AAAAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAH! VAR! VAR! VAR! Okay, now that’s out of my system I can write rationally about one of the most one-sided draws I’ve ever seen. 3.23 – 0.11 on expected goals, and 2-2 on the scoreboard.
On another day, this match finishes 4-0 to City and nobody bats an eyelash.
VAR is taking a bit of a beating amongst the football community, but it is the new handball rule that was responsible for the late drama at the Etihad on Saturday. VAR rightly corrected the decision to award a goal based upon those new laws (hard line as they are), and thus did its job.
The argument that VAR takes away the excitement of celebrating a goal does not seem to stand up based on this example; the Etihad erupted, Gabriel Jesus danced in front of his fans, and Pep Guardiola and Sergio Aguero embraced.
But it was the Spurs fans who had the last laugh, bellowing ‘VAR, my lord, VAR’ into the Manchester air and having a ruddy lovely time of it.
VAR was called into question, though, for not overturning Michael Oliver’s decision to wave away the complaints of Rodri who was brought down by Erik Lamela in the penalty area in the first half. This was not seen as a clear and obvious error, though Sky pundit Gary Neville was adamant that a penalty should have been awarded. As fans we still need to adjust to what VAR will and will not ‘correct’.
This fixture has turned up some exciting matches over the past two years, with both managers usually trying to spring a surprise to outfox the other. Saturday evening’s meeting was no different, with Spurs dropping Lucas Moura to the bench, when it was Erik Lamela that most expected to make way for the returning Christian Eriksen.
Pochettino’s 4-2-3-1 formation has not been his preferred choice latterly, with a 4-4-2 diamond being his go-to system. But in theory it allowed Spurs’ midfield to match-up to City’s 4-3-3, with Harry Kane and Erik Lamela sitting either side of Rodri, while also maintaining an attacking threat on either flank.
But Spurs were so passive in the first 20 minutes that City kept finding their key players between the Spurs midfield and defence, and our own offensive players offered little to nothing. The Spurs defence lined up in a narrow back four, which afforded Raheem Sterling and Bernardo Silva too much space out wide, which Sterling made count with an assertive header from Kevin De Bruyne’s delicious delivery to open the scoring.
Lamela had buzzed around (albeit largely unsuccessfully) despite his teammates’ lack of tempo, and he repaid his manager’s faith in him with a goal from nothing. Tanguy Ndombele did well to feed him between the lines and he used Laporte as a shield to curl the ball into the net.
The second City goal came from Spurs’ full-backs defending narrowly again, though this time from the other side. Danny Rose did not go out to meet Bernardo Silva with any intensity, but neither did he mark Kevin De Bruyne inside. None of the midfielders seemed to know where to be either, and it allowed Bernardo to find De Bruyne in space; his second brilliant cross of the night found Sergio Aguero, who stole in front of Toby Alderweireld to score a tap-in.
Spurs again scored a goal from nothing when Lucas, seconds after coming on, made a terrific early leap to bury a header from a Lamela corner, and this was pretty much the last chance that Spurs had, as City continued to control the game. Indeed, the average player positions for the match had Spurs’ most advanced player (Kane) on the halfway line.
Mauricio Pochettino opined post-match that his club are at a different stage of the process to Manchester City; this is, of course, absolutely fair enough.
And if he wants to say that we were played off the pitch simply because City have eleven better players than Spurs, he could certainly make a strong case.
But Spurs’ passive approach – with little to no pressing, no will to maintain possession or carry the ball forward, and the deliberately narrow back four allowing space out wide constantly – was surprising, and set the tempo for the match.
This was one of Pochettino’s poorest attempts at getting something against Pep Guardiola’s City, yet one of his best results against them, thanks once again to VAR.
It’s a funny old game.