Tottenham 1-0 Manchester City: 16 Conclusions

Date published: Tuesday 9th April 2019 11:18

1) All-English Champions League games might be akin to sh*t on a stick for some, but this was quite the opposite. Let the scoreline not obscure what was a pulsating, engaging match between familiar foes.

When these two teams last met in October, Wembley played host to a forgettable slog of a match in front of a tired crowd on a cold, dreary Monday evening. Tottenham had one shot on target against a Manchester City side suffering one of their rare ordinary games.

That ended 1-0 but it felt like a 1-0. This did not. The extra layer of intrigue that the Champions League adds made this more of a spectacle, a far bigger occasion, a much easier watch. The stakes were higher and the game benefited. Europe was the great leveller between two sides separated by 16 points in the Premier League. Knockout football is bloody fun.

 

2) “Do I think it worked?” asked Guardiola last season. “We lost 3-0.”

The manager’s decision to rest Raheem Sterling for the quarter-final first leg against Liverpool, with Ilkay Gundogan playing on the right of a midfield four alongside Kevin de Bruyne, Fernandinho and David Silva, was seen as cataclysmic. The hosts ran riot in the first half-hour at Anfield and completely bypassed City’s soft and narrow underbelly, with Andy Robertson and Trent Alexander-Arnold predictably dominating. Guardiola was not out-thought, he simply overthought.

This did not seem quite as questionable at first. There was logic behind the decision to start Fabian Delph at left-back over the fit and available Benjamin Mendy, while Gundogan being picked ahead of De Bruyne was fair considering the Belgian’s struggles with fitness. Bernardo Silva was a surprise omission, but a slight thigh problem explained his absence.

Yet hindsight does not look upon the Spaniard kindly. The Fernandinho-Gundogan-Silva midfield trio looked ordinary against Moussa Sissoko and Harry Winks, and the substitutions he made were either ineffective or too late. De Bruyne and Leroy Sane played a combined two minutes.

Guardiola was too pragmatic, so uncharacteristically withdrawn that a side for whom rhythm and patterns mean more than any other lost their flow. This is far from a lost cause, but City were deservedly beaten. Guardiola once again overcomplicated an equation he needed to simplify.

 

3) This is neither the first nor second time. In 2017, Guardiola started Fernandinho as his only defensive midfielder behind five forwards against Monaco to try and consolidate a 5-3 first-leg win. They lost 3-1.

In 2016 Bayern Munich were beaten 1-0 by Atletico Madrid in the first leg of their semi-final, having changed tactics completely to rely heavily on crosses despite resting Thomas Muller, one of their best aerial threats.

In 2015 Bayern started the first leg of their semi-final with Barcelona with a back three before quickly changing to a back four. They lost 3-0.

In 2014 Javi Martinez was left on the bench against a Real Madrid side Guardiola had described as “the best counter-attacking team in the world”. Karim Benzema scored the only goal of the game on the break and Bayern failed to overturn the deficit in the second leg.

Guardiola is one of the greatest managers in history, but this can no longer be deemed a coincidence. His Champions League craving has become harmful.

 

4) It was the first time this Tottenham XI had started together, not that you’d know it. The north London club’s spine was crucial, with Toby Alderweireld and Jan Vertonghen giving little away, Sissoko and Winks dominating in midfield and Alli floating wonderfully behind Heung-min Son and Harry Kane. To start both strikers was a brave decision that would eventually be vindicated.

Having won his first meeting with Guardiola in both La Liga and the Premier League, Pochettino deservedly made that a hat-trick with success in Europe. More difficult objectives lay ahead in Manchester, but this result and performance was better than anyone realistically expected.

 

5) One of the first questions was as to how both sides would approach the game from kick-off. City had scored in the opening ten minutes of their last three matches but conceding thrice in the opening half-hour away to Liverpool at this stage last season seemed to play on their minds. Spurs dominated possession early on and pressed high, having just over 63% of the ball after five minutes. They even created the first chance, save for an effort from David Silva that was ruled offside. Great work from Rose down the left helped release Sissoko whose cross found Alli, but his acrobatic shot flew over Ederson’s crossbar.

It soon became clear that Tottenham would focus on this kind of rapid transition from defence to attack. City were caught off guard as the hosts took no more than five seconds to play the ball from their own half to Alli on the edge of the area. It was a warning sign the visitors could not afford to ignore.

 

6) Almost at that exact point, City seemed to change their approach. Delph, stationed on the left, had been constantly drifting into central positions while Gundogan, who started in midfield, was shifting out wide to cover for him. It felt like an unnatural and overly complicated tactic and both were instructed to remain in their original positions thereafter.

Nicolas Otamendi and Aymeric Laporte also closed the gap between them to try and starve Alli of space. The formation became a more fixed 4-2-3-1 and the visitors were far more pragmatic.

Whether it was a direct response to the Alli chance and the move that had preceded it is unknown. But it did suggest that City were approaching this game with rather more caution than ever before. Guardiola reacted far too late 12 months ago and was not about to make a similar mistake.

 

7) It paid instant dividends. Their left wing hardly looked stable at any point throughout the first half – insert your own political joke here – but it provided City’s first genuine opportunity as Sterling received the ball on the flank and pushed inside. After evading a couple of defenders his shot was blocked by Danny Rose and went out for a corner.

At least that was the initial call. The lack of appeals from players, coaches, fans and pretty much everyone who had witnessed the incident betrayed what VAR somehow considered to be a “clear and obvious error”. Minutes passed before Bjorn Kuipers eventually awarded the penalty to much bemusement.

Here is the thing: it was the right decision based on the wrong rules. By the letter of the ever-changing UEFA law, Kuipers was justified in pointing to the spot. By virtue of common sense, Rose and Tottenham were justified in feeling incredibly hard done by.

Yet there is a very recent and similarly important precedent. Presnel Kimpembe may still be protesting the decision to give a penalty against him for handball against Manchester United in the last round, but UEFA defended the call by noting that “the defender’s arm was not close to the body”, which in turn “made the defender’s body bigger”. The point stood for Rose.

The issue is that the handball law is now so heavily weighted in favour of attackers, which is curious considering how much the definition of offside has been skewed so horribly to benefit defenders. In both instances the reasons behind the rules have long been lost in translation, and football’s governing bodies seem further than ever before from reaching a logical and balanced middle ground.

 

8) One of the more regrettable aspects of VAR is that it practically demands increasingly lukewarm takes are made. The fear of going over the same arguments before, during and after every match leads to an inevitable surge of people desperate to make a fresh, original point that everyone can agree on.

All of which can lead to this sort of thing.

As someone whose football career ended at the age of 13 because I could no longer be arsed to get up so early on Saturday mornings, I can quite confidently state that never having played at any meaningful level does not even vaguely impinge on my ability to interpret the laws.

That both Ferdinand and Hoddle went on to try and explain to literal former professional Premier League referee Peter Walton that a penalty should not have been awarded was satire at its best.

 

9) As if to confirm the debate as essentially meaningless, Hugo Lloris saved his third consecutive penalty anyway. Sergio Aguero had placed nine of his 13 penalties to the goalkeeper’s left since the start of last season, scoring every time. It took a World Cup-winning captain to notice the pattern.

To describe Lloris’ form as indifferent this season would be kind; he has wavered between brilliant and baffling with no in between. But without his intervention on Tuesday the game would have taken a vastly different course.

The Frenchman only had one other save and an interception with his feet to make throughout the game, with this one of Tottenham’s best defensive performances in recent memory. He should take great delight in providing that platform.

 

10) Tottenham really were buoyed by that penalty save, with City deflated. The next shot came just over ten minutes later when slack defending allowed Kane to test Ederson after fine work from Alli and Eriksen. Spurs had seven efforts to City’s one from the 24th minute until half-time.

It did rather feel like their inability to score was a wasted opportunity, however. Few clubs experience more than one prolonged moment in the ascendancy against City, and Sterling’s attempt within two minutes of the restart confirmed that Guardiola would not accept such sloppiness. City were about to put their stamp on this game.

 

11) That period of dominance never really came. Tottenham stood firm and, for all their possession, City could not find a way through.

There were a few reasons for that. First, Ederson completed just one pass into the opposition half all game, with Tottenham cutting off all the supply lines and winning the “physical” battle Guardiola had predicted before the game. Then there was the midfield, which was again too narrow to establish a proper foothold. Delph and Kyle Walker would have been expected to offer width but they were City’s two worst players.

Aguero was also terrible, even leaving his penalty miss aside. The Argentinean had two other off-target shots and managed just six more touches in 71 minutes than replacement Gabriel Jesus had in 19.

But the main issue was that their only creative midfielder continued his recent poor form. David Silva created one chance all game as he laboured to an eventual substitution. On the rare occasions the Spaniard evaded the man-marking of Sissoko, he was imprecise and indecisive in both touch and pass. Bernardo Silva was a huge miss.

 

12) It should be noted just how wonderful Winks was in his first start in over a month. He stood out in direct competition with much more experienced players and more than earned the standing ovation he received upon his substitution.

At 23, Winks has started in the Nou Camp, the Westfalenstadion, the Bernabeu, Turf Moor and numerous other European footballing landmarks without ever looking overawed. He and Sissoko can fight it out over who is Pochettino’s biggest coaching success.

 

13) When Kane hobbled off after a challenge with Delph, many may have felt as though 0-0 was the best-case scenario for Tottenham. But that rather overlooks how much they have grown as a force without him. The upside of his semi-regular injuries means Spurs have had time to adjust for when he is no longer available.

They beat Dortmund 3-0 without him. They won all four of the Premier League games he missed through injury in January and February. They won the one Champions League match and two of the three Premier League fixtures he was absent for last season, and all three of the games he sat out with an ankle knock in early 2017.

Tottenham are finally in a symbiotic relationship with Kane, and no longer completely reliant on their best player. That is perhaps the biggest indication yet of their immense growth into an elite side.

 

14) Son’s goal only strengthens that. The South Korean was unmarked when Eriksen released him down the right-hand side. He kept the ball in, dribbled it back towards goal and fired past Ederson. Tottenham had their goal.

It would be easy to eulogise over Son, but it’s been done countless times before. And so it should have: he’s bloody brilliant. But City’s defending cannot possibly be ignored.

Delph won a Premier League title at left-back, but a combination of both his general lack of games and that being an unnatural position contributed to some quite woeful positioning. He then failed to avert the danger as Son manoeuvred for room to score, with Gundogan far too slow to close him down and Ederson too easily beaten.

City were more concerned with whether he was offside or if the ball went out for a goal kick (hint: neither) to actually defend the situation. Guardiola will be justifiably livid, but this was quite the stage to give Delph just his third start of 2019.

 

15) The game was far from lost, never mind the tie. City had 12 minutes to conjure a response, with De Bruyne and Sane having already been on the bench too long.

Guardiola somehow resisted the temptation to introduce either of them until the 89th minute, when the anonymous Riyad Mahrez and dreadful Silva made way. It was the last of a series of costly mistakes Guardiola would make. The bad news for Tottenham is that he will be desperate to atone for them next week.

 

16) That the first of these three meetings actually had the lowest stakes at play bodes well. Next Wednesday’s second leg at the Etihad is finely poised, and neither side can afford to slip in the Premier League game three days later.

Guardiola faced a similar situation in the 2010/11 season when Barcelona faced Real Madrid four times in three competitions over 17 days. He drew in La Liga on course to winning the title, advancing in the Champions League but losing the Copa del Rey final.

“When you play as many times against each other, it becomes like the basketball play-offs,” he once said of facing the same opponent multiple times in quick succession. “You do one thing; they respond with another, you answer in another way. The guessing, the changing, the preparing, the switches during games; guessing what formation they will play, how we can surprise them too: that is what makes everything enjoyable, what gives meaning to everything. It is the thing that made those encounters fascinating.”

The starter was appetising enough to give both managers plenty to ponder. Now it’s time for the main course and dessert…

Matt Stead

 

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