Article by Ben Griffis
Tottenham Hotspur beat defending champions Manchester City 1-0 in the final match of the Premier League’s opening weekend. Spurs fielded a weaker side than most matches last season when they finished 7th. Harry Kane wasn’t selected for various reasons (he’s actively trying to force Spurs to sell him to City), and none of Tottenham’s new signings started the match. Christian Romero, Bryan Gil, and Pierluigi Gollini were all on the bench, with Espírito Santo selecting Davinson Sánchez in place of the sold Toby Alderweireld, Steven Bergwijn in place of Gareth Bale, and playing Oliver Skipp and Japhet Tanganga over Tanguy Ndombele and Serge Aurier.
Pep Guardiola fielded a lower-strength side than normal, with Kevin De Bruyne on the bench. Other bench options included Kyle Walker, Aymeric Laporte, John Stones, Rodri, and Bernardo Silva, so their starting XI wasn’t that poor. Benjamin Mendy got a rare start, Nathan Aké played over Stones and Laporte, but new signing Jack Grealish made his debut.
Here’s how each manager lined their team up to open the season:
Nuno Espírito Santo lined up in a flat 4-3-3, a change from his preferred back 3 he used at Wolves. An interesting, subtle tweak from past managers Nuno employed was playing Dele Alli as a central midfielder, not in an attacking midfield position. As we’ll see later on, Dele lined up as the left-sided central midfielder and was involved in attacks higher up the pitch as much as Pierre-Emile Højbjerg on the right side. Lucas and Steven Bergwijn lined up on the right and left wings respectively, their natural positions.
Tottenham were able to effectively stifle City’s buildup play in the match, which harmed City’s attack. Manchester City weren’t able to play the quick, defense-shifting passes in midfield they normally play to carve open chances in front of and in the box. Espírito Santo’s Spurs did this through three defensive tactics during City’s buildup: narrow wingers and midfielders, rare pressure in the first two thirds, and cutting midfield passing lanes.
Narrow Attackers and Midfielders
Probably the most effective tactic Nuno used was narrowing Lucas and Bergwijn while City were building up from the back. In attack, Lucas and Bergwijn acted as wingers and ran down the flank, crossing and cutting inside. In defense, however, they acted as right- and left-sided strikers. Lucas and Bergwijn almost never marked or even closed down City’s fullbacks, Mendy and Cancelo. Instead, narrowed when City had the ball in their defensive third or the midfield third and allowed lots of space ahead of the fullbacks.
Further, Nuno Espírito Santo instructed Dele and Højbjerg to stay narrow when City were in the first two thirds of the pitch. With both the wingers and midfielders narrow, City’s fullbacks had vast open spaces they could run into if they wanted to. However, Guardiola instructs his fullbacks to act as inverted fullbacks, sitting narrower and affecting the game in the midfield and half spaces rather than attacking the wings. Espírito Santo allowed City’s fullbacks to have space outside, knowing that they would hardly use it. The image below visualizes this well.
A moment that perfectly summarizes this is at 74:52 in the game, when Mendy got the ball on the left wing just past midfield with no players in front of him. Instead of running into the open space in front of him, he slowly dribbled inside looking for options for 6 seconds before laying it back to Fernandinho—Lucas and Højbjerg didn’t close him down at all, but Mendy didn’t even move up the pitch.
Defending narrowly allowed Spurs to outnumber City in the midfield when they did try passing or running in the middle of the pitch. As Guardiola prizes possession, Espírito Santo’s tactics forced City to play longer passes to Sterling, Grealish, or Mahrez on the wings. Grealish had a free role and popped up on both wings, but typically on their left because that’s where most City attacks came from.
Even though Manchester City were able to get the ball to Sterling or Grealish on the left wing frequently, Japhet Tanganga was dominant when defending them. Tanganga used his strength, positioning, and tackling ability to stop their attacks or at least hold them up for support to come. After being subbed off, Spurs fans gave a standing ovation and chanted “he’s one of our own” as he walked around the pitch, praising his consistent defending throughout the match.
Lack of Pressure
Along with narrow strikers and midfielders, Nuno Espírito Santo instructed his players to not press City’s back line and Fernandinho while building up. Spurs let City’s defenders and Fernandinho have unopposed possession in their half and only pressed in transition if City won the ball back high. The image below illustrates this feature of Tottenham’s defense. All three Spurs strikers are very narrow and not attempting to close down Fernandinho or Cancelo as he’s receiving—and before this, Mendy was allowed to move around unopposed before passing to Fernandinho.
Cutting Passing Lanes
The final defensive tactic in City’s buildup Nuno Espírito Santo employed was to cut City’s passing lanes to Ilkay Gündogan and Jack Grealish—when he was in the center of the pitch and not on the wing. Lucas, Son, or Bergwijn often positioned themselves between the player with the ball and Gündogan and Grealish. When Fernandinho was behind Tottenham’s strikers, they focused on cutting the passing lane to him instead of Gündogan or Grealish.
Take a look at the image below, the first image in this article again, but look at how Spurs cut the lanes to all three of Fernandinho, Grealish, and Gündogan.
Son’s positioning slightly ahead of Lucas and Bergwijn allows him to be closer to Rúben Dias, closing down his angles. Son’s between Dias and Fernandinho, cutting that lane directly. Dias’s passing lane to Grealish is effectively cut by Lucas and Højbjerg, with both having a high chance of intercepting a pass to him. Similarly, Bergwijn and Dele are cutting the passing lane to Gündogan. Spurs allow Dias to pass freely to Aké or one of the fullbacks, knowing they won’t run up the wing and Tanganga is available to defend Grealish or Sterling if they pass to them.
Putting it Together
Taken together, Spurs’ narrowness, lack of pressure, and ability to cut midfield passing lanes left City lacking for ideas in buildup. While normally one of the best sides in the world at unlocking a defense, Manchester City players were left with no choice but to pass long to Grealish, Sterling, or Mahrez on the wings, surpassing the midfield.
Each of Tottenham’s defensive tactics during City’s buildup reinforced the others, making them the perfect counter to Pep’s tactics. The narrow structure enabled many passing lanes to be cut even when a Spurs player wasn’t actively cutting lanes. Not pressing allowed the players to keep their numerical advantage in midfield and force City to pass wide up the pitch. Finally, the narrowness of the attackers helped Spurs’ consistent counters, as they were closer to each other and able to play less-risky passes on the break. Not intensely pressing City players also kept Bergwijn, Son, and Lucas largely in their positions, further enabling their counters. Playing on the counter was a key part of Spurs’ attack, and they kept it up throughout the match.
Pep Guardiola was in constant communication with his staff about why they couldn’t create chances from the center of the pitch, but never instructed Mendy or Cancelo to start attacking the space in front of them and leave their inverted-fullback roles. Zinchenko replaced Mendy in the 79th minute and started running up the wing, but this change was much too late.
Nuno Espírito Santo out-smarted Pep Guardiola in the Premier League’s top-billed match of the opening weekend. Using a squad of players who finished 7th last season (and a player who played in the Championship—Skipp), Espírito Santo’s tactics allowed him to beat last season’s champions and stop one of their strongest aspects of play—their buildup that enables endless, dangerous, flowing attacks.
With the help of a world-class performance by Japhet Tanganga and commanding defending of crosses by Eric Dier and Davinson Sánchez, Spurs’ defense stifled City and earned them all 3 points through Son Heung-min’s strike on a counter.
While just the first competitive match for Nuno Espírito Santo at Tottenham, it was one of the hardest games of the season and the starting squad lacked both Kane and the new signings. If he can carry on in this vein—and employ strong defensive tactics, which Spurs have desperately needed for at least two seasons—Nuno’s Spurs should be a side to fear this season.
Once Christian Romero, Serie A’s best defender last season, is fit to start, Tottenham’s defensive organization from front to back should be even stronger, allowing them to nullify most teams’ attacks. Coupled with attackers like Son, Lucas, Bergwijn, Dele, and new signing Brayan Gil—and Kane or whoever his replacement is—Spurs look set to be dangerous in all phases of play. Even after such an impressive tactical setup against Manchester City, it looks like Tottenham should only improve in the coming weeks.
All game images are from NBC Sports. Header Image source.