* It is football’s propensity to surprise even its most experienced followers that best explains its appeal. As supporters and journalists headed to the Etihad on Saturday, all the talk was of how Tottenham could pick off Manchester City and pile more misery on Pep Guardiola.
We were wrong. Football made us look stupid, and there is nothing more glorious than something you think about every other minute of every day catching you off guard so spectacularly.
Guardiola’s City were not weakened by the thought of Tottenham, but emboldened by them. They surged over their opponents like a tide, every player desperate to show that they believed in their manager and his methods. They relied on mishap to score their goals, but more than merited the lead after a succession of chances had been fashioned. Victory was won, disaster averted.
But we were wrong, and football made us look stupid again. Just as Tottenham looked to have faltered, back Mauricio Pochettino’s team came. They may have relied on refereeing incompetence (more on that later), but at least summoned up belief when they would have been forgiven for possessing none. In a title and top-four race allowing little margin for error, disaster was averted for them too.
A point does little to harm or assist either Manchester City or Tottenham, particularly not on a day when Manchester United and Liverpool also dropped points. Yet the watching neutral did not need to judge the match in its wider meaning, merely enjoy it for itself: A pulsating, enthralling 90 minutes after which both teams could feel frustrated and sated in almost equal measure.
* Against Everton last week, Pablo Zabaleta and Yaya Toure were overrun in central midfield by Ross Barkley and Tom Davies. So was Guardiola’s solution to bolster the midfield? Would he call on Fabian Delph? Or would it be Fernando? Or would he change shape to give that area of the pitch more support?
Erm, no. Rather than beefing up the midfield, giving his team more security in that area, Guardiola opted for less. Out went Zabaleta, from the midfield at least, and in came… Leroy Sane. City effectively set up with four attacking midfielders and Toure, presumably left holding a little white flag in his hand and hoping for the best.
You kind of understood Guardiola’s reasoning, however. City’s attacking prowess is their best weapon, so why not try and swarm over Tottenham and get a lead in the game – attack is the best form of defence? You can’t deny that the tactic would have surprised Pochettino. And as it happened…
* Another setback for John Stones though, dropped again after a dreadful performance against former club Everton. He has now not started more than two games in a row since November 5.
Of most concern to a £47.5m signing are the players he’s being left out for. If Vincent Kompany had been fully fit you could just about stomach being on the bench, but the last four times Stones has been left out of Guardiola’s starting XI, it has been to accommodate Aleksandar Kolarov and Nicolas Otamendi in central defence. There could be no more bitter pill to swallow.
At 22 and in his first season at the Etihad Stadium, Stones is far from a lost cause. Yet it’s impossible not to wonder whether Manchester City’s central defender curse has claimed another victim.
* For Tottenham, Ben Davies might be having similar feelings to Stones. With Pochettino in need of a left-sided central defender, the manager plumped for Kevin Wimmer. Given that the gap in Tottenham’s team coincided with Davies’ best position – and where he plays for Wales – you’d have to think that his time at White Hart Lane is up. Even when Toby Alderweireld went off injured, it was Victor Wanyama sent to centre-back and Harry Winks brought on.
The difficulty for Davies is that he still may not be sold. Pochettino is not in the business of allowing squad players to leave while engineering a title challenge, and Davies remains useful. There’s just not a lot of fun to be found in being second reserve for two different positions.
* “They can’t keep playing like this. They’re just too open. They’re giving up chance after chance.”
Those were the words of Glenn Hoddle shortly before half-time. Had you been asked which team he was talking about at any point this week, the answer would have been quickly forthcoming. We’d all have been wrong.
During the first half, Manchester City trampled all over Tottenham. They had 28 touches in the opposition box compared to Spurs’ one, and had 11 shots to two. Most emphatic was the number of overlaps City created, several times having two on two, three on three or even three on two in the final third. Harry Kane had seven touches before the break; Dele Alli had eight.
* The only negative for City was the lack of opening goal. Zabaleta and Raheem Sterling were guilty of dwelling on the ball when presented with opportunities to shoot, while Sane sent a header wide from ten yards. When Sergio Aguero and David Silva did get their shots off, Hugo Lloris was able to get both high and low respectively to thwart them.
This is not a new problem for City, who were guilty of failing to take full advantage against Chelsea, Tottenham and Manchester United earlier this season, and were made to pay against two of the three. For all of the positives provided by the performance against Tottenham, the overwhelming mood is still one of unfulfilled potential in attacking areas. Or, as our football coach used to say to us, if you don’t finish your dinner don’t be surprised when you aren’t allowed to eat sweets.
* One pleasing thing for Guardiola in the first half was just how high his team pressed, mimicking Tottenham’s own style under Pochettino. Aguero in particular played with a higher intensity off the ball than I’m used to seeing, sprinting to put pressure on Lloris on numerous occasions.
Joining him were Sane and Sterling, who both have flaws in their attacking games in clutch moments, but who possess bags of pace and energy. The two wingers were vital in cutting off Lloris’ options and pinning back Tottenham’s dangerous full-backs as City established themselves as the dominant force in the match.
HT: The only thing missing is a City goal. Dominated the game and should have scored 1 or 2. The pressing has been relentless. ???
— City Chief ️ (@City_Chief) January 21, 2017
* Yet this was not all Manchester City’s doing – Tottenham were as shaky as we have seen them in recent months. Wimmer and Eric Dier both picked up deserved yellow cards that stemmed from errors in passing and positional play respectively, while even Alderweireld committed a couple of positional errors, one of the horsemen of the Tottenham apocalypse.
The most obvious evidence for Tottenham being flustered was Lloris’ kicking. The Frenchman is usually reliable with ball at feet, but twice played the ball straight into touch and also forced Wimmer into making a mistake when delivering with too much power for the Austrian.
Five minutes later, Pochettino changed his formation, pushing Dier up into midfield. Rounds one and two to Guardiola.
* Perhaps it is a pipe dream, but it would be lovely if television pundits knew the rules of the game, particularly when they get outraged about what they perceive to be mistakes from officials.
The first half brought a wonderful example, when Steve McManaman and Hoddle mocked Andre Marriner for allowing a free-kick to be taken in the opposition half after an offside decision had been awarded. Both Hoddle and McManaman might be interested to learn that the rules were changed at the start of the season, so that free-kicks should be taken where the offside offence occurred, i.e. where the ball was touched. Five months late, chaps.
* If Tottenham tripped over themselves in the first half, they offered several swift punches to their own face in the first ten minutes of the second. Had you been told that one goalkeeper at the Etihad would have assisted both opposition goals at the Etihad, you would have shouted ‘Claudio Bravo’ before anyone could say “Actually, Joe Hart is OK with his feet.”
Wrong again, and this is becoming a theme. Lloris might have a reputation as arguably the finest goalkeeper in the Premier League, but even the best have off days. If Lloris’ kicking was off before the break, it was his hands that then contracted a serious case of butterfingers.
The decision to come out of his goal to meet Sane was correct, but Lloris’ punch had to go up and away from goal rather than straight out at chest height. The ball may have connected with Sane’s hand but was not handball; the German was left with the easiest task.
Five minutes later, Lloris was even more at fault. Sterling’s cross from the right found the sprawling goalkeeper, but just as the camera panned away there was a frantic scuffle and Kevin de Bruyne nudged the ball into the goal, almost apologetically. Slow-motion replays only painted Lloris in a worse light.
* I’m sorry, but we’re going to have to talk about refereeing decisions again. It didn’t just change the course of the second half and the end result of the match, but potentially City and Tottenham’s season.
Sterling has a problem with confidence in the penalty area and must improve his finishing, particularly in one-on-one situations. But for both referee and assistant to miss Kyle Walker’s push on him when in the box and about to shoot is truly embarrassing.
Perhaps Sterling should be blamed for not going down in the penalty area, but that is to blame honesty. Perhaps we have reached a point where managers have to tell players to go down when they feel contact, for the alternative is to be penalised for doing the ‘right’ thing. One thing is for sure: Penalty and red card (for Walker was not trying to play the ball) would have ended the game as a contest.
My default position is to be against technology, but incidents like this add weight to the argument. A huge moment of a huge match when the margins at the top of the table – and thus between success and failure – are so small; something will probably have to give. That Tottenham went down the other end and scored a minute or so later only exacerbated Guardiola’s anger on the touchline.
“I was never going to get there so just had to do anything I could to stop him,” said Walker after the game. Just to make it sting that little bit more, Pep.
* Bravo has indeed conceded from 16 of the last 24 shots on target he has faced in the Premier League, but let’s not pretend he did anything wrong against Tottenham. For both goals, defenders were at fault and there was nothing he could do to stop either shot. Bravo was actually far more secure than in previous matches, and showed willing – or maybe permission granted – to kick the ball long.
To repeat: Bravo wasn’t the goalkeeper at fault for both goals on Saturday, Lloris was.
Every time I close my eyes I see Otamendi falling over.
— Macca (@The_Paris_Angel) January 16, 2017
* Instead, the blame should lie at the feet of Otamendi, whose defending puts me on edge like watching a tiny child walking unsupervised along a high wall.
Otamendi’s first issue with Guardiola’s passing game is his technique in receiving the ball. Too often, rather than his first touch laying the ball out in front of him and therefore meaning he is constantly on the move and ready to react, Otamendi stops it close to dead and his body stops too. It’s a small thing, but this momentary pause invites pressure from opposition players intending to press, and thus increases the sense of panic.
If that’s a micro issue, there are bigger problems. Otamendi’s passes out to the right-back are regularly behind his man and occasionally straight out of play, while his decision-making in the penalty area is woeful at least once per match. I’m not a Premier League manager (I know, disgrace), but if my central defender failed to block a shot because he had been appealing for offside he would be docked one week’s wages and forced to collect the balls from the nettle patch during training.
* It’s a hypothetical question, but I wonder if Pochettino would have traded the equalising goal for Alderweireld finishing the game. With one central defender already out for up to eight weeks in Jan Vertonghen, tens of thousands of Tottenham supporters will be cuddling their Toby toys in bed on Saturday night and praying for good news.
— Kristof Terreur ? (@HLNinEngeland) January 21, 2017
* Finally, can we please have some love for De Bruyne? Toure was surprisingly excellent on his own in central midfield, but it’s De Bruyne who was – again – the star of the show.
This week, The Sun’s Neil Ashton asked his readers to ‘name a nailed-on successful signing for Manchester City in the 5½ years since they grabbed Sergio Aguero for £35million in July 2011’. ‘KEVIN DE BRUYNE,’ they hopefully all responded, before Ashton labelled him a ‘fair-to-middling’ footballer. What rot.
De Bruyne is close to the complete footballer. Against Tottenham he was asked by Guardiola to operate deeper, but given licence to move away from central areas and into the channels as he pleased. He chipped balls down the middle, floated them down the line and passed them across the field. He created more chances than any other player on the pitch, and no player had more shots. He dribbles like he’s running carefree across clouds.
The evidence for De Bruyne’s deeper role came in his passing matrices. He collected 31% of his passes from defenders or goalkeeper, and played 37% of his passes to those same players. His role was to link between defence and attack in the way that Silva also has under Guardiola. Just as with at least two other roles in this City team, there are few better than De Bruyne. Perhaps time to spend the billions on cloning.
Despite that defensive responsibility, De Bruyne is good enough to still be effective in attacking areas. No player on the pitch had more touches in the penalty area.
* This was a new feeling for Tottenham, but one that they must get used to dealing with. After victories over Manchester City and Chelsea in recent months, they finally entered a fixture against an ‘elite’ club – we’ll go with the financial definition of that term – not just hoping to get a result, but expected to. That creates a different type of pressure to entering a match as the clear underdog.
After a week of Guardiola being questioned and Pochettino championed, we watched to see what Tottenham could do. While the result was eventually broadly positive and the comeback stirring, the general performance wasn’t.
This is the only area in which Pochettino can improve the performance of his team. Tottenham’s best is potentially better than all others in the title race, but they will not be this fortunate again. Opponents will not be as profligate. Referees will not be as lenient. Defences will not be as accommodating.
For Manchester City, an inevitable lingering sensation of what should have been. Still, with Manchester United and Liverpool failing to win, it’s time to focus on the sunshine rather than rain. Attack with such verve in every game and, with slightly less profligacy, it is easy to see City finding form again. The league’s in-form team were made to look ordinary for long periods on Saturday.