A week ago, the mood among Tottenham Hotspur supporters was lukewarm at best. Sure, the club were headed for their first cup final since the Champions League defeat that presaged the end of the Pochettino era. But the team could barely cobble together a single half of good play; they had stumbled out of the FA Cup and Europa League and were rapidly losing whatever slim chance they had at Champions League qualification for next year; and manager Jose Mourinho was becoming increasingly unpopular with fans. Oh, and their opponents in the coming League Cup final were Manchester City, maybe the best team in the world. Conversations about the cup final centered on how long Mourinho would keep his job after Spurs’ presumptive loss and whether a shock win—and a first major trophy for Spurs (sorry, Audi Cup) in a decade—might secure the job of a man whose job was plainly living on borrowed time.
How things have changed. Last Monday, Mourinho was sacked, with Ryan Mason—that Ryan Mason—replacing him as interim manager. Suddenly, fans began to dream about the club again. Part of it comes down to Mason’s own remarkable story of being forced out of football by a skull injury before becoming the youngest person ever to manage in the Premier League, and part of it is that fans associate Mason’s playing days with those exciting early years under Mauricio Pochettino, and having him as manager hearkens back to a time when Tottenham’s best was yet to come. One imagines that the players’ own feelings mirror the fan’s excitement. In the twilight of Mourinho’s leadership, it became increasingly clear that the dressing room was disturbed by unspoken tensions, yet now the team has a figure to unify them—one alongside whom many of them have played. Suddenly, the possibility of a win in the League Cup final, however improbable it might have been under the circumstances, represented the possibility of rebirth for Tottenham Hotspur.
Winds of change were at Spurs’ back, and with fans attending the match for the first time in ages, there was reason to hope for an unlikely win. Tottenham’s starting lineup left some star power on the bench, particularly Tanguy Ndombele (replaced unexpectedly by Harry Winks), Gareth Bale, and Dele Alli, potentially suggesting that Spurs hoped to nick a result in through some impact substitutions in the second half. However, with Reguilon, Dier, Alderweireld, and Aurier in defense ahead of Lloris in goal; Hojbjerg, Winks, and Lo Celso in midfield; and Son and Moura along the wings outside Harry Kane, Spurs fielded one of the stronger lineups they could against City, whose threat was clear. However, Tottenham couldn’t equal City’s incessant threat, and a late header from Aymeric Laporte was the sole goal in a contest dominated by City in the first half and balanced in the second.
Tottenham spent virtually the entire first half pinned back by City’s intricate attacking play and high-pressing defense, but they hung onto the clean sheet until halftime. If Spurs’ game plan was—as the lineup suggested—to cross their fingers for the first half before bringing fury and intensity in the second, they managed the first bit. Lloris made some excellent saves; Dier and Alderweireld made a few key blocks; and Lucas and Son were both rare but effective outlets down the wing, yet the team as a whole looked incapable of mustering a clear response to City. Tottenham did just enough to keep the game within reach going into the second half, but they needed to drastically up their threat immediately at the start of the second.
The second half began brightly, with Harry Kane dropping deeper and orchestrating some promising attacking plays. Lo Celso, Son, and Hojbjerg all found moments of space through the second half, but ultimately Spurs lacked a final pass or moment of brilliance to steal a goal against the tide of the game. City took their foot off the gas, soaking up pressure from Spurs, before Raheem Sterling got the better of Serge Aurier in the 81st minute. Aurier fouled Sterling and conceded a free kick near the Spurs touchline which De Bruyne passed directly to the head of Aymeric Laporte, who headed home the winning goal. Spurs didn’t muster much in the remaining ten minutes, and despite City’s dominance, a feeling that Spurs could have stolen a result lingered at the full-time whistle.
10’ — The first ten minutes have been all City. with Mahrez, Sterling, Foden, Walker, and De Bruyne twisting and turning and looking for a way through. Spurs have defended energetically and managed to deny their opponents a clear shot on goal, but if they can’t find a way to break City’s pressure, they’ll tire quickly.
13’ — Sterling receives a cross with a split second to shoot, perhaps City’s best chance yet. Alderweireld does well to block the effort, but Tottenham look really pinned back, struggling to win even a minute of possession.
15’ — City are pressing hard when Spurs regain possession, then racing at the Spurs defense. Tottenham will hope that City can’t maintain this frenetic play for the entire match, potentially leaving them vulnerable to an Ndombele/Dele/Bale substitution in the second half, but for as long as they can keep it up, it seems to be bad news for Spurs.
18’ — Spurs win their first corner on a sharp team move, circulating the ball well and opening up space on the right side of the pitch.
21’ — Lo Celso concedes a free kick just outside the Spurs penalty area with a frustrated tackle from behind on Kevin De Bruyne. The trouble with playing City is that they invite lapses in concentration such as this, then punish them. Tottenham need to remain entirely focused.
25’ — City cap off another spell of immense pressure with a Phil Foden shot that Hugo Lloris does very well to deny. Spurs still look pinned back, but they’re also still hanging on.
26’ — Sergio Reguilon enters the book for a late sliding challenge on Kevin De Bruyne.
28’ — A Tottenham counterattack ends with Reguilon’s cross deflecting harmlessly into the path of a City player. Spurs can take just a little bit more time before trying to make the final pass, because as is, their eagerness on the ball is leading to some cheap giveaways.
38’ — Alderweireld plays what’s certainly the pass of the half, an inch-perfect long ball to pick out Son down the right. The play wins Spurs another corner. “Hanging on” would have to be the motto of the half, but in all fairness, beating Manchester City will always involve more or less hanging on.
44’ — Laporte enters the book for stepping across Lucas as he sprang forward from the Spurs half. We’ve said it before, but Lucas always steps up in big games, and he’s been working hard again today.
45’ — Lloris’s lightning reflexes keep the scoreline 0-0 as he launches to his right to deny Cancelo with an outstretched glove.
46’ — Spurs begin on the front foot with some confident attacking play that ends with Lo Celso taking a perfect curled shot from distance. Had Steffen not gotten across to deny Lo Celso, the effort would surely have scored. Better from Tottenham.
47’ — Words are exchanged between Lo Celso and De Bruyne, who kicked Lo Celso’s shin as Lo Celso slid across to clear De Bruyne’s heavy touch.
50’ — Tottenham are playing more through Harry Kane now, who’s conducting the Spurs attack from deep. So far, it seems to be working, with Spurs maintaining possession more consistently in the opposing half.
58’ — Fernandino is booked for tripping Hojbjerg as he ran into the City half. Tottenham are finding a way through far easier in the first 15 minutes of this half than they did at any point in the last.
62’ — Tottenham have an excellent move through Hojbjerg, who sprints forward into space before Kane finds him on the left wing. There’s an exchange of words between Reguilon and Hojbjerg, who was trying to slot the left fullback in along the touchline but instead passed out of bounds.
66’ — A double substitution for Spurs: Gareth Bale is on for Lucas Moura and Moussa Sissoko is on for Giovani Lo Celso.
70’ — Fernandinho sneaks down the left wing and De Bruyne picks him out, forcing Lloris to dive on Fernandinho’s header to defend the clean sheet.
71’ — Sterling runs down the left flank and cuts the ball back to Gundogan, who can’t convert the opportunity. City’s press is noticeably deeper than it was in the first half, with Spurs given plenty of time on the ball until they get nearer to the City goal. This poses a new risk for Tottenham of conceding on a City counterattack.
72’ — Lloris makes another super save to deny a curling effort by Riyad Mahrez. City are looking to catch Spurs unawares.
77’ — Reguilon is up and moving, but spent some time clutching his ankle on the ground after Kyle Walker trod on his Achilles as the two chased a ball.
80’ — Aurier concedes a free kick near touchline after diving in on Sterling. So far, he’s played extremely well against the gifted forward, but his concentration lapsed for just a second.
81’ — Goal: Manchester City 1 - 0 Tottenham. De Bruyne curls the free kick into the Tottenham penalty area and Laporte gets above the Tottenham defense to head home. Disappointing for Spurs, who have ten minutes to win a way back.
82’ — Substitution: Dele Alli is on for Spurs, replacing Hojbjerg. He’ll need to bring something truly special, and quickly, to save Tottenham’s trophy hopes.
86’ — Substitution: Kevin De Bruyne makes way for Bernardo Silva for City.
89’ — Substitution: Steven Bergwijn is on for Serge Aurier, a final attacking move by Ryan Mason. Three minutes of added time are announced, and it all hangs in the balance.
93’ — Mahrez scores, but a City player was offside in the build-up. No goal, but time is up for Spurs.
- The fact that Ndombele, Spurs’ most press-resistant player, didn’t feature at all is perhaps the most damning fact of this loss. Spurs were second-best, but they were hanging on, and had Ndombele been on the pitch in place of the quiet Harry Winks, it might have made all the difference.
- City are a grinding opponent to play: they just wait for errors and punish them. Spurs were composed if uninspired today, and they nearly hung on for the full ninety. Just a single error by Aurier ultimately decided the match.
- Ryan Mason had less than a week to train the team for this game, and all things considered, they acquitted themselves fairly against an opponent of greater quality and far more preparation. It’s a disappointing but hardly unexpected result.
- Kane dropping deep was the key to all of Spurs’ best moves; hopefully it’s a theme that we will see emphasized going forward.