Manchester City look like runaway title winners. They won the Manchester Derby over their likeliest title rival. That victory extended their first division record win streak. Then by defeating Swansea City 4-0, Pep Guardiola’s side expanded their goal difference to plus-41, well over two goals per match better than their league opponents. That pace would break the Premier League goal difference record by over 20 goals.
At this point, the question is not whether Manchester City will fall back into a title race but whether they’ll fall back to earth at all. This weekend it will be Tottenham Hotspur looking to test City. While the record numbers listed above suggest Spurs will be severe underdogs, the last two matches offered a few hints of the best ways to approach City. In particular, Manchester United managed to slow down City’s usually overwhelming forward progress in attack, and were done in instead by a pair of set play goals.
Against United, David Silva and Kevin De Bruyne turned their weakest combined ball progression numbers of the season. Neither prised open the United defense as easily as both regularly have against other opponents.
Their combined per 90 ball progression rating of 9.5 marked the only time this season the two have combined for under a 15 rating. This season De Bruyne and Silva have both averaged over 6.5 progressive passes and runs per 90, defined as passes or runs which progress the ball 10-15 yards beyond its further point of progress in the move in the attacking half. Among players with over 1000 minutes played, the City midfield pair are first and second in the league. But against United, Silva and De Bruyne managed to complete only six such passes, half their normal combined rate.
Although United did not come away with the points, or the better chances, Jose Mourinho successfully stymied the twin engines of City’s attack. Nemanja Matic, Ander Herrera and Jesse Lingard clogged the center and pressured Silva and De Bruyne, limiting the amount of open play penetration the City could achieve. The combination of defensive pressure on the ball and numbers behind it is not easy to achieve, but it was effective here.
For Tottenham this suggests one possible way forward. Toby Alderweireld’s Injury and Davinson Sanchez’s suspension have forced Spurs to play a back four after earlier success in a back three. They will need to use their midfield to prevent De Bruyne and Silva from picking passes into the spaces between the four deepest defenders. Tottenham this season have shown occasional willingness to concede space, drop midfielders into a deeper block and play on the counter—primarily in the Champions League against Real Madrid and Borussia Dortmund. Such an approach against City would be to invite disaster, but it is possible Spurs could manage to find the balance that United did. It would depend on the pressing of Mousa Dembele and likely require Christian Eriksen and Dele Alli to be deployed in more defensive roles, so the team could pressure Silva and De Bruyne without leaving too much space behind for them to pass into.
Of course, when Manchester City found midfield inhospitable during the Derby, they still created a pair of goals from set pieces. The problem with facing a great team is they might beat you anyway even if you win a few tactical battles.
Still, the success of United at slowing down City’s open play attack by stifling De Bruyne and Silva suggests this can be accomplished. Both have already started two matches this week and De Bruyne’s workload—only one missed start between the Premier and Champions Leagues—is approaching the inhumane. If Tottenham are to have a chance in this match, it most likely begins with a defensive, low-block structure and the application of tactics reminiscent of Jose Mourinho.