The Spurs vs Man City match-up last weekend was far from the fast-paced spectacle we expected, but it gave us a glimpse into why Pep Guardiola’s men have wrapped up the title with more than a month to go.
Like a circus act of yonder past, Guardiola and his Manchester City side have been touring the country’s grounds for most of this season under the banner ‘’greatest ever Premier League side’’, with opposition fans saluting the sheer nature of their play. Kevin De Bruyne, Sterling, Sane, Aguero and Jesus linking and bedazzling defences with brutal ease, cutting through backlines like a hot knife through butter. Yet, like a second act taken from a Hollywood film, there was a strike back. Familiar foes Klopp and Mourinho landed counter-punches which highlighted the shortcomings of Guardiola’s side and ended hopes of a historic quadruple. Cancel the show folks, the circus has been called off for the foreseeable future.
For what should have been a gargantuan clash between two of the Premier League’s most tactically astute teams this season, the match between Spurs and Man City was rather subdued. Perhaps Spurs, having virtually secured a top four finish, were more focused on the FA Cup semi-final next weekend; perhaps Man City, having crumbled against Liverpool and Man Utd in past games, were just hoping to get to the end of the season in peace and then reflect on the quadruple that could have been. Either way, it was a nervy game littered with errors that lacked the hallmarks of a heavyweight clash.
Coming in to the game with no Aguero or Fernandinho, the away bench looked rather threadbare for a team which has spent hundreds of millions on building a squad. Spurs fans took ironic amusement that Sterling was on the bench – their youth player Kazaiah Sterling that is. City, as has been their tradition this season, held relentless possession of the ball, and should have scored early on, when Lloris was left stranded as Sane smashed a shot against the woodwork. David Silva controlled the ball with all the guise of 2006 Riquelme – little effort but maximum results in his passing.
In the end, for all the plaudits heaped on this City side’s ability to pass their way through teams, it was a Tony Pulis-esque route one goal which broke the deadline. Spurs gambled by playing a high line in an effort to press Man City out of the game, but it backfired as Vincent Kompany, that giant of a leader, launched a long ball which bounced through the Spurs backline and allowed Gabriel Jesus to slot home with ease. There was no sense of anger in the home crowd; that goal had been coming, it was deserved, and Spurs needed to up their game.
Mere minutes later however, Sterling was taken down by Lloris just outside the box but suddenly City had a penalty. Well, well well, now this awoke the anger in the crowd, as only a dubious penalty decision can do. Ilkay Gundogan stepped up, as he did at Wembley five years ago for Dortmund in the Champions League final, and struck the penalty into the net with ease. City of last month would have now been eyeing up a battering at 2-0 up; but the City side who lost 3-2 to Manchester United last week having been in the same position, were still nervous, they allowed Spurs to press and sure enough, just before the first half whistle blew, Christian Eriksen got one back for Spurs from a rather fortuitous rebound off Ederson. ‘’Comeback is on lad’’ was the talk from the family seated next to me. Spurs sensed blood.
In the end, the notion of a comeback was a false dawn of the highest sense. Spurs came out pushing for an equaliser, sensing a weakness in the away side, who were full of insecurity and self-doubt as they came out for the final 45 minutes. That feeling subsided however, as, like someone with amnesia who suddenly remembers who they are, City awoke 10 or so minutes into the second half, Sterling taking charge by making runs which completely exposed Sanchez and Vertonghen at the back. Gabriel Jesus was wasteful, missing clear one on one chances, before Sterling himself missed a sitter of a chance with Lloris out of position and Vertonghen forced to clear as a proxy goalie.
Much in the same way that Juventus made second half changes to swing the game vs Spurs in the Champions League last 16, Guardiola took off Sane and replaced him with defender Otamendi in the 64th minute, shoring up the defence and ensuring Tottenham were frustrated, it was only 8 minutes later that Sterling scored a rebound to seal the game 3-1. Spurs looked out of answers and the last 10 minutes of the game took on a training match feel as both teams passed the ball around without doing much, while hordes of fans begun to leave, knowing the game was done and that an early train home would be the best option to take.
Harry Kane, for all the ‘’claiming the goal’’ jokes on social media this week, was unusually ineffective in this game, with Eriksen and Alli taking on much of the onus in terms of Spurs attacking options. Lamela had a tough game, but his replacement by Son done little to change the game. For all of the strength Spurs had on a bench, a ‘’weakened’’ City bench still did more to swing the game. The Spurs faithful valiantly tried to create an atmosphere in the 90,000 grand stadium, but as with virtually all Wembley games, barring the Champions League and North London Derby this season, it has failed to replicate the intensity of White Hart Lane.
Pochettino, summing up a sense of almost powerlessness after the game, merely said:
“I am not going to complain. We lost because they were better.”
And this game sums up Man City’s general way of playing in the Premier League this season, two losses not counting, they were simply better than anyone else by a long distance.