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Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 21 April 2019

Pep Guardiola’s cautious approach at Tottenham could pay off when Manchester City host second leg

A 1-0 defeat in the Uefa Champions league quarter-finals, first leg has set up City to attack at the Etihad Stadium for the return fixture

Look at the scoreline and it is evident Manchester City are one goal worse off. Frame it in the context of Pep Guardiola’s quest to win the Uefa Champions League and, in a strange sense, they are two goals better off.

The context to City’s 1-0 defeat to Tottenham Hotspur was supplied by last season’s 3-0 loss to Liverpool; even, arguably, the two legs against Monaco in 2017 when they conceded three times in each.

Those games, rather than City’s run of 23 victories in their previous 24 attempts, informed his team selection and his uncharacteristic caution. A team who have a recent habit of winning games in the opening few minutes were looking to take the more patient approach to prevail over 180.

City’s loss in London revived the theory that Guardiola can over-think things, that an unashamedly intellectual manager can be too clever for his own good. If there are Champions League knockout ties that support that suspicion – the use of 4-2-4 when Bayern Munich were thrashed 4-0 by Real Madrid, the choice of Ilkay Gundogan to operate off the right at Anfield last season – Tuesday’s choices felt more based on a pragmatism stemming from a desire to get a platform.

Guardiola feels scarred by that Anfield thrashing and, in particular, by the 19-minute three-goal burst. He was more guarded than usual on October’s return to Liverpool, drawing 0-0 with two holding players.

That ploy was reprised on Tuesday to offer solidity and to prevent Fernandinho from being outnumbered by Spurs’ phalanx of attacking midfielders. David Silva played as a No 10 in the Anfield stalemate and a man in his 34th year was again given fewer defensive duties against a team with Tottenham’s running power.

Kevin de Bruyne’s omission, and delaying his introduction until the 89th minute, was the most contentious part, but Guardiola has been careful of late not to overwork the Belgian midfielder.

Leroy Sane was bracketed with De Bruyne by Guardiola’s critics. Blistering as the German’s speed can be and fine as his scoring record is in the Champions League’s knockout stages, the more prosaic reality may have been that he was always unlikely to start, even if it was surprising that Riyad Mahrez did.

But picking City’s record buy actually showed a consistency of thought in defining away matches. Bernardo Silva would surely have filled the role on the right if fit yet, when Mahrez operated on the wing in that Anfield stalemate, Guardiola explained it was because he was the best of his forwards at keeping the ball.

Raheem Sterling nevertheless had a higher pass completion rate at Spurs, but the intent to have a fourth pseudo-midfielder in tough away games is a recurring theme. In such outings, he sees possession as a defensive tactic.

City have won a trophy on penalties this season, but their campaign may be partly defined by missed spot kicks, whether Mahrez’s skied effort on Merseyside or Sergio Aguero’s rather tame shot that Hugo Lloris repelled. It was Aguero’s default penalty, to the keeper’s left, and was signalled by the angle of his run-up.

Those are two of the three games this season when City have failed to score. Even a side stripped of their usual fluency got a golden chance. That may support Guardiola’s logic: shorn of some of their flair players, City still get opportunities.

The key lies in preventing opponents from having them. Spurs had four shots on target and Fabian Delph, one of several imperfect choices for the left-back role, erred, partly by stopping to claim the ball had gone out of play, when Heung-Min Son struck.

It means Guardiola has still not won a Champions League away quarter-final since 2011, but he has reached seven semi-finals. To win the war, he adopted a cautious approach in the first battle.

Updated: April 10, 2019 02:37 PM

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