Having struggled against Wolves’ stifling defensive tactics, Spurs had much more luck against Manchester City’s less rigid offering. Harry Redknapp got his tactics spot on and it was a real team performance, but the pick of the bunch was undoubtedly Niko Kranjcar.
Aside from getting himself on the scoreboard twice, the Croatian midfielder was at the forefront of their attacking superiority. Whilst Aaron Lennon was always the outlet of choice on the right wing, it was Kranjcar’s clever movement that made the difference. The warning signs were there for City before they went behind, when Kranjcar fired wide after a move that typified much of what Spurs did well on the night. The ball was worked out wide to Lennon who cut it back to the edge of the area where Kranjcar had appeared in the centre. The move was repeated to greater effect soon after resulting in a goal. Kranjcar had again come in off his flank to himself play the ball out to Lennon whose cross rebounded to the Croat to stab home.
With Lennon being an out-and-out winger who hogs the touchline, a defence has to shift across the field when he is in possession to narrow the gap between each defender. With the right-back drawn inside, the left winger, in this case Kranjcar, then finds himself in plenty of space. Being a naturally central player, Kranjcar time and again against City looked to move further infield, making an extra target either for crosses or a pass earlier in a move. City’s problems were exacerbated by having the lazy Robinho on the left of midfield, a player unwilling and uninterested in tracking back. This meant Gareth Barry from central midfield had to keep drifting out to support left back Sylvinho against the constant threat of Lennon, opening up even more space for Kranjcar to occupy. The first goal was a prime example of the damage Kranjcar caused, as he was in the right half of the field when he made the pass to Lennon before pushing on in to the penalty area ready to pick up on the scraps.
The first goal was also a demonstration of the usefulness of having Peter Crouch in the side. Time and again it is pointed out, including in this column that Crouch is not a typical tall target man, but regardless of his abilities, he remains a 6ft 7in striker. Having this height advantage over every central defender in the Premier League means that Lennon can chip crosses towards him, rather like a golfer with a sand wedge, instead of drilling them in. This removes pace from the ball which means that it is harder for a defender to get distance on a clearance. For the goal, the ball remained around the six-yard-area even though Crouch was prevented from getting a head on the ball, and Kranjcar took advantage. Crouch’s height was also used to good advantage on the second goal which was good old fashioned route one and in need of less analysis.
In contrast to the freedom enjoyed by Kranjcar, Tottenham were able to nullify the threat of Carlos Tevez who would usually operate in similar holes to those that the Croatian found. Wilson Palacios seemed to have the energy and application of two players and was seemingly everywhere, but crucially he occupied the space between the midfield and defence whenever Tevez dropped deep. With Tom Huddlestone sitting back as well, Spurs removed Tevez’s license to play and with it went City’s fluidity. Palacios led his team in pressing the opposition as soon as they got the ball and Mark Hughes’ players were never given the chance to settle in to a rhythm.
Tottenham were taught a lesson the last time they hosted a team from Manchester when United’s midfield supremacy was there for all to see. Spurs have clearly learned from that experience and it was the midfield that was the base for a key victory against one of their main rivals for a top four spot. When Lennon is on form, his pace and dribbling will terrorise any left-back, but it is important to exploit the right-sided bias that having him in the team brings. Employing Kranjcar, or when he is fully fit Luka Modric, coming in off the left flank in to the space created will cause teams problems, similar to the way that Fabio Capello is using Steven Gerrard for England with Lennon on the other wing. Too often there is a desire for teams to be symmetrically balanced, but having two true wingers can sometimes mean the threat is just moved rather than varied. Playing two contrasting wide players opens up new options and makes it harder for the defence to position themselves to cope with the differing threats. Any space created on the narrower side can always be exploited by an overlapping fullback.