16 Conclusions as Spurs mug Manchester City yet again in another episode of Etihad madness

Dave Tickner
Erling Haaland leads Manchester City complaints after referee Simon Hooper stops play against Tottenham
Erling Haaland shows his frustration at the Etihad Stadium

How can the best team in the world have Tottenham as their bogey team? It makes no sense, and nor did a wild and enormously entertaining 3-3 draw between Manchester City and Spurs at the Etihad…

 

1. Try to explain it. You can’t. Not this result, although it was pretty inexplicable, but the fact that Pep Guardiola has managed to turn Manchester City into the best football team in the world while throughout that having his bogey team be Tottenham. It’s absolutely ludicrous.

That’s now 21 Premier League points Spurs have won against Guardiola’s City, three more than any other team have managed in that time. And that’s without even considering the Champions League silliness from 2019.

There is now a set pattern to Barclays games between these two, one that transcends whatever the vision and philosophy of whoever happens to be in charge of Spurs. At Spurs’ stadium, Spurs win and City don’t score. At the Etihad, there’s just a mad number of goals all over the place and Spurs burgling a result of some kind for more often than logic suggests should be the case.

The last five Premier League games at the Etihad between these two have now ended 3-3, 4-2, 2-3, 3-0 and 2-2. Spurs have won every single one of their home games against City to nil over the same period. How? It’s ludicrous. While Guardiola has been a constant, this is a run that has included wildly different Spurs teams managed by a huge number of wildly different managers: Mauricio Pochettino, Jose Mourinho, Nuno Espirito Santo, Antonio Conte and now Ange Postecoglou. And yet the result is always the same: utter chaos.

 

2. There’s a lot that will irritate Pep Guardiola about today, but right at the top of the list should be the complacency City showed in the second half. It was as baffling today as the similar sense that permeated last weekend’s second half against Liverpool. That was a less chaotic game, but the outcome was the same: an opponent encouraged, a lead spurned, and two points dropped.

There was so much maddening about it. The fact it was a repeat of a recent costly error, but also that it just made no sense in the context of a game in which City were well on top but where Spurs always carried a live threat at the other end. There was perhaps an assumption that a third goal would duly arrive against such a painfully depleted Spurs defence, but there was no real attempt to actually score that third goal. Only when Spurs got the equaliser they had threatened to score for so long did City wake from their slumbers.

 

3. City’s defending must now be a huge cause for concern. That is 10 goals conceded in the last four games and they are looking uncharacteristically easy to create chances against right now. All three Tottenham goals were enormously preventable but none of City’s defenders – or their keeper – had a day they will remember with great fondness.

Josko Gvardiol is a defender of rare ability and almost limitless promise, but he is find the Barclays a tough school for now. He struggled against both the pace of Brennan Johnson and the wiles of Dejan Kulusevski. He made way for Nathan Ake in the closing stages, and the Dutchman was promptly left with his feet in concrete as Kulusevski outjumped him to score Spurs’ second equaliser. Lo Celso’s goal came after he was given far too much time and space to pick out his shot from the edge of the box. City rarely offer teams the sort of encouragement they have in recent weeks.

 

4. It’s now three draws in a row for City in the Premier League and while the calibre of opponent means that is not in itself a disaster there have been slapdash elements to all three performances against Chelsea, Liverpool and now Spurs. Those same frailties were on display too in the Champions League in midweek despite the attacking brilliance eventually getting them out of dodge.

 

5. Even if City had won this game – which, let’s be real, they would have done more often than not even allowing for their second-half drop-off – it would still have been an afternoon that offered plenty of encouragement to Liverpool and Arsenal. Both those teams are looking enormously capable of sustaining a challenge to City across a whole season and City are right now showing vulnerability.

We have, of course, been here before. With both Liverpool and Arsenal as the interested parties, too. We know City are always going to be good but they can tend to ease into their work and only truly and consistently hit top gear in the new year. They remain the likeliest winners of this title. They remain the team to beat. But this is a slightly new-look City team. Significant experience was lost in the summer and exacerbated by the injury to Kevin De Bruyne. They are showing weakness at a time when, for the first time in the dominant Pep Guardiola era they face a potential challenge from not one but two teams and managers who have already proved they can go toe-to-toe with City for an extended period of time. This really could be a title race for the ages.

 

6. But really this was a day to praise Spurs’ efforts. Their recent bad run has been a curious one, but the grim reality facing them for much of this afternoon was not just a fourth straight defeat but a fourth straight defeat in games they had led 1-0 in the early stages. The mitigation for their recent run is vast and the fact they are early (and still ahead of schedule) in this project undeniable, but it would still have been a miserable run to explain away after that 10-game unbeaten start.

Now they at least have something tangible to show for their efforts over the last troubling month. And with Cristian Romero to return for the midweek game against West Ham this should at least mark the end of the four full-backs defence. For now.

 

7. There remains a pretty fundamental misunderstanding of Postecoglou’s philosophy in a lot of places. He’s not a crazy person. When City’s levels dropped in those first 25 minutes of the second half, Spurs dominated the ball. Peter Drury on commentary expressed surprise that Spurs were being so patient and composed on the ball. But that is largely how they have played all season. They are an aggressive, front-foot team but they are not reckless or stupid. Postecoglou’s tactics are not Ossie Ardiles’ tactics. Spurs play quickly when the situation merits it, and patiently when that’s required. There is nothing foolish about this way of playing and there is absolutely no reason why it can’t work at this level with the right players in sufficient numbers. That’s the problem Spurs currently face – not the tactics themselves.

 

8. The total commitment to playing out from the back is never going to be accepted by everyone. There will be times when it goes wrong, and those times will be jumped upon. Emerson Royal in particular is not remotely comfortable collecting the ball from his own keeper in close proximity to the goal. But, again, it’s not a tactic being used just to upset Gary Neville and Jamie Carragher. Although you could be forgiven for thinking otherwise. One of the absolute highlights of a thoroughly entertaining first half was a brilliant one-touch passing escape from the City press and into the attacking third that involved just about every Spurs player, all taking place under 45 seconds of constant complaining and criticism from the commentary duo urging Spurs to ‘go long’.

 

9. There is, undeniably, risk to the way Spurs play – especially when they are so depleted. But it’s not risk for its own sake. It’s risk that comes with the potential for serious reward. The opening goal on six minutes was a perfect example. A different player under a different manager when collecting a bouncing ball on the edge of his own box while defending a corner may quite understandably choose to simply get rid of it. There’s nothing wrong with that, but nor is it automatically wrong to do what Bryan Gil did in bringing it down, protecting it and starting a counter-attack that ended with Son Heung-min smashing Spurs into the lead.

 

10. But even without that obvious indicator of the validity of Spurs’ tactics, the question that matters is whether playing as they did made Spurs more or less likely to get a result with that starting XI in that game against that opposition. It’s hard to think that smashing the ball clear at the first available opportunity and ceding the ball all the time would have resulted in City creating fewer chances against such a makeshift defence, and it’s a tactic that means even when under the harshest pressure Spurs are a team that retains a latent attacking threat that demands to be respected.

The one City goal that came as a result of a Spurs failure to play out from the back was caused by a single individual mistake and not a system error. Yves Bissouma was not isolated or exposed; he had a simple 10-yard pass available but chose instead to turn into danger and a crowd of sky blue. He makes few such judgement errors and is unlikely to make another like this one any time soon.

 

11. That there exists some flexibility in Postecoglou’s vision was shown in the half-time introduction of Pierre-Emile Hojbjerg for Bryan Gil. It was a good and necessary change. Despite his vital contribution to the opening goal, Bryan was the least secure of Spurs’ attacking players in possession and there remains a physical mismatch when he is involved.

City on another day absolutely could have blown Spurs away in a first half where they didn’t just outplay the visitors but outmuscled and overpowered them. An inevitable by-product, perhaps, of Spurs entirely running out of centre-backs, but the physical as well as technical advantage City possessed was a strikingly visible feature all over the pitch.

Hojbjerg’s introduction added steel to midfield and gave Spurs an unexpected degree of control in the second half without betraying the guiding principles of Angeball. As we’ve said before, this is not some Ossie Ardiles recklessness. Postecoglou doesn’t want to pick four full-backs or just attacking players everywhere. His hand has been forced, but the undeniably fair criticism that he has been unable in recent weeks to alter the direction of travel in games once Spurs’ opponents have got on top was answered impressively here.

 

12. A significant apparent downside of Hojbjerg’s introduction was that in moving Dejan Kulusevski to the right and Brennan Johnson to the left to take Bryan’s spot, Spurs would lose a match-up that offered plenty of potential. There were glimpses in the first half that Johnson’s extreme pace and extraordinary five-yard acceleration was a big problem for Josko Gvardiol as the leftmost of City’s three centre-backs. Johnson had the beating of him, but now found himself facing Kyle Walker. That nullified the threat of Johnson’s pace but had a significant benefit that outweighed the apparent disadvantage.

Johnson, who was impressive throughout the second half, is a natural Postecoglou touchline-hugging winger, and his presence forced Walker to play wider and created space inside that Spurs were able to exploit. Kulusevski had been impressive in the Maddison role in the first half but arguably performed even better when switched to the right, where he has spent most of the season. He is not a natural Postecoglou winger but is a player of great intelligence and technique.

That Spurs’ apparently pragmatic and conservative substitution of Hojbjerg for Bryan in fact created the shape that allowed for a Johnson cross to be headed (kind of) home by Kulusevski really does say a lot about how this team works. Creating a (slightly) more solid base from which to play your football isn’t an abandonment of principles, it’s just good management.

Tottenham winger Dejan Kulusevski Dejan Kulusevski celebrates scoring a late equaliser.

 

13. If there was a degree of luck about City’s early equaliser as the ball cannoned off Son’s thigh just three minutes after he’d given Spurs that shock lead, their second was a thing of beauty. It was an intricate, five-a-side goal and the clearest example of the ease with which they were able to weave their patterns around that makeshift Spurs defence in the first half especially.

What made it was the run of Julian Alvarez that gave Spurs’ fill-in centre-backs decisions to make. City really could and should have been making more runs of this type to force players trying to cope out of position into more uncomfortable choices. Alvarez’ run forced Davies to make a choice between letting him go or breaking the synchronicity of the back four. He chose to go, which was fine, but his error was in not committing fully to that. Having gone with Alvarez, he needed to go right with him. Instead he stood off, allowing Alvarez time to turn unopposed before squaring to an equally free Phil Foden to score with embarrassing ease. Embarrassing both for Spurs at how easy it all was, and for City that they never again really found a way to repeat the trick.

 

14. One definite positive for Spurs to take from what has been a horribly difficult run of games is the renewed form and confidence of Giovani Lo Celso. There has always been a player in there and he now, for the first time since Pochettino was sacked months after he signed for Spurs, might just have a manager to help him become what his talent suggests he should. His goal was brilliantly taken and due reward for another fine game on the back of an impressive showing in the defeat against Aston Villa.

Spurs’ defence has understandably crumbled in the absence of its two star centre-backs, but the midfield has survived the loss of James Maddison rather better. The stodgy midfield mess against Wolves was really the one and only time Postecoglou has compromised too far on his vision since taking over at Spurs and there will be no repeat of it. Lo Celso has turned himself into a proper contender now even when everyone is available, and midfield is starting to look like the one area of the pitch where Spurs have the depth to match the quality of the first choices. When Rodrigo Bentancur, Bissouma, Pape Sarr, Hojbjerg, Maddison and Lo Celso are all available there will be actual selection decisions to be made. Postecoglou has, really, had very few such calls to make since taking over a high-quality but paper-thin squad in all other areas.

 

15. City might have won it right at the death but for a perplexing decision from referee Simon Hooper that left the home team – and Haaland especially – incensed. A great deal of that frustration may well have come from disappointment at his own performance, because Haaland missed some alarming chances here, but it was still an odd moment.

We don’t want to dwell on it too long, because the referee had a fine game otherwise and there are no guarantees that Jack Grealish one-on-one with Guglielmo Vicario ends the way City want it to. But we should all at least have had the chance to find out.

Haaland was clearly fouled in midfield, but got back to his feet to send a demonstrably onside Grealish clear of a bamboozled and disjointed Spurs defence. Having initially played advantage, Hooper then pulled the play back only after Grealish had been sent clear.

It’s hard to understand why. Had Hooper blown his whistle immediately it would have been a mistake, but an understandable one. That he delayed, saw the play panning out exactly as City would have wanted, and then pulled it back is a puzzle. Did he think Grealish was offside? Had he misjudged the line and length of Haaland’s pass and thought it was running away from Grealish? It’s a hard one to explain. It also confirmed that we’ve all just quietly abandoned and forgotten the idea that dissent would be an automatic yellow card this season, because while City’s anger and frustration was understandable it doesn’t justify the red-faced and sweary manner in which they surrounded the referee.

 

16. The last word on that little late controversy must, though, go to Guardiola, who used his post-match press conference to make a two-footed challenge on Mikel Arteta. When asked about the controversy, Guardiola’s reply was brutal: “Next question. I will not do a Mikel Arteta comment.” It’s not peak Ferguson-Wenger stuff, is it. It’s nowhere near Mourinho levels of rattle. But you better believe we’ve got a title race on and Guardiola just fired shots.