* Manchester City could win the title as early as April 15, if Manchester United lose at home to West Brom on Sunday. Manchester City need nine points from their final five league games to break the all-time Premier League points record. Manchester City need three wins from their final five games to break the all-time Premier league record for most wins in a season. Manchester City need 11 goals from their final five games to break the all-time Premier league record for most goals in a season. Manchester City need to improve their goal difference by four in their final five games to break the all-time Premier league record for best goal difference in a season. If this is crisis, mini or otherwise, sign me up.
There has been a move this week to diminish Pep Guardiola’s ability as a coach, using the last three results as evidence that they might struggle to win the title next season. It is true that Manchester City have suffered setbacks, but they should only put into context the magnificence of City’s form between August and March. For all the rubbishing of the notion that this is the best single Premier League season of performance in the history of the competition, if you take the most points, win the most games and score the most goals you do merit mention in the discussion.
More importantly, Manchester City have beaten every one of their nearest rivals and most of them comfortably. Having now played all ten of their league matches against the traditional top six, City have taken 2.40 points per game from those matches, dropping six. Next come Manchester United with 1.78, Tottenham on 1.3 and Liverpool 1.11. City have scored 2.70 goals per game in those matches; the next best is Liverpool with 1.77. That is dominance.
* Tottenham were the lesser team. They started the game badly and ended it looking rather ragged in midfield, and could very easily have conceded five or six times.
Yet, as people have hopefully learnt with City, every defeat does not have to lead to a root-and-branch review about where a team is lacking or a social media rant about the flaws in the club’s management.
The truth is that, at their peak, Manchester City are far beyond Tottenham and that should hardly be interpreted as an insult to Mauricio Pochettino or his team. Finishing above Chelsea and Arsenal and making the Champions League again was important. That this game was so relatively meaningless for Tottenham says plenty about their success.
* Perhaps the most interesting team selection was Guardiola’s decision to drop the recently hapless Nicolas Otamendi. The Argentinian has been individually responsible for at least one goal conceded in all three of Manchester City’s three successive defeats. Given the options at Guardiola’s disposal, that isn’t acceptable.
And yet it’s also worth worrying for another of City’s central defenders, the now semi-permanently absent John Stones. Stones was reportedly unavailable for the trip to Wembley, but has not started a league game since January 20. What position does that leave Gareth Southgate in heading into the World Cup?
* If any Tottenham supporters were still left in any doubt (or still harboured any hope), there should be none now: Toby Alderweireld has been cast aside from Tottenham’s first team. He will surely be sold this summer, when the focus will be on getting the highest transfer fee possible.
After all, this is what Pochettino does. He believes team morale to be so crucial to team performance that it cannot slip. In order to have morale at its peak, only those who are fully committed to pulling in the same direction as the rest of the squad will play. To allow that to slip would be to set an example that slippage is acceptable.
Pochettino’s message is simple: You’re either with me, or you’re against me. And if you want to leave then we will not stop you, just so long as we get the astronomical transfer fee your improvement under my management justifies. Danny Rose learnt that lesson; Alderweireld is learning it too.
* If we expected Tottenham to start the game at breakneck speed, hounding down City players and looking to exploit any gap in their belief following recent results, we were mistaken. For all the fallout to the Champions League exit and Manchester derby defeat, this was the Manchester City team that was looking to move 16 points clear at the top.
The interchanging of play was breathtaking, David Silva and Kevin de Bruyne were consistently able to find pockets of space and play passes forwards into dangerous areas more often than sideways to merely ensure that possession was retained.
They could easily have taken the lead after less than three minutes. Raheem Sterling was sent down the right wing, and stood the ball up to the far post, where Leroy Sane was standing unmarked 12 yards from goal. His volley struck Hugo Lloris’ post with the goalkeeper stood flat-footed.
It sounds hyper-critical, but Sane should actually have done better. You or I might have issues volleying a ball at waist height, but it was on the German’s favoured foot. It is rare that an elite player has so much time and space to set themselves for a shot, and only slicing his strike stopped Sane from giving City the lead.
Five minutes later, De Bruyne ran onto a pass on the right edge of the penalty area and struck the ball two inches wide of the same post with all the crispness and power of a right-footed Ian Woan. City were evidently keen to prove that talk of crisis was entirely manufactured.
* Yet for all City’s excellence, Tottenham played a role in their own initial demise. They started the game by trying to press City in possession for the first five minutes, but it quickly became obvious that City’s players were too easily able to pass around it and into midfield. That is not something that Tottenham are used to.
At this point, Tottenham’s players could have stood off Manchester City’s attacking players more – which they did – but also defended deeper to try and thwart Gabriel Jesus, Sterling and Sane by crowding them out as soon as they received the ball. Effectively, move the press closer towards their own goal.
Tottenham’s biggest mistake was to stop pressing so hard in Manchester City’s half but also play with an incredibly high defensive line. That allows for long, direct balls for a pacey striker to run on to. As if by magic…
* Davinson Sanchez is 21, and has been magnificent this season. Gabriel Jesus is 21, and has been disappointing this season, at least according to the standards he set in 2016/17. So of course the latter made the former look silly.
Sanchez is only partly responsible. So high was Tottenham’s defensive line that it made Vincent Kompany’s decision to float a long ball over the top the obvious option.
At that point, with Sanchez facing away from his own goal and Gabriel Jesus facing towards it, the Brazilian was always likely to get clear. But he still allowed his opponent to break the line.
* There is also a question whether Lloris should have been quicker off his line, or been further from his goal as a starting position. If a team plays with a high line, the goalkeeper must understand his sweeping role to avert danger.
By the time Gabriel Jesus reaches the ball, he is closer to the penalty area than the halfway line. Had Lloris been in a position to launch the ball clear, there would have been far fewer questions asked of Sanchez. (This was probably the Colombian’s worst game of the season.)
Still, let’s praise Gabriel Jesus for the composure of his finish. He may have only scored ten league goals in a difficult season, but the Brazilian has a higher shot conversion rate than any other Manchester City player this season.
* We were left asking the same questions of Lloris less than three minutes later, when City doubled their lead and threatened to make a mockery of pre-match talk of diminished morale.
Firstly, it was not a penalty. Lloris certainly slid into Sterling and connected with him long after he had released the ball. A foul was committed, and the booking received also correct. But Lloris made contact with Sterling outside the box, albeit marginally. It’s a little harsh to admonish Jon Moss too strongly for the call, but the decision was still wrong. Could the assistant referee have seen across the line?
It would not have been an issue if Lloris had left his goal quicker to close down danger and make the tackle. Watch the replay again, and you will see that the goalkeeper was too hesitant to commit fully to leaving his goal. Had he come out at full speed, he would have met Sterling fully three yards outside his area. Even if a foul had still been committed, a penalty would never have been a possibility.
* If Tottenham were rattled and City dominant, things could have got worse within two minutes of Ilkay Gundogan’s penalty. Ben Davies should have received a red card rather than the booking given to him by Moss.
There are some nasty challenges that merit red cards where the offence is at least excusable. The speed of play in the Premier League is so fast, particularly the interchange of passing, that being less than half a second late into a tackle can make a foul look incredibly wild.
Davies does not have that excuse. By planting his foot into Kompany’s shin, Davies was not attempting to play the ball and arriving late. He was deliberately kicking an opponent and endangering the safety of that opponent with his overzealous conduct. That’s close to the dictionary definition of a red-card challenge.
* At that point, would the Manchester City of a few weeks ago scored a third or fourth goal before half-time, a relentless attacking assault that used up supplies of energy but also put the game beyond the opposition’s reach?
The answer to that question will remain unanswered, but conceding the second goal did at least spur Tottenham into action and temporarily expose the uncertainty in City’s defending. The goal itself was a fluke, Harry Kane’s pass into the path of Christian Eriksen cut out by a sliding Aymeric Laporte, but the ball rebounding back of Eriksen and past Ederson.
For the remaining three minutes of the first half, City were hanging on. Gabriel Jesus was booked while Laporte gave away an unnecessary corner as Tottenham looked to finally get a foothold in the match.
* Yet this City team is too good to be spooked again and again. They had indeed lost both of their last two matches having held one-goal and two-goal leads, but there were extenuating circumstances in both. Mohamed Salah’s equaliser at Anfield came with City pushing forward to try and score twice in the second half, while City should have been out of sight against United. Lightening would not strike three times.
In fact, the second half played out perfectly for Guardiola. He left Sterling as high up the pitch as he dared, and invited Tottenham to attack his City side, pushing forward the full-backs if they wished. It takes courage to use that strategy having ceded leads twice in the previous week, but Guardiola knew that the risk vs reward was heavily weighted in his favour.
It might sound oxymoronic, but the more Tottenham attacked the more shots Manchester City had. They managed eight in total between the 64th and 75th minute, which included the third goal, and had numerous other attacks in which the ball was overplayed or misplaced. This was hardly flawless attacking football, but Tottenham were being picked off.
* As against Manchester United last weekend, Sterling’s shooting was awry until the third goal. It did not matter this week because City held their opposition at arm’s length, but it mattered in the Manchester derby.
This is further emphatic proof that Sterling is a confidence player, and one who takes a psychological hit with each missed chance. That is generally represented in him taking extra touches in the penalty area or when given a chance at goal, looking to set himself before shooting because he doesn’t trust his instincts. See the chance where he skipped past Lloris but then took the extra touch and had his shot blocked.
Yet it’s also worth remembering his trajectory, and 22 goals this season is far more than anyone could have imagined given that his first-team starting place was not assured after the arrival of Bernardo Silva.
Sterling also offers more than goals, necessary given the chances he misses. His runs off the ball to drag defenders out of position have improved markedly over the course of this season, as has his anticipation of where the ball will be played. Thierry Henry says that most important is the sheer number of chances Sterling is getting, and there’s clearly something in that. Sterling had two more shots than any other player in the match.
“The moment Sterling increases his goals, he will be one of the best players in the world because he has everything,” Guardiola said. “He is young and he is able to do it.” High praise indeed.
* Sterling’s goal still owed much to the incompetence of Lloris. The initial shot did indeed take a deflection off Sanchez to make it an awkward save, but parrying the ball out into your six-yard box is not good enough. Sterling was in the right place, but Lloris’ hand should have diverted the ball sideways or around his post.
The problem is that occasional error is becoming a habit for Lloris. The best way to describe his form in this rut is that he looks like a 35-year-old goalkeeper suddenly unable to match his peak performance and forever destined to fall short in pursuit. That might be the case with Petr Cech at Arsenal, but Lloris is 31. Age is not an excuse.
* Yes, Salah has been astonishing this season, and the Player of the Year award is a toss-up based on individual preference. Who cares about individual trinkets anyway, when we get to watch two footballers in astonishing form almost every week?
But can we have a moment for this first-time pass, with the outside of his boot, from a high ball, while being pulled over? If any kids want to learn the most important attribute in any sport, look at De Bruyne’s concentration in watching the ball all the way onto his foot. Majesty.
We need to talk about Kevin pic.twitter.com/jvwHgBVTy5
— ً (@DiIlatronic) April 14, 2018
* For all the talk of Tottenham further punishing Manchester City, and the worries about them overturning the lead having got themselves back into the game, the most pleasing aspect of the entire performance for Guardiola will be that Kane failed to have a shot of any kind in a match for the first time since February 2017.
Shutting down one of the world’s best strikers entirely. Stopping the service from one of the world’s best creators. Scoring three times against the second meanest defence in the Premier League over the last three years. Showing second-half resilience against a team that had had a week’s rest when you played Tuesday evening. That’s how you answer criticism.