pellegrini’s sides have typically played open, swashbuckling football, with fluid positional interchange, attacking full-backs and lots of creativity from their playmakers, and this Manchester City has been no exception. Their 4-2-3-1 shape is pretty conventional, but their interpretation of the formation’s mechanics is a throwback to a time when players were simply trusted by the manager to use their raw ability to win games.
This is perhaps one reason why Pellegrini has found himself forced out: as the Premier League welcomes Jürgen Klopp and Pep Guardiola and coaches like Mauricio Pochettino and Ronald Koeman overachieve with historic also-rans, Man City play relatively unsophisticated football. They know they’re better individually than everyone else, and if they perform to their maximum they will win, regardless of what their opponents try to do.
That’s not to say they have no tactics at all: they obviously work on developing partnerships and combinations between the full-backs and their wide forwards, while their central midfield has two or three distinct configurations, more-or-less dependent on Yaya Touré’s positioning: they can re-organise at the drop of a hat to use him as a deep-lying playmaker, a box-to-box midfielder or a gung-ho second striker.
In terms of match-specific tactics, Spurs can expect the majority of City’s attacks to come down the left, where Raheem Sterling and Aleks Kolarov have a good understanding and Kyle Walker has struggled in the past. At the same time, it might be just as productive to come down the right, where David Silva and Pablo Zabaleta will likely be able to team up on Danny Rose, assuming Christian Eriksen plays nominally on the left and phones in his tracking back as usual.
Their biggest strength is undoubtedly the pure ability they have with the ball: not only do they use this ability to keep it better than almost anyone – they average 55.4% of the ball, the league’s second highest figure – they use it to pour forward and batter teams like few sides can.
Their attacking output is simply frightening: their total of 431 shots attempted so far this season is the most in the Premier League, and their figure for shots on target (147) is only bettered by one team – promisingly, Spurs with 165. However, City are much better at working the ball into good positions before taking shots: 260 of City’s have come from within the box, in relation to Spurs’ 227 and this helps them convert at a higher rate too: 10.5% to 9.9% - marginal, but enough to have an impact over the course of a full season.
Their domination of possession also allows them to protect themselves with the ball: no team has allowed fewer shots on its goal this season, which is probably for the best, as we’ll see below.
This is also a team absolutely crammed with stellar individual talent: Sergio Agüero, David Silva, Yaya Touré and Raheem Sterling are all capable of producing moments which can turn matches and seasons on their head. Any small mistake that Spurs make on Sunday will very probably lead to them being punished.
Their obvious weakness is protecting their defence: they simply don’t work hard enough to prevent their opposition progressing down the pitch on the counter. They make a relatively low number of tackles per game (18.4), interceptions (15.8) and fouls (10.4), even when adjusting for their high possession figure. The perceptions that David Silva only plays in the attacking phase and Yaya Touré doesn’t pull his weight at all seemed very hard to refute last weekend, when Leicester consistently outnumbered Man City on the break simply due to pure desire.
Although they don’t concede a high number of shots, they tend to concede a high number of goals relative to the shots they face. Their 71.9% save percentage is on the low side - by contrast, Arsenal lead the league with 81.7%, Spurs are second with 79.7% and the league average is 72.2%. This is less a criticism of Joe Hart and more an acknowledgement that his colleagues are leaving him totally exposed on a regular basis.
And as true as it is that City have numerous match-winners, they also have a decent number of match-losers. Demichelis has become an absolute joke. Yaya Touré was close to 0 out of 10 in recent defeats to Arsenal and Leicester. Fabian Delph isn’t of the same transcendental quality of his teammates. Full-backs Kolarov and Pablo Zabaleta are ageing increasingly badly – it might be the case that Bacary Sagna plays at right-back and Gaël Clichy on the left. Neither are spring chickens themselves, but they’re much less likely to wilt under Spurs’ pressing.
After last week's debacle in a pivotal game in the title race, Pellegrini must be tempted to ring the changes. However, that may not be possible beyond a certain point due to injuries. Fabian Delph was today ruled out for six weeks, while several other potential starters remain unavailable. This should, then, be a familiar line-up, most probably with Yaya Touré deployed in an attacking role so as to prevent another massacre of City's midfield.
This has the feel of an epochal match-up: if Spurs are going to win the league, three points here will go a hell of a long way to sealing the deal. A defeat, normally expected and not at all a disaster here, would really knock the wind from their sails. That being the case, it’s hard not to see this ending in a draw.