Manchester City rode their luck on a cabbage patch of a pitch at Wembley to climb back to the top of the Premier League table with a 1-0 win over Tottenham - a victory built on a sixth Premier League clean sheet in a row, as Pep Guardiola’s defensive revolution reached new heights.
Oh, how we laughed. It is almost two years since, after seeing his Manchester City side well beaten by Leicester, Pep Guardiola quipped: “What’s tackles? I don’t train tackles.”
He had been found out. The naysayers were out in force, as this all-conquering Catalan had succumbed to the greatest league in the world. Some labelled him a fraud, others thought he had lost his mind - if your team don’t tackle, they are doomed to failure.
Fast forward to Monday night, against yet another top six side away from home, and City picked up a hard-fought win, that took them back to the top of the Premier League, having not conceded a league goal for ten hours of football, in the supposed best league in the world. Who’s laughing now?
Wembley had a strange feel to it. Many fans chose to stay away after another week of disappointment over delays to the opening of the new White Hart Lane and, coupled with all the negativity over Spurs’ poor showing in the Champions League, the potential departure of Mauricio Pochettino and the poor playing surface, it seemed like just the right time to be playing Tottenham.
Having taken the lead in the sixth minute with a swift counter, after Raheem Sterling capitalised on a mistake from Kieran Trippier, it looked as though City were about to run riot in the capital, where they had already won on their last four visits against London sides.
However, led by the relentless Moussa Sissoko, Spurs pressed City, and created a few openings of their own, spurred on by fans so desperate for something to cheer for.
A record-breaking signing
Cue another almost-perfect defensive display, conducted by Guardiola’s embryonic general on the pitch - Aymeric Laporte.
Eyebrows were raised when Guardiola broke City’s transfer record to bring in this relatively unknown centre-back from Athletic Bilbao in January, a youngster who did not register particularly high on any defensive stat in La Liga, and one who, initially, did not look anything special.
However, slowly but surely Guardiola has eased Laporte in, helping him forge an almost telepathic bond with John Stones, and the results are simply astounding.
City remain unbeaten in the Premier League when Laporte has featured (P19 W17 D2 L0) – meaning the Spaniard has played more Premier League games without losing than any other player in the history of the competition.
Tackles do not come into it. Laporte is not there to win tackles, that’s what Fernandinho is for. Laporte’s ability to read the game allows him to only intervene when he needs to, and heads corners clear for fun.
It was the same with Gerard Pique when he was at Barcelona under Guardiola. He was that last man, who passed the ball out from the back when required, but had the ability to read the ball and head corner after corner away from danger. No City player made more clearances at Wembley than Laporte.
“If I have to make a tackle then I have already made a mistake,” Paolo Maldini once said, and such a sentiment rings true with Stones, and especially Laporte at the heart of the City defence.
Attack the best form of defence
But Laporte and Stones are only part of a cohesive defensive system. Guardiola’s passing game, often labelled as “tiki-taka” is not just about breaking teams down in attack. If the opposition don’t have the ball, they cannot attack. Keeping possession has a dual benefit.
“We play in the other team's half as much as possible because I get worried when the ball is in my half,” Guardiola famously suggested, a concept which seems so simple, but is yet so effective.
City were, in truth, not at their best against Tottenham. Spurs had chances to equalise, but they came about, not through penetrative play in breaking City down, but from uncharacteristic errors.
“Lamela had a clear chance and due to the grass they did not score,” Guardiola said after the match at Wembley, safe in the knowledge City did get out of jail on occasion. “If the grass is good, Lamela with his quality in his left foot is in a better position to score a goal.”
The rest of the time, City pressed high, and pushed Tottenham back into their own defensive third. Against Arsenal, Liverpool, and Tottenham, away from home, City have spent more time in their opponent’s defensive third than their own, whether that be actually attacking, or pressing high to keep the opposition out of their half.
City cannot always be at their exhilarating best, it is simply not possible, so to be a successful, even a man with such attack-minded principles must appreciate the value of defence and, having taken his time to get the formula right, he has not just cracked it, he has developed an innovative style of defending capable of breaking all defensive records. The best just keep getting better.