Published On: Sun, Apr 15th, 2018

How Manchester City reminded doubters of gulf in class with Spurs win

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Raheem Sterling evaded Hugo Lloris, and his skips and feints left Kieran Trippier scrambling on the turf. The goal was beckoning, but Sterling deliberated long enough for Trippier to deflect his overdue shot wide.

It seemed a familiar narrative was unfolding at Wembley when City gave Tottenham Hotspur several glimpses of a result in Saturday’s match. Pep Guardiola’s side was back on league duty after a harrowing surrender of a 2-0 lead to despised neighbour Manchester United the previous weekend, that failure to seal the Premier League title having been sandwiched by a comprehensive two-legged Champions League elimination to Liverpool. They were losses that dug up past grievances with players, such as Sterling’s wastefulness and Nicolas Otamendi‘s apparent belief he’s much better than he is, as well as the tendency of Guardiola’s teams to run out of steam late in seasons and the Spaniard’s sporadic habit of over-thinking his tactical setup.

But Sterling then showed the resolve that has seen him score more this season than in the previous two combined. He gobbled up a parry from Lloris and smashed into the roof of the net to make it 3-1, sealing Tottenham’s first league defeat since mid-December – another match against City. It was a triumph for Sterling’s Guardiola-taught ability to shrug off misses with goals, and also for his boss’ vision as a re-jigged formation – Otamendi’s introduction in Leroy Sane‘s place saw a shift to a back-three – paid dividends.

It was also a victory over those with short memories who slammed the club after a tough two weeks.

“Manchester City have answered all the critics tonight. Crisis? What crisis? Emphatic winners tonight against a really strong Tottenham side. They came out and asserted themselves,” Chris Sutton, the former striker usually so unimpressed by everything, assessed after the match. “Spurs were a bit fortunate to get back into it but then City showed real character to re-establish control in the second half. They have shown their champions’ quality this evening.”

The attacking verve was back, but so was defensive resilience. The decision to deploy Aymeric Laporte at left-back against Mohamed Salah in the first leg with Liverpool was (quite rightly) slammed, but his versatility and distribution were pivotal in this victory. When Fabian Delph drifted inside to forge a barrier to Spurs’ counter-attacks, Laporte was able to move outside when required while maintaining communication with Vincent Kompany. The Frenchman logged game-high marks with seven interceptions, eight accurate long balls, and 101 touches.

With the exception of a panicky, mishit pass to gift Spurs an attack, Kompany sat deep, organised, and kept tabs on Harry Kane. For the first time since February 2017, Kane played out the full 90 minutes of a competitive match without registering a shot.

A few hours before the fixture, the shortlist for the PFA Player of the Year prize was revealed, and the popular opinion seems to be that Salah will win it over Kevin De Bruyne. It’s probably the correct choice – the Egyptian is on course for a single-season scoring record – but, with the exception of an unrefined swipe at Jan Vertonghen that earned a yellow card, the De Bruyne from the past three matches was gone at Wembley. He was back to his uncontainable best.

(Photo courtesy: Getty Images)

To call De Bruyne’s runs dribbles feels like a disservice. He grunts and charges through bodies with the disregard of a Pamplona bull, and did so with greater regularity than any of his teammates. No player surpassed his eight crosses, either – an example of how he is entrusted with risky use of possession more than any of his colleagues.

That trust was justified in a moment of brilliance from De Bruyne. With Eric Dier‘s arms wrapped around him, he simultaneously tamed an Otamendi wallop and sent Sterling through on goal with a deft flick of his right boot. He wasn’t even looking at his intended target, and Sterling, buoyed by his goal just minutes earlier, would’ve scored again if it wasn’t for an excellent recovering challenge from Davinson Sanchez.

“It was a disgrace, to be honest,” Sterling reflected on De Bruyne’s pass.

City beat Tottenham by simply playing the Guardiola way. The gaps where Christian Eriksen and Dele Alli can cause so much havoc were excellently filled in while Fernandinho was out of commission; backup left-back Delph moved inside, a defender stepped up to anticipate an attack, or either both or one of David Silva or Ilkay Gundogan slotted in. The tweaks and belief Guardiola has instilled in individuals’ games was shown in Sterling’s perseverance and Kompany’s throwback stewarding. And, after being slammed for his approach against Liverpool in particular, Guardiola made an inspired change from the touchline. Space was conceded in the wide areas so the middle could be busied with a backline trio of Otamendi, Kompany, and Laporte; suddenly, the third-most prolific strikeforce in the division was neutralised.

It was a remarkable statement to overwhelm such a strong team for the second time this season – that’s a 7-2 aggregate scoreline in City’s favour over two league meetings – and a timely reminder to those with short memories: City has romped to this title, and cannot be overlooked as one of the greatest ensembles in the Premier League era.

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