After four Premier League titles in five years, Pep Guardiola publicly questioned Manchester City’s credentials to win another this season, even after cutting Arsenal’s lead at the top to five points.
A rousing second-half fightback on Thursday saw the defending champion score four goals to beat Tottenham 4-2 at the Etihad Stadium.
It was a performance that lifted the mood among City fans, who had jeered the team as it trailed 2-0 at halftime. For Guardiola, however, it was evidence that his players may have lost their edge after so much success.
“I’m incredibly happy with the result, I’ll sleep like a baby tonight, but it’s not about that,” Guardiola said afterward.
“In 14 years, I won 11 league titles, that’s a lot so it means every day I see things you cannot see because you’re not there.
“I want a reaction for all the club, the whole organization — not just the players, the staff and everyone. We’re a happy flowers team ... I don’t want to be a happy flower. I want to beat Arsenal. But if we play in that way Arsenal will destroy us. Arsenal will beat us. I want to see my team.” It was an impassioned reaction from Guardiola after seeing his team avoid another blow to its title challenge.
After the derby loss to Manchester United last weekend, City watched Arsenal open up an eight-point advantage at the top of the standings and risked losing further ground as Tottenham raced into a commanding first-half lead through goals from Dejan Kulusevski and Emerson Royal.
But City came back to score three times in 12 minutes after the break through Julian Alvarez, Erling Haaland and Riyadh Mahrez.
Mahrez then killed off any chance of a late twist when breaking away to score again in the 90th minute.
“We are far away from the team we had in previous seasons. Do you think this comeback will happen every time? It won’t,” Guardiola said. “Do you think we are going to chase the gap to Arsenal the way we are playing? No way.” Despite Guardiola’s frustration, a win against Wolverhampton on Sunday will see City move to within two points of Arsenal before the Londoners host Man United at Emirates Stadium later that day.
City’s win against Tottenham ended a run of two straight losses against Southampton in the League Cup and United in the league.
Haaland’s mini-drought of three games without a goal was also noteworthy and even prompted debate over whether the Norwegian should be dropped, despite scoring 27 in 23 appearances going into the game.
If such talk felt like an overreaction, Guardiola was sufficiently concerned about his team’s form that he made a host of changes.
Kevin De Bruyne, Phil Foden, Bernardo Silva, Kyle Walker and Joao Cancelo were all dropped to the bench.
Tottenham had its own issues leading up to the match after dropping out of the top four in recent weeks.
Manager Antonio Conte had faced uncomfortable questions about his team’s performances, with angry fans voicing their displeasure on Thursday by chanting for chairman Daniel Levy to leave the club.
They were celebrating, however, when Kulusevski fired Tottenham ahead in the 44th minute.
Rodrigo Bentancur pounced on a weak pass from City goalkeeper Ederson to Rodri on the edge of the box, and the ball broke to Kulusevski to fire home.
It was 2-0 in first-half stoppage time when Harry Kane’s effort was parried into the path of Emerson to head over the line and prompt boos from the home crowd as City headed off the field at the break.
City looked set to lose for the third time in succession, but the game was completely turned around in the second half.
Alvarez made it 2-1 in the 51st with a clinical strike – and Haaland evened the score with a close-range header two minutes later to take his season’s overall total to 28.
Spurs’ players were stunned, but could have retaken the lead when Ivan Perisic’s goalbound effort was pushed onto the woodwork by Ederson.
With the game opening up it was City who took the lead in the 63rd.
Perisic was pulled out of position when failing to win the ball in a challenge with Mahrez that gave the winger chance to run toward goal.
Mahrez then unleashed a powerful, low drive that beat Hugo Lloris at his near post.
Tottenham pushed for an equalizer, but it was City who put the result beyond doubt when Mahrez raced away on the break and beat Lloris again.
“This is my first time in my career that my team conceded so many goals, but we have to continue to work, to improve and to try to do our best. At the end we are really disappointed for the final result. I think maybe we could deserve much more,” Conte said.