In perhaps the most disappointing match of the season, Manchester City lost to Tottenham Hotspur at the new White Hart Lane by a score of 1-0. The loss ended a 14 match winning streak for the Blues and puts them in a precarious position to potentially drop out of the Champions League in the quarterfinals once again.
The reasons for this loss go far and wide, but must include the lineup selection by Pep Guardiola. Bernardo Silva didn’t make the team sheet as a precaution after picking up a thigh injury in training and while his exclusion could be explained, the inclusion of Fabian Delph could not. Many thought the midfielder-turned-left back would never see the field again for City after his performance against Swansea, but lo and behold, there he was in the starting eleven. The lineup surprises didn’t end there, however, as Kevin De Bruyne and Leroy Sane were left on the bench. Though the return of recently-injured Sergio Aguero buoyed expectations after they took a hit from a Delph-sized torpedo.
It was an intense opening 45 minutes despite the run of play not favoring one side more than the other. The defining moment of the half came in the 12’ when VAR ruled Tottenham left back Danny Rose had blocked a shot in the box from Raheem Sterling with his elbow and a penalty was awarded. Aguero stepped up to the spot, looking to give City the critical away goal. But his strike was well read by Hugo Lloris and routinely pushed aside to keep the match scoreless.
Otherwise, the Blues were hard-pressed to create many opportunities as Spurs advanced pressure thwarted the buildup from the back by cutting off passing lanes into the center of the pitch. Tottenham looked dangerous at times, with the most notable chance coming when a Harry Kane shot was saved by Ederson after advantage was given for a foul on Dele Alli. City were consistently quite reckless with their tackling in the defensive third, providing Spurs with several enticing free kick opportunities throughout the half, though none developed into a true threat on goal.
The match actually slowed down in the second half and City seemed to take control, stretching together longer bouts of possession. Unfortunately, Fabian Delph’s play took a turn for the worst after an acceptable first half. Multiple giveaways and panic passes led to transition chances for Spurs in addition to Ederson tweaking his back and Harry Kane severely injuring his ankle (though this was absolutely accidental).
Yet all his struggles came to a head in the 78’, when Delph completely lost Son Heung-min as Christian Eriksen played him in behind. The chipped pass was slightly over-hit, but Son was able to save it before going out of play. Delph recovered, yet failed to close down on the South Korean, instead hesitating to call for an offside, which gave Son time to cut back and beat Ederson for the game winning goal. This wouldn’t be the last time Delph would give Son too much space either, and this was the very thing City fans were worried about with him in the lineup.
City’s attack didn’t find a sense of urgency after they found themselves down and in more desperation for an away goal. In fact, City failed to create anything more substantial than a half-chance for the entire second half, with a couple possible exceptions. Collectively, the Blues were guilty of over-dribbling and lacking urgency, not moving the ball nearly fast enough as Spurs players applied pressure. There were far too many giveaways that not only eliminated a promising City buildup, but also left them vulnerable in transition.
The criticism falls back to Pep Guardiola once again though. It wouldn’t be an unreasonable conclusion to say that he simply sacrificed this match entirely. His gameplan resulted in a stagnant offense with a distinct lack of dynamism, and it seemed as if he wanted to survive the away leg without having to show his hand for the remaining two matches City have against Spurs in the next two weeks. It is telling that he refused to bring on Kevin De Bruyne and Leroy Sane until the 89’, letting ineffectiveness continue for more than ten minutes after Son’s goal.
Regardless of how you look at it, there is no doubt that City put together an uninspiring 90 minutes on Tuesday, and that’s a kind way to phrase it. It’s incredibly frustrating to see a season of beautiful football lead up to this in the Champions League quarterfinal, the competition the club and fans are craving so badly. City are by no means out of it, but they put themselves in a challenging situation going into the home leg next week.
Unless they keep a clean sheet of their own, Manchester City will need to win by two goals. This is something they are obviously capable of doing, but it won’t be easy against a quality side like Tottenham and the performance at White Hart Lane certainly fails to inspire any confidence. Pep Guardiola and his players have a week to figure it out or their Champions League campaign will ending dishearteningly again.