Manchester City’s trouble with counter-attacks stems from weak attacks, not lack of defense
Pep Guardiola once wrote articles for the Spanish website El Pais about the 2006 World Cup (Sam Lee goes in depth on those articles here). In his article about the French team, Pep pointed out a detail that would be counter-intuitive to the average football viewer: Zinedine Zidane was France’s best defender. Specifically, he said the following: “He’s France’s best defender. Thanks to him France are never disorganized. He asks for it, he gets it, he passes it, he asks for it again, he gets it again and he passes it again. And, as he does it, France become organized. I repeat: France’s best defender. He doesn’t do anything superfluous. Not even when he celebrates a goal. Of the 10 times that he intervenes, seven will be with one touch.”
Although Pep wrote this 15 years ago, it was clear during the first match of the season against Tottenham what he meant by that. In Pep’s eyes, the organization of the team in build up with the ball is the best defense. Moving the ball with sharp passing keeps the other team from not only gaining possession, but it also keeps them from winning the ball in positions to spring a counter-attack. Given from what happened against Nuno’s Spurs, it’s clear to see what Pep was talking about. It has been a frequent theme over the last couple of seasons that City’s inability to create chances has sometimes been coupled with being vulnerable on the counter-attack. This isn’t exactly a coincidence. Like Pep discussed when writing about Zidane, City’s build up play yesterday was lackluster. This could be due to multiple factors, such as not having a fully fit squad and many players not even having a full week of training prior to the match. But the result on the pitch clearly showed that City lacked sharpness in their build-up, and that resulted in being left vulnerable on the counter attack.
Tottenham is set up under their new coach, Nuno Espirito Santo, to defend and counter-attack with pace. This was evident during the many times that City played Wolves in the past couple of years, where Nuno used to coach. Tactically, their plan is not exactly to “park the bus” and defend on a low block to let teams come after them. Rather, their strategy is to win the ball in areas which make it easier to launch counter-attacks. Those areas are generally in midfield or against the fullbacks, and that is where the most pressure is applied.
Throughout much of the match, City looked to play down the left hand side and Spurs closed Mendy down often into trying to force him to make a mistake. He was probably the least reliable player on the ball, so it was smart on Spurs’ part to try to force him into mistakes and use it on the counter-attack.
As seen above, the first time this happened was in the 8th minute, in which he was pressured, made a sloppy pass, and was dispossessed when he tried to recover. Spurs were able to launch a counter-attack but City defenders did well enough to get back to avoid any real danger.
The next time this happened, you can see below the intense pressure put on on Jack Grealish. Grealish did well enough to avoid the Spurs defenders and knock it back to Mendy, although it put him in a tough position. Mendy ended up making another poor passes only to get intercepted and launch another counter-attack leading to a shot.
The next time this happened was off of a couple of headers, and another misplaced pass by Mendy. You can see how hard Spurs work to take the ball in the midfield go off running with it. If not for a heavy pass by Lucas, Bergwijn would have found himself one-on-one with Ederson with a good chance at goal.
This next time was not an errant pass from Mendy, but rather poor decision-making from Sterling which got him into trouble. Rather than laying the ball off to an open Gundogan in the middle of the pitch or to Mendy out wide, he attempted to dribble through a packed Spurs defense. Sterling did not keep the ball moving to make the extra pass and, as a result, Spurs were able to dispossess him and find a streaking Lucas in space.
Spurs have been set up by their coach to counter-attack, and no team will be able to completely stop every single time that they want to break. However, against a team waiting for every opportunity to take advantage of misplaced passes and poor build up, it is extremely imperative to not allow more counter-attacks than are necessary. It is natural to think that allowing more counter-attacks is a result of faulty defending, when in fact it can be poor and sloppy attacking. The attacks that end up in the box and miss the final pass or final ball can be frustrating, but much of the time do not leave themselves open to counters. What may frustrate Pep Guardiola more than anything, however, will be the lack of sharpness leading up to the final moves.
When Pep analyzed Zidane, he called Zizou France’s best defender by his ability to keep the ball moving. In City’s game against Spurs, their worst defense was not the actual defending, but rather the inability to effectively build up and move the ball around the pitch.