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Five Things We Learned from Tottenham’s 1-0 Champions League win over Manchester City

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SONNY!!!!!

Tottenham Hotspur and Manchester City - UEFA Champions League Quarter Final: First Leg Photo by Mike Hewitt/Getty Images

WE DID IT.

I was at Peak Ironic Spurs Fan before the game simply because I have been expecting the worst ever since the quarterfinal draw drew us against City. But we did it. We won 1-0 at home. Now if we can score a single goal at the Etihad next week, City will need to score three in order to advance. Here’s what we learned:

Defense wins—especially in late-stage cup competitions.

If you want to go the stats route on this you can—scoring goals in soccer is really hard and statistically you’re better off trying to grind out results 1-0 than trying to win 4-3.

Or you can look at the recent teams to excel in Europe. Even Barcelona and Real Madrid have been at their best when they know how to defend and grind out a result.

Spurs turned in one of their best defensive performances of the season, limiting Manchester City to nine shots and .6 xG. City is averaging 2.4 xG per match in the Premier League so that gives you some sense for how much Spurs neutralized the City attack Tuesday night.

A number of players deserve special mention. Janby Alderweirtonghen put in the kind of performance we have come to expect from both of them over the past several seasons. Hugo Lloris made a great save to deny Sergio Aguero from the spot. Moussa Sissoko ran around and broke up play in midfield. Even Kieran Trippier put in a pretty stout defensive performance on the right flank, which isn’t easy when you have guys like Raheem Sterling and Riyad Mahrez running straight at you over and over.

This wasn’t Pep Guardiola’s finest hour.

Of course, another way of telling the story of this fixture is that Pep Guardiola cost City a result. Guardiola clearly set the Citizens up to either draw or squeak by with a 1-0 win to take back to the City of Manchester Stadium. He was forced to play without Bernardo Silva, who was unavailable due to injury. But he also chose to rest Kevin De Bruyne and Leroy Sane.

On one level Pep’s initial lineup is a perfectly defensible decision to make, especially considering City are also trying to also win the Premier League. If you feel comfortable enough in your ability to thrash teams at home, there’s a certain logic to rotating some of your squad and aiming for a draw or a narrow win, especially in a pressure cooker environment like at the Tottenham Hotspur Stadium. However, the decision to wait until the 89th minute to bring KDB and Sane on is much harder to defend.

What is so bizarre about this struggle for Guardiola is that he seems to consistently field the wrong team or take the wrong approach in late-stage European fixtures. This stat got passed around a lot on Twitter in the post-game:

In the past, Guardiola teams got exposed when they committed too many men forward and got hit on the counter—think of Real Madrid’s thrashing of his Bayern Munich side in April of 2014. But in this fixture Pep made the opposite mistake, failing to commit men forward and take advantage of a shaky Spurs team that has no midfield and has fullbacks who can struggle against direct, pacey wingers like Sane and Raheem Sterling. Obviously there is plenty of time for City to atone for this week’s result next week, but at minimum Guardiola’s choices have made next week’s challenge that much more difficult.

SONNY!!!!

Son Heung-Min: Most Beloved Player of the Mauricio Pochettino era.

It’s not crazy. Though there are many players who could claim that title with some legitimacy, Sonny has maintained his fitness better than any of his fellow members of DESK, he continually scores big goals (dating all the way back to his ludicrous back-heel flick in the league against Watford in his first season in North London), and the sheer joy with which he plays the game is infectious.

The goal was especially well-taken too: He timed his run perfectly, somehow managed to keep the ball in, controlled well under some pressure, and then fired an unsaveable shot past Ederson.

We should say one more thing about Sonny: If Spurs are going to continue their march in Europe past next week and also continue their quest for top four in the league, they will continue to need big-time performances from their Korean attacker.

Harry Kane’s ankles are a problem.

I’ve always thought that Harry would age better than most center forwards. His game is not dependent on pace so he never seemed likely to suffer the fate of a Fernando Torres or Michael Owen.

That being said, Kane’s game does depend on balance and body control. His greatest strength as a striker is his knack for finding ways to get high-quality shots off in tight or difficult positions. Bad ankles make doing that harder. Indeed, though he has had a fine second half of the season, he has never looked as lethal as he did in the first 23 of last season’s campaign when he was arguably the best striker in the world.

The one silver lining is that Kane may get a nice break now. If he is done for the year, as looks likely, then he will likely only play a few relatively meaningless international fixtures between now and August. Given how much soccer the man has played over the past several years, a break of that length could be very good. And hopefully when he comes back he’ll have learned a bit about how to manage his body better—if he’s going to get tackled like he did today inside the box trying to score, that’s one thing. But to get injured in this way while contesting a ball in midfield is deeply frustrating, especially when one considers what it could mean for Tottenham’s season.

VAR is still bad.

I enjoyed laughing at PSG as much as the next person. But at present VAR is simply being used to enforce badly understood or badly defined rules that aren’t even consistent between UEFA and the English FA. It is likely true that there is a way for replay to make soccer better. Games with good rules work best when those rules are consistently enforced, obviously, and VAR could make that happen. But at present the use of VAR feels a bit like the NFL’s attempts to use replay to define a catch when the rulebook doesn’t even seem to know what a catch is. Something needs to change.

BONUS sixth point: Danny Rose has completed his heel turn and it’s glorious.

First, let’s get this out of the way: Fernandinho is an unequivocal master of shithousery, and those “talents” were on full display on Tuesday night. He should’ve earned at least three yellow cards, not to mention the straight red he would’ve earned for shoving Kane’s head into the ground if there was a fair and just God, and managed to get through 90 minutes without as much as a warning from match official Bjorn Kuipers.

Which is what makes Danny Rose taking matters into his own hands just before time and putting a GOSH-DANG STIFF ARM TO FERNANDINHO’S FACE so unbelievably awesome. Here’s a frame-by-frame breakdown of his move.

You want video? Oh baby, we’ve got video. This isn’t just a forearm shiver. Danny Rose did the dang Heisman move on him.

I don’t have anything especially profound to say, just that Danny had a really good game and this play is the bourbon-soaked cherry on top of the glorious black forest cake that was this match.