Manchester City won the Carabao Cup. Again. Not much surprise there, although how long it took for dominance to translate to goals was quite something.
1) Manchester City’s domestic dominance really is quite something. No matter the built-in advantages they may possess, their pre-eminence is staggering. This is their fourth successive Carabao and sixth in the last eight years, but they’ve also now won seven of the last 10 domestic trophies. SPOILER: It’s quite soon going to be eight of the last 12.
The Quadruple may have once again escaped their grasp, but it is entirely ludicrous how often they get really quite close to it. Of the four trophies they’ve shamefully failed to win in the last four seasons, they’ve come second in the league and lost twice in the FA Cup semi-finals. Their worst performance in a domestic competition was a fifth-round FA Cup exit in 2018, when they once again came unstuck against their old nemesis Wigan.
Today’s final and the agonising amount of time it took for City to turn utter domination into a goal threatened to go the way of their famous FA Cup final meeting in 2013. That says quite a bit about both City and also just how far away Spurs are from them, no matter what Super League compilers might imagine.
2) Spurs’ best hope of finally ending this infamous, increasingly lengthy and dog-based banter-inducing trophy drought was for City to be slightly off the pace and distracted by other, bigger tasks on the horizon. They’ve got PSG in the week in the competition City and Guardiola crave above all others. There was a chance they might not quite be switched on for this game – they only had the lesser quadruple of four straight Carabaos to go for now. While absolutely everything Spurs do comes with the context of a desperate and very probably self-defeating desperate aching longing to secure silverware, City can afford to be a bit more blase. Another one, is it? Stick it on the pile.
But not a bit of it. The clues were there in the team selection, with Kevin De Bruyne named in the starting XI. From the very first whistle it was abundantly clear that Spurs would not face a distracted City side. Pep Guardiola’s team were far better than they were at this same ground a week earlier as their Quadruple hopes evaporated, and it produced the odd sensation of feeling that, even when 30 or 40 minutes had elapsed and it remained goalless, that the likelihood of City prevailing had only increased. Even those late thoughts of “Well I wonder…” in the second half were based more on sod’s law and this being a bit of a weird season where things like Chris Wood scoring first-half hat-tricks can happen rather than any tangible on-field evidence.
3) However small the number of fans scattered around Wembley’s vast stands, it was still great to hear them. Still great to have a goal met by a genuine roar but also, far better than that, to hear referees getting an ironic cheer when giving a decision in favour of a team whose supporters feel hard done to. Nature is healing.
4) As City’s strikerless formation produced absolutely everything you could want a football team to produce with the pesky and trifling exception of actual goals for 80 minutes while Spurs huffed and puffed with near total reliance on a one-legged Harry Kane it wasn’t hard to find the framing for this match: a team that requires Kane to do everything against a team that has everything but a Kane. Put Kane in that City team – even today’s palpably half-fit version – and the scoreline would surely have more accurately reflected the balance of play. The worry for Spurs after another desperately disappointing performance and result in a major final is that such an event may not for long be restricted to the hypothetical.
5) Kane, then. Popping What Happens Next to one side for a while – we’ve got a whole summer of that nonsense to get through – it will eat away at beleaguered Spurs fans forevermore that they have been blessed with a world-class talent for so very long yet cursed to have him way short of fitness when silverware was on the line in both 2019 and 2021. Ryan Mason, proving himself a true disciple of Mauricio Pochettino, was understandably unable to resist the temptation of a half-fit Kane on the big occasion. While City picked a team without a striker and ended up with four people playing up front, Spurs picked one of the best strikers in the world and ended up with nobody up front.
Whether it says more about Kane or about Spurs, the fact is he is without question their best No. 9 and No. 10 and quite possibly their best No. 8 as well. He would probably also get into the team at centre-back, for all the heroism of Eric Dier and Toby Alderweireld in the face of the City onslaught. But even when fully fit it’s asking a lot for him to play all those positions at the same time. Here, he dropped deep as he so often does to such devastating effect, but he was unable to then push forward and get back up into the centre-forward position. In the first half, four Spurs players had average positions more advanced than Kane. And that was in a team playing very deep indeed. For all Mason’s understandable commitment to rediscovering Tottenham’s DNA and desire to play out from the back, this really was probably a day for leaving Kane up top and then the rest of them just smashing it long and f***ing defending.
6) And yet it would be plain folly to suggest Spurs could or would have been any better had a certain Portuguese miserabilist still been in charge. The small pocket of Spurs fans in attendance made themselves heard with chants of “Ryan Mason, he’s one of our own” even during the traumatic siege his team were forced to endure in the opening 20 minutes. They would have made their feelings known just as loudly in a slightly different direction had Mourinho still been in charge. And while this was a performance that carried some hallmarks of Spurs at their worst in Mourinho’s Dog Days, the tactical and technical errors they made were at least accompanied by a wholehearted commitment and sense of togetherness entirely absent by the end of Mourinho’s reign.
That doesn’t necessarily paint this Spurs team and squad in a particularly favourable light, but footballers are human beings too and it must be hard to constantly get yourself up for going to war for a manager who you know has thrown you under the bus before and will do so again. Ironically, the most common and fraudulent refrain of Mourinho’s Spurs failure – that he lacked the players to compete – is, in this one instance, actually true. Spurs were outmatched in every department today, and that gulf was as clear on the pitch as it was in dugout where a man with 600-plus games in management and all the medals he can eat went up against a bloke in charge of his second first-team game. For Spurs to have a significant chance to prevail – under Mourinho, Mason or anywhere else – they were always going to need City to underperform. City did not. One can never be certain of course, but on the balance of probability it’s safe to say Mourinho – a manager whose last win against top-half Premier League opposition came in the first week of January, whose last knockout cup action was the capitulation at Dinamo Zagreb, and whose only domestic cup victories at Spurs against any Premier League opponents came via a replay against Southampton and a penalty shootout against Frank Lampard’s Chelsea – would not have changed that.
7) And while we’re here, let’s deal with the other ‘What if?’ scenario that everyone is pretty keen to construct from this game: What if Aymeric Laporte had been sent off? Martin Tyler and Gary Neville went big on this at the time of his first foul, second foul, when he scored what proved to be the winner and again at the final whistle. Sky’s pundits also insisted Laporte should have been sent off. They were all right in the sense that Laporte committed two clear yellow-card fouls, but all of them slightly miss the actual point. Laporte was cautioned for the second of those offences, not the first. The referee – who had a weak and nervous afternoon but could hardly be said to have been the biggest factor in the result of a match won by a dominant side dominating the game – didn’t miss an opportunity to send Laporte off. He missed one chance to book him, and then did book him at the second chance. That difference is not pedantic or incidental. If Laporte is booked for the first offence, he has a different decision to make when faced with an onrushing Lucas Moura for the second time. The tactical foul is no longer an option; it automatically enters the realm of professional foul given the likelihood of a second yellow. He almost certainly would not make the second foul. He would simply have had to let Lucas go and allow Spurs to butcher the counter-attack for themselves. Fundamentally, despite the narrative temptation of it, Spurs were not beaten by a man “who shouldn’t have been on the pitch”.
It’s also an unhealthily snide and miserable lens through which to view the winning goal in a cup final. We don’t need to be like this. This kind of focus on officialdom is what landed us with VAR.
8) Phil Foden: ridiculous. Just a thoroughly ridiculous 20-year-old footballer. It is literally obscene to be as good as he is. Spurs had no answer to him in that traumatic first half and the only thing missing from his performance was the goal that more than once appeared certain to come. There is no greater compliment to Foden’s display than the fact it so overwhelmed Tyler that his brain wiped all memory of the existence of Player Cam back in the day and then reinvent it as something crazy scientific marvel that might just now be possible “in this technological age” for a player of Foden’s supreme watchability. We even had to look up Player Cam to make sure it wasn’t in fact us who’d dreamed it; it’s such an old feature that it is now fully seven years since Sky themselves brought it back as a one-off retro novelty when Angel Di Maria made his Manchester United debut.
9) Spurs – and their rookie manager – were remarkably fortunate to survive for as long as they did playing the way they did. While it was inevitable that Spurs would spend a decent chunk of time chasing shadows – as anyone playing City must – the narrowness of Tottenham’s front three made life easier for City in those opening exchanges than it needed to be. Son and Lucas were tucked in alongside Kane, giving Kyle Walker and Joao Cancelo inviting acres of green space to attack down the flanks. There would have been no injustice to it had this game been over as a contest within the first 15 minutes.
10) City never deviated from the plan despite 80 minutes of frustration. It manages to be both audaciously impressive and maddeningly frustrating. On one hand you really do have to admire the self-belief it takes to back your method even as the clock runs down against opponents providing stubborn if often fortunate resistance. At the same time, the sight of Sergio Aguero and Gabriel Jesus unused as time and time again City produced everything bar the finishing touch – City managed just four shots on target from 19 attempts across 90 one-sided minutes – was hard to fathom. Not for the first time, the end result would indicate that Pep Guardiola knows more about this job than we do.
11) However just the result given City’s pronounced superiority, Spurs will rue the goal that eventually sealed it. They had ridden their luck to a frankly absurd degree in the 80 minutes that preceded it and it was no surprise when at last that luck ran out, but that really is not the goal you want to concede against City. First Serge Aurier, who had been genuinely excellent for 80 minutes but can only stop himself being Serge Aurier for so long under such pressure, committed a needless foul, then Spurs conceded from the resulting free-kick. As Eric Dier said afterwards in one of the more compelling Spurs performances of the afternoon, Aurier should have done better with the initial foul, and the whole defence should have done better from the free-kick. The delivery and header were pinpoint, but for once Spurs failed to get something, anything, in the way.
12) The famous Zokora Moment from the 2008 final, when Spurs had a great chance to win it but that chance fell to the worst possible player on the pitch, didn’t cost them the trophy that day. Spurs fans may in years to come ponder the eerily similar Hojbjerg Moment. He didn’t even manage to get a shot away at all. Zokora managed two when he found himself in the unlikely position of one-on-one with an opposition goalkeeper. The most brutal thing about the Hojbjerg moment was how everyone involved knew how it would play out. Kane’s reluctance to play the ball until the very last moment when it was clear no better option was about to present itself, Kyle Walker who stayed glued to Kane and didn’t cover the Dane’s run having accurately deduced where the most clear and present danger lay, and most painfully of all Hojbjerg himself as he tried to play in the overlapping Sergio Reguilon in a far worse position rather than just smack the thing goalwards.
13) It was a clear example of the main frustration of the afternoon for Spurs. The defending was often a touch desperate and had the look and feel of a late rearguard action from the very first minute, but it would be hard to fault the endeavour and application of the players who so often faced the harshest of Mourinho’s criticisms. Today, it was the attackers, who have so often salvaged things by making the very most of the scraps on which they have had to subsist, who fell short. Heung-Min Son was desperately poor and thoroughly wasteful in possession. Kane’s limitations in his current condition did ask even more of Son than usual, but he came up markedly short. The running and purpose of Lucas justified his inclusion ahead of Gareth Bale – a selection decision that would not have been well received had the previous manager made such a call in the wake of Bale’s impressive midweek display – but Spurs lacked the sharpness and precision their few attacking moments required in a game of this nature.
14) Spurs’ best spell of the game came in the 10 minutes immediately after half-time. For those 10 minutes, and only those 10 minutes, there was something approaching a parity in the play to match the parity on the scoreboard. Zack Steffen was roused from his slumbers to pull of a smart, full-stretch save to deny Giovani Lo Celso with what would prove to be Spurs’ only shot on target. Expecting a 29-year-old manager in his second senior game to pull off a win against a City side playing as well as they were here was asking an awful lot – those 10 minutes represent the smallest crumb of comfort for Spurs after another painful defeat that extends their wait for silverware into a 14th season, but for Mason they represent a sign. Whatever he said at half-time, he succeeded in getting his Spurs side on something approaching the front foot for the first time in the afternoon.
15) There is, of course, almost no chance of Mason’s current spell in charge of Tottenham extending beyond the five league games that remain this season. But they will tell us much about Mason’s future. His time to be Spurs manager is almost certainly not now, but that doesn’t mean it won’t be in the future. He will face no challenge anything like that put in front of him today in those remaining games and he has every chance of giving Spurs an uplifting end to the season. But only if he can lift a team and squad from this latest crushing disappointment and to go again.
16) Thank Christ the European Super League isn’t going to be a thing after all. Spurs being outplayed like this every week and then maybe scraping an occasional win against Arsenal would have been a bleak future to destroy the rest of football over.