1) If one of the key complaints surrounding the implementation of VAR is that it removes the basic human instinct of uninhibitedly celebrating a crucial goal, the sights and sounds in the Etihad Stadium at around 7.21pm disproved that theory completely. No Manchester City fan paused to contemplate whether Gabriel Jesus’s stoppage-time goal would be disallowed; no Tottenham supporter took solace in the fact it could be overturned. No manager, player or coach thought of anything other than how a 3-2 result would affect them.
Fate dictated that it was in this exact fixture where that argument was first put forward. When Raheem Sterling’s late winner in the Champions League quarter-final last season was disallowed for a marginal offside, there was outrage as to how fans could no longer celebrate for fear of being made to look rather silly. Everyone would have to temporarily suspend their reaction to a goal for a minute to ensure it would stand.
Not so. The case against VAR is strong enough without having to manufacture reasons to hate it. Fans in the stadium are inexplicably the most ignored when it comes to the new technology, but their ability to unashamedly celebrate a goal has not been impinged upon. Their ability to bask in it for a little longer than 30 seconds? Well…
2) As someone with no strong opinion for or against VAR – and such disenfranchised disillusionment is likely a problem in itself – it seems necessary to also defend it with regards to that handball call. Aymeric Laporte did not intend to handle the ball and seemingly did not even realise he had done so from a late corner before Jesus struck. But under the new laws, that no longer matters. Any instance of ball striking hand in the build-up to a goal will see it ruled out, intentional or otherwise.
Those laws have been set out by the International FA board and no-one else. VAR exists purely to implement that and many of the game’s other problematic rules. It has many legitimate teething issues – the amount of time taken to come to a decision and the alienation of fans in attendance among them – but anger needs to be directed to the right places and for the right reasons.
3) It just so happened that Tottenham benefited again, as they did in April. But Mauricio Pochettino will be under no illusions: they just lasted 12 rounds with Mike Tyson because he kept on tripping over his shoelaces, not because they came even close to out-punching him.
The most alarming thing for large swathes of this match is that the visitors had no tactical identity, no clear game plan. They stumbled through the first half before improving in the second, particularly in defence. But for much of the game City treated them like training ground dummies solely because they resembled them.
Yet this is a sensational draw against a team that had not dropped a single Premier League point since January 29. It is a mark of champions to secure a result when not playing well; it is something else altogether to do so against the champions when not playing well. They have found that mental strength and backbone Pochettino has so craved.
Pochettino leaving the Etihad knowing he’s managed to shithouse a draw pic.twitter.com/zzZSydemJt
— ODDSbible (@ODDSbible) August 17, 2019
4) City will be disappointed, particularly having had victory snatched away so cruelly, but this was a freak result. They had ten times as many shots as their opponent, five times as many on target and more than six times the number of corners. Even with such reckless levels of poor finishing, that would have been enough to overcome any ordinary side. The Champions League runners-up are anything but.
It will be of no consolation to Guardiola, who will not be accustomed to his side showing such human characteristics for anything more than a fleeting moment. Failing to beat top-six opposition at home in the league for only the second time since April 2017 presents the slightest of chinks in this previously unyielding armour.
5) Even from City’s first shot of 30, Tottenham should have realised how the hosts had planned to hurt them. After a quiet opening, Kyle Walker burst forward past Davinson Sanchez after Danny Rose was caught out of position on seven minutes. He stopped in his tracks, changed direction and quickly cut the ball back to Sterling, whose effort was blocked by Kyle Walker-Peters.
The 22-year-old was carrying a massive bullseye on his back as by far the most inexperienced player on the pitch, yet the champions would actually target Rose down the left for most of the match. Guardiola perhaps expected Christian Eriksen to offer less defensive support than Moussa Sissoko, but even he could not have predicted Tanguy Ndombele to be so passive as to let City overload on Rose at will. It is no coincidence both of City’s goals came down his flank – and the only reason it wasn’t more was because of profligate finishing rather than the gaping hole eventually being patched up.
6) “Where VAR has been implemented successfully in other competitions it’s been a very high bar,” said Mike Riley, general manager of the Professional Game Match Officials Limited, in July. “We don’t want VAR to come in and try to re-referee the game. We actually want it to protect the referees from making serious errors, the ones where everybody goes: ‘Well, actually, that’s wrong.'”
The above line goes someway to explaining why Erik Lamela’s apparent foul on Rodri from a 12th-minute corner went unpunished by both Michael Oliver and his VAR overlords. As the delivery came in, Lamela’s arm was wrapped around the midfielder’s neck and he was applying enough pressure to send both to the ground. Play went on as the stadium waited for an intervention that never came.
The football layman has heard the phrase “clear and obvious error” repeated ad infinitum, but just as important here was the advent of “minimum interference for maximum benefit”, and the desire not to “re-referee the game”. The threshold that must be cleared to change an official’s decision – or advise them to do so, at least – is considerably higher than that to support it. Had Oliver given the penalty, VAR would likely have judged it to be the right call. It was an incident riddled with grey areas and opinions, thus it would have been difficult to claim that the official made a “clear and obvious error” either way.
“If we keep to that really high bar there is more chance of keeping the flow of the game, the intensity of the game and people enjoying the spectacle of it rather than constantly referring to the video screen for changing decisions,” Dean added last month. Therein lies the explanation for City not being awarded a penalty: the importance of the “flow of the game” justifiably outweighed the need to interrupt it to mull further over a debatable decision.
Pep on the Lamela push on Rodri in the first half which he says was a penalty: 'VAR was having a coffee in that minute'
— Sam Wallace (@SamWallaceTel) August 17, 2019
7) Undeterred, City would soon find their breakthrough. It felt like only a matter of time before one of their waves of attack carried Tottenham away, particularly as Pochettino’s side were happily floating along instead of fighting the tide.
The move started and finished with Sterling, but not in the traditional sense. The winger was faced with a wall of resistance on the left-hand side and so played the ball back to Oleksandr Zinchenko, then Aymeric Laporte and finally Nicolas Otamendi. City, a matter of yards from the opposition penalty area, were back at the halfway line.
Within the course of a few passes, one sensational cross and one excellent header, they were in front. Otamendi quickly played it out to the right-hand side where Kevin de Bruyne and Bernardo Silva were parked, and after the pair combined to create space, De Bruyne destroyed the defence with a cross from deep. Sterling ghosted in behind Walker-Peters at the back post to guide his header beyond Hugo Lloris.
It was a perfect summary of City: a team who will gladly approach any obstacle from a different angle if it seems impenetrable at first. The computer had frozen, so Sterling simply turned it off at the back to reset it, waited patiently and then logged back in.
8) And it was a mightily fine finish, one that should not be underplayed. De Bruyne’s cross was brilliant but bending and fiercely hit. Sterling had to time his run and, even then, had the smallest of spaces of the goal to aim at from such a wide position. He duly obliged.
After the opening-day hat-trick, those familiar questions over his finishing are no longer relevant. Guardiola has coaxed an elite-level forward out of a clearly talented but frustrating winger.
The only question now is how long he will remain at the Etihad. Sterling has become a two-time Premier League winner and one-time FWA Footballer of the Year in four seasons, yet it feels as though his City cycle could be coming to an end. For a player who once professed that his childhood “dream” to “play abroad somewhere” was fuelled by a quaint desire “to finish training and go home and sit in your garden and eat some dinner”, money is clearly not his main ambition (be quiet, Liverpool fans). The power of a kid’s ambitions should not be underplayed.
This is already the 24-year-old’s ninth season dining at the Premier League table; it will only be so long until he decides to expand his footballing diet and broaden his European horizons. Who can blame him?
9) Tottenham had 28% possession and zero shots to City’s seven from the first minute to the 20th, then 59.8% possession and zero shots to City’s seven from the 25th minute to half-time. An almost crippling inertia became an unfathomable level of control against such an overbearing side, yet they had nothing to show for their efforts.
Save for those five bizarre minutes during which they barely misplaced a pass, started to press and harry and equalised Sterling’s opener within 203 seconds, of course. Erik Lamela’s effort from outside the box seemed so out of place from what came before it and stunned the Etihad into silence.
The pass that preceded it from Ndombele seemed simple but it achieved what Spurs had struggled to do before then. He received the ball in space from Winks and immediately looked up, found Lamela in a small gap between Sterling and Ilkay Gundogan, and played a short, sharp pass to the Argentine.
Not only did it break the lines, but it almost goaded Lamela to press forward instead of taking stock to play it sideways or backwards. Ndombele’s pass was ever so slightly ahead of him and encouraged Lamela to attack. He dribbled ten or so yards before a curled finish.
If the intricacies in Ndombele’s pass were by design, you can see why Pochettino was so desperate to sign him. It might have been a happy accident, but there is something special about a player who can conjure such moments even during otherwise average performances.
10) Not that it should have ever got that far. Lamela was under no pressure when receiving the pass and faced a further lack of opposition as he sprinted forward with the ball. Guardiola was incensed as his midfielders and defenders simply stood off.
But Ederson was the main culprit. His positioning was lackadaisical and his reactions too slow to compensate as a fairly central shot flew past him. It was the first of two on-target shots he would concede over 90 minutes to cap a disappointing evening. You know you’ve f**ked it as a goalkeeper if David Preece digs you out.
Ederson in a positive starting position ready for the through ball but as soon as Lamela receives the ball he hasn’t to retreat back and more centrally to a better position. Great finish aided by Ederson though. pic.twitter.com/vYM2C0HUeE
— David Preece (@davidpreece12) August 17, 2019
11) Lloris was as impactful as Ederson was ineffective. The Frenchman still induces a couple of heart palpitations throughout any given match with his kicking and distribution, which was tested to its absolute limit by a ferocious City press. Yet this was a man-of-the-match performance to remember.
Bernardo Silva was denied from close range. Laporte was kept out. Zinchenko saw his rasping effort stopped. And that was just in the first half; Zinchenko, Silva, Sterling and, most acrobatically of all, Rodri were thwarted in the second.
Even when it seemed certain he would be beaten after Silva hooked a corner onto his crossbar as Otamendi waited to finish the rebound, Lloris predicted the flight of the ball and, facing his own goal with the City centre-half behind him, pounced to avert danger. Were the two keepers to have swapped sides and replicated their displays it would have been a decisive home victory.
12) Parity would be restored for no longer than 12 minutes. As Tottenham started to grow into the game City reminded them and the viewing public what makes them so dangerous: a predictable but unpreventable attack.
Walker, De Bruyne, Silva, De Bruyne, Aguero, goal. It looks simple because it is simple, yet there is no simple way to stop it. Do teams just fall into a default tactic of putting a defender in front of the six-yard box and a midfielder on the penalty spot when they sense City slipping into their mechanical mode? Would that even be enough?
Not with the quality of De Bruyne’s delivery. The way City manufactured space by pulling Rose out of position for the Belgian to find space down the right was magnificent, and his low, driven cross was masterful. Aguero’s movement baffled the centre-halves and he could hardly miss.
Jurgen Klopp can put forward Adam Lallana as “a new signing” if he so wishes, but the greatest buy City made this summer was that of time for De Bruyne to recover and regain full fitness. He really could be the difference.
13) From then on, the question was again how Pochettino actually wanted to approach this game. His line-up was industrious and, for want of a better phrase, trained in the art of sh*thousery. Lamela, Sissoko and Ndombele in the same side promises a few bruises and bloodied noses. But they were down 11-9 on tackles at half-time, with no suggestion that they could create another goal out of nothing.
Did this game call for the experience of Jan Vertonghen instead of Sanchez? Was the balance of Giovani Lo Celso required? Was it possible not to leave Kane so isolated up front?
Yet perhaps Pochettino’s biggest call, starting Lamela ahead of Lucas Moura, doubly paid off. The former opened the scoring and the latter closed it within seconds of his introduction. For a manager who once struggled to alter the course of games with his changes, he has clearly learned. Having such talent on the bench helps, mind.
Does Pochettino pick weird starting lineups to make his substitutions look good? 🤔
— Optimistic Spur (@Positive_Spur) August 17, 2019
14) Moura’s looping, front-post header was excellent – although Ederson should have done better. Walker will be equally dissatisfied at being beaten in the air so definitively.
There was a delicious contrast in Lamela’s corner being converted after finding the first man and Eriksen’s generally failing to reach that point. The Dane was integral in helping Tottenham beat Villa last week, but could do worse than asking his teammate for set-piece tips.
15) That, in the 56th minute, was to be Tottenham’s penultimate shot. Their last arrived via the feet of Kane two minutes later, but did not find the target.
The final half an hour therefore saw City having 11 efforts without reply. It gave Sanchez and, to a lesser extent, Alderweireld an opportunity to atone for their earlier mistakes. It provided Ndombele, Winks and Sissoko the platform to prove that their collective first-half defensive aberration was the outlier. It offered Tottenham a reprieve as a side more famed for their goalscoring ability was allowed to show another dimension to their game.
They did not hold City at arm’s length, nor did they cling on by their fingertips. It was a performance riddled with mistakes but typified by a killer instinct at the right end. September is a fortnight away and Tottenham are already battle-hardened by a comeback victory and a smash-and-grab point away at the champions.
16) Sterling (6), Silva (5) and De Bruyne (4) all had more shots than Tottenham (3), as did Jesus (4) in 25 substitute minutes. Left-back Zinchenko, who seemed to pick up an injury at one point, matched them for efforts on target (2).
VAR will be blamed, but this was more of a mortal failure than a technological one. Perhaps City should have had a first-half penalty and a stoppage-time winner, but had they taken just one more of their many chances they would not be mourning either. VAR is undeniably imperfect but, on this rarest of occasions, City were even more so.