Man City 2-2 Tottenham: Spurs leave with a point despite being knocked out
The Etihad Stadium, where life is not quite as simple as it was supposed to be. Manchester City have bounced erratically through their first season under Pep Guardiola, lurching between contrasting stretches of form. Humbled at Everton and Leicester, yet victorious over Manchester United, Barcelona and Arsenal, what are City now, what might they become under the decorated Catalonian?
On Saturday evening at the Etihad Stadium, he pushed his chips into the middle of the table. Leroy Sane, Raheem Sterling, David Silva, and Kevin De Bruyne were all selected, forming an attacking-midfield band behind Sergio Aguero while Yaya Toure, with his body creaking and legs growing ever heavier, was selected to protect a traditional back-four - with the non-traditional Aleksandar Kolarov starting at centre-back.
Curiously for a Guardiola side, City looked more comfortable playing directly from the back rather than in patient, methodical phases
Guardiola was being pro-active and, though he might not like to admit it, had clearly been influenced by Jose Mourinho. In Tottenham's first loss of the season, 1-0 against Manchester United at Old Trafford, the Portuguese had successfully occupied Mauricio Pochettino's full-backs, using attacking pressure to keep Danny Rose and Kyle Walker in their own half and denying Spurs the width they rely on. The maxim dictates that attack is often the best form of defence and that's especially so for a team who look not just fragile at the back, but deathly afraid. So Guardiola's plan, at least until summer reinforcements arrive and a comprehensive redesign can begin, appears to be to use City's well-endowed attack to disguise his lopsided squad.
Early in the first-half, it was highly successful. A jittery Spurs, penned inside their own half and denied possession, looked unusually vulnerable. Kevin Wimmer was yellow-carded after playing himself into a muddle and Eric Dier was booked shortly after for a tug on Sergio Aguero.
Twenty minutes in, Hugo Lloris was stretched to his limit by a Silva snap-shot as City continued to press. The Etihad still held its breath any time Claudio Bravo threatened to touch the ball and, curiously for a Guardiola side, City looked more comfortable playing directly from the back rather than in patient, methodical phases. Regardless, it worked - well enough to jolt Tottenham out of their post-Christmas rhythm and, as an emergency precaution, into a more traditional back-four.
But the bleeding didn't stop and neither did the self-inflicted wounds. Errant Spurs passes kept ushering City attackers into dangerous positions and, were it not for profligacy and periodically excellent interventions from Lloris, the game might have been done as a contest by half-time.
It wasn't, but the inevitable arrived shortly after the break: first, Sane capitalised on Lloris's poor judgement to tap City into a lead they thoroughly deserved and then, uncharacteristically, another error from the ordinarily excellent French 'keeper allowed De Bruyne to stab in a second. They were fortunate goals, but entirely appropriate at the same time: despite discussion of formations, tactics, and personnel, Tottenham's persistent defensive comedy was the game's defining factor. Guardiola's attacking quartet danced and shimmied, but their effect was magnified by the slapstick.
Tottenham had taken umpteen punches to the jaw yet managed to escape the ring with a draw. Sometimes football doesn't make any sense
But here lies the complication with City: no sooner had their dominance been rewarded, then Gael Clichy stood off an advancing Kyle Walker and his cross, arced to the back-post, was headed beyond Bravo by Dele Alli. A single, short pulse of attacking pressure and the mood was changed. The flow of the game didn't, with the hosts continuing to create - and waste - chances, but that uneasy atmosphere began to seep into the ground. Tottenham may not have pressed and the momentum of the game certainly didn't shift, but the stench of vulnerability was in the air.
On 76th minutes, after Harry Kane shoveled an Eriksen pass into the path of Son, the visitors were level. Two shots, two isolated moments of attacking promise, and two goals; it was an extraordinarily vivid demonstration of City's flaws.
Guardiola's sides are known for their composure, their control, and their ability to subdue even the most potent threat. But this? This was a nonsense. Tottenham had taken umpteen punches to the jaw, been sent tumbling to the canvas half-a-dozen times, and yet managed to escape the ring with a draw despite not throwing a punch. Sometimes football doesn't make any sense whatsoever.
But maybe there is some logic to be salvaged and some credence due to the prevailing theory about City - especially given how neatly they break into two contrasting pieces. The frontline, tactically dexterous and full of menace, have clearly been infused by Guardiola's spirit and fed hungrily on every Spurs misstep.
The back-six, however, act as a damning indictment of the club's imperfections. The botched recruitment, the impulse purchases, and the failure to replace defective parts properly were all evidenced by that second 45 minutes on Saturday evening - and, ultimately, by an offensively anaemic opponent's ability to escape the Etihad and two-goal deficit with a point that, even by their own admission, they did almost everything they could to throw away.
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