Here we go again. Tottenham Hotspur may have knocked Manchester City out of the Champions League, but there’s still the third and final meeting between the two sides. This time it takes place Saturday, in an early Premier League match that could have massive implications for both teams in their league finish.
For City, it’s pretty straightforward. With the slimmest of leads over Liverpool, they need a win to keep their title prospects in their own hands. That’s not exactly easy, especially as they have to play not only Spurs but also Manchester United before the season is over. Any slip-up could see their league title prospects crumble as Liverpool have a substantially easier run-in with matches against Cardiff, Huddersfield, Newcastle, and Wolves.
So we know that City will take this one seriously, just as they did in their ultimately futile 4-3 win on Wednesday. But while Pep Guardiola has picked up a reputation for over-tinkering and over-thinking big games, it would not surprise me if, against a Spurs side sure to be exhausted and banged up after Wednesday’s heroics, he goes back to basics.
That means a likely return to the 4-3-3 and tactics with which City has had so much success already this season. City thrives when it can force its opponents out wide and create overlaps and space, with which they can exploit by switching play and finding openings through the offensive genius of players like Raheem Sterling and Sergio Aguero. If they can overload the midfield, they will, and the big danger for Spurs is that City will try and slow the game down and play through the middle of the pitch, something they did not do especially well on Wednesday. With Spurs basically down to Victor Wanyama and Oliver Skipp in midfield, a disciplined City side, even a rotated one, could make Spurs pay at the Etihad tomorrow.
There’s the thought that City will be demoralized and will collapse like a house of cards after being denied the Champions League quarterfinals, and another, different thought that says they will use revenge as a motivating factor and pound Spurs into a fine paste in the league. Nobody knows really, but Guardiola’s approach may become apparent when the lineups are released.
How will Spurs line up against City?
I’ve joked in past columns that I have no bloody idea how Pochettino will set up his side, because Poch, like Pep, has tinkered quite a lot with his tactics. In contrast to Pep’s tinkering, which was ostensibly purely to try and beat his opponent, Poch’s changes have had as much to do with injuries as gamesmanship. And to be fair he’s been masterful at it this season. He’ll need to do something similar to get a result at the Etihad on Saturday, as well as run a few players into the ground.
In short, Spurs are in fairly dire straits with regards to injuries. Harry Kane, Serge Aurier, Harry Winks, Moussa Sissoko, and Erik Lamela are all confirmed out for Saturday. By the time this posts, Eric Dier will have returned to training, and if he’s healthy enough to start in midfield he absolutely positively should. Wanyama doesn’t have a recent history of being able to play more than one match in a week, but it appears clear that Poch intends to get every single minute out of Christian Eriksen and Dele Alli yet this season. For this reason, I think we’ll see a midfield three of Dier, Dele, and Eriksen, with the latter two swapping positions as needed.
In defense, without Sissoko to provide extra cover for the right fullback, I expect Pochettino to revert to a back three formation with Davinson Sanchez coming in, and possibly Juan Foyth if Poch judges that Toby Alderweireld needs to rest his hips ahead of the midweek match against Brighton. The back three will also help ameliorate the inevitable beating that the fullbacks — likely Ben Davies and Kieran Trippier/Kyle Walker-Peters — will take at the hands of City’s attackers.
That leaves the front two, and the attackers will be drawn from one of Fernando Llorente, Son Heung-Min, or Lucas Moura. As clutch as Nando was on Wednesday, I still harbor deep suspicions that his 34-year old ass can handle two matches in a week. I would expect him on the bench, but I’m giving the nod to Sonny and Lucas, at least to start.
Is this team good enough to beat City? That’s a good question. A slightly better one wasn’t enough in technical terms on Wednesday, and it wouldn’t shock me if Poch attempts to bunker and counter, content with a draw. A point at the Etihad would be massive for Spurs’ chances of finishing ahead of Chelsea and Arsenal for top four. A win would be gravy. What hopefully doesn’t happen is a blow-out loss — Spurs’ goal differential is only +4 over Arsenal, but that GD could be critical by the end of the season.
Either way, don’t expect fireworks like what we got in the Champions League. This will probably be a much different match, and it may not be to Spurs’ advantage.