Dean Smith declared that Aston Villa’s 4-1 loss to Leicester was their biggest setback of the season.

Jamie Vardy scored a brace either side of goals from Kelechi Iheanacho and Jonny Evans to condemn the hosts to defeat, despite Jack Grealish’s goal.

Smith was frustrated with the way they allowed the game to open up – claiming Leicester didn’t outclass them tactically.

“We were too open and they were clinical,” he admitted to Match of the Day. “It became a basketball game and they were more clinical than we were.

“The lads don’t give up, they kept going. Leicester are a good team, they have confidence but we felt we could have a go.

“There wasn’t much tactics involved, Vardy has gone over the top a couple of times and scored. We have a lot of lessons, we are still growing.

“That is the biggest kick in the teeth and set back we have had.”

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Posted in EPL, FA Premier League

Jack Grealish was the best player on the pitch when Aston Villa drew 2-2 at Old Trafford last weekend. No-one else on either side could have scored that beautiful goal; very few players in the Premier League could have. Reports of his current buyout clause range from £30million to £70million. But just how much is Grealish worth?

As he picked the ball up on the left of the area, he already knew what he was going to do. His opponent Andreas Pereira had no idea. Earlier in the game – in a similar position – Grealish went to the byline and pulled the ball back with his left foot and on another occasion played a slide rule pass to his overlapping fullback.

A cunningly laid trap or fateful coincidence? What came before made little difference to the majesty of the goal Grealish was about to score, but was vital in creating the doubt that enabled him to do so.

The Villa midfielder didn’t look at the ball until the final point of contact – the whipped shot into the postage stamp located at the corner of post and bar. Before then he took three almost imperceptible touches, focusing his gaze not on the ball but avidly on Pereira’s feet, knowing the Brazilian would make the first move. And at the merest hint of motion from the midfielder towards the byline, Grealish made his own move, cutting in on his right foot to score one of the memorable Old Trafford goals, in front of the Stretford End.

Jack the lad – revitalised and much improved – is back.

First impressions are hard to shake, particularly when they are entrenched through a series of tabloid news stories that support the initial suspicion. But don’t be fooled by the slicked back hair, fake tan and low-slung socks that remain: this is a very different Grealish to the one relegated from the Premier League in 2016.

He’s still the cocky, brash, well-preened Brummie icon. But now, instead of using his sculpted calves to strut the length of Broad Street, he’s using them to glide past defenders and put them on their arses, like a Chris Waddle of old or a George Best of older.

Ole Gunnar Solskjaer was predictably asked about rumours linking the 24-year-old with a move to United post-game and gave the stock manager response of not being able to “talk too much about other teams’ players”, while simultaneously eulogising over him. Pep Guardiola has described him as “exceptional”, while everyone else remains bemused by his exclusion from the latest England squads. Speculation linking him with a move away will roll on in line with the exponential improvement in the maturity and calibre of his performances.

Villa use him in a roaming role, starting from the left. It’s not his most effective position or the one he wants to be playing, but one that utilises his talents in the way that serves Dean Smith’s side best: a team that lacks creativity needs their most inventive asset as close to goal as possible. But despite the position he plays for Villa, his aesthetics and the perception they’ve created, he’s much less a show pony than a conductor.

He’s not quite a Jorginho or Fabinho, but still the player capable of controlling the speed and direction of the football his team plays. A Big Six side would likely use him as a number eight, a position from which he could use his dribbling expertise to build attacks from deep and not necessarily deliver the final ball, but more often the pass before that killer blow.

To Villa, the question of how much Grealish is worth and how much Premier League football is worth are one and the same. With him they sit 15th in the table, one point above the relegation zone. Without his three goals and four assists – which if anything belittles the worth of his all-round game – they would be level on points with Norwich in 19th.

Letting him go in January would be tantamount to football treason. He’s more Villa than Harry Kane is Spurs or Trent Alexander-Arnold is Liverpool. Grealish is the lifeblood of his football club, and he – along with the fans – will fear what would happen should he up sticks and follow the lure of Champions League football – where his talents belong.

Tottenham have come closest to luring Grealish away, with the man himself admitting his head had been turned in the summer of 2018 with an offer on the table from Spurs. But when the north London side were unwilling to increase their £25million offer to £32million, the deal fell through and Grealish remained at his boyhood club.

If Villa now offered Grealish to any club with the means to spend £32million on the Birmingham-born midfielder, he’d be gone before you could say “Peaky Blinders”. He’s a ready-made leader with extraordinary talent, now without the can he do it in the Premier League? caveat or previously lingering doubts over his commitment to his profession. This is a footballer capable of more, but understandably tied to the club and community that have given him so much. He won’t be there forever, Villans, so just enjoy him while you can.

Oh sorry, what’s he worth? F*** knows…a lot.

Will Ford

 

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Chris Sutton thinks that Aston Villa midfielder Jack Grealish would be good signing for Arsenal after his good start to the Premier League season.

Grealish has three goals and four assists in 12 Premier League starts this campaign, including a wonderful strike in Villa’s 2-2 draw against Manchester United at the weekend.

And Sutton thinks the top teams in the Premier League will be sitting up and taking notice of his start to the season with speculation now linking him with United.

“Look, I think people will be scrutinising him closely now,” Sutton told the Metro.

“Last season he was very good in the Championship. I actually think the penny has dropped with him where a couple of seasons ago it was fair to say he was ‘Jack the Lad’ as such.

“You know, he’s captain of Villa now, he’s knuckled down as such. There was always that question mark over him where he was very, very talented on the ball but did he have the application and the work rate?

“He’s shown that this season and I think – obviously it was a brilliant goal the other day at United – eyes were being opened anyway with him and I do think that it’s one of those where if he carries on like he is and does it for a longer period then it’s only a matter of time because he’s always had the talent. Now we’re seeing the application week in week out.

“Which of the top-six teams would he fit into? I suppose it’s a difficult one when you think of the players City have at their disposal, the Silvas, De Bruyne… Arsenal would be the one where you think there’s a vacancy. Tottenham, Dele Alli seems to be having a resurgence.

“I think in many respects with Grealish he just needs to do it for a bit longer and, of course, Gareth Southgate must be watching him and scrutinising him closely. The disadvantage which he has on the likes of James Maddison is that James Maddison has done it for a longer period of time in the Premier League but there’s nothing you can do except sort of say with Grealish is praise him this season.”

 

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Aston Villa manager Dean Smith believes John Terry’s mentality as a “serial winner” with Chelsea is having a galvanising effect on his players.

Terry spent 20 years at Chelsea before joining Villa, initially as a player in 2017 for a season before switching to coaching, helping the club return to the Premier League under Smith.

During a glorious career with the Blues, Terry won the Champions League, Europa League, five Premier League titles, five FA Cups and the League Cup three times.

For the first time since leaving Chelsea, Terry returns to Stamford Bridge on Wednesday night on the opposing side, plotting to help Villa boss Smith as his assistant head coach.

“He’ll be excited for it,” said Smith. “He always said he would never go back and play against them, and I’m certainly not going to pick him!

“I’m sure he will get an unbelievable reception from their supporters, and rightly so, after the playing career he had at that football club, and his ties he has.

“He’ll be looking forward to going back, and I’m sure it will be a little bit different for him, but his mind has been solely on helping myself and the rest of my coaching team to try and beat the club he loves.”

Smith believes Terry has had a significant impact with Villa during his time at the club to date.

“He’s very important and I love working with him,” said Smith. “He’s brought something different to our coaching set-up, with his knowledge, his experiences.

“He’s lifted the Premier League title enough times, as well as the FA Cup and the League Cup. He was a serial winner for Chelsea, so he knows how to win things and that mentality can rub off on people.

“I also feel he’s come into his own with us getting promoted into the Premier League. He’s getting better and better as a coach.

“I’ve championed him for a long time, saying he will eventually be a top manager. At the moment he’s very keen to keep learning and making a major contribution to Aston Villa, certainly on the coaching pitches.”

 

 

Smith is naturally hoping Terry will continue to learn for as long as possible before making the inevitable move into management.

“We’ve a good enough and an open enough relationship for him to come to me at any time,” added Smith.

“I don’t expect it in the meantime because he’s enjoying the job so much at the moment, and the important thing is he feels he’s still learning as well.

“He has a thirst for learning, a real growth mindset, which I really like to see in people. He is always asking me questions about why I make certain decisions.”

Smith will be without winger Anwar El Ghazi for the game at Chelsea due to a knee injury sustained in Sunday’s 2-2 draw at Manchester United but midfielder Jota returns after a two-month absence following hernia surgery.

 

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As ever, this represents our estimation of Gareth Southgate’s thoughts. And we feel like we know him well. Numbers in brackets pertain to this ladder from October…

 

1 (2) Harry Kane
Twelve goals and five assists in eight qualifying games. His goal against Kosovo saw him become the first England player to score in every game of a qualifying campaign and it also took him back to the top of this ladder, mostly because he has never grabbed somebody by the throat in a canteen. Or at least he has never been caught grabbing somebody by the throat in a canteen.

 

2 (1) Raheem Sterling
Oh you daft bugger. There is no defending that. He is still England’s second-best source of goals and best source of running really fast and scaring the sh*t out of full-backs, mind.

 

3 (5) Harry Maguire
The only player to feature in all 720 minutes of European qualifying. And yet he still looks about half a second from dropping a bo**ock and a full second slower than most strikers he faces.

 

4 (4) Jordan Pickford
His place is safer than his hands.

 

5 (6) Marcus Rashford
Three goals in his last three England games as part of a really encouraging return to form. We would be astonished if Rashford is not in every England squad for which he is fit until the end of the next decade at least…

 

6 (3) Jordan Henderson
Two victories in his absence have damaged his cause a little, but it still feels like Henderson + 2 in that central midfield.

 

7 (7) Trent Alexander-Arnold
Remarkably, that’s the first time he has started back-to-back England games. Even more remarkably, ‘he’s yet to produce a performance for his country which doesn’t look like this one did – distracted, inaccurate, lacking in the locked-in intensity which seems as standard at Liverpool’ (and I absolutely agree with Seb Stafford-Bloor).

 

8 (10) Ben Chilwell
Perhaps those three assists against Montenegro – and solid defensive performance against Kosovo – will put an end to Gareth Southgate’s lingering and needless flirtation with Danny Rose. Chilwell is and should remain England’s first-choice left-back.

 

9 (18) Harry Winks
Six England caps, six England wins. And a goal and a man-of-the-match performance against Kosovo. It might well be Henderson, Winks + 1 with Declan Rice hopefully sidelined until he learns some of the basics of defensive midfield play.

 

10 (13) John Stones
‘Needs to play football. Absolutely needs to play football,’ is what I wrote last month. Now back in the Manchester City side and an England recall duly followed. 

 

11 (16) Nick Pope
Confirmation that he is England’s No. 2. And a clean sheet is lovely.

 

12 (17) Joe Gomez
What has become very clear is that Southgate has picked his four centre-halves and Gomez is on that list despite not playing a great deal of Premier League football. Luckily for him, Liverpool have an awful lot of games coming up. He might still be the big man.

 

13 (8) Jadon Sancho
His form has dipped for Borussia Dortmund
and he failed to pad his stats against Montenegro; just one assist from 90 minutes on the wing is not a compelling return from a 7-0 victory. Right now, he has slipped some way behind Rashford.

 

14 (15) Tyrone Mings
And there’s centre-half No. 4, who has (slightly awkwardly) claimed another cap and another clean sheet. He is literally the big man.

 

15 (9) Ross Barkley
It’s telling that he has played more minutes in this qualifying campaign than any other midfielder bar Henderson and yet almost nobody thinks he should start for England. Will he eventually be ejected like a stockier Ryan Bertrand? The initials are a clue.

 

16 (11) Declan Rice
As I wrote last month: ‘He is only 20, so there are caveats, but right now he looks far from good enough to anchor that England midfield. Still, we persuaded him not to be Irish anymore, so his squad place is probably safe for the foreseeable.’ We wanted him to be so much better than Eric Dier; he isn’t.

 

17 (12) Mason Mount
He has played a part in England’s last six games so he is clearly integrated into this England squad. Unfortunately for him, he has started twice and struggled twice. Fortunately, he can do this from the bench…

 

18 (14) Kieran Trippier
Called up but then left on the bench. It could be worse; he could be Kyle Walker.

 

19 (20) Tammy Abraham
His first England goal and confirmation – were it needed – that he is Southgate’s first-choice back-up to Kane.

 

20 (22) Fabian Delph
Even grown men need a comfort blanket. Let it go, people, let it go…

 

21 (19) Danny Rose
Clinging onto a place in the squad but for how long? Until Luke Shaw gets and stays fit, you should think. Right now, Rose is holding off Aaron Cresswell and Matt Targett in the battle to be the left-sided fireguard with the thinner chocolate coating.

 

22 (32) Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain
Back-to-back England starts for the first time since March 2018, when he was set to start in England’s World Cup midfield before injury struck. “We’ve a huge belief in him,” said Southgate. “Whether it’s as a midfield player – where he’s excellent with or without the ball, provides a goalscoring threat, works hard for the team and presses well – or a wide player or a forward player, we’ve got huge belief in him.” And that versatility might well be what keeps in this 23 ahead of more vaunted competition.

 

23 (23) Tom Heaton
The old man completes the 23. For now.

 

24 (21) Callum Hudson-Odoi
Reclaimed and then lost his Chelsea place, while his 59 wasteful, hesitant minutes against Kosovo suggested that he might be better getting some more England experience with the Under-21s this season while he searches for his form.

 

25 (24) Callum Wilson
Nobody takes three strikers for a one-striker system. Especially when the third striker on the list has stopped scoring.

 

26 (26) James Maddison
Most chances created by Englishmen this season:
Trent Alexander-Arnold (42)
Jack Grealish (25)
James Maddison (24)
Mason Mount (23)
Raheem Sterling (22)

Sorry James, but we don’t think Gareth likes the cut of your gib. Or the gib of…

 

27 (35) Jack Grealish
Though at least Southgate hinted that Grealish could be the next cab off the attacking midfielder rank. That’s progress.

 

28 (25) Kyle Walker
Sip sliding away. Slip-sliding a-way.

 

29 (31) Fikayo Tomori
They definitely didn’t bring him on for a few minutes to claim him from Nigeria (oh yes they did). But most importantly for this ladder, he was in the squad ahead of the falling Michael Keane.

 

30 (30) Dean Henderson
England’s…No. 4. England’s, England’s No. 4.

 

31 (29) Aaron Wan-Bissaka
Clearly, Southgate is not a fan of a 90s-style full-back.

 

32 (34) Dele Alli
Back in the Tottenham side at least. Shame it’s a really poor Tottenham side.

 

33 (27) Michael Keane
We may never see him in an England shirt again.

 

34 (28) Jesse Lingard
We may never see him in an England shirt again.

 

35 (33) Eric Dier
We may never see him in an England shirt again.

 

36 (40) Phil Foden
We will surely see him in a (senior) England shirt soon, but first Pep Guardiola needs to give him more than Carabao Cup football.

 

37 (NE) Aaron Ramsdale
The Bournemouth goalkeeper is making a compelling case for a long-term battle with Henderson.

 

38 (36) Ruben Loftus-Cheek
Love the player, hate the injury.

 

39 (37) Luke Shaw
Love the player, hate the injury. And the body type.

 

40 (42) Dwight McNeil

 

41 (41) Rob Holding
42 (38) Angus Gunn
43 (39) Ryan Sessegnon
44 (43) Max Aarons
45 (NE) John Lundstram
46 (NE) Harvey Barnes
47 (44) Reiss Nelson
48 (45) James Tarkowski
49 (47) James Ward-Prowse
50 (50) Phil Neville

 

Sarah Winterburn

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Posted in EPL, FA Premier League

Jurgen Klopp has hit back at comments from Pep Guardiola accused Liverpool forward Sadio Mane of “diving”.

Guardiola was speaking after a dramatic day for the leading duo, who both scored late goals as they came from behind to win – City beating Southampton 2-1 at home and Liverpool winning 2-1 away to Aston Villa.

Mane scored Liverpool’s winner in the fourth minute of stoppage time at Villa Park, but had seen yellow for simulation in the first half of the game.

Guardiola told Sky Sports: “Sometimes [Mane] is diving, sometimes he has this talent to score incredible goals in the last minute. He’s a talent.”

The comments have been interpreted as an early attempt at mind games from Guardiola ahead of their clash with Liverpool on Sunday and Klopp responded in his press conference on Monday by defending Mane.

“I am not in a Man City mood at the moment. I am 100% sure he only talks about Sadio,” Klopp said.

“Don’t know how he could have known about the incident so soon after the game. Sadio is not a diver! Contact at Villa, no penalty but was contact. Not like he jumped over.

“I am absolutely not in the mood to talk about Man City. Genk or us, whatever but not Man City.”

 

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Marcos Alonso insists Chelsea are still a work in progress, and there’s more to come under Frank Lampard, despite climbing into the top four.

Alonso’s goal 17 minutes from time secured a 1-0 win over Newcastle, the Blues’ fifth consecutive victory in all competitions.

The Spaniard hailed the improvement under new boss Lampard but insists there is still more to come.

“We have many options in the team and this is good. The team is getting better, we are improving game by game and we need to continue in this way,” Alonso told the club website.

“We are moving the ball quickly, our press is good and we are doing a good job as a team. We have clear ideas and we have to continue in this way.

“It was very important to win after the international break. We played with a lot of patience and at the end we got the goal, we kept grafting and got a good reward.

“It’s a new season with new staff and there’s room for improvement but since the beginning we have improved a lot. We need to keep focused on each game and work hard in training.”

 

 

Defeat was harsh on Newcastle, who dropped back into the bottom three, and manager Steve Bruce saw plenty of reasons for optimism.

The Magpies now face a run of more favourable fixtures, with a visit from Wolves next up followed by a trip to West Ham and matches against Bournemouth and Aston Villa.

Bruce said: “We’ve had a really difficult start in terms of who we’ve played – we’ve played Tottenham, Liverpool, Manchester United, Arsenal and now Chelsea, and we’ve been away to Leicester. We’ve had a really tough start.

“The way the players went about their jobs, and their effort and commitment, I couldn’t have faulted.

“We looked a threat on the break, and if we can be a bit more careful with the final pass, then of course the big thing is we have to find some goals.

“But, certainly in the first half in particular, we looked a threat.”

 

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The set made it look like the final scene of the first Bill & Ted film, the one with George Carlin, that Robbi Robb song and the low-budget sci-fi scenery.

The Best’s dynamic wasn’t quite that cheerful. The cold chrome and mood lighting were harbingers of something much more sinister. Maybe the world outside had been destroyed and that all that remained was this preposterous demonstration of FIFA’s self-importance.

Perhaps that’s a touch dramatic, but it’s a more than functional metaphor.

Mainly because this is how things seem to be now. These events have a script. Inside the building, of course, with the wooden banter and those strange Euro-American accents, but outside too, where the watching world always seems to respond in the same way. With mockery first, then bemusement, then outright anger.

That represents a strange contradiction. On every other night of the year, The Best is completely benign. It carries no weight whatsoever. Not just because it is only in its fourth year of existence and has none of the Ballon d’Or’s gravitas but rather, those issues aside, because it’s just plainly weird. It’s like a party thrown by someone who has no friends, who has no understanding for how humans interact.

Even now, at this early stage, its history is littered with anomalies. In 2016, for instance, it awarded Falcao – the Futsal player, not the Colombian forward – with a lifetime achievement award. A worthy nod of appreciation, but one never offered again; nobody has been recognised in the same way since.

Also in 2016, at the event’s inaugural running, FIFA recognised Liverpool and Borussia Dortmund supporters for that joint rendition of You’ll Never Walk Alone. A fine moment, for sure, but still representative of a central tokenism. Of everything that happened in 2016 – the fan initiatives, the collections for food banks, the stands against fascism, homophobia and racism – that was top of the pile?

In a way, it describes what FIFA are. Or, more accurately, it confirms what those outside the organisation think of FIFA. They run the game, but they’re only interested in certain parts of it. Think of it this way: if there were a football-themed pub quiz contested by hundreds of teams from different countries and all walks of life, FIFA’s Executive Committee would come last. Always and inevitably.

On Monday night, Leeds United, who authored arguably the funniest cheating scandal of the last decade, were awarded a fair play award for allowing Aston Villa to score an uncontested goal. There’s no harm in it, but – again – its indicative of superficiality. You can imagine the meeting in which some of these categories were decided. Sharp suits, sharp haircuts, blank faces.

To say that this event exists only for the sake of sponsorship is hardly original. After all, there are entire sports which are built around the need to iron logos onto shirts, shorts or vehicles. But perhaps The Best’s greatest tell is in its tone.

On Monday night, several award winners used their platform for tremendous good. Jurgen Klopp announced his involvement with the Common Goal charity. Well done to him. Megan Rapinoe took the stage and urged proper action against the societal evils which continue to plague the game. Well done to her. But, then, look at how awkward Gianni Infantino looked at that moment, during the few seconds when the camera framed him.

His expression betrayed discomfort, this sense that – no – this was supposed to be a night of back-slapping. FIFA has always appeared to find football’s real issues deeply inconvenient. While it’s capable of constructing ever more complicated competitions – with more rounds, more teams and more broadcasting revenue – and it sails through the logistical challenges posed by such expansion, it becomes bizarrely impotent in the face of almost anything of real substance.

And we know this. And we talk about it all the time. And we understand how incidental these ceremonies are and how bereft of sincerity and significance they will always, always be.

And yet there’s always this great outrage at who gets patted on the back. The Best’s World XI is still fluttering around social media and people are upset by that. And by Virgil van Dijk not winning his Best Player category. Click further and you’ll find the inevitable retaliation. The statistical testimony which supports Lionel Messi’s case, a mini cultural thesis which proves that, in fact, he should win all awards, always. Go down the internet’s darker hallways and, presumably, the same is being said about Cristiano Ronaldo.

Someone. Even. Made. A. Graph.

So on the one hand the universal position is to mock these nights and to enjoy the ritual of machine-gunning facetiousness into the online ether. On the other, the tendency is to get really, really upset by all the trivialities it throws up. In fact, at the time of writing, there are journalists making serious points derived from voting patterns. Messi voted for this player, Ronaldo didn’t vote for that one; Five Things We Learned.

This is hardly a unique situation. Where there are individual awards, there are always squabbles. What makes this interesting, though, is that The Best is a commonly recognised nadir. For 364 days of each year, it’s ridiculed for the vacuum of self-celebration that it so obviously is. On the 365th day, it holds the power to start furious arguments.

Why is that? Broadly, of course, because supporters are loyal to players who represent their teams. But while that’s undeniably true, it’s also a thickening vein of tribalism. Once upon a time, a team’s defeat used to leave a fan in a days-long sulk. Now, the world’s failure to recognise a particular player can leave a fan fighting back the tears and punching his or her keyboard. Even when the award is meaningless. Even when a footballer’s loyalty is to his contract rather than his club.

Even with something like this, which was concocted and devised by the sport’s Charlatans-on-High and designed just to produce another revenue stream. Even now, it’s not okay just to shrug and move on.

Why?

Seb Stafford-Bloor is on Twitter.

 

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That it took 76 minutes to break down Aston Villa last weekend will not fill Tottenham Hotspur fans with confidence ahead of a trip to Manchester City, who barely had to move out of first gear on Saturday to destroy West Ham. Three years of Pep Guardiola’s tactical training have given City the muscle memory to pass and move in perfect triangles, making them vastly superior to any other team in England.

But Tottenham do tend to raise their game when facing Man City, pressing aggressively to create a tense and oppressive midfield battle. The win won’t come easy for Guardiola’s side, and yet with Tottenham looking vulnerable in the full-back positions and missing both Heung-Min Son and Dele Alli, the hosts should collect the three points.

Here are five tactical questions ahead of Man City v Spurs:

 

1) Will Pochettino go three at the back to sure up Rose and Walker-Peters?
Tottenham lined up in a 3-5-2 formation the last time these sides met, a 1-0 victory for Man City at the Etihad in April, and Mauricio Pochettino could deploy the same formation to provide additional support to Danny Rose and Kyle Walker-Peters. Both full-backs have an error in them, Rose having been beaten too easily by John McGinn in Spurs’ opener and 22-year-old Walker-Peters still raw. Playing with three centre-backs also has its advantages in helping to close out the inside-forward spaces in which Raheem Sterling tends to occupy.

However, it is more likely that Pochettino will use the diamond 4-4-2 that began the Aston Villa match, not least because Juan Foyth’s injury and apparent fitness concerns over Jan Vertonghen leaves the Tottenham manager with limited options at the back. In a diamond, Spurs can pack the midfield with bodies while giving Christian Eriksen the creative freedom he enjoyed against Villa from an advanced role – as well as pick Harry Kane and Lucas Moura to counter-attack together up front.

 

2) Will Ndombele be able to prevent De Bruyne from running the right channel?
The diamond formation, essentially using four central midfielders, should create a claustrophobic and compact game at the Etihad, more reminiscent of the three 1-0s between the sides last year than City’s 4-3 win in the Champions League. In such a cluttered midfield battle, the key head-to-head is between Tanguy Ndombele and Kevin de Bruyne.

De Bruyne’s role has changed slightly this season. The Belgian alternates between dropping alongside Rodri to help out his new team-mate defensively and drifting out into the right half-space to collaborate with Riyad Mahrez in attack. These two overloaded West Ham left-back Aaron Cresswell last weekend to devastating effect, and should be able to similarly trouble Rose on Saturday – particularly if Spurs play with such a narrow midfield.

Moussa Sissoko is likely to be the midfielder closest to Rose, but it is Ndombele’s presence at both ends that should either force De Bruyne alongside Rodri or allow him to roam up the pitch. Should the Frenchman burst forward in possession and seek to support Eriksen, then De Bruyne’s influence will be limited; theirs is a territorial battle that will go some way to deciding which side is on top.

 

3) Can Kane put pressure on Rodri?
Against both Liverpool and West Ham, Rodri was caught in possession on a couple of occasions in the opening 20 minutes, a typical sign of teething problems after arriving in such a fast and physical division. The mainstream narrative is that Rodri managed to adapt as each game wore on, but in reality it’s just that both of City’s opponents lowered the intensity of their pressing and tackling at around the half-hour mark.

Spurs are unlikely to similarly let up. Harry Kane in particular has a big role to play dropping into his favoured number ten position and nicking possession from Rodri, but it would be naïve to pinpoint just one player looking to harass the Spaniard off the ball. The only times West Ham looked close to scoring at London Stadium last Saturday was when Rodri was pickpocketed and space suddenly opened up in the final third. Pochettino will most definitely instruct his players to swarm Rodri.

 

4) How can Spurs target Zinchenko?
The obvious weak point in the Man City team is Oleksandr Zinchenko, who always looks a bit shaky and positionally unsure when playing left-back. However, Tottenham’s probable formation doesn’t provide a clear pathway to target the Ukrainian, particularly given that Walker-Peters will be instructed to play cautiously with Sterling lurking on the left.

Lucas Moura, peeling off to the right, is the only quick attacker in the Spurs team while Heung-Min Son serves his suspension, and so he is their best option to run in behind Zinchenko when Tottenham launch counters. Long balls into the channels from Toby Alderweireld would be a good idea in such a restrictive, high-pressing game.

But such is the complexity and efficiency of Guardiola’s tactic,s Zinchenko is unlikely to be exposed. In fact, he will pop up in central midfield just as often as left-back, providing cover for when Rodri strides into the Spurs half and making himself available for the connecting ball between Kyle Walker and Sterling. Chinks in City’s armour are so minute Spurs probably won’t discover them.

 

5) Will Sterling versus Walker-Peters settle the contest?
The machine-like efficiency of Sterling at the moment should strike fear into Spurs fans, particularly as the game wears on and gaps begin to open up. That he faces Walker-Peters is problematic. The right-back has the athleticism to stand Sterling up when one on one, but the bigger risk is during moments when City counter-attack on the outside of Tottenham’s narrow midfield, with Sterling particularly threatening making runs on the inside of the opposition full-back.

In all probability City’s superiority across the pitch will bring them victory, but should Spurs manage to restrict the hosts then Guardiola will look to Sterling’s one-on-one with Walker-Peters as the main source of a late goal.

 

Alex Keble

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