It will be remembered as yet another great European night under Mauricio Pochettino, up there with besting Real Madrid, Juventus and Borussia Dortmund, but Tottenham were so close to disaster at the Etihad Stadium in Wednesday’s Champions League quarter-final second leg.
After a breathless first 21 minutes in which an incredible five goals were scored, the next telling moment was an unfortunate one. Moussa Sissoko, Tottenham’s most improved player this season by an exponential distance, popped something and after fighting the inevitable eventually hobbled off. Pochettino turned to his bench, looked at 18-year-old Oliver Skipp and decided instead that Dele Alli would partner Victor Wanyama in the engine room, the Kenyan international making only his third start for Spurs since November.
What followed was a City onslaught as Tottenham’s makeshift midfield simply failed to cope, and the pressure told when Kevin De Bruyne danced through the middle of the pitch, skipped away from an overstretched Wanyama and played in Sergio Aguero who applied a predictably sublime finish. Spurs’ midfield drought pushed City into a position of strength and control, only ended when Sissoko’s replacement – Fernando Llorente – connected controversially with a corner to score against the run of play.
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Tellingly, from Tottenham’s 27 losses of possession, seven came in their own half, within the width of the penalty area, and three of those were outright dispossessions. City, meanwhile, albeit considerably more endowed with possession, lost the ball just twice in their equivalent area.
Admittedly, Tottenham entered this fixture amid an injury crisis, but not one so disastrous that a blow to Sissoko – a player who struggled to even make the bench at times last season – should force Pochettino to choose between playing a teenager away from home in a Champions League quarter-final or moving Alli, one of the Premier League’s most potent attacking forces when in best form, back into what was essentially a defensive midfield position. Before this match, there were only six Tottenham players sidelined, and only two of those – Eric Dier and Harry Winks – were genuine contenders to play in central midfield.
Compare that to Wednesday’s hosts, who have two strings of three-man midfields to choose from, or their title rivals Liverpool who have so many options there it’s almost become a burden for Klopp to pick the right ones each week. Even Chelsea, who will finish below Tottenham this season, have top-class midfield options wallowing on the bench. Pochettino, meanwhile, was forced to make do in a match that could define Tottenham’s season and perhaps much of his tenure.
The deficiency stems, of course, from Tottenham’s inactivity during the last two transfer windows, on the inward front anyway. Daniel Levy was more than prepared to do business in January as long as it lined Tottenham’s pockets, sanctioning Mousa Dembele’s departure to the Chinese Super League for £11million.
The Belgium international was far from his best during the first half of the season but he’s been such a prevalent figure for Tottenham in Europe before, the platform that inspired their huge win over Juventus last season, and his qualities were so well suited to Wednesday’s game in particular – the positional discipline, the strength to win the ball back and most importantly of all, the composure to keep hold of possession under pressure.
That’s what Tottenham lacked in midfield the moment Sissoko went off. In the end, the traffic was pretty much all one way, Wanyama and Alli were at sixes and sevens and managed to hold on by the bits of their teeth. It was only after Llorente scored and the objective became exclusively to defend that Spurs’ balsa wood engine room looked a little more comfortable, now protected from all quarters rather than exposed to the incredible quality City boast in the same department.
And it shouldn’t be forgotten that Tottenham were only two VAR decisions away from losing this game. City’s late winner was rightly chalked off for offside, Llorente’s goal was wrongly allowed to stand despite clearly making contact with his arm. This game could have ended very differently and while there were so many factors involved in one of the best Champions League ties of recent years, the disparity in midfield was one of the most fundamental.
Yet, that is the vicious cycle Pochettino finds himself trapped in under Levy. Pochettino has earned the right to be backed more than any manager in the Premier League’s Big Six – he’s the longest serving and the least resourced – but his ability to continuously perform minor miracles with this Tottenham team despite the constraints put upon him only reinforces Levy’s point of view. Why throw millions of pounds at a problem when you have a genius who can seemingly solve it for nothing – or better yet, solve it while Tottenham bring in a positive net spend?
The finger must be pointed at City too. They seemed so obsessed with going around Tottenham rather than cutting into their soft underbelly, almost as if the free-flowing side we view them as is actually an illusion of painful repetition of low crosses from the byline. Likewise, credit must be given to Wanyama – whose performance constantly fluctuated between shambolic and heroic – and Alli for putting in an unrelenting shift beside him.
But imagine Tottenham losing this game because of Wanyama’s lack of match fitness, Alli’s limited defensive discipline or Skipp’s inexperience. Imagine their European hopes for the season resting on Sissoko, a player who has only looked worth his transfer fee for the last six months. Dembele should have been replaced in January or retained until the end of the season, and on another day when Llorente’s wrist glancing the ball wasn’t looked upon so favourably, that could have easily been the difference between glory and disaster for Spurs.