Having just dropped his first two since January – and having just seen his Manchester City side display remarkable profligacy – it should perhaps come as no surprise that Pep Guardiola missed the point. A draw against the Champions League runners-up does not often carry more negative than positive connotations, but Saturday evening was one such instance.
While Sergio Aguero was tweeting about how ‘we vastly outperformed our rival and deserved more’, as if victory has become a divine right and those who stand defiant in City’s way are as big a supposed threat to football as VAR, his manager took solace in their display.
“What we have done,” he said, in awe at what he had just witnessed, “I don’t know if many teams can do it against them.”
Yet the more salient point is that not many teams can do what Tottenham did against a team like City. Hardly any, in fact. Not since April 2017 had a team come from behind twice to at least draw a Premier League game against City; not since May 2016 had it happened at the Etihad.
Guardiola, dating back even to his first steps into management with Barcelona B in 2007, had only once seen any of his sides take the lead twice at home in a league game but fail to win. A 3-3 draw with Villarreal at the end of his first season at the Nou Camp – aided by Eric Abidal’s second-half dismissal with the La Liga title already effectively secured – looks meaningless in comparison to Tottenham’s recent smash-and-grab.
This is not supposed to happen to a Guardiola side. His style predicates on breaking opponents, bending them to their will, making 90 minutes seem like 9,000. One goal is soon followed by two, three, four, five, each a carbon copy of the last. Once resistance and resolve is broken, it cannot be repaired.
To go behind against City, against Guardiola, is to have your physicality and mentality tested to its absolute limit. The energy saps away in your legs as you chase an infinite number of shadows. The doubt creeps into your mind as you consider the quality of talent in front of you. The belief dissipates with one glance at a bench playing host to world, European and Premier League champions, signed for a combined fee greater than your entire match-day squad. Games normally start at 0-0, but facing City is an automatic disadvantage.
Tottenham climbed that mountain once, were pushed straight back down, and yet dragged themselves back to the summit once more. They recovered from a limp opening 20 minutes to equalise against the run of play in the 23rd. They were overwhelmed by predictable brilliance in the 35th. They conceded six shots from the start of the second half to the 55th minute, then restored parity in the 56th. They held on beyond the 90th.
It is a thought that bears repeating: if churning out a result when not playing well is a mark of champions, what other-worldly virtue does churning out a result when not playing well against the champions point to?
Luck, of course. Were that game replayed a thousand times in the exact same circumstances, City would convert more than two of their 30 shots and Tottenham fewer than two of theirs. To pretend otherwise would be ignorant and naive. To insist that beating or even drawing with City is possible without a hint of serendipity would be foolish.
But Tottenham manufactured their own fortune, with Hugo Lloris enjoying one of his better days, Davinson Sanchez impressing without Jan Vertonghen, Kyle Walker-Peters eventually settling, Erik Lamela conjuring something out of nothing, Mauricio Pochettino rushing the substitution of Lucas Moura to ensure he was on the pitch for the corner: all were by design rather than default.
Such courage and tenacity was considered a happy accident at this stadium in April. Lightning struck twice the following month in a brave, bold and brilliant Champions League semi-final. But this was irrefutable proof of Tottenham’s new-found backbone. A side that would normally crumble and capitulate under such pressure stood their ground not once but twice against a team designed to crush opponents into submission.
Not all is perfect in north London. Pochettino will be delighted with the end but far from pleased with the means. But Guardiola himself will tell you that a perfect performance and flawless result is almost always unattainable in unison. “We played incredible,” he added on Saturday. “One of the best games we’ve played in our time together.” Yet it was still not enough to beat this tenacious Tottenham.