Sometimes a little defeat can be good for the soul. There was something jarring about the version of Manchester City caught beneath the skyscraping lights of Tottenham Hotspur’s chasmic new stadium last night, a howling gorge cut into the north London air already garlanded with the hot noise of home and the familiar array of corner flag gobshites armed with rolled-up copies of the Standard and mouths full of vitriol.
“Where were you when you was shit?” went the chant from the locals around ten minutes in, a self-conscious fuck you to grammar that doubled as fond tribute to the way people still talk in these parts, despite the space-age cheese-room mania that has gripped the world’s press over the last few months. Where were the Man City fans when their team was shit? Well, they were here, watching Pep Guardiola turn yet another Champions League knock-out away leg into a weirdly overwrought slog, like a teenage genius fiddling with a bra strap while also trying to do a Rubik’s Cube with his teeth before the egg timer goes off and he drowns in the fish tank. His side were ponderous and garbled last night, beaten everywhere. And yet perhaps there was something even more valuable than a win here for City.
More on that theory later. First, it would be remiss not to laud Spurs for their part in 90 minutes that won’t live long in the memory but that were an intermittent masterclass in tenacity and surfing the fine margins of elite level midfield pinball chaos. Opposition managers can surely not fail to note now that this is the type of game that City enjoy least, essentially lining up against 11 very angry dogs hellbent on getting their spit and snot all over the ball even if they don’t always seem to quite understand why. Danny Rose, in particular, deserves credit for a methodical and marauding performance from left-back that put both Fabian Delph in the shade and the seal on his own recent rejuvenation. Despite his avowed despondency at the ugliest sides of the game, Rose seems to be hitting bracing new heights of authority and conviction. His England colleague Kieran Trippier and the captain Hugo Lloris, both recipients of ridicule of late, also gave wonderful accounts of themselves, the latter with a vital penalty save from Sergio Agüero after VAR threatened to consign the game to farce and Rose’s left arm to ignominy just 12 minutes in.
For all that, the match felt like one defined more by City’s lack of focus and quality than anything else, even if the majority of the home support would garrotte you with cheddar wire in one of Daniel Levy’s beloved turbo-shitters for saying so. It’s no slight on Spurs: for the best part of two years now, we’ve been forced to get used to Guardiola and City’s algorithm football, a style of play that feels precision-engineered to exploit human weakness in the most barbarically efficient way possible but that often seems to take barely any joy in doing so.
Even if Liverpool do win the league, there is little doubt that this Manchester City side are the best team at the best, most competitive moment English club football has ever known. They are colossal in every department, from the revolutionary presence of Ederson in goal to the vertiginous defensive promise of Aymeric Laporte, from Kevin De Bruyne and David and Bernardo Silva in midfield to the lethal synchronicity of Agüero, Raheem Sterling and Leroy Sané. On the pitch and off it, they are operating at a level beyond perhaps any other outfit in English football history. And yet no one seems particularly arsed that they still loiter at the cusp of an unprecedented quadruple.
For what’s been billed as a long overdue title race, City have enjoyed just a sliver of the coverage of their rivals from Merseyside. When they are invoked or willed on by neutrals it tends to be only as a kind of welcome void at the top of the division, a side whose success would be so meaningless beyond the closed loop of their own fanbase that they seem a palatable placeholder for people who can’t bear the idea of Liverpool winning their first league for 29 years. For all City’s obvious brilliance, they lack of a sense of romantic warmth and struggle, the feeling of a team straining against the worst parts of itself to come together and produce something extraordinary and out of the blue.
Liverpool’s travails – not just over the last three months, but the last three decades – imbue them with the galvanising glow of fraternal mission. It is not City’s fault that Liverpool have been choking on their victory champagne since Thatcher was in power. It is also not City’s fault that for all the smart marketing and cosmopolitan mini-revolutions, this is the way English football still loves to measure things, in that holy trinity of blood, sweat and tears. But the manner of their sharp, petro-dollar rise sees them consequently asked for more of these vital fluids.
If last night’s performance at Spurs’ new Millennial Dome was disappointing, it at least might offer some perverse sense of hope for City’s narrative thrust and eventual reception as champions, in however many fields they are able to muster. Now, City have a problem to fix: the crippling weakness of overthought, a tendency in the manager who has orchestrated all of their recent majesty to respond to the stress of these big, box office nights by drowning himself in the details. Plainly put, the tactical instructions that Guardiola sent his players out with last night just didn’t work, and his decisions to start Delph and keep Sané and De Bruyne on the bench till the 89th minute seem in retrospect almost wilfully masochistic.
The City manager’s introduction of an unfamiliar system at the same stage of last season’s competition is widely blamed for Liverpool essentially winning the tie within half an hour of the first leg. Similarly muddled strategic thinking was credited for the defeat to Monaco the season before that, as it was to varying degrees in all three of his Champions League exits with Bayern Munich. It is a curious situation, but perhaps the best opponent City could’ve hoped to emerge at this stage in proceedings is themselves. After all, there is history there, and with it a chance to locate an arc to their campaign that provides some friction, to show the world that they are more than just the product of guilty money and sensible planning, for this well-oiled machine to override the mainframe and engage the invisible parts inside themselves that help you leash those fine, pinball margins decisively to your side.