Manchester City failed to capitalise on Manchester United’s earlier slip-up as a result of a Pep Guardiola’s misguided team selection.
Too often this season Guardiola’s detractors have slammed him, in hindsight, for getting his tactics wrong. At Monaco, he was accused of making a mistake with his line-up and approach, though no coherent counter-argument was put forward. The three-man defence was abandoned earlier in the season but the experiment - though it yielded few points - showed promise, only to be let down by individuals.
Guardiola soon ditched the plan and said shortly afterwards that he had “adapted to the quality of his players”, a phrase he returned to following Thursday’s Manchester derby, explaining that his full-backs are all too old to do what he wants them to do.
However, there was very little adapting to the ability of his players when he named a three-man defence with Gael Clichy and Jesus Navas as wing-backs at Middlesbrough on Sunday. The two have been plugging away at full-back recently and have shown very few signs they can find the crosses or passes demanded of them without a tricky winger alongside them to abdicate responsibility to.
With Vincent Kompany back in the side, the three-man defence itself was built on sturdier foundations, but with Aleksandar Kolarov as the left-sided centre-back, the one charged with getting forward when Guardiola played this system at Bayern Munich, there were too many weak links to make the system work.
Aleix Garcia, the 19-year-old, started in midfield but did not get close enough to Kevin De Bruyne, the focal lone central creative midfielder, to make a difference. Gabriel Jesus and Sergio Aguero were named in the same side but they were isolated.
This will not be the last time we see this formation, as there will be players bought in the summer to carry out the roles as they should be.
But it was abandoned shortly after half-time - to allow Raheem Sterling and Leroy Sane time to warm up properly - and we will surely not see it again until next season.
The failings of Navas, Clichy and Kolarov in the first 45 minutes were plain to see, but it was instructive to observe the behaviour of City’s analysts, including the trusted Carles Planchart, to emphasise their lack of quality when it really mattered.
The wayward crosses of Clichy and Navas, which gifted possession to the home side, had Planchart and his team throwing their arms in the air in disbelief. Kolarov’s speculative long-range shots were simply afforded shared knowing glances of disapproval.
There were shows of frustration for Sergio Aguero and De Bruyne, too, but the wing-backs were the repeat offenders.
It is not hard to imagine this system working next season, should City land the targets they are after. Benjamin Mendy and Kyle Walker are on the shortlist and the difference they would make cannot be overstated. They are significantly better players.
But to pick this system in the first place must count as a mistake on Guardiola’s part. You do not need hindsight to say the players were not up to it - you could see it coming when the teams were announced. Middlesbrough’s 1-0 lead at half-time was a fair reflection of the first 45 minutes.
To his credit, Guardiola did change things and the introduction of Sane and Sterling, who were presumably too tired to be asked to play the full 90 minutes in wing-back roles, tipped the game in City’s favour.
The away side laid siege to the Boro goal, but were unable to find a way through until Sane bought a penalty by inviting contact and going down under it. Aguero, nervelessly, swept home.
However, City’s defensive failings were still in evidence and gifted Boro their second goal. Adama Traore’s pace caught City out on the break and though Nicolas Otamendi got close enough to haul him down, some shambolic defending from the resulting free kick allowed Calum Chambers to stab the ball home from close range.
City took the fight to Boro again and were, almost inevitably, saved by Gabriel Jesus. The youngster had a poor first hour - when he could get on the ball, that is - but showed that irrepressible ability to get in the right area to make a telling contribution.
Indeed, he has now been directly involved in five goals in his four Premier League starts (four goals, one assist) and he had another chance to snatch a win late on, too, but was snuffed out. In the end, though, for all of City's second-half pressure, a draw is probably a fair result.
Guardiola has stressed that Aguero and Jesus can play together in the same team, even if it could not be done by playing wingers, and they did indeed score the goals.
But this is not the system, for now at least, to get the best out of them, and their goals, which came with Sterling and Sane on the pitch, only served to bail out Guardiola, who made the mistake in the first place.