Against the Odds: How Man City’s defeat to Spurs was more Mourinho miracle than masterclass

Google searches can be strangely nostalgic.

A quick check online for how the world, at the start of February 2020, viewed Jose Mourinho vs Pep Guardiola (with Tottenham Hotspur and Manchester City merely a sideshow) reveals that many thought their rivalry was past its best. If their respective teams couldn’t compete with each other, then there was little to stoke the fire. 

How wrong they were.

In their Premier League clash on Sunday 2 February, Spurs had three shots, three shots on target, two goals and, most importantly, three points. Manchester City, despite creating chances worth 2.87 expected goals to Tottenham’s 0.31, left North London with nothing. 

Like the previous two instalments in this Against the Odds series (on Liverpool and Leeds United), a missed penalty has been a factor. Hugo Lloris made a fantastic save, but it’s striking how similar the placement was for İlkay Gündoğan’s other Premier League spot-kick this season, back in December against Leicester City.

Gündoğan wasn’t the only City player to spurn an opportunity though, of course. The Manchester side had four shots classed as Big Chances by Opta, but missed all of them. Spurs had one, scored one, and took all three points.

Whenever there’s a match like this, where one team wins despite being fairly outplayed, it’s difficult to know how much credit to give them. The strategy was a success in terms of the three points, but a ‘successful strategy’ should be one that relies on luck as little as possible to win. 

Tottenham allowed their opposition to have 70 per cent of the completed passes in the match. That’s fine, according to Mourinho’s gameplan. City had 77 per cent of passes in the final third. Still probably fine in the Mourinho mindset. 

But Guardiola’s side had 86 per cent of the shots. That’s getting harder to justify, and when you see that City had 90 per cent of the expected goals value for the match, or 87 per cent without the penalty, that’s clearly not a successful strategy. 

In a tactical sense, at no point did Mourinho’s team successfully absorb pressure and respond with meaningful threats of their own. 

City managed all of this pressure while practically going without their left flank in attack too. In the moments that Raheem Sterling, the left winger on the teamsheet, was involved in dangerous attacks it was from the centre of the pitch – both the chances he created were passes from right to left.

When we look at the team’s flank attacks visualisation – which shows the average value of a team’s possession through the brightness of the arrows – City’s threat down the left was virtually non-existent compared to elsewhere on the pitch. This despite the volume of attacks being fairly evenly distributed.

It’s far, far different from what City’s average has been in the league this season, where the left flank is actually quite important.

Perhaps suppressing the threat on the left was Mourinho’s game-plan, and if it was then he managed that one, single aim. But Manchester City aren’t a team whose attack shuts off if one of their outlets gets clogged up. A mixture of wasteful City shooting, saves from Hugo Lloris, and rub of the green on the rare occasion that Spurs took a shot, was what won this game.

Will any of that have mattered to Mourinho? Or will he just have been happy to get three points from – and one over – his longtime foe Guardiola. 

We probably know the answer to that one.

Rivalry status: restored.