While Manchester City looked to be heading to a victory against Tottenham Hotspur from very early on in the game, it became apparent in the sixty-fourth minute just how bothered Pep Guardiola was by his team’s three-game losing streak.
In the space of just six days City found themselves losing three games, twice against Liverpool, and once against Manchester United. In two of those games, City had been leading at half-time.
On Saturday they once again raced into the lead, going 2 – 0 up, before a strike from Christian Eriksen reduced the deficit just before half time. Suddenly it looked very possible that Manchester City would once again lose their advantage and that Spurs would be able to turn things around.
However, City managed to hold off a storm from Spurs at the beginning of the second half and then Guardiola made a surprising decision, he made a defensive substitution by replacing winger Leroy Sane with the centre-half Nicolas Otamendi.
It was the kind of move that one expects to see from Jose Mourinho, but not from Guardiola. However, after the three disappointing defeats and the way in which they unfolded, Guardiola clearly decided to put on the hand brake and it proved to be exactly the right decision.
Our Time. Our City.
— Manchester City (@ManCity) April 15, 2018
Just eight minutes after bringing Otamendi on the pitch City broke forward and Raheem Sterling, who had to move more central, scored a third goal. The substitution allowed the team to secure victory and leave them needing just one more win to secure the Premier League title.
Just one week ago, when City lost 3 – 2 in the derby after leading early in the game, there was an atmosphere of despair at the Etihad Stadium. That was only made worse when three days later City was knocked out of the Champions League quarterfinals by Liverpool.
Next came Spurs, who had been unbeaten in the league since December, and the prospect of a fourth consecutive defeat was very real. However, City bounced back with an excellent performance and showed everyone just why they deserve to be sixteen points clear at the top of the table.
Guardiola, and his players, have clearly learned a lot over the last week, as seen by the second half substitution of Sane for Otamendi. In two of the biggest games of the season City were unable to hold onto a lead and changes had to be made to stop it happening once again.
That isn’t to say that the team doesn’t have other issues that need addressing. The players are clearly suffering from fatigue after a fantastic first half of the season that was draining both physically and mentally. Next season it would not be a surprise to see Guardiola rotating the squad more often and not relying so heavily on players such as Kevin De Bruyne, who has missed just five games since the start of the season.
However, Guardiola’s approach has clearly worked extremely well this season. City are on the edge of winning the title having demolished almost every side during the first half of the season, so if they are suffering now, they know that it was worth the effort.
Just last season Spurs ran riot over City at White Hart Lane, producing a level of physical power that Guardiola was not used to. Then at the Etihad Spurs came away with a 2 – 2 draw. Further evidence that Guardiola has chosen the right approach this season.
For sure, massive spending has helped City, but it is Guardiola’s coaching that has taken them to a point where they can outplay virtually every time in the country. This was seen when City defeated Spurs 4 – 1 in December, but to control the game so comprehensively away from the Etihad is in many ways a much bigger achievement.
It is also important to remember just how dangerous an opponent Spurs can be. The team recently won seven games in a row at Wembley before slipping up against Juventus. Teams such as Manchester United, Liverpool and Real Madrid have come to Wembley this season and been blown away.
In the first half of Saturday’s match Spurs could barely get a foot on the ball. It is probably not since they faced Monaco in the Champions League in September 2016 that the team has suffered such humiliation.
The irony here is that Spur’s problem is the same one that City had against Liverpool. A team that is designed to dominate and attack cannot always easily switch to having to defend, track and chase. They are not used to it and it goes against their mentality of domination and control.
Pochettino could have played Toby Alderweireld at the back to provide more defence. But his entire success with the team has been built on hunger and ambition. A change, even for just one game, would undermine a lot of the work he has done. Furthermore, in the end Spurs managed to recover somewhat and restore some dignity. Christian Eriksen’s goal had a clear affect and the team started to put the pressure on City early in the second half. Dembele started to win loose balls in the midfield and there was a sense at times that Spurs was on the edge of turning the whole game around.
Following the game De Bruyne, a player-of-the-year candidate and possibly the driving force behind the title charge, admitted that better defending and resilience were important after a run of poor results.
He said, “It’s been a tough two weeks for us with five games. Tottenham didn’t have a game for a week and that’s the advantage they had, but the mental toughness of this team is unbelievable. Today we scored the goals and defended better and we deserved to win it.”
He added, “We’re almost there, we knew we had to win two of six games. That’s not bad odds for us. We need to do our thing, and hopefully we can finish it off next week.”
The team captain, Vincent Kompany, shared similar sentiments after the match. Speaking to Sky Sports News he said, “”It was the right response. We gave everything in the two games against Liverpool and the game against United but the results didn’t go for us. [Against Tottenham] we had to be a little bit stronger mentally especially because it was off the back of an amount of bad events so I’m really happy with the result and the response. It wasn’t necessarily a mental problem, it was more mental fatigue.”
He added, “We were tired, not just physically but mentally as well and a lot of big characters stood up today and that gives me a lot of pride again to be able to share these moments with this team. It was a sense of relief, a sense of joy and pride. It was a really tough week, not just by the quality of the opposition but also because of the way the games went and the energy spent in those games. We responded well – it looked like it could be a similar kind of story when we conceded a goal on the one chance they had and then we were solid, and I’m really happy with that.”
For a long time now it has been a case of when rather than if City will win the title and it is virtually guaranteed to happen within the next week. The questions remaining are whether they can reach the 100 goal mark, they are currently on 93 goals, and if they can become the first team in Premier League history to end the season with 100 points, they currently have 87.
“These guys are fantastic and awesome,” Guardiola said. “What’s happened in the last week is so unfair, but we have a second chance against Swansea, and we’re going to try and be champions. Today, we’ve done it many, many times, and that’s why we’re in the position we are. I am so glad to be here and be part of the club. It was so good. The performance was so good.”
Many expected Guardiola to have closely followed Manchester United’s Sunday game against West Bromwich Albion. However, he said that he doesn’t expect United to lose at home against the bottom placed club, so he will be playing golf instead.
“I have a golf game tomorrow,” he said. “I have three days off, and tomorrow I have golf. Golf, my son, friends, tomorrow is golf. I will be so happy and I will celebrate, but I think United will win. The important thing is that we know we depend on ourselves. We have to win it at home. I am excited to be champions with our fans.”