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Pep Guardiola’s Biggest Mistake Against Tottenham

A look in to the Champions League first leg.

Tottenham Hotspur and Manchester City - UEFA Champions League Quarter Final: First Leg Photo by Dan Mullan/Getty Images

When a team goes down 3-0 in the first 30 minutes of a crucial game and ends up failing to progress to the next round of a competition even before the return leg is played, it calls for caution moving forward. Pep Guardiola’s Manchester City was scarred by Liverpool’s home and away trashing in the quarter final of the Champions League last season. A dominant City side was expected to beat Liverpool over two legs and make it to the semi-finals. But the Cityzens’ hope was cut short in a rather embarrassing manner.

Based on the foregoing, who will blame Guardiola for adopting a strategy that is aimed at damage limitation for his team this time around? Yet, that does not justify coming to a fight feeling already defeated against an opponent you can take to the cleaners on any other day. With all due respect to Tottenham, the team is not on the same level with Manchester City, at least at the moment. Even among the so called big six in the Premier League, Tottenham is ranked a distant last. Three successive top four finishes in the last three campaigns notwithstanding.

Consistently finishing in the top four in the last few seasons has been more due to other top teams failing to live up to expectations as they grapple with internal problems, than Spurs being extraordinary. That has culminated in changes in the dugout by all of Chelsea, Arsenal and even Manchester United. Head-to-head this season Tottenham has lost the most number of games to the other teams among the top six sides.

In fact, Spurs have failed to win in seven out of nine games against top six teams in the Premier League this season. With Manchester City clearly the big the bunch, Tottenham should not pose a threat to City’s ambitions. That said, it’s football and anything can happen. If the Sky Blues could lose to Crystal Palace and Newcastle United, they certainly can lose to Mauricio Pochettino’s men. Afterall a narrow 1-0 defeat is not the end of the world.

What is concerning though is what Pep Guardiola and his team got wrong against the Lillywhites. Not doubt, the Catalan manager is a master tactician. He has demonstrated his tactical genius from his time at Barcelona. It produced outstanding results as the Blaugrana enjoyed tremendous success both domestically and on the continent. Beating Alex Ferguson’s Man United to win the Champions League was the high point of his achievements in Spain.

However, since moving to Bayern Munich in 2013, despite a significant level of success in domestic football, the Champions League has proved to be a step too far. In the face of criticisms for the apparent failure to lift the continental silverware, Guardiola has gone from belittling the competition or trophy (like when he omitted Real Madrid from a list of the most successful club sides in Europe that included Barcelona) to stating that it really didn’t matter if a club won the competition.

Then as if to give himself an escape route from criticism if he fails to lift the trophy with the club, he has severally referred to Man City as teenagers in Europe and that it will take a long time for the club to win the trophy. Some have argued that the manager is just being humble by downplaying his team’s chances and praising the opposition as is common to most managers. There’s certainly a place for humility. But it also has its limits.

Humility can easily become timidity when you constantly tell your team it’s not ready and it doesn’t measure up to others in the competition. And that shows clearly when the Sky Blues take to the pitch in the competition these days. One could literally feel the players’ unease and nervousness. This much has been stated by players like Ilkay Gundogan who bared his mind in an interview after the Tottenham game.

Guardiola’s biggest mistake, and everyone makes them, was to adopt a defensive approach to the game in London. Man City was already missing a key player in the line up when Bernardo Silva pulled out injured. Leaving Kevin De Bruyne (City’s best player by far) out of the starting line up was downright unacceptable. Yes, the Belgian has had a difficult time this season as a result of niggling injuries, but he has been fit for weeks before the match. Alongside Benjamin Mendy, he even played against Brighton in the club’s last game before the crunch tie.

These two players were ‘undroppable’ against Tottenham. And even more importantly, the plan should have been to go for the kill and make the return leg a formality. I mean home advantage and all, Tottenham is no Liverpool. That by no means entails throwing caution to the wind. The defensive solidity of the team would have still been kept by pairing Aymeric Laporte with John Stones instead of Nicolas Otamendi, and Gundogan with Fernandinho in midfield while playing De Bruyne in David Silva’s place.

That gives the team a better attacking threat. Such an approach could have put City in a better position heading into the reverse fixture as a goal or two would have been scored despite Sergio Aguero’s penalty miss. Instead of that, the team was rendered so impotent in attack that it did not manage a shot on target after the 47th minute of the game.

All the same, 1-0 is not a difficult result to overturn when Spurs come visiting. Thankfully it’s not against a European heavyweight like Barcelona. But even at that, Liverpool went to Germany and beat Bayern Munich 3-1 to reach the quarter final. Tottenham should not be the stumbling block that can stop City from advancing to the semi-finals of the Champions League, not when the deciding game will be played at the Etihad Stadium anyway.

The job is simple, although it may not be as easy.

”We know what we have to do: score goals, play as best as possible. We are going to try,”

Guardiola has stated.