Tottenham saw little of the ball in Saturdays 3-2 win at the Etihad, but Pep Guardiola had no answer to the visitors counterattacking game plan

When Manchester City beat Chelsea 1-0 just six weeks ago, the title race was over.

Thomas Tuchel’s side fell 13 points behind the league leaders while Liverpool, in third, were 14 points off the pace with two games in hand.

Only the most blindly optimistic of Liverpool supporters would have thought it possible to catch Pep Guardiola.

But Tottenham Hotspur’s 3-2 victory at the Etihad has put Liverpool in control of their own destiny. Win every game up to and including their crunch match at Man City in mid-April and Jurgen Klopp’s side will be top of the table.

That might be a big ask, but it is a crucial psychological shift all the same: Liverpool no longer have to rely on Man City slipping up.

For getting a title race back, we have to thank Southampton and Tottenham, responsible for 10 of the 15 points Man City have dropped this season between them.

And while Ralph Hasenuhuttl has previously given us a tactical template to follow – surround Rodri to prevent Man City from building into the final third – Antonio Conte used a wholly different approach.

It is one that others could learn from and, with some tricky games up ahead for Man City, it is a tactical strategy that may just give Liverpool an edge in the title race…

The basic idea when Spurs were off the ball was disarmingly simple.

In a flat 5-4-1 formation, Conte had no inferiority complex here and was happy to hold a mere 28 per cent possession as his team sat very deep and very narrow to frustrate the hosts.

Banking on being able to slow Man City right down, reducing them to tame possession far from the penalty area or to crosses Spurs could clear away, they diligently stood in a compact blockade – shuffling across as a unit and rarely leaving the width of the penalty box.

That narrowness was just as important as the depth, because it meant the half-spaces – the area between centre-back and full-back, in which Guardiola chiefly coaches his players to create – were permanently crowded with bodies.

Either a wing-back or outside centre-back could step up to join the central midfielder or winger, suffocating Raheem Sterling and Bernardo Silva.

There were moments, particularly in the first half, when City were dangerous down their left side, largely because Rodrigo Bentancur was a lone wolf pressing – and therefore leaving base camp – and because Dejan Kulusevski and Emerson Royal are Tottenham’s weakest defenders.

However, by and large, Spurs could get bodies around the ball, happily conceding ground and never pressurising a City player until they entered the final third.

From a City perspective, the problem was the same as against Southampton: without a centre forward making clever runs in the penalty area, there was simply nobody to hit.

Kevin de Bruyne got lost, hovering out to the right and surrounded by Spurs defenders (per Fbref, he recorded 0.0 xG and 0.0 xGA for only the third time this season), while Phil Foden could not get into the game and caused little damage dropping off the front.

Everybody knows the best way to hurt Manchester City is to launch direct counterattacks that try to get behind their high back-line.

However, almost nobody achieves these, largely because City’s press after they lose possession rushes the other team into scrambling the ball clear – and thus the chance of breaking quickly disappears.

Spurs, however, were a constant threat thanks to the precision of their three-point moves, which – as Harry Kane said in his post-game interview – had been devised and practised in training throughout the week until the players did not have to think or look before acting.

Consequently, they got the passes away before City had a chance to press, and the opening goal was the best example of a trick repeated over and over.

Recognising Rodri is left alone at the base of midfield as the two eights roam forward (a weak point throughout the season for City), Conte instructed Kane to drop into the gaps around the Spanish midfielder.

Kane’s team-mates would then look to feed him the ball at every opportunity, which itself was a trigger for Kulusevski and Heung-Min Son to start their runs in behind.

This forced City to scramble backwards, destabilising their shape and providing Spurs with multiple opportunities – starting with that opening goal in the fourth minute.

Conte’s side repeated the same move throughout the game and City had no answer. Guardiola was unwilling to sit Gundogan deeper alongside Rodri to assist with Kane – a mistake for which he paid dearly.

Upcoming opponents who can repeat the model

Although simple in theory, not many teams have the defensive coaching of a Conte or a nine/ten like Kane.

Next opponents Everton are unlikely to accept such a low block under Frank Lampard and look worryingly open at the back, too, making that game almost certain to be an easy win for Man City. In fact, most of City’s games before Liverpool visit should be easy victories.

But the home match against Manchester United could follow a similar pattern to last Saturday’s defeat.

With Jadon Sancho and Marcus Rashford making the quick runs in behind, and Cristiano Ronaldo coming short to overwhelm Rodri, it is possible Ralf Rangnick can copy this part of the Conte approach.

Further down the line, Wolves’ excellent defensive resilience and willingness to sit deep in ‘Big Six’ matches, coupled with the relationship between the creative Raul Jimenez and the pacey Daniel Podence, offers Bruno Lage’s team a glimmer of hope in City’s first game after the six-pointer against Liverpool.

West Ham, in the penultimate game of the season, also have the hunched defensive shape and the forward players – Michail Antonio and Jarrod Bowen – to cause problems, with Pablo Fornals able to play the Kane role by dropping into the ten position.

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