A header from Aymeric Laporte ended a stuck game, gave Manchester City the first trophy of the three it has pursued in a season that ranks it as the best-playing team in Europe, and relieved Guardiola of the great pressure it seemed to endure. The manager entered Wembley with a frown. He did not clear the cloud until the final 1-0. He celebrated the end by hugging players and assistants with the unleashed euphoria of a refugee crossing the border away from disaster. The League Cup final was closed with success for the Premier’s leaders, who are now marching towards the Champions semi-final to meet PSG, next Wednesday. On the grass Heung-min Son remained on his knees, crying disconsolate after missing another opportunity to achieve something that seems unattainable: a title with Tottenham.
The partial opening to the public made up an untimely atmosphere in the pandemic. Two thousand fans per club poured heat onto the pitch. But the evocation of the good old days of happy crowds did not encourage players to adventure. The game proceeded according to a web of calculations and geometric speculations. After an initial trial, City decided to devote as much energy to cutting the thread of passes that linked Kane, Son and Moura, as to tackling the Lloris area. The consequence was twofold: City lost the rhythm of ball circulation and Tottenham only linked a dangerous counterattack throughout the game and did not end in a shot. It starred Kane and two supporting actors, Hojbjerg and Reguilón, who did not end up understanding each other.
Perhaps because he was not physically ready, De Bruyne remained more off the hook trying to receive between the lines, waiting for the occasion instead of going down to offer more to center-backs and pivots. Initially, Cancelo positioned himself as a midfielder alongside Fenrandinho in the first leg of the starts, but then Guardiola changed tactics and delayed Gundogan. The top scorer’s move to the rear burdened him with defensive duties while depriving Foden and De Bruyne of invaluable support. Gundogan had to watch Moura while Fernandinho kept an eye on Son, who turned to midfield and escaped the radar of the centrals.
Gundogan’s journey to midfield is symptomatic. Since they fell in the Cup semi-final against Chelsea a week ago, City seem to be working the games with their mind set on Mbappé. The fearsome demarrajes of the PSG striker and his partner Neymar seem to feed the imagination of Guardiola and his team, increasingly cautious, more fearful of losing a ball in midfield and being hit, and less loose in attack. The substitution of Bernardo Silva, replaced by Sterling, also did not help to illuminate the characteristic game of passing and dizzying movements that has enshrined these splendid months of the City. The English winger, marginalized to the background in recent weeks, insisted on facing everything that was put in front of him. He was as generous in effort as he was unproductive in the last few yards, where he ran into Aurier.
There is an unmistakable sign that City cannot do their football. It happens when the plays are finished on the outside. As much as Guardiola encouraged Cancelo to double Sterling, the advances of the wing on the band did not lead to clear occasions as much as in centers to the pot. “That’s right!”, The coach yelled at the Portuguese. The City arrived a lot but to Lloris, covered by nine players, the alarms went off little. City fired 21 times for two of their rival. Foden had what was probably his team’s best chance of a point-blank shot in the first half, which Dier cleared with his leg. Mahrez demanded Lloris from outside the area in the second.
Continuing centers in Mahrez, De Bruyne and Cancelo were systematically cleared or wasted. The funnel seemed to lead to extra time when after 80 minutes De Bruyne fired a side free kick and Laporte stormed over Sissoko to head a goal. The center-back combed the ball back and altered its direction towards the back post. “We don’t have time to rehearse these plays,” Guardiola replied to the television interviewer who asked him about the set-piece laboratory. “The key is in the pitcher and the spiker. With this calendar there is no time to work anymore. We only have time to recover between games ”.
The goal had the value of a game, a final, and a milestone in the history of a team that is already installed in its own right among the greatest that have been seen in England. The League Cup marks the rebirth of Guardiola’s City after a year of transition and search. The Spanish coach has managed to do the most difficult thing in his field: regenerate a champion squad. The small party that its members held on the grass at Wembley had the flavor of reunion and farewell. Kun Agüero walked among the people like a strange passerby. Before the new era that begins, the old idol has one foot out.