Both teams played with a center-forward in name only at Wembley. After a week of speculation over the extent of his ankle injury, Harry Kane declared himself fit to start but based on the 90 minutes that followed, there surely wouldn’t be many at Spurs who would agree with his assessment. Tottenham interim boss Ryan Mason, who has a close, personal relationship with Kane, took the understandable view that the England captain had to play if they were to have any chance of matching City’s firepower.
By contrast, Guardiola has long since detached himself from the idea that a conventional No. 9 is required to land the top prizes. Having regularly deployed one false nine or even two in a 4-4-2 shape with two midfielders occupying the most advanced positions, he went with the latter on Sunday as Kevin De Bruyne and Phil Foden started in what is always an interchangeable attack.
The City boss has flirted with using a false nine previously, usually as a surprise tactic to unsettle opponents, but it has increasingly became his preferred approach: De Bruyne played as a false nine when City beat Chelsea 3-1 in January, Foden took the role in their 4-1 demolition of Liverpool, De Bruyne and Bernardo Silva were used at Arsenal, Riyad Mahrez in the semifinal of this competition against Manchester United. The shift explains a large part of their Premier League revival, standing now as they do on the brink of regaining the title, and City were utterly dominant from the outset at Wembley, too.
Mason tried to instil a greater ambition into Spurs than they had often shown under Jose Mourinho by playing out from the back, but a key advantage to Guardiola’s approach is the ferocious press set by De Bruyne and Foden. Working off the ball has never been the strength of Sergio Aguero or Gabriel Jesus but City’s front four, when Mahrez and Raheem Sterling pushed on, rattled Spurs into the sort of individual mistakes they have, in truth, been guilty of making all season long. It was a regular frustration of Mourinho’s, and Mason was never going to eradicate it in a week.
In fact, they defended admirably here. Eric Dier blocked an early effort from Sterling before Toby Alderweireld produced a better one to deny Foden, deflecting his shot onto the post with Hugo Lloris beaten. Mahrez went close with a couple of curling efforts before Lloris saved expertly from Joao Cancelo on the stroke of half-time.
All Spurs could muster was one Alderweireld shot and the sporadic threat of a quick breakaway on the odd occasion they evaded City’s press. Aymeric Laporte, Ruben Dias and later Fernandinho were all booked as City’s tactical fouls were shared around. Tottenham fans argued Laporte should not have been on the pitch to head home the winner, having evaded punishment for a tackle before he was eventually booked, but he probably would not have made the second challenge had the first not gone unsanctioned.
The bigger frustration for Spurs should be that after defending stoically for so long, their resistance was eventually broken by a set piece. Sterling bought a cheap free kick from Serge Aurier, De Bruyne swung over a cross and Laporte nodded home.
Spurs had just two shots all afternoon. Ultimately, Mason could not engender the greater attacking verve his appointment had suggested, and instead Kane stood in silence watching City celebrate another trophy snatched from under his nose. Speculation over his future will continue given the gulf between the two teams. Son Heung-Min was in tears at the final whistle while Dier stared forlornly at the end where Spurs conceded after conducting an emotional television interview.
“Pain,” said Mason when asked what the emotions were in the dressing room. “It hurts. I’ve been sitting in there as a player. I’ve played for this club and lost a cup final. I know what it’s like. I know that feeling. It is normal they are hurting because it shows they care. This group cares deeply about this football club. They gave absolutely everything, 100% commitment. We tried, it wasn’t enough today and that’s tough to take.”
City’s intensity had dropped a little by the time they scored, but Guardiola was still satisfied not to call on Aguero or Jesus even in pursuit of a goal. With Aguero due to depart at the end of the season, he appears set for a peripheral role to finish a glittering City career while doubts are continuing to grow over whether Jesus will ever be the center-forward Guardiola desires. After all, they are linked with expensive moves for Kane and Borussia Dortmund’s Erling Haaland for a reason.
What this summer brings remains to be seen. Guardiola seems certain now to rely on operating without a recognised striker as he looks to deliver a Treble with Wednesday’s Champions League semifinal first leg against Paris Saint-Germain to come and two wins required to regain the Premier League title.
“Arriving in the last stages this season, and in previous season as well, it is because every game we take seriously,” said Guardiola. “If not, it is impossible to win four Carabao Cups in a row. Now it is just rest and prepare the semifinal against PSG, and then after we are two games away to try to win the most important title. It is the one I am proud the most when we are able to do it. We need two victories in this crazy schedule, in the two games against PSG; we will try to win the first one against Crystal Palace.”
City’s four League Cups in a row means they match Liverpool’s record haul of eight. He will be judged on City’s return in other competitions, but the sense of achievement here was heightened with 7,773 fans inside Wembley, around 2,000 of which were City fans collected in the corner of the stadium to the right of Guardiola’s dugout.
It is also Guardiola’s 30th trophy as a manager. It will not be the one he looks back on the most, but it undoubtedly offers fresh indications of a bright future ahead.