Soccer

Tottenham vs Manchester City: If City can no longer be beaten by Spurs, can anyone stop them?

Almost eight years ago, going into a home game against Barcelona, Espanyol’s young manager Mauricio Pochettino had to make one thing very clear. “I am not the anti-Guardiola,” insisted the 38-year-old. “In football the players are the protagonists, not the coaches.”

That was a tag that Pochettino had earned. During his time at Espanyol he had to share the city with the greatest football team of all time, the team of Lionel Messi, Xavi and Andres Iniesta, the team of two Champions League titles and a level of play never seen before. 

But Pochettino, with no real resources and not much of a squad, had found a way to beat them. He started his managerial career with a 0-0 against Guardiola’s Barcelona, a result that was credit to his adventurous style: high line, high pressing, pinning Barcelona back rather than letting them play. Even more impressive was a 2-1 win in February 2009 that no-one believed was possible. The Spanish press said before the game that Espanyol would be “fighting King Kong with a teaspoon”, up against a Barca side 10 points clear at the top of La Liga. But Espanyol caught them off guard. “All the people said Espanyol are dead, they have no chance,” Pochettino later recalled. “The plan was to press high and surprise them.”


Premier League – Week 10 goals





1/14 Mohamed Salah vs Cardiff (1-0)

2/14 Sadio Mane vs Cardiff (2-0) vs Cardiff

3/14 Callum Paterson (2-1) vs Liverpool

4/14 Xherdan Shaqiri vs Cardiff (3-1)

5/14 Sadio Mane vs Cardiff (4-1)

6/14 Roberto Pereyra vs Huddersfield (1-0)

7/14 Gerard Deulofeu vs Huddersfield (2-0)

8/14 Isaac Success vs Huddersfield (3-0)

9/14 Callum Wilson vs Fulham (1-0)

10/14 Callum Wilson (2-0)

11/14 David Brooks (3-0)

12/14 Glenn Murray vs Wolves (1-0)

13/14 Fabian Balbuena vs Leicester (1-0)

14/14 Wilfred Ndidi vs Leicester (1-1)

1/14 Mohamed Salah vs Cardiff (1-0)

2/14 Sadio Mane vs Cardiff (2-0) vs Cardiff

3/14 Callum Paterson (2-1) vs Liverpool

4/14 Xherdan Shaqiri vs Cardiff (3-1)

5/14 Sadio Mane vs Cardiff (4-1)

6/14 Roberto Pereyra vs Huddersfield (1-0)

7/14 Gerard Deulofeu vs Huddersfield (2-0)

8/14 Isaac Success vs Huddersfield (3-0)

9/14 Callum Wilson vs Fulham (1-0)

10/14 Callum Wilson (2-0)

11/14 David Brooks (3-0)

12/14 Glenn Murray vs Wolves (1-0)

13/14 Fabian Balbuena vs Leicester (1-0)

14/14 Wilfred Ndidi vs Leicester (1-1)

That Barcelona side were more used to coming up against parked buses. Not being run off the pitch by a team scrapping to stay up. Pochettino had fought fire with fire, and won. “It’s about your personality, who you are. You show on the pitch who you are. If you are brave in your life, you cannot behave in a different way on the pitch. I don’t understand how to play in a different way. Always be brave.”

That approach, and those early results, are how Pochettino came to be called the ‘anti-Guardiola’. Even if more often than not his team was eventually overpowered by the one down the road. And when the two men met up again in England two years ago, Pochettino again started off on the front foot. Even though his Spurs team were up against a Manchester City side with resources they could only dream of.

Remember Guardiola’s first game against Spurs, at White Hart Lane in October 2016. Guardiola had won 10 of their 11 games up to that point, but the first time he met Pochettino, it was like February 2009 all over again. Spurs’ aggressive, energetic high-pressing style was too much for City. They could never get a foothold in the game. Spurs won 2-0 and if Erik Lamela had converted a second half penalty they would have won by more. Pochettino was earning his ‘anti-Guardiola’ credentials once again. When Spurs went to the Etihad Stadium three months later, they held City to a 2-2 draw.

All of this explains why what happened last season was so significant. Because Guardiola finally broke out of the bind that Pochettino had him in. When the two teams met at the Etihad, City were too sharp and too fast even for Spurs’ press. When Ederson could not pass the ball out, he went long with a precision and distance few other goalkeepers can match. When City looked under pressure, Leroy Sane ran at Kieran Trippier and City were in. They won 4-1. When City went to Wembley in April, they grabbed control of the game and never let off, winning 3-1 this time.

What this shows is that Guardiola’s City moved onto another level last year. A level where even the Pochettino plan, so good at exposing City’s weaknesses, cannot hold them back. That was borne out by the season they had, breaking all the Premier League records for points, goals, wins and the rest. Watching City start this season is to see a team determined to be even better and to raise the bar further with the quality of their football. And it prompts the question going into Monday’s game at Wembley: if City can no longer be beaten by Spurs, especially after having the better of a draw at Anfield, can anyone stop them?

When Espanyol played against Barcelona in December 2010, after Pochettino had to deny his special powers, they harried, pressed and pushed and still lost 5-1. Guardiola said it was “the most complicated game” of his season so far, and Pochettino was proud of his players’ work. “The team was true to our philosophy, and we tried with all our strength,” he said. “But Barcelona are in a state of grace, close to touching perfection.” If City prove on Monday they are now fully resistant to even Spurs’ plans, they may be talked of in the same terms.

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