As Vincent Kompany stabbed the ball home for the final score last night, Spurs fans near and far looked upon the scene with a mix of anger and grief. And the numbers were bleak, indeed: Five to One. An 11-1 scoreline on aggregate. Surely this signaled that the honeymoon period was over for new head coach Tim Sherwood. Perhaps an inevitable return to reality after the dizzying heights of the run which saw us take 13 out of a possible 15 points in the league. But were the numbers really that bad? Was the margin of victory and the deficit of defeat really as large as advertised? Let’s take a closer look at the game.
The 1-5 scoreline is typically a brutal one in football, nothing in it indicating anything less that complete domination of the opponent. However, it is also only a numerical indicator of the relative dominance of a particular side, in a particular situation they were faced with, over the course of ninety minutes. Obviously, there was one key decision that unquestionably changed the nature of this game for the worse though: the Danny Rose red card. It reduced Spurs from eleven to ten men and left them with fewer markers and pressers to close down the Man City attack, which quickly flourished in the new-found spaces. The decision was exceedingly poor though: Danny Rose certainly went for the ball first, and certainly got ball first in the tackle. As such Sherwood cannot be blamed for the magnitude of the final scoreline. The situation which gave rise to such a beating then, lies solely at the hands of the linesman, one Scott Ledger.
Up to that point in time, it had been a cagey one-nil contest in which the scoreline correctly reflected the balance of play in the game: Spurs had been out-possessed 57% to 43%, were out-passed 220 to 135, and had been out-shot by a margin of over 6 to 1. If anything, Spurs were lucky to have only conceded only one goal. Or perhaps luck in this case was simply the brilliant vigilance of Hugo Lloris. Either way, with City having scored first, owning the statistical balance of play, and acknowledging the rightly disallowed Dawson goal, it would be delusional to suggest that Spurs ought to have been anything but behind on the scoreline up to the red card. After that, a closely contested affair quickly turned into an attacking exhibition. City, having been coached into excellent offensive play and chance creation, took the opportunity with aplomb and promptly ran Spurs down, notching two goals in short succession.
Despite the fact that the heavy defeat cannot be pinned solely on Sherwood, is it really fair to think that the game could have had a different outcome from a points perspective? In my estimation, had the game continued without a red card, we would be looking at a 2-1 or 3-1 Spurs loss. Allow me to explain. Spurs didn’t score first, and certainly did not look likely to score second. It we had, it would have been clearly against the run of play and undeserved from a statistical perspective. Man City actually had less shots on target in the second half than the first (11 vs. 13) although they converted them at a higher rate (4/11 vs. 1/13). This suggests that although the number of chances didn’t change significantly, the quality of the finishing was much higher. That they were able to be more choosy with their offensive play is generally supported by the increase in possession between the halves (57% vs. 63%), the increase in completed passes between the halves (220 vs. 352), and the decrease in total possession spent in City’s final third between the halves (14.5% vs. 9%). The main point of this being, City’s statistical performance in the two halves was not significantly skewed by the red card, which makes it difficult to say that the game was solely lost to a bad call. All things considered, it seems extremely unlikely that Spurs would have been able to muster anything more than a square defeat. What can we take away from the football that was played before the red card though?
Let’s quickly look back again at the half-time stats again: out-possessed 57% to 43%, out-passed 220 to 135, and out-shot by a margin of over six to one for a total of 13 to 2, respectively: City clearly controlled the game better in the first half, were able to play more attacking football than Spurs, and created vastly more chances than Spurs. Looking at the goal scored, we can also clearly see how City were able to exploit Tim Sherwood’s 4-4-1-1 system: deep build-up play between Dzeko, Touré, Kompany, and Clichy was able to draw Eriksen forward to press, keep Spurs wingers and full-backs wide, and draw Spurs’ central midfield line forward to support the pressing Eriksen. At the same time, a David Silva tracked by Michael Dawson floated dangerously left to right across Spurs’ back four. As Dzeko passed the ball to Yaya Touré, he broke forward, causing Dawson to quit tracking Silva and pick him up instead. With Silva now out right and seated comfortably between Spurs’ midfield and back four, Clichy was able to deliver him a long, direct, first-time pass that completely bypassed Spurs’ midfield of Dembélé and Bentaleb. Chiriches, now the last man between Silva and an open look on goal, was forced to cover the angle, back pedal and wait for help. With Aguero speeding inside of Dawson, and Jesus Navas pinning Danny Rose down out wide, Chiriches was helpless as Silva weighted a perfect pass to Aguero to play him in for a sublime, delicate, yet completely measured and controlled goal. It was a picture perfect execution of what surely were deliberate tactical objectives before the match.
While we should laud Pellegrini for being able to convey the weaknesses in Sherwood’s tactical system to his players, and to get them to execute, we should also recognize that Tim’s system was dismantled by just what you would expect a tactically astute coach to do: solve the problem in front of them. In the context of 4-4-1-1, that job is to draw the already thin midfield forward and then play through it or around it, exploiting the space between the midfield and the back four. That Sherwood was unable to anticipate this and parry in turn, changing formations to something more compact and defensively stalwart through midfield, or, was unwilling to change his tactics, favoring a “damn the torpedoes, full steam ahead!” approach, is certainly cause for alarm to Tottenham supporters. While such headstrong tactical approaches may help Tottenham overcome lesser sides by daring to be beaten with quality, Man City are certainly known to possess such quality in abundance. In such a context it makes the tactical decisions employed here seem more motivated by some kind of defiant vaingloriousness than any realistic assessment of the opposition. This, I fear, is a serious question mark for Sherwood, for Tottenham’s top four ambitions will be tough to accomplish unless an even share of points can be gotten from fellow top four teams.
Though we cannot speculate on what kinds of tactical changes exactly Sherwood might have employed had the red card never happened, we can reasonably infer from past precedence that they wouldn’t have entailed any sort of a radical tactical reshuffling. The combination of the first half statistical dominance and the fact of City scoring first can reasonably lead us to conclude that City were going to dominate at least the stats regardless of the red card, or the actual number of goals scored. The tactical breakdown of the pivotal first goal evidences a picture perfect dismantling of a well-known weakness in a well-known system. The context of the match and strength of the opposition suggested that a predictable approach was going to be punished, and indeed such a punishment was meted out in the end.
Though the game does not end Tottenham’s top four ambitions this season, it does greatly call into question to ability of Head Coach Tim Sherwood. Can he employ tactics capable of beating other top sides? If he is merely waiting for the side to “click”, how long can Tottenham be reasonably expected to wait and take such a gamble? If Sherwood is unwilling to change his tactics in big games, it is very likely that, by his overwhelming predictability, he will be the architect of future defeat however. Following the cup loss to Arsenal and the line-up against Man City, it would behoove him to show a willingness to significantly change his tactical approach in big game situations. If not, Tottenham may have to look elsewhere to achieve their top four ambitions.