* And then there were three. And two of them were Tottenham and Leicester City.
After a humbling home defeat to Leicester last weekend, Manuel Pellegrini needed a response. All he got was another home loss, and his team surely dropping out of the title race. The question on everyone’s lips was how City’s players would cope with the announcement that their manager was leaving in the summer. The answer is obvious – they haven’t.
So if Manchester was the epicentre of English football between 2011 and 2014, north London is the new hub. It may only be a temporary period of respite in a game where money tends to eventually talk, but this new brigade of title challengers is incredibly refreshing. Arsenal may be title favourites after their victory over Leicester earlier on Sunday, but it is Mauricio Pochettino’s remarkable Tottenham side who lie in second place.
* “For a young team like ours to come and play like this against a team of world champions and world-class stars means that you have to give full credit to the players,” said Pochettino after the game, and you can’t disagree.
Eric Dier, 22. Kevin Wimmer, 23. Dele Alli, 19. Erik Lamela, 23. Christian Eriksen, 24 (on the day of the game). Heung-Min Son, 23. Harry Kane, 22. Tom Carroll, 23. Incredible progression from a squad so young. The most remarkable statistic regarding Spurs’ victory at City is that their third oldest outfield player was Kyle Walker. That’s ‘young’ Kyle Walker in my head.
Roy Hodgson too will be incredibly grateful to Pochettino for his work. Spurs used six English outfield players in the victory, all aged 25 or younger. In the first Premier League season, Manchester United gave starts to eight English players. This season, Mauricio Pochettino has given starts to the same number. This isn’t meant to be possible.
* Having been embarrassed by Leicester last weekend, Pellegrini clearly instructed his City side to be less adventurous. They ceded possession to Tottenham, operating the safety-first strategy that was missing a week earlier. Gael Clichy playing in place of Alexander Kolarov reduced the likelihood of City getting caught with one full-back far too far down the field.
That said, there is a middle ground. City hardly attempted to create chances in the first half, relying on set-pieces. Pellegrini may have been satisfied with his side’s work before the break, but he can’t have been overjoyed.
* “He won’t be allowed to do that again,” said Niall Quinn of Yaya Toure’s challenge from behind after four minutes. Which is probably for the best, given that it was deserving of a booking. Danny Simpson will not wish to see a replay.
It is one of the most frustrating inconsistencies in modern officiating. A foul committed in the fourth minute should be treated no differently to a foul in the 84th. This “it’s my first foul” nonsense is annoying, as if there is a ten-minute amnesty to get bad tackles out of your system.
As it happens, Toure was allowed to do that again. His dive into Kevin Wimmer caught the Austrian defender on the boot, but was late and slightly lunging. This time, Mark Clattenburg did not even issue a free-kick. Lucky boy.
* City’s defensive solidity was aided by the return of Vincent Kompany for his first game since December 26. The home side were yet to lose with the Belgian in their starting line-up this season. Unfortunately, injury has drastically limited his presence.
Kompany is not perfect. He is often tempted to come out of position to try and win the ball and leave himself exposed, but at least did not do so in the first half against Tottenham. With only one striker to pick up and two defensive midfielders in front of him, City’s captain enjoyed a watching brief until Spurs finally played the ball into the box. Kompany could then clear with relative ease. It wouldn’t last.
* With the hosts allowing Tottenham the majority of possession, Pochettino’s side were unlikely to concede before the break. Unfortunately, they let themselves down in the final third, leaving their manager visibly frustrated on the touchline.
Spurs had 65% of the ball in the first half, making 338 passes to City’s 182. Yet they managed only three shots to City’s five, and their one shot on target came from 25 yards. They forced one corner to City’s four.
The pattern of the first half was obvious. Tottenham would attack down City’s left, Danny Rose effecting an overlap. They would then check back and play it inside, immediately finding congestion. After repeating this trick three or four times, the ball would be played into the box to try and find Harry Kane, who would struggle against two central defenders. Despite Spurs’ domination in possession, Kane had fewer touches than any outfielder other than Fernando in the first half.
The stand-out statistic is this: For all Spurs’ time on the ball, they touched the ball four times in City’s penalty area before the break.
* Just before half-time, that Toure non-booking frustration was compounded when Eric Dier was booked for his own challenge on Toure. It was a certain yellow card, but no worse than either of the Ivorian’s crimes. Dier’s complaints to the officials fell on deaf ears.
As an aside, Clattenburg’s transformation towards Mike Dean levels of flamboyance when giving a decision is not something that can be enjoyed. As the Daily Telegraph’s Jonathan Liew said in January, Clattenburg has the look of a man who would not turn down Strictly Come Dancing.
* When City finally created a presentable opportunity, it came through good fortune. Toure’s shot took a heavy deflection, looping into the path of Sergio Aguero. His finish was rash, sliced high and wide. He may be handsome, but the shot was not.
Aguero cut a frustrated figure throughout most of the game, worryingly loose with his touches and passes and wild with his shooting. After a run of seven goals in five games, and with a wonderful record against Tottenham, we were expecting fireworks. What we got was a damp sparkler found in the back of the shed.
1 – Man City have won just one of their 10 Premier League games against sides currently in the top eight this season (D3 L6). Problem.
— OptaJoe (@OptaJoe) February 14, 2016
* This is the thing about Clattenburg. It’s all very well addressing the players by their nicknames, extravagantly administering the laws of the game and looking like a proud peacock with everything you do, but it all comes down to getting the big calls right. And the penalty call was an abomination.
It doesn’t matter how many times Niall Quinn tried to give Clattenburg the benefit of the doubt – “I’ve a lot of time for Mark” – because there is no way that deserves to be given as a handball. Raheem Sterling did turn his back on Rose’s cross, yet his arms were not waved above his head but by his side. It’s not easy to tell if the ball even hit Sterling’s arm.
Kane took full advantage of Clattenburg’s generosity, casually putting the ball down the middle of Joe Hart’s goal. Spurs were in undeserved dreamland.
* The form of Toure offers evidence that he will need replacing in the summer. Without the energy to burst forward at pace and also offer help tracking back, the midfielder is the personification of a City side incapable of attacking and defending in balance. It’s one or the other at the moment, and that’s easy to counteract.
The fault does not lie entirely with Toure, who has played almost 650 career games and over 300 since August 2010. That would cause fatigue in any player, but one who is a) 32, and b) expected to offer support in multiple areas of the pitch, is always likely to suffer.
City’s problem is that they have no like-for-like replacement. Toure must carry on regardless, and take the flak that comes his way. The magic is still there – see his wonderful free kick which hit the bar – but the fire is burning out.
* There isn’t always an obvious pathway from the academy to the first team at England’s biggest clubs, but while all the pre-match talk was over Tottenham’s young players, it was City’s own gem who levelled the game.
Kelechi Iheanacho could not have hoped for a more memorable start to his career. The winner against Crystal Palace, the winner against Swansea, a hat-trick against Aston Villa in the FA Cup, goals against Hull and Palace in the Capital One Cup. Add to that the equaliser against Spurs.
There are some players who you never think are going to miss obvious goalscoring opportunities, and Aguero is not alone in that regard at the Etihad. Iheanacho’s reputation is growing more than any other player at City. He is the top-scoring substitute in the Premier League this season.
* The less-fancied away side taking the lead through a controversial penalty, before the home side hits back through a substitute forward. The comparisons between the earlier Arsenal vs Leicester game were easy to draw, and City immediately pressed for the winning goal.
However, this Spurs side stick two fingers up at what you might expect to happen. They soaked up City’s pressure, and hit them on the counter, exactly as Pochettino will have planned.
The substitution of Erik Lamela into the game was crucial, for it gave Tottenham both fresh legs and a player comfortable dribbling with ball at feet, exposing the space left by Toure and the substituted Fernando. When the Argentine roamed forward with six minutes remaining, it was not Kane but Eriksen who made the vital run. If Lamela’s pass was well-placed, the accuracy and delay on Eriksen’s finish was divine. Tottenham’s supporters were sent into raptures.
Eriksen has not always been flavour of the month among Tottenham’s supporters. Of the club’s attacking midfielders, his game is the least natural fit with Pochettino’s demanding strategy. Yet over the last few weeks Eriksen has stepped up superbly, with three goals and two assists in his last five league games. With a new contract on the way, what better way to celebrate your birthday?
* Mousa Dembele was given the official Man of the Match award, but I had Rose down as the game’s best player. Odds of 10/1 of him making England’s Euro 2016 squad look mighty generous to me.
In the first half, Rose was slightly frustrating in the final third, his crosses too often hitting the first defender. Yet Pochettino’s clear instructions for him to be the attacking outlet indicates the trust placed in the left-back by his manager. Tottenham used the left flank for 42.3% of their attacks in the match, compared to 27.7% down the right.
In fact, both full-backs were excellent against City’s obvious threats of Sterling and David Silva. There have been times, particularly when playing for England, when Walker’s defending is frustrating to the point where you have to scream at the television. Having criticised him in his bad times, Walker deserves praise for being very good indeed. Both are at the top of their game.
Danny Rose in the first half vs. Man City:
1 attempt at goal
91% pass completion
4 ball recoveries
1 tackle won
— Spurs Stat Man (@SpursStatMan) February 14, 2016
* A word of praise too for Wimmer, thrust into the side in difficult circumstances due to the injury sustained by Jan Vertonghen. Spurs fans would have been concerned by the Belgian’s enforced absence, but his replacement has proven himself to be an excellent deputy. The Wimmer takes it all.
“After playing against Crystal Palace, Colchester, Norwich and Watford, I think he has showed good maturity,’ Pochettino said in midweek. “And good communication with Toby Alderweireld and with Eric Dier when we played with Dier at Colchester. He is a very clever player, and has enough quality to play for us. But I understand that in his position, he needs to challenge one of the best strikers in the world [in Aguero].”
Wimmer passed the test with flying colours. He made seven clearances and three interceptions, but didn’t even attempt a tackle, preferring to rely on positioning.
If Vertonghen is useful as a ball-playing central defender, so too is the Austrian. Wimmer completed 65 of his 69 passes, losing possession five times in the entire match. The only other starter who did so on fewer occasions was Fernando, and he was substituted with a quarter of the game remaining.
* Conventional wisdom dictates that the teams without title-winning experience will falter when the pressure mounts, but Tottenham are growing in belief with each win. This victory at the Etihad is worth far more than three points to Spurs, given their recent results against City. Banished are the memories of 6-0 and 5-1; this Tottenham team is writing its own history.
Morale and team spirit trumps inexperience in this remarkable season. We have a team who has never won the league in first position and one without a league title since 1961 in second. Arsenal, whose own drought has been intensely scrutinised, are the comparative old hats.
“This wasn’t just a game,” said Pochettino after the final whistle. “To play like that and win here means more than just three points.”
Pochettino has stayed remarkably calm throughout this title challenge, but after the full-time whistle he went with his players to celebrate with the crowd. That indicates just how important Sunday’s victory was.
‘Improvement in the individual makes headlines. Improvement in the team makes progress,’ was the last line of my piece on Tottenham this week. You suspect they better get used to some more publicity now. Having now won seven consecutive matches, the hurdles are getting fewer and further between.
* For City, the summer cannot come quickly enough. After Tottenham’s second goal, there was a weird sense among the crowd that they had expected this eventuality, that this title bid fizzling out was an inevitability.
City’s season is far from over, but they will need to improve dramatically to go far into the Champions League knockout stages. Pellegrini must demand more from the club’s key players: Aguero, Silva, Zabaleta, Toure, Sterling. The problem is that the Chilean must do so from a position of greatly diminished authority. This production of ‘Waiting for Pep’ has backfired spectacularly so far.