Football Features

“Pochettino’s Masterplan is paying off” – Five things learned as Spurs shock Man City in the Champions League

By Muhammad Butt

Published: 22:34, 17 April 2019

In an impossibly dramatic night of football, Spurs lost 4-3 to Manchester City at the Etihad but progressed to the Champions League semi-finals on away goals.

Fernando Llorente’s 73rd minute strike made it 4-4 on aggregate, meaning that Spurs went through despite losing in an incredible, breathless game. What did we learn?

1. Tottenham HotsVAR

It was said that introducing VAR into football would be Pandora’s Box, and whilst that was said as a warning that chaos would be unleashed, this season has shown that not only does VAR often result in the correct decision being given but the chaos is so very good.

Seriously, forget for a second the boring type of VAR like when the refs spent a minute judging whether or not Fernando Llorente handled the ball. Sure, they correctly decided that Llorente, like some kind of handsome yet graceless donkey, did indeed unintentionally hit the ball with his hip (and partly also his hand) but forget that for a second and look at the end of the game.

It’s stoppage time, and City are going out on away goals but they refuse to give up. Eriksen is pressed into making a bad pass back which gets intercepted and bounces back towards Sergio Aguero. The Argentine races into the box then plays it across goal.

Raheem Sterling is johnny-on-the-spot and jabs it in to win the game for City! The Etihad absolutely explodes with sheer joy, and City look like they’ve had another “Aguerrrroooooooooooo” moment… but wait! Here comes VAR! The referees correctly decided that Aguero was offside when the ball was deflected his way, and the goal was ruled out.

Suddenly it was like someone had sucked the air out of the stadium. City’s players kept on pushing, but the crowd weren’t into it. They were utterly drained. Last year VAR would have seen them make the semi-finals (probably), this year VAR twice intervened to prevent them from making the semi-finals. This was a totally new kind of footballing drama, and whilst it may have been cruel it was also quite incredible to witness. This is the future.

2. The King’s Back

Back in 2006, Jay-Z came out of retirement with the spectacular “Show Me What You Got” – when you first heard that opening saxaphone loop and Jay just confidently strutting back into things like he had never been away, instantly reclaiming his place as king of rap.

In 2019, Kevin de Bruyne finally announced his return from injury with a performance against Spurs that honestly defies belief. The Belgian had been good for the past few outings but after being left out in the first leg, this was his first big outing since his injury woes and he announced himself just like Jay-Z did. You could always hear that sax loop every time he touched the ball.

De Bruyne was pure filth, showing every weapon in his armoury. He bagged a hat-trick of assists and each one was completely different. First he juked inside the Spurs midfield and fed a smart pass across the pitch to Raheem Sterling who scored. For his second assist he roared down the right and swept a gorgeous low cross in front of Hugo Lloris’ goal, an undefendable thing that left Sterling with an easy tap-in.

De Bruyne’s final assist saw him slalom through the Spurs midfield before sliding a nice pass in for Sergio Aguero to hammer home. Sure, in the end it wasn’t enough for City in Europe, but Pep Guardiola’s men still have a domestic treble to fight for, and with De Bruyne back on his throne it’d take a brave man to bet against them.

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3. Son lights up the Etihad

When Harry Kane was ruled out with injury many feared that Spurs’ Champions League hopes had gone with the England striker, but Heung-min Son was not having any of that. He’s arguably had a more impressive season than Kane in terms of general performances, and tonight he stepped up in a colossal way.

Son’s movement at the head of Spurs’ attack was sublime, City couldn’t get anywhere near him. He was constantly in the right place at the right time, hence why he was right there when Aymeric Laporte too made a weird clearance in his own box. Son’s shot was instant and Ederson was bamboozled.

Then less than two minutes later, he was once again perfectly placed to pick up a Christian Eriksen pass and almost straight away bend a beautiful ball into the back of the net, giving Spurs the lead and setting the table for their eventual triumph. Kane may not play again this season, but with Son playing like this will Spurs even notice?

4. Ederson outdoes De Gea

David de Gea let a Leo Messi dribbler of a shot to scramble underneath him in the Camp Nou last night. It was a humiliating moment for a great goalkeeper, but tonight Ederson reached across Manchester and made his fellow goalie feel a little bit better. For Spurs’ first goal, Ederson dove the wrong way and then, even though his feet were in the right spot, his attempt at a kick-save was pathetic and Son scored.

And alright he could do nothing for their second, but again for their third goal he was rooted to the spot when the corner came in, when all he had to do was take a few steps forward and clear the ball out of there (or maybe, y’know, save the shot?). To make matters worse, the corner Spurs scored from was only a corner because Ederson did come for the previous corner, had the ball in his hands, then inexplicably dropped it. A night to forget for City’s main man.

5. Pochettino’s Masterplan is paying off

Mauricio Pochettino has often been criticised for throwing domestic cups away, or at the very least heavily prioritising the league and then Champions League. The calls for them to simply “win a trophy!” have been loud and proud. And whilst that logic does hold up, this match was a case study for why Pochettino’s methodology makes so much sense.

Spurs have a small squad. They always have had one, even before they didn’t sign anyone in the summer. They pay wages from a decade ago and don’t even spend all that much when they do sign players. This means Pochettino has to juggle his squad, which doesn’t really leave room for domestic cups.

But again, tonight showed he value of discarding those cups. Spurs could come to the Etihad tonight buzzing with energy and a focus, despite injury ruling Harry Kane out Spurs came here with a largely fit squad and the players could give it their everything. And that energy is what allowed them to match Manchester City’s intensity and progress to their first-ever Champions League semi-final.

No trophies yet, but you can’t deny Pochettino’s masterplan is starting to pay off.