Manchester City 4-3 Tottenham: 16 Conclusions

Date published: Wednesday 17th April 2019 11:25

1) “When you play as many times against each other, it becomes like the basketball play-offs,” said Pep Guardiola in his 2013 biography, Another Way of Winning. “You do one thing; they respond with another, you answer in another way.”

Therein lies the most succinct possible way of describing the most ridiculous game you might ever care to see. Manchester City did one thing, Tottenham responded with another and City answered in yet more creative ways in an intermittent and relentless cycle until Spurs were seemingly left with no retort. Then Fernando Llorente hit a three-pointer off his bloody hip, VAR denied Raheem Sterling in stoppage time and Mauricio Pochettino’s wounded walked into the Champions League semi-finals.

Guardiola had it right six years ago: this was an end-to-end, breathless, brilliant basketball play-off. That was hardly the plan, mind.

 

2) City went into the game having won 20 of their last 21 matches at the Etihad Stadium. Tottenham made the trip on the back of six defeats in their last seven away fixtures. Those two runs continue, although it admittedly does not quite feel like it.

There was more than a hint of sarcasm and sycophancy in Guardiola’s pre-match claim that he is “a failure in this competition,” and that “if my teams don’t win the Champions League, we fail all the time”. There is a modicum of sympathy for a manager held to the absolute highest standard like no other, but Manuel Pellegrini has still taken City further in Europe.

Unprecedented domestic success does offset that, but there will come a stage when that might not be enough for some – Guardiola included. The reaction to his first-leg mistakes was fair and certainly set the scene for this bittersweet exit. And while they were not as calamitous as his errors last season against Liverpool, the campaign before at Monaco or in the preceding years, the damage that was done in the first leg could not be completely reversed.

 

3) Perhaps the issue is that Guardiola has seen his European dreams ended by familiar foes in consecutive seasons. City have dropped 30 points in the Premier League since August 2017, yet domestic rivals have toppled them in the Champions League twice at this stage now.

Kenny Dalglish blamed Liverpool’s first-round knockout at the hands of Nottingham Forest in 1978 on the naivety of facing a fellow English side. The European Cup holders were overwhelming favourites against the Division One champions but were beaten 2-0 in the first leg and drew 0-0 in the second.

“In Europe a 1-0 defeat in a first leg away from home is not normally a bad result,” Dalglish said. “But because we were playing familiar league opponents we foolishly went chasing the game and got punished when Colin Barrett scored.”

Liverpool treated that tie as a sprint over one leg as opposed to a marathon over two. City tried to avoid that mistake with a regrettable but salvageable defeat in north London before bursting out of the blocks at the Etihad. They did not expect Spurs to match that pace, and eventually succumbed to stitch.

 

4) The announcement of the line-ups feels an age ago. And unlike in the first leg, Guardiola managed to simplify the equation. Some questioned the decision to leave both John Stones and Leroy Sane on the bench but neither have been in favour recently. They felt like the right calls, even if hindsight reflects badly upon them.

It did suggest that City were expecting to end the night sorting some laundry, such was their disregard for the idea of keeping a clean sheet. Kyle Walker and Benjamin Mendy were on hand to offer width, energy and attacking purpose with Aymeric Laporte and Vincent Kompany in the centre. City had won 13 and drawn one of the 14 games Mendy started alongside Laporte as the left-sided centre-half this season, scoring 35 goals and conceding just six.

But Laporte was being asked to carry out the most daunting job of any player as Kompany’s carer against the pace of Heung-min Son and Lucas Moura. City had only ever started with a defence of Walker, Kompany, Laporte and Mendy twice, conceding in both games, and that inexperience of never having played together and formed that connection showed.

 

5) Yet it was not Kompany who was most culpable. The Belgian’s performance was the equivalent of dangling a wet towel at a raging fire, but Laporte’s display was akin to pouring an entire canister of petrol on it.

The Frenchman became the first player to make two errors leading to goals in a single Champions League game this season, with his assist for Son’s equaliser matched by his ball to Lucas for the South Korean’s second. Laporte misplaced just nine passes all game, but two of them were cataclysmic.

City will rue the timing of Laporte’s worst performance by far since joining in January 2018 in what has been an otherwise excellent season. Whether it was fueled by concern as to how Kompany would cope or simply a disastrous but isolated 90 minutes is uncertain. But if neither Stones nor Nicolas Otamendi can be trusted to start in such a crucial game, Guardiola has to invest in a centre-half this summer. Laporte can be given the benefit of the doubt, but Kompany is no longer fit for purpose when the stakes are so high.

 

6) It did not seem much of a problem when Sterling opened the scoring after four minutes. His finish was as sensational as the Kevin de Bruyne run that preceded it, with Moussa Sissoko’s decision to try and show the Belgian inside to Tottenham’s centre-halves proving a mistake.

De Bruyne released the ball wide to Sterling who curled an effort beyond Hugo Lloris’ reach under absolutely no pressure from Kieran Trippier. Both he and Danny Rose endured a recklessly terrible first half which City took full advantage of by doubling up on the full-backs in attack.

In their defence (pun intended), neither were offered much protection by those in front of them. But while Rose improved in the second half and made one vital clearance after a Lloris save, Trippier was still a problem that City – and pretty much every other opponent of late – constantly looked to exploit.

It is a weird thing to say about a player who has reached World Cup and Champions League semi-finals within the last nine months, but upgrading their right-back has to be Tottenham’s summer priority.

 

7) Their approach was pretty much the diametric of City’s: they saw a side without the solidity of Fernandinho and with Kompany at its core and felt that the simplest route would prove the most effective.

They were not wrong. Their first two goals were a direct result of Lucas dribbling straight through the centre of City’s soft core, forcing mistakes from a panicked defence on both occasions. The absence of Harry Kane actually worked in Tottenham’s favour as instead of having a central striker who tends to drop deep, Son remained high to provide a constant threat and Lucas joined him when Spurs were in possession.

If the first half was a car chase down the motorway, Tottenham hogged the middle lane while City constantly tried to overtake on the left and right-hand sides. That neither side seemed bothered enough to check their wing mirror and change course made for sensational first-half entertainment.

 

8) It would not have been possible without Son, who is genuinely one of Europe’s most fearsome finishers. Ederson was criticised for the first goal but it was essentially a penalty with a moving ball that the Brazilian got a leg to. He had no chance whatsoever with the second, curled beyond his reach and into the corner to give Tottenham the lead.

Keeping the South Korean remains one of Pochettino’s greatest ever decisions. Tottenham initially signed Son to offer a forward option and provide back-up for Kane when needed but he has become so much more than a support act. He genuinely might be the club’s most important player due to his unique skillset, versatility and durability.

Gary Neville was right in pointing out the increased influence of wide forwards in the Premier League this week. Son easily deserves to be part of that conversation. Any club would be desperate to have him.

 

9) De Bruyne was City’s star. As fine as the run was that led to Sterling’s opening goal, his cross for the forward’s second was absolutely sublime. The Belgian started the move with a quickly-taken free-kick before finishing it by squaring for Sterling at the back post from the edge of the area after a Bernardo backheel. It was impossible to comprehend, never mind to defend.

This was perhaps the first real sign that the 27-year-old has fully recovered from long-term injury issues. De Bruyne has shown glimpses of brilliance since his return but this game finally provided the bigger picture. He created twice as many chances as any player, ended the game with three assists and deserved better from some of his teammates. The sliver of a silver lining on this greyest of clouds is that an in-form De Bruyne might well win City the Premier League title.

 

10) Bernardo Silva deserves more than a passing mention, as does Aguero. The former was a relentless force throughout with no teammate having more shots (4) and no player making more tackles (5). The latter made up for his first-leg no-show with some excellent link-up play, culminating in his assist for Silva to make it 2-2 on the night.

Sterling, or winning a Premier League title with Fabian Delph at left-back, is surely Guardiola’s biggest success story at City. But Aguero’s transformation from lethal marksman to perfectly rounded centre-forward has been astonishing. His goal threat remains – his second-half strike means he has 30 in three consecutive seasons – but he almost matches Kane at times in his ability to dictate the play from deeper positions.

 

11) Half-time provided a rare opportunity to catch a breath. Only then did the gravitas of what had actually happened sink in: the fastest ever four goals in a Champions League game, beating the previous record by nine minutes; the fastest ever five goals in a Champions League game, beating the previous record by three minutes; the first Champions League match with two lead changes in the first half; the fact that City had conceded in the first ten minutes of any game in all competitions twice since January 2017, and matched that tally in one utterly mindless period here.

Then there was one overarching fact: that we were watching the sort of fabled game that will always be replayed but never repeated. That these two sets of players and these two managers could prepare for this exact same match in the exact same circumstances again but never recreate the sheer drama that was played out in the first half. For two teams with limited modern European experience, this is the most emphatic way to build that sort of history.

 

12) But the game’s most decisive moment came just before the break. The venerable Sissoko tried and tried but could simply try no more after suffering an apparent groin injury in an innocuous clash with De Bruyne. With Tottenham losing the game 3-2 but leading the tie on away goals, Pochettino was faced with a dilemma.

He knew it would come to this at some point, that he would gaze upon his bench and rue a summer of inaction. Tottenham’s substitutes had combined for nine goals and 12 assists this season, seven and five of which Llorente accounted for respectively. Sane alone had 15 goals and 18 assists, so if anyone had the means with which to change the course of the game if needed, it was City.

With four minutes to play until half-time, Pochettino debated as to whether Oliver Skipp was the right choice as a direct Sissoko replacement. He could even bring on Davinson Sanchez and drop Dele Alli back or move Rose out to the left wing and shift Jan Vertonghen to left-back. He had options, however sparse.

Pochettino, whose substitutions have long been one of few points of genuine contention in north London, opted to replace Sissoko with Llorente and essentially nullify Tottenham’s threat while weakening their resistance. It felt like a change that had almost ended their hopes, and one precious few people agreed with.

 

13) But there is a reason Pochettino is paid for this sh*t and I am irrefutably not. By hook, crook, elbow or hip, Llorente scored the goal that eventually put Tottenham through from a corner with 17 minutes to play. The joy that filled the Etihad after Aguero’s 59th-minute goal was sucked out of the stadium within an instant.

It was a goal that will surely not count when proposed rule changes are brought into action, but that matters not one jot this season. City can and should feel hard done by, yet Tottenham created their own luck.

To those who might still scoff at Pochettino due to his lack of trophies, beating City in the Champions League quarter-finals with Llorente up front, a midfield of Alli and Wanyama and a bag of well-groomed cement at right-back is quite the retort. Throw in the lack of a stadium for most of the season and the fact that their last signing was 441 days ago and Llorente crowning this moment makes this something of a minor footballing miracle.

 

14) Wanyama’s performance was far from perfect, but then it was never likely to be. This was his seventh start of the season in all competitions and only his second in 2019, with Huddersfield at home hardly the most suitable dress rehearsal.

The Kenyan had actually played fewer minutes this campaign (553) than Ilkay Gundogan had in the last 32 days (560) and David Silva had in the last 39 (578). Yet he turned this into a midfield war that City were desperate to avoid. It is not intended as an insult to say he dragged them down to his level.

Wanayama made four tackles, two clearances and two interceptions, and was the only Tottenham player to gain possession (8) more times than he lost it (6). His decision to kick the ball out for a throw-in deep in City’s half after tackling Sane and being allowed to cross the halfway line unopposed in stoppage time summed up an almost accidentally intelligent display.

 

15) Then came the drama. One of Eriksen’s few mistakes saw him receive the ball on the break but turn and play it back, only for Bernardo to get a touch. It rebounded all the way to Aguero who unselfishly squared for Sterling to complete both his hat-trick and the most improbable but inevitable of comebacks.

“I must be one of the luckiest guys on the planet tonight,” said Eriksen minutes after VAR ruled the goal out due to Aguero having been marginally offside. “I thought it was all over but it was a fun game. It was a rollercoaster, we gave them a lot but also got a lot. It was a weird game.”

It was certainly a weird end. City and Tottenham fans felt elation and deflation in equal measure as well over a minute of celebrations were pierced by Cuneyt Cakir’s decision to correctly overrule the goal. And as someone who does not have a particular opinion on the subject and can see both arguments, it really did take away a little from the occasion.

 

16) But it does nothing to take away from the achievement. It felt almost fitting that Tottenham were beaten on the night but progressed on aggregate, losing the battle but winning the war. This is a gritty, determined side born from the ashes of what came before them, and this is a result to embody that resurrection.

They did not deserve victory but they absolutely warrant a place in the semi-finals, and can no longer be tarred with the ‘Spursy’ brush. This is a completely different iteration of Tottenham, a side whose limitations we do not yet know. This side lost their first two group games, drew the third and were one goal down after 77 minutes of their fourth yet might well enter their semi-final as favourites against a sensational Ajax. If their run thus far has not given them the belief that they can beat anyone, this quarter-final ought to have.

For City, a mental block might be forming. These players are only machines to an extent, and will always eventually succumb to mental or physical fatigue, if not dumb luck. But they have stumbled at this stage in consecutive seasons – albeit in completely different circumstances – and that is bound to have an affect.

With Guardiola still addicted to the Champions League light that blinds him, these scars might take even longer to heal than last time. Still, at least Kyle Walker was right all along.

Matt Stead

 

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