Manchester City 1-0 Tottenham: 16 Conclusions

Date published: Saturday 20th April 2019 3:37

1) These have no right to be even matches. Manchester City and Tottenham are so diametrically opposite off the pitch that the ridiculousness of the relatively level playing field they share has become normalised. And this is far from normal.

City’s starting XI cost approximately £396.5m to Tottenham’s £124.9m. City’s defence alone cost more at £191.2m than Tottenham’s entire matchday squad (£165m). Hell, City’s four unused substitutes were signed for about £6m less (£119m) than Tottenham’s starting line-up.

Yet a team shorn of their top goalscorer in Harry Kane, their best midfielder in Moussa Sissoko and their first-choice goalkeeper in Hugo Lloris held their own at this stadium for the second time in three days – albeit this defeat was deserved on the balance of play.

City have faced Tottenham eight times since Pep Guardiola was appointed, beating them by more than one goal just twice (and losing by more than one once). With those levels of investment, that should not be possible.

 

2) But this was indeed a fine City victory, and not one that should be downplayed or dismissed. To face their European conquerors so soon after such a dramatic, devastating and bittersweet game was a gargantuan test. Tottenham went into this game in similar circumstances but they fact they had won their Champions League tie alleviated most of the pressure.

The only questions before the game were being asked of City. How would they respond? Would they be able to refocus? Was their season about to stall completely?

Not at all. They have now won 25 of their last 27 games, are top of the table and have a renewed impetus in terms of defending their title. This was their tenth consecutive Premier League victory; on only eight occasions has a team won more games in a row, and never under such scrutiny. This is not normal either.

 

3) There was more intrigue than ever with regards to the starting line-ups. Tottenham made five changes as Juan Foyth, Davinson Sanchez, Ben Davies and Eric Dier came in for Kieran Trippier, Danny Rose, Sissoko and Victor Wanyama. Paolo Gazzaniga made just his third start of the season ahead of the injured Lloris.

For City, John Stones and Oleksandar Zinchenko replaced Vincent Kompany and Benjamin Mendy, with Phil Foden making only his 12th start in all competitions for the club. A Premier League stroll against Cardiff and cup ties against Oxford, Burton and Newport were hardly ideal preparation.

Guardiola deserves credit for his bravery, however. The Spaniard has faced plenty of criticism over his management of Foden but starting him in a game City had to win against an elite side took courage. David Silva and Fernandinho were both on the bench so he certainly had options. It feels only right to praise him if he is going to be pilloried every time Foden does not play. And boy, did it pay off…

 

4) It took City all of 230 seconds to open the scoring on Wednesday, switching the play from right to left in an instant before Sterling capitalised on a couple of defensive mistakes with a sublime finish.

Guardiola will doubtless be dissatisfied that it took as long as 256 seconds this time around. But it was a similar story. Zinchenko (who was bloody great) started a move on the left which ended with Bernardo’s brilliance on the right, using Kyle Walker’s overlapping run to distract three Spurs players before cutting inside and lofting a delightful ball into the area. Sergio Aguero headed it to the back post for the unmarked Foden to score.

It was a sensational moment for Foden, and the identity of the goalscorer did seem to turn the Etihad volume and intensity up a notch. But almost lost in the madness was Aguero’s selfless assist. The Argentine was slightly wide of Gazzaniga’s goal but could quite easily have beaten his compatriot, yet showed remarkable and quite literal level-headedness to leave Foden with an open net.

Eden Hazard is the only player with more combined goals and assists (28) in the league this season than Aguero (27), who has only ever recorded more Premier League assists (8) in two of his seven full seasons. Goal poacher has turned gamekeeper.

 

5) “It is true that we have been lucky lately to score early. It is good to start the game like that,” said Bernardo in February. “It helps you for the confidence and for everything else, to start the game pressing high, creating chances, having the ball.”

It seems strange to discuss the “confidence” of this City side, a team that often looks so robotic and mechanical that you overlook the human aspects of a winning machine. It feels like this all comes so naturally to them, that victory is so ingrained that the simple boost of an early goal could have no possible psychological effect. These players are surely so wired to succeed that they are immune to the emotions of mere mortals.

Yet this instant “confidence” boost has become City’s lifeblood. A season that threatened to run out of steam in December was kept alive on all four fronts well into April on the back of early goals. It could yet provide the most effective platform for their title defence. City have now scored in the opening ten minutes of eight of their last 20 matches, having done so nine times in their previous 36. Newcastle, who recovered from going a goal down in the first minute to win in January, remain the only team to avoid defeat in that run.

 

6) Those defensive mistakes cannot be ignored. Bernardo was allowed to run into space centrally as three Tottenham players watched on, with none taking responsibility. His cross was perfect, as was both the movement and touches of Aguero and Foden.

But Sanchez was somehow left in a situation where he was marking both City players with Toby Alderweireld nowhere to be seen. The Belgian’s positioning, awareness and anticipation were uncharacteristically atrocious. Tottenham, fielding four natural centre-halves and two others who have played there regularly in Dier and Davies, conceded a headed goal to one of City’s three smallest players, assisted by the head of another. The only thing missing was for Sterling to nod it on for good measure.

Perhaps that is the issue with playing so many centre-halves at one time: it becomes more difficult to figure out who picks up which runner outside of a set-piece situation. Of course, it helps when one of those centre-halves is not caught admiring an opponent’s pass.

 

7) Tottenham cannot be faulted for their lack of effort in trying to overturn that deficit. Son capitalised on a Stones mistake to force the first shot on target after three minutes, with Christian Eriksen testing Ederson soon after Foden’s goal. Eriksen then played a sensational first-time ball straight into Son’s path, only for Aymeric Laporte to recover and block the subsequent effort.

With Bernardo also throwing himself in front of a Davies attempt, City knew this would be no stroll. It took Tottenham 43 minutes to record their fourth shot in midweek, but just over quarter of an hour to do so three days later. The only difference was the finish; City were still struggling desperately to deal with the counter-attack.

 

8) Their response was to fight fire with a sodding volcano. City decided that attack really was the best form of defence as they moved from second gear to sixth in an instant, completely overwhelming the visitors.

Spurs had four shots to City’s one, four dribbles to City’s zero and 39.7% possession from kick-off to the 16th minute, and were perhaps unfortunate to be behind. But from the 16th minute to the 38th, City had six unanswered shots and completed 93% of their combined passes. They were utterly irresistible as Foden, Bernardo, Zinchenko and De Bruyne all looked to test Gazzaniga.

It was the most dominant prolonged period one Big Six side could ever wish to enjoy against another. And it wasn’t that Tottenham’s level dropped, it was just that City suddenly raised theirs to almost suffocate the opposition with constant pressure.

 

9) Not that every visiting player was overawed. A few minutes after an audacious nutmeg on Bernardo, Alli proceeded to receive a pass in the Spurs half, facing Gazzaniga’s goal, with a City swarm approaching. One pirouette dumbfounded Bernardo once more, a Cruyff turn left both the Portuguese and De Bruyne chasing his shadow, one more thwarted Walker with Foden patrolling the area, and a final touch thwarted De Bruyne again before the ball was offloaded to Alderweireld.

Some may have deemed it an unnecessary level of showboating: the sort of high-risk, no-reward situation that Alli seems to revel in. But it actually helped change the momentum, like an impudent dam standing defiant in the eye of a fearsome storm. Tottenham were not here to be bullied.

 

10) But the key moment was De Bruyne’s injury. The Belgian had been struggling after his standing leg slipped from under him when he was taking a shot, and his troublesome left knee appeared to twist ever so slightly. His driving runs from midfield had once again been vital in ensuring City maintained control, but he could simply no longer play on.

Just as with Pochettino and Sissoko in midweek, Guardiola was faced with a dilemma. David Silva seemed the most natural replacement in a stylistic sense, yet the decision to bring Fernandinho on spoke volumes. Tottenham’s threat on the counter was enough of a threat to require some extra protection.

In part due to De Bruyne’s withdrawal, but also a result of Fernandinho struggling to adapt to the game straight away – his first-half pass accuracy was just 62.5% – Tottenham were resurgent before half-time. Son forced another save after dribbling from his own half as City’s grip finally loosened.

From the 38th minute to the 45th Spurs had as many shots as City and 42.9% possession. It seemed like the pendulum had swung once more.

 

11) Bernardo was the only outfield player whose level simply did not drop. The Portuguese played an instrumental part in the winning goal but had an insatiable appetite in terms of winning the ball back, too. There is not a single player who works harder on or off the ball in the Premier League.

No player had more shots than his three. No player created more chances than his four. No player put in more crosses than his four. No City player made more tackles than his five. No City player made more interceptions than his three.

Last February, Guardiola named the 24-year-old as one of the players he will never sell while he is City manager. It is this sort of game, as opposed to the thrashings handed out to relegation fodder or lower-league sides, that shows why. On a day when the margins were so slim, the decisive factor was simply which team had Bernardo.

 

12) There were a few moments when the game could have changed course completely. As much as VAR was questioned in midweek, the ‘R’ aspect of Saturday’s game was sorely lacking. This was not Michael Oliver’s finest hour (and a half).

As loathe as I am to criticise referees, he simply looked well behind the pace of the match for large periods. Bernardo should have been awarded a penalty for Vertonghen’s first-half foul, while Walker’s handball in the second half was similarly unpunished. There were 22 fouls but the first booking was handed out in the 86th minute.

When both sets of fans leave a game with the same sense of officiating injustice, it often suggests the referee has done a fine job in terms of impartiality, objectivity and fairness. This was not one of those occasions.

 

13) The second half was played at an inevitably slower pace, with many of those on the pitch having poured themselves into Wednesday’s game. But City almost ended it as a contest in the 71st minute when Ilkay Gundogan burst out of midfield to play in Sane. The substitute’s cross found Sterling six yards out, but Gazzaniga somehow kept the effort out with his leg.

The 27-year-old has been criticised by Gary Neville on commentary in the first half for his questionable distribution, but there were precious few faults to be found in terms of his goalkeeping. Gazzaniga spilled one cross during City’s dominant period but was otherwise solid, and could do nothing about the goal. Some genuine competition might finally coax Lloris into consistency.

 

14) Perhaps there was something in the Manchester air, because Ederson was even more influential. City have barely ever had to rely on the Brazilian in a goalkeeping sense but he rose to the challenge here. The hosts struggled defensively but Ederson proved to be an excellent last line, saving twice from Son and once each from Eriksen and Lucas. “We deserved a draw,” said Pochettino after the match. “Man of the match was their keeper, Ederson.”

 

15) As it was, the game was settled by one moment of defensive complacency. The gap in points between these two sides is vast but it does feel as though they are two of the country’s three best teams.

It will come as no surprise that the decisive moment came down Tottenham’s left flank. Trippier was constantly exposed on the right on Wednesday but Davies looked a few levels below the required standard against Bernardo. He failed to deal with the Portuguese whereas Foyth, playing out of position at right wing-back, had the better of Sterling on the other side. If Tottenham are serious about establishing themselves as a long-term force both domestically and in Europe, their first port of call must be to improve those full-back options.

 

16) They can at least take solace in the fact that they possess a forward any side would be desperate to have. Son was often Tottenham’s only attacking outlet yet he managed to fluster an entire defence with little to no support. Had his finishing been even close to the level it was in midweek, this might have been another famous result.

The PFA Player of the Year shortlist was announced just prior to the match, with Son one of the most high-profile absentees. Tottenham should be thankful that individual honours and accolades continue to elude him, as it is already rather curious that he is not on the radar of Barcelona or Real Madrid. He really is that bloody good.

Matt Stead

 

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