1) “In other sports when you do what we’ve done – in basketball, tennis, golf – you win. That’s why football is fascinating. It’s frustrating to lose two points in that way but football is like this. It’s the only sport you can have 30 shots to the other team’s three and draw, and even lose.”
Pep Guardiola, speaking back in August, did at least acknowledge the possibility of domination resulting in defeat. It seemed as though history was bound to repeat itself from earlier in the season when Manchester City drew 2-2 against Tottenham after having the equivalent of a shot every three minutes and conceding from the only two on-target efforts they faced. Yet they somehow managed to raise the bar of incredulity here.
The visitors had 14 shots before the hosts had one. But while City were engaging in some awkward, fumbling foreplay, Tottenham skipped straight to penetration. Much like every couple, only one side will be anywhere close to satisfied with their evening.
2) It does bear repeating how ridiculous both their meetings have been this season. City have had 48 shots – 15 on target – scoring two goals. Tottenham have had six shots, with Harry Kane’s speculative attempt from the halfway line in August and Heung-min Son’s tame effort at 2-0 up here the only ones that did not beat Ederson.
Sometimes you just can’t account for that sort of disparity. Call it luck, fate, wastefulness, a combination of all three, or just Jose Mourinho expertly building on the foundations Mauricio Pochettino laid for this particular sh*thouse six months ago.
3) Mourinho needed this. It should not be underestimated how damaging a defeat would have been for his entire reputation. The Portuguese had failed to win any of his last eight Premier League games against Big Six sides, including losing each of his first three in charge of Tottenham. And while the very concept of ‘Big Six’ sides has been shattered this season, it does add an entirely different element to these matches.
Nor should it be forgotten just how crucial Mourinho’s reputation was in persuading Tottenham to divert managerial courses so suddenly and drastically. Mourinho was the proven winner Pochettino was not. He was born for this kind of game, moulded by these challenges.
So this was a necessary victory, one he can finally use as evidence of the potential of his reign. It was a performance that was far from perfect and relied heavily on fortune and a profligate opponent, yet a result that points to something more than vague platitudes about an irrelevant history of winning trophies and being a bit of a dick.
4) It also feels for the first time perhaps this season that Tottenham are looking up with optimism as opposed to down with trepidation. Fourth-placed Chelsea’s lead over the chasing pack has never looked quite as precarious as it has this weekend.
Tottenham have missed enough opportunities to close that gap. A run of one win in five before Sunday had severely stunted any early Mourinho optimism. But now the only clubs to have earned more Premier League points than Tottenham (23) since his appointment are Liverpool (39) and City themselves (26). For the only sides that have scored more goals in that time, add Leicester; for the only sides that have conceded fewer, remove the Foxes from the equation and replace them with Sheffield United and Crystal Palace. Things are slowly clicking together.
5) For Guardiola, that perennial struggle to establish any sort of consistency continues. City’s longest winning run this league season remains three games, with this curtailing their best unbeaten run at five matches. Two steps forward have been followed by at least a couple of strides back since even the summer transfer window.
To labour the point further, games between the established Big Six bring with them an inherent pressure and searing spotlight. Every selection is analysed, every tactical switch debated, every substitution scrutinised. And Guardiola has lost as many times to any of Arsenal, Chelsea, Liverpool, Manchester United and Tottenham by January this season than he did in both of the past two campaigns combined (3). In a table comprised only of results between those teams and City, the reigning champions are behind United, level on points with Chelsea and one ahead of Arsenal. That is verging on embarrassing.
6) Yet it is difficult to know what he needs to change. Guardiola cannot control Ilkay Gundogan’s penalty – although he can let Ederson have a go. The manager should not be held accountable for Sergio Aguero failing to score with six shots. And Tottenham’s first goal was wondrously unstoppable, with their second a result of yet another defensive mistake.
But it is Guardiola, not Nicolas Otamendi, who persists with a midfield containing Rodri and Gundogan when it clearly doesn’t work, who refuses to allow Riyad Mahrez and Bernardo Silva to share the same pitch, and who replaced his most effective goalscorer with a right-back immediately after conceding.
As Thierry Henry recalled from his time at Barcelona: “He used to say: ‘My job is to bring you to the last third; your job is to finish it.'” But there comes a point when the journey should be checked if the destination is always out of reach. For the first time in Guardiola’s reign, City have failed to score in successive games. That’s on both the manager and the players.
7) Tottenham, for example, deserve praise for blocking eight of City’s 18 shots. Davinson Sanchez thwarted Aguero twice within seconds in the first half, Toby Alderweireld got a slight touch on the Argentinean’s shot soon after, with Hugo Lloris pulling off a sensational save, and even Eric Dier managed to get in the way of a Bernardo shot in his ten minutes or so as a substitute.
But six City players having efforts blocked begs the question as to whether they’re actually taking up the right positions and choosing the correct moments, as well as whether that is a result of coaching or individualism. Either way, it does not reflect a particularly cohesive attack.
8) Sterling was as guilty as anyone, his only shot being diverted away by Alderweireld in the first half. He arguably should not have even been on the pitch at that point.
The debate will rage on, fuelled by VAR rather than starved of oxygen at the source, as was the initial plan. But while Sterling might not have intended to step on Alli’s ankle with his studs up, it was undeniably ‘a tackle or challenge that endangers the safety of an opponent,’ as per FA rules on what constitutes a red card.
It was an honest tackle, a simple 50-50. But intent is irrelevant. The punishment of a yellow card did not seem to fit the crime of a dangerous challenge.
9) Many cited the case of Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang, who was dismissed for a similar tackle on Crystal Palace’s Max Meyer last month. Referee Paul Tierney initially gave the striker a booking for the challenge but it was upgraded to a red after a check by VAR Craig Pawson.
That was the specific example used as part of last month’s new directive to encourage referees to view the pitchside monitor to help inform their decisions.
“What the referees have been told was a reminder on the areas where they should use a pitchside monitor, primarily for red card incidents,” an unnamed source told The Times. “If an incident similar to the Aubameyang one were to happen this week the referee would be expected to use the pitchside monitor to assist with that decision. It will be only when the VAR recommends upgrading or downgrading it, because there is an element of subjectivity and it would be better if the referee should have the final say in a potentially match-changing incident.”
This was no different. The VAR check was long enough to suggest a semblance of doubt, so why was Mike Dean not advised to review it himself? He would hardly have minded the attention.
10) His moment would come later on, of course. Another City onslaught would lead to the belated award of a penalty for Serge Aurier’s foul on his Pro Evolution Soccer counterpart, Aguero.
The time when that tackle was made was 35:57. It was not until 37:52 that Dean stopped the game to award the penalty, the ball having not been out of play in the interim. Lloris saved Gundogan’s effort on 39:25 and collided with Sterling in the aftermath seconds later, with VAR giving a goal kick on 40:25.
It was absolute madness. If Tottenham had scored in the two minutes from Aurier’s foul to the penalty award, the goal would have had to be disallowed. So too a red card for denying a goalscoring opportunity. Yet if City scored it would have stood and the penalty claim ignored. Games can and are being entirely rewritten in search of an unattainable perfection.
Lloris was also off his line when Gundogan’s kick was taken. And if his subsequent clash with Sterling was not another penalty, it was a dive and thus a second booking for the City winger; the ball did not divert course so Lloris clearly did not touch it. Yet a goal kick was given to the utter bemusement of everyone.
This is fucking ridiculous.
— Football365 (@F365) February 2, 2020
If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. This is more knackered than officiating has ever been.
11) City were relatively undeterred. They ended the half in the ascendancy, with Aguero’s miss from a matter of yards out after wonderful work from Mahrez and Sterling summing up their half.
De Bruyne was a real problem. He did not create a single chance in a first half in which he struggled to impose himself despite City having the majority of possession. The Belgian relied too heavily on those trademark whipped crosses; they played into the hands of a tall, physical and well-organised defence that would have been drilled to expect it.
There was a slight improvement in the second half, with his pass into Aguero creating a chance that Gundogan contrived to leave, but Japhet Tanganga and Steven Bergwijn did not particularly struggle to contain him. And when De Bruyne’s input is limited, City struggle.
12) Mourinho’s most enduring, memorable Premier League game came at Anfield in April 2014. It included his Chelsea side capitalising on a hilariously poor corner to launch a counter-attack and make it 2-0 in second-half stoppage time.
Mahrez’s delivery was not quite the level of Iago Aspas’s almost six years ago, but it was certainly more transformative in terms of the game itself. Harry Winks intercepted a low ball that was intended for the edge of the area and he burst forward, approaching the halfway line before Oleksandr Zinchenko came across to check his run.
It was an obvious – and stupid – tactical foul, a second yellow card and a swing of the pendulum in Tottenham’s favour. They opened the scoring three minutes later from a corner of their own. That can sometimes happen when you retain possession from them.
13) And it is that sort of moment that Mourinho depends on in these games. He sets his teams up to break at pace and in groups of two or three, otherwise defending deep and restricting the opposition to long-range shots or low-percentage passes. He embraces the sort of chaos that can see his team save a penalty, clear a shot off the line, hit their own crossbar with a defensive header and have their keeper tip another effort onto the post, while scoring two goals from three shots after a red card changes everything.
The Liverpool game was exactly the same, it is just that the coin landed on heads instead of tails this time. There are legitimate questions to be asked about why a two-time European champion deems it necessary to make fortune such a key aspect of these games, but they can be saved for the next time the gamble doesn’t pay off.
1.1-1.8 v a historic Liverpool side – they competed quite well. 0.4-3.2 v a quite-good-but-not-great Man City side -basically got battered. These figures are also exactly what you would expect from the 'eye test' too. So how was the former a disaster but today a masterclass?!
— Michael Cox (@Zonal_Marking) February 2, 2020
14) That Bergwijn goal, though, was sensational.
Lucas Moura’s floated ball was surely intended for Son on the far left. If it was not, it was a wonderful and weirdly improvised pass to find Bergwijn in space. But there is no doubt as to the winger’s intent; he stooped to chest the ball down, somehow generated equal measures of power and precision before the ball bounced and, within an instant, found the bottom corner.
It was a completely unique goal in conception and action, the glorious consequence of two players making decisions that strayed from the norm. Another player in Lucas’s position might have shot, played it out wide or dinked it towards the penalty spot. As for Bergwijn, that was instinctive brilliance that can’t really be coached.
15) Tottenham were suddenly buoyant. And Mourinho deserves immense credit for riding the wave instead of submerging them in it. He made a double substitution in the 70th minute, with Bergwijn and Dele Alli making way for Erik Lamela and Tanguy Ndombele. How often would we have seen him make a defensive change to consolidate a lead in that situation?
The impact was instantaneous. Ndombele’s determination and drive carved out a chance for Son, who never seemed likely to miss. Say what you want about Mourinho’s methods in establishing a lead, but you cannot doubt how well he built on it.
16) Guardiola, by comparison brought Joao Cancelo on for Aguero, removed the influential Mahrez and gave Bernardo six minutes to make a difference. That midfield of Rodri and Gundogan was inexplicably kept intact as they chased down a two-goal deficit.
It will be intriguing to see what the manager does this summer. He is likely, unfortunately and unfairly right that his tenure will be judged a “failure” if he doesn’t win the Champions League. But his insistence that he will at least honour a contract that runs until summer 2021 looks less realistic with each setback.
The Spaniard’s longest managerial reign was four years at Barcelona, at the end of which he embarked on a 12-month sabbatical “to recharge my batteries”.
“The main reason why I have taken this decision is because four years is many years,” he said, calling his time at Barca an “eternity”. He will have been at City for just as long in May.
Yet he surely cannot leave at the end of the season, thus becoming the coach who ran from Jurgen Klopp. Overhauling that Liverpool side is perhaps the greatest challenge he has ever faced. Does he have the energy?