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Shane Keegan's Tactics Board: Espirito Santo's Spurs capitalise on Pep’s tactical inflexibility

The former Dundalk analyst will be breaking down the weekend’s big Premier League game this season.


HAVING MANAGED A number of clubs in the League of Ireland, Shane Keegan is one of the country’s top coaches.

For the 2021/22 season, The42 is introducing a new series that will provide an additional layer of quality analysis when it comes to our Premier League coverage.

On Mondays, the former Dundalk analyst will focus on a key fixture and break the 90 minutes down tactically in order to give readers a better understanding of what they watched over the weekend.

First up, he looks at Tottenham’s 1-0 win over defending champions Manchester City. 

spbritain-london-football-premier-league-tottenham-hotspur-vs-manchester-city The Spurs players celebrate Heung-min Son's winner. Source: Xinhua News Agency/PA Images

The Premier League fixture computer must have had a wry smile when it spat out the ‘Harry Kane Derby’ as an opening weekend fixture.

But who would miss the England captain more, Tottenham or Manchester City?

Starting line-ups

The big news from the Spurs team sheet centred around who wasn’t playing rather than who was. Nuno Espirito Santo opted to go without Kane, leaving the want away striker out of the match day squad completely.

That decision meant the repositioning of Heung-min Son to centre forward. Few players in world football would be capable of filling the boots of Kane, yet there seemed a genuine sense of excitement among Spurs fans at seeing how the high energy South Korean would fare in a position that he would probably say is his best.

The other starters of interest in the Spurs side were young players Japhet Tanganga, chosen ahead of Ireland’s Matt Doherty at right back, and Oliver Skipp, who was returning to the club after an impressive season on loan at Norwich City.

Pep Guardiola wasted no time in throwing new £100million (€117m) signing Jack Grealish into his starting line-up. He was selected on the left of a centre midfield three, which would see him team up with Benjamin Mendy and Raheem Sterling down that flank.

Still without the new centre forward he craves, Guardiola went with Ferran Torres up top while Kevin De Bruyne started the game on a Manchester City bench that had cost the club £347m (€408m).

Tottenham’s narrow two banks of three sets up numerous counter-attacking opportunities

As a first test of new Tottenham manager Espirito Santos’s tactical acumen, he couldn’t have asked for a more difficult challenge than a duel with Guardiola.

His decision in terms of how Spurs would defend from the front was both different and brave. Knowing that Guardiola positions his full-backs in much narrower positions than other teams when in possession, Tottenham countered by playing with an extremely narrow front three themselves.

It was not unusual to see the Lucas Moura, Son and Bergwijn share the same lateral distance as the two Manchester City centre-backs, Nathan Ake and Ruben Dias, leaving full-backs Joao Cancelo and Mendy free just outside them.

Even more interestingly, when the City full-backs then received the ball, it was Tottenham’s outside centre midfielders, Pierre-Emile Hojbjerg and Dele Alli, who then went to press them, rather than expecting the wide attackers to get across.

This approach required a lot of cohesion and communication as it had the knock-on effect of Tottenham then requiring either holding midfielder Skipp, who had an excellent game, getting across to the City attacking midfielder who was now free or else one of the centre backs stepping forward onto them.

Time and again Tottenham got this approach right. In the images below we can see the best example of it. The first picture shows the narrowness of the Tottenham front three. Behind them, we can also see Hojbjerg check over his shoulder to make sure Jack Grealish, who continuously tried to find space in the pocket behind him, was being picked up by his centre back.

Another key to the success of this tactic was intelligence of the angle of the approach by Hojbjerg, and Alli when required, in terms of closing off the passing lane into the advanced City midfielders as they approached the full-backs.

Picture 1.1

Hojbjerg’s effective press allows him to take the ball off Mendy and picture two shows the scenario that City then found themselves in. With Tottenham’s front three all very quick, they were perfectly equipped to launch instant dynamic counter attacks at every opportunity.


Picture three shows Ake ending up in a one v one scenario with Son on the edge of his box. Surprisingly Son chose not to run at the City defender on this occasion, turning back and playing a safe pass backwards and the counter attack petered out.


Later in the game, following yet another counter-attack, Son wouldn’t make the same mistake.

Tanganga v Sterling and Grealish

Espirito Santos’s selection of Tanganga ahead of Doherty initially seemed somewhat of a surprise. Doherty’s move to Tottenham had come on the back of some very impressive seasons for Wolves under the guidance of the Portuguese manager.

But the new man in charge decided that as an out and out right-back, and playing against a team who were going to dominate possession, Tanganga was a better bet.

Tottenham’s approach to pressing centrally married with Guardiola’s use of touchline hugging wide attackers meant that the young full-back was always going to be in for a busy afternoon.

In the first 33 minutes of the game, Tanganga found himself in one v one scenarios on no less than six occasions, three times against his direct opponent Sterling and three times against Grealish, who was also continually wandered into his zone.

The outcomes read as follows – two dispossessions of Sterling and one foul on him, two
dispossessions of Grealish and one foul on him.

While the two fouls had him walking a bit of a tightrope in terms of avoiding an early booking, there can be no doubt that his aggressive approach was proving extremely effective.

In the 34th minute of the game though, Sterling received a pass inside the 18-yard box for the first time. Tanganga now had to be far more careful in his approach to the fast-footed trickster.

To his credit, he still managed to get tight and got a foot to Sterling’s attempted cross but it still found its destination, setting up Riyad Mahrez for City’s best chance of the game, but the Algerian somehow steered his effort wide.

That a scenario such as this occurred so rarely summarises the difference in the last 12 months between the Sterling we have seen under Guardiola and the Sterling we saw for England under Southgate at Euro 2020.

He now operates best as an inside forward, driving into the box within his first couple of touches when receiving the ball, and this is what we saw him do so successfully during the summer for England.

But in Guardiola’s set up, he receives the ball in a very different position, as the StatsZone map below shows. Out wide Tanganga could press aggressively, using the sideline as an extra defender and knowing that a free given away in that area wasn’t the worst outcome.

Having continued to win the majority of his duels with both players all afternoon, he was eventually substituted to a standing ovation in the 83 rd minute.

Picture 2


This was a big win for Espirito Santos. To deliver a result with such an impressive tactical display will get him instant buy-in from the Tottenham supporters, and more importantly the players.

In terms of shape and approach it was game plan very much designed for the opposition at hand. Let them have the ball, press effectively at the right time, then spring a devastating counterattack. It would almost remind you of another Portuguese manager’s methods when he was in his prime.

Guardiola’s tactical inflexibility in the game was a surprise. Surely giving his full-backs instructions to change their positioning and shake things up by going high and wide would have been at least worth a look?

His first substitution, bringing in Gabriel Jesus for Sterling in the left-wing position had such little impact that he had to quickly undo it by making another change just a few minutes later, with De Bruyne coming on and Grealish shifting left.

Jesus moved into his more natural centre forward position but like Torres before him had little real impact proving how much they need a new man in that role.

Has anybody got a number for Daniel Levy?

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