If a Pep Guardiola side sitting in fifth place with over half the season gone isn’t a strange enough sight, what’s just as curious is how oddly passive he has been. Guardiola apparently locks himself away in a room for hours before games trying to figure out how to beat his next opponents, which has led to some of his more inventive systems and formations, but there hasn’t been a great deal of that during his time at City.
Perhaps that’s because he recognises that this squad is not quite good enough to cope with such dramatic shifts in approach, perhaps he’s convinced that Plan A will come good at some point: whatever the reason, seeing him stare blankly at the turf during the 4-0 defeat to Everton last weekend was as good a sign as any that he is struggling. In five games against the rest of the top six, City have won two and lost three, and that’s a record that needs to improve fairly quickly if City are to even finish in the top four, never mind challenge for the title.
Could some inventive Guardiola thinking spark that?
In some respects, Manchester City have been a little unlucky when it comes to Tottenham. They were met with perhaps Spurs’ best performance under Mauricio Pochettino in the loss at White Hart Lane earlier in the season, and now in the return game their opponents have perhaps surpassed that showing in their past two league games.
In breaking Chelsea’s winning run and absolutely eviscerating West Brom last time out, Pochettino’s men have hit peak form, but the question is whether they can sustain it. They were similarly terrific in spells last season but eventually came apart at the seams, their title challenge falling away in the latter weeks of the campaign: given the strength of challengers this term, they will need to keep similar levels for the majority of the coming months.
Who will Guardiola pick in defence?
At the moment, the defensive options available to Guardiola don’t represent as much a mouthwatering choice of talents, so much as someone asking the manager whether he’d prefer to be punched in the face or kicked in the crotch. There are currently no defenders in the Manchester City squad who inspire confidence, either through current form, general ability or fitness. That Guardiola has been forced to make Nicolas Otamendi a virtual automatic selection tells you all you need to know about the parlous state of City’s defence.
Claudio Bravo has received most of the criticism in recent weeks, but the poor guy hasn’t had much by way of protection. It’s a surprise that City haven’t at least tried to strengthen their backline in the transfer market, but for now Guardiola must muddle through with the “least bad” combination possible.
Raheem Sterling can be a pretty frustrating player. The easy assessment would be that he is a confidence player, one who can be brilliant when his spirits are up, but a near-passenger when not. Another theory might be that it’s more about how clear his thinking is that determines his form: arguably his greatest strength is that he can sometimes see ways around situations that others don’t, taking often unorthodox approaches that leave defences flummoxed.
At the moment, that clear thinking doesn’t appear to be present. Right now, Sterling looks an uncertain player who is frequently hesitant rather than decisive. City’s big problem isn’t necessarily at the attacking end of the pitch anyway, but they undoubtedly look a much more threatening outfit when Sterling is on form. If he has a clear mind at the Etihad on Saturday, it could be key to City’s chances.
Tottenham’s switch to three at the back was one of those tactical decisions that made you think, ‘Well, why didn’t we think of this before?’ They have the perfect players for it, particularly with the best two attacking full-backs in the Premier League in Danny Rose and Kyle Walker making perfect wing-backs, and it also seems to have got the best from Dele Alli. In some respects it was a system introduced to cope without the running and natural width of Erik Lamela, missing since October, but it has worked with some gusto.
However, it will be interesting to see if Pochettino persists with it against City, given Jan Vertonghen’s injury. They do have alternatives at the back — Kevin Wimmer, Cameron Carter-Vickers, even Ben Davies, who plays on the left of a three for Wales — but against City Pochettino might conclude it’s best to revert to a flat four, rather than plug gaps with good, but undoubtedly lower-quality replacements.