The story of this game will focus on VAR's intervention, thus denying a Gabriel Jesus winner and three points for Man City. But this was also about Tottenham and Mauricio Pochettino knowing that with or without the disallowed goal, leaving the Etihad with a point was a huge achievement.
Explain that. On the one hand the rest of the league will take heart that Manchester City has dropped points by drawing 2-2 against Tottenham, and that the champion may not simply walk away with the title. On the other, it will look with foreboding at how City for long periods outclassed the side that finished fourth last season and was probably the third-best in the league. In the end, Tottenham, as in last season’s Champions League quarterfinal, was grateful to VAR for ruling out what appeared to be an injury-time City winner but it had been clinging on implausibly long before that.
When Gabriel Jesus hooked in following a right-wing corner, the Etihad celebrated wildly. And then came a sense of déjà vu: the referee standing still, not pointing to the center-circle and then the dread realization that this goal, like Raheem Sterling’s last season, was not going to stand. As the cross had come in, it turned out, it had flicked the hand of Aymeric Laporte and, under the modern law, amended in the summer so any touch off an attacking arm in the build-up to a goal is an offense, that meant it had to be ruled out. The irony that Tottenham’s winner in that game last season had been scored by the arm of Fernando Llorente, was lost on nobody.
And so Tottenham improbably survived, yet this was a game in which City had been excellent. Perhaps most worrying for everybody else is the fact that Kevin De Bruyne, having missed half of last season through injury, is back and fit and looking as menacing as ever. It was the Belgian, operating on the right of the midfield three, who orchestrated what was, ultimately, a comfortable victory.
It was De Bruyne’s cross, following a smart run from Bernardo Silva that laid on the opener for Raheem Sterling, calmly heading his fourth goal of the season after a back-post run. The thought then was that the game was as good as done such is City’s capacity for stifling matches, but against expectation, an equalizer arrived three minutes later, Erik Lamela taking a pass from Tanguy Ndombele, advancing without an obvious pace or purpose, opening his body and placing a shot beyond the dive of Ederson.
But the City machine was soon back in gear, first taking control and then turning control into a goal. Again it came down the right, again De Bruyne and Bernardo Silva were integral to the move and against the goal was a thing of deceptively simple beauty, Sergio Aguero touching in De Bruyne’s low cross as he got in front of Toby Alderweireld.
It seemed at that stage impossible that the game would end in anything other than a City win. If anything, after a barrage of City pressure, that seemed even more certain 11 minutes into the second half when Lucas Moura was introduced for Harry Winks. But the Brazilian equalized with his first touch, a deft header from Lamela’s corner. It was just Spurs’ second attempt on goal of the game after meant that, after their late goals against Aston Villa last week, they had scored with four of their last six shots.
The City machine rumbled on. Rodri had a shot tipped over by Hugo Lloris. Bernardo Silva looped an effort against the bar. Danny Rose blocked on one the line. And then, perhaps, the first sign that beneath the surface all might not be quite as serene at City as might appear. There had been a dialogue between Pep Guardiola and Aguero all game and it reached a peak just before Moura’s goal. When Aguero was taken off nine minutes later, and surpassed Damien Duff as the most substituted player in Premier League history (with 117), him and Guardiola briefly squared up, their frank exchange of views interrupted only by the intervention of the assistant coach Mikel Arteta.
Such flare-ups occur during in games. Aguero himself reacted badly after being substituted against Manchester United here last November. But the flash of irritation did seem to fit with a couple of suggestions that emerged in pre-season that Guardiola was even more intense than usual. In itself that may not be too significant: it fits the pattern of his previous two managerial jobs in which his furious focus ratcheted up season by season until it became almost unbearable in the third year. Both Barcelona and Bayern Munich win the league in that third season but on both occasions everybody, players and Guardiola, seemed to find the process exhausting. City may be facing something similar – but it may be that with more potential champions in the Premier League that heightened pressure is of more consequence. That said, Aguero made a point of hugging Guardiola after Jesus seemed to have scored the winner.
Or perhaps this was simply a freakish game. City, after all, had 30 shots to Spurs’ three, 10 on target to Spurs’ three. Most days it would have won this game at a canter. But it did not, and in that detail its rivals will smell just the slightest whiff of hope.