Feature

Why Ortega's save is THE defining moment in title race

By Alex Keble 15 May 2024
Tottenham Hotspur v Manchester City - Premier League

Alex Keble says Man City goalkeeper's crucial save in 2-0 win at Spurs will join their list of key moments

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Alex Keble looks at how Manchester City have put themselves within touching distance of a fourth consecutive Premier League title after returning to the top of the table with a 2-0 win at Tottenham Hotspur.

Pep Guardiola’s Premier League title-winning campaigns often have a single moment that defines them.

Vincent Kompany’s senseless decision to shoot from 25 yards against Leicester City. John Stones clearing one off the line against Liverpool.

And now, Stefan Ortega, the most unlikely of heroes, saw the whites of Son Heung-min’s eyes and produced a magnificent save. Guardiola was flat on his back. Even he thought it was in.

The title isn’t won yet, of course, but Man City are widely expected to beat West Ham United at Etihad Stadium on Sunday and make it a record-breaking fourth consecutive top-flight title.

It could have been a different story and not just because of that Ortega save; because of The Ortega Save.

Spurs put in one of their best performances of 2024 so far, pressing aggressively to make life difficult for the champions, who returned to the top of the table with victory in north London.

But Man City did enough. Erling Haaland with the brace, Kevin De Bruyne with the clutch moment, Ortega with the match-winning save - and Guardiola, ultimately, with a tactical victory down Spurs' left.

Postecoglou’s "false nine" and hard press made it hard for City

For large parts of this contest Spurs were arguably the better team, and for that, Ange Postecoglou takes credit for, as ever, sticking to his principles.

There is a case to be made that too many Premier League teams are overly respectful to Man City, because as Aston Villa showed in their 1-0 win back at Villa Park in December - and Spurs showed here - they can be ruffled by a hard press and a high line.

Spurs’ aggression seemed to pull Guardiola’s side into a disordered state, encouraging them to try to beat the offside trap and speed up their build-up play. That’s not how they like it.

Man City had 47.1 per cent possession of the ball, their second-lowest share in the Premier League this season after a 1-1 draw at Anfield in March, while Spurs won 56 per cent of their tackles, the sixth-highest figure anyone has achieved against Guardiola’s team this season.

Several City players were off the pace as a result, but just as important was Postecoglou’s decision to play without a striker, meaning five players - four central midfielders plus Pedro Porro - swarming and dominating in midfield.

Rodrigo Bentancur was sensational, passing cleverly through the lines under pressure, while James Maddison excelled in a deeper role to unsettle the visitors.

Rodrigo Bentancur Twenty3

Amazingly, Spurs put together more 10+ open-play pass sequences than Man City (24 to 21) and hit a PPDA (passes per defensive action) of 9.3, which is exceptionally low for any game but very unusual against Guardiola’s team.

De Bruyne’s clutch moment is a tactical triumph for Guardiola

However, Man City still tended to look the more threatening side and predominantly down Spurs’ left side, an area Guardiola had clearly targeted in expectation it would be Spurs' weakest area.

He began with Kyle Walker playing high and wide here, and the City players notably hit long diagonals out to him throughout the first half. He had far too much space because Micky van de Ven was forced to stay narrow and Son, operating high up the pitch, couldn’t get out to help him.

Keble Spurs v Man City

But Walker struggled to make anything of all that room, and so just before half-time Guardiola decided to swap him with Bernardo Silva.

Then, a classic clutch moment from De Bruyne. We have become accustomed over the years to De Bruyne spending the first half working out the tactical pattern of a match before coming alive in the second - and so it was again for the crucial opener just after interval.

The ball broke out to the right and Silva, now higher and wider thanks to Guardiola, picked it up. Then De Bruyne, for the first time in the match, made an excellent driving run to receive possession and put it on a plate for Haaland.

Why did De Bruyne lurk out to the right in the early minutes of the second half, and then make that run? Because he - like Guardiola - reads the game and spots the weaknesses.

Kevin De Bruyne, Man City

That’s why he boasts such incredible numbers in the Premier League this season. Despite playing just 17 matches, De Bruyne has produced 10 assists and scored four goals in less than half a campaign.

Man City haven’t lost a single match in which he has featured, and his 0.62 Expected Goal (xG) assists per 90 in open play is right up there with the best in Europe.

Guardiola’s subs destabilise City but Doku gamble pays off

But it might not have been enough. Unusually, Guardiola’s substitutions only seemed to further disrupt his team’s rhythm and as the tension rose and City sat deeper, you could feel a Spurs chance coming.

The issue was bringing Jeremy Doku on for De Bruyne.

Phil Foden had been an important player in City’s build-up, and once he was shunted up into central attacking midfield the visitors struggled to pass through Rodri into advanced areas.

Just as significantly, Doku didn’t have a handle on Pedro Porro’s movements in the way Foden had, and for a while Spurs were passing freely down the right through Brennan Johnson and substitute Dejan Kulusevski.

Then came the Son chance, which served to highlight both Spurs’ unrelenting aggression - Johnson’s press dispossessed Manuel Akanji - and City’s new hesitancy on the ball without Foden to play through.

Fortunately for the visitors, Ortega came to the rescue, and then as Man City countered the other way through Doku, winning a penalty, Guardiola was even rewarded for the high-risk gamble of bringing him on.

Is there hope for Arsenal?

They looked nervous at times. They could have conceded an equaliser. They were pushed back when Guardiola’s subs didn’t quite work.

These are all signs that Man City could wobble in their home match against West Ham, something Guardiola expressed in his post-match interview for Sky Sports.

“The players know that it is not done. I didn’t see an extra celebration or something like that," he said.

"They know perfectly that it will be really rough [against West Ham]. All the people have to come to the Etihad Stadium knowing it will be difficult.”

A lot of Arsenal fans will dismiss those comments, assuming the title is gone.

Spurs have shown today that Man City can be got at. It’s just hard to believe West Ham will follow their lead.

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