Manchester City vs Tottenham result: Lost in a prism of perfection, fatal mistakes cost Pep Guardiola quadruple

Maybe this is what happens when you build a team towards perfection. When you tell footballers that they can achieve things that have never been achieved in football before

Jack Pitt-Brooke
Etihad Stadium
Wednesday 17 April 2019 22:05
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Man City vs Tottenham Champions League preview

What a time to lose your heads. What a time to make the mistakes that cost Manchester City a place in the semi-finals of the Champions League, destroying any dreams of a quadruple in the process.

Manchester City played so well for so much of this game, they scored four, they had a winning fifth disallowed in added time for offside, and they had chances to score six, seven or eight. But they are out because ultimately the task they set themselves was too big after a disastrous start to the game.

They played themselves from 1-0 up to 2-1 down in a three-minute spell that came from nowhere and that gave them an impossible job to do after that. There will be talk for years about the two VAR decisions, the Fernando Llorente winner that was given, the Raheem Sterling winner that was not, but it is difficult to argue with either of those two decisions in the end.

Ultimately this game was won and lost on the pitch, not on the screen, and the reason why City are not booking flights to Amsterdam tonight is because they made too many mistakes before they started to turn their football on. Avoidable errors that let Spurs into a decisive lead.

Maybe this is what happens when you build a team towards perfection. When you tell footballers that they can achieve things that have never been achieved in football before. That they can always have the ball, that they win every game, scoring more goals and conceding fewer than anyone before them. And of course the players believe Guardiola. Why would they not, when he has won three Spanish titles, three German titles, two Champions Leagues and then racking up 100 points in the Premier League last year. And Guardiola is convincing, he makes his players believe they can do all of this, if only they follow his one true path.

And it works. De Bruyne wrote in his article for ‘The Players’ Tribune’ this week that Guardiola sets players’ sights higher than anyone else. “Most of the time, football is about negativity and fear,” he wrote. “But with Pep, it’s about extreme positivity.” That radical sense of ambition – “goals that are so high they’re almost impossible to reach” – is why City were, at least until tonight, hunting for a quadruple.

But the problem with that prism of perfection is that you cannot get your around anything else. Because you think you have built a framework so totalising that nothing can exist outside it. And when you win 32 league games and take 100 points you do not expect anything to wrong.

That is why when things have gone wrong for Guardiola’s City, they have done so in a flurry, where one error has been compounded by more and more, the players unable to come to terms with anything going against them. That was what did for City that this stage of the competition, remember. When they went to Anfield in the form of their lives, only to concede three first-half goals to the first three shots they faced.

Sterling celebrates scoring City's opener

That mental bug has still been there over all this time, it had just been dormant. And City did their best to knock themselves out, or to make things as hard as they possibly could for themselves, by doing exactly this in the opening few minutes. Even after they had taken the early lead through Raheem Sterling they then threw it all away with three mindless minutes, one mistake compounded by another.

First it was Aymeric Laporte, failing to clear Dele Alli’s little flick, leaving it straight into the path of Heung Min Son to zip a shot underneath Ederson from just outside the box.

That was bad enough but what killed City was the second away goal that came three minutes later. This was the City we saw last year, so frazzled by imperfection that they can only make the same mistake twice. When Laporte tried to play out from the back he could only give the ball straight to Lucas. He is one of the best passers from the back in the game. So if he is giving up possession this simply then something has clearly gone wrong in his head. Because there is nothing wrong with his technique.

Llorente was Tottenham's unlikely hero

Son took this finish brilliantly and in doing so gave Spurs a 3-1 lead in the tie. City had to score three unanswered goals to go through: they had to be brilliant going forward and perfect at the back. In the end they were the former, but not the latter. They managed the three goals, but could not get a fourth to kill it. So they were always vulnerable to something going wrong and sure enough, Fernando Llorente bundled in a corner for that third away goal.

Without that goal we would all be talking tonight about Kevin De Bruyne, Raheem Sterling and Sergio Aguero, about the energy and ambition of this attacking machine, that could destroy Spurs like this even after making it as hard as possible beforehand.

But we are not. Because City left themselves with a task so difficult that they nearly completed it, but not quite.

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