16 Conclusions: Tottenham 1-0 Manchester City

Date published: Sunday 15th August 2021 9:36 - Dave Tickner

The Harry Kane Team that doesn’t have Harry Kane in it beat the team that would very much like to be the Harry Kane Team, and, on this evidence, could really do with him…

 

1) We’ll get on to one of the largest room-based elephants ever in due course, but it would be the height of rudeness to start with anything other than praise for the Spurs players who were on the pitch and the manager who prepared them.

The opening 15 minutes was very much what most of us would have expected from this game. City were absolutely dominant, Jack Grealish was making a menace of himself in a frankly terrifying left-side double threat with Raheem Sterling and a Spurs side whose preseason has been absolutely overwhelmed in narrative threatened to be washed away by the defending champions.

Yet slowly but surely, Spurs grew into the game. First a foothold, then something approaching parity. There was a 10-minute period in the first half when Spurs had 75% of the ball. Now that was anomalous across the game as a whole but this was still a Spurs team that had a far more complex and well-rehearsed plan than to just sit deep and hope for a moment or two of individual brilliance from a world-class attacker.

 

2) And yet the winning goal was straight out of the Mourinho playbook for this sort of game (and increasingly for any game, which was kind of the problem). A rapid counterattack and a moment of individual brilliance from a world-class attacker. It was always absurd that Spurs had two attacking players of such quality, and the big surprise of this summer is not really that Harry Kane wants to leave but that Son Heung-Min was so happy to stay.

Son was for the most part actually the least impressive of Spurs’ attacking four but he was by far the most composed attacking player on either side in that one crucial point. Son did for long periods look precisely like someone who was missing his best mate. But having passed up a couple of opportunities to run at Nathan Ake – who operating alongside left-back Benjamin Mendy was such an obvious weak spot in an otherwise unstoppable machine that it belonged in a Star Wars film – in the first half, Son didn’t miss his chance when it came in the second.

It was the sort of goal that dragged Spurs kicking and screaming to the top of the Premier League at one point last season, and now it has given the Nuno era the perfect start.

Tottenham Son Heung Min

 

3) Pep Guardiola and City, though, will be deeply unhappy with their performance in general but most specifically the manner of the goal. While it was not this time the only way Spurs could score, it was still by far the most likely. Quick break, precise Son finish is the archetypal Spurs goal in this fixture in recent years. It was Son’s seventh goal against these opponents (He has only two, for the record) and felt awfully similar to plenty of the others.

But it wasn’t just that familiarity that will disappoint City. Ake, clearly, should have done more. Allowing Son to cut in and shoot like that was unforgivable. Yet there were also questions to ask of Ruben Dias’ decision to drop deep in front of his goalkeeper with thoughts of making a block and actually becoming a distraction.

 

4) For all the superficial similarity to Spurs’ previous wins over City here – and that’s now four wins from four against City at their new home with six goals scored and none conceded – there was a very different feel to the previous two sit-deep-and-counter wins under Mourinho. And certainly a different feel to those games under Mourinho against teams of lower calibre when Spurs still ended up defending (usually ultimately without success) on their own six-yard line. There’s a cliche in cricket about being positive even in defence. The idea being that if your intent is positive then you will get into better positions even when playing defensively than the timid negativity that can come from an entirely defensive outlook.

That was how this felt. This was a positive, pro-active defensive performance. Spurs had to do an awful lot of defending, as will every side that comes up against Manchester City and their absurd array of attacking talent. But after that slightly strained opening spell, it never felt particularly desperate or last-gasp. Never did Eric Dier or Davinson Sanchez appear to be out of position or out of their comfort zone. There was none of the fearfulness that haunted Spurs under Mourinho.

And the attacks never felt like an afterthought. There was a cohesion to Spurs as an attacking force. Lucas Moura was superb, stretching City with his relentless and brave running, while you’d have to have a heart of stone not to take some pleasure from the sight of Dele Alli so visibly enjoying himself on a football pitch again. The contrast between his performance here and in the opening-day defeat to Everton last season could not be more marked. Spurs once again looked like a team that had been properly coached, knew what they wanted to do and were fit enough to do it.

 

5) Nobody better epitomised Spurs’ ‘positive defence’ than Japhet Tanganga. Of course Spurs’ best player was an academy product. There was particular relish to the Spurs fans’ jubilant chants of “Japhet Tanganga, he’s one of our own.” This was a sensational performance, a throwback to right-backs of old: the ball may pass, the man may pass, but never both. No wonder Gary Neville enjoyed it so much.

To give Mourinho his due, he too was well aware of Tanganga’s defensive attributes, handing him his Premier League debut as a teenager against Liverpool. He was excellent on that occasion, but he has never played better than this. He spent most of the game being doubled up by Jack Grealish and Raheem Sterling but never once was he beaten. He was probably lucky – let’s be right, he was definitely lucky – not to get a booking for one of a series of fouls on City’s wingers. But if there is one team that can’t complain too hard about cynical fouling, then it would have to be City.

Tanganga would surely have played far more for Spurs were it not for injuries, but he is a versatile player who now also has a very specific and invaluable role in this squad as a defensive-minded right-back for occasions like this.

 

6) Spurs had another “one of their own” doing plenty of dirty work in midfield in Oliver Skipp. The first 10 minutes were painful as Skipp struggled to get on terms with the pace and precision of City’s play. He fouled Grealish just outside the area inside the first three minutes and spent a good amount of time realising that he wasn’t bossing Championship midfields for Norwich any more.

But on 10 minutes he executed a perfectly timed slide tackle on Sterling – and it was in the penalty area so absolutely needed to be perfectly timed – and that seemed to get both him and Spurs going. It was a different game from that moment on. Which was just as well for Spurs because they certainly weren’t going to win that one.

 

7) Tanganga’s lenient treatment from the referee continues what is clearly a concerted attempt from officials to win hearts and minds this season. He appeared to get two final warnings from Anthony Taylor – the second of them also involving Spurs captain Hugo Lloris being summoned 50 yards from his goal to be told all about it – and in general the game was allowed to flow as far as possible and many of the tw*tty little things that would have been fouls last season were not here. It will be annoying when you’re on the wrong end of it, but there’s no doubt it makes for more entertaining games of football.

 

8) Harry Kane’s absence from The Harry Kane Team was no great surprise, and Nuno’s insistence that it was all about match fitness was both the only thing he could say and yet demonstrably no more than half the story. No other England player from the Euros has needed such an extended rest and we all know why Kane was really nowhere to be found. And we do mean nowhere – despite reports that he was at the stadium, the Sky cameras were never able to find him and you can’t imagine that was for a want of trying.

The thing was, of course, that his absence dominated the game every bit as much as his presence would have, especially in a game that could have been custom-built to show just why both these teams want him so badly. Between them, City and Spurs had 14 attempts on goal in the first 49 minutes before the first one on target. And that was a scuffed Sterling effort that rolled harmlessly into the hands of Lloris.

The two starting line-ups contained nine predominantly attacking players ranging from good to absolutely brilliant, but no proper striker. For all Spurs’ defensive doggedness and wholehearted commitment to the cause, a more clinical City side would still have got at least something out of this.

If they do end up only managing to succeed with one of their nine-figure raids on other clubs’ hometown heroes, then on this evidence they might just rue it being this way round. That’s no slur on Grealish, a ludicrous footballer who will have many fine games for City despite this underwhelming opener, but just the make-up of their squad. Yes, City won’t always need a striker and have plenty of false nines, but there will also be days when a proper nine is what’s required.

City have won plenty and will win plenty more; they don’t need Kane to be successful. But they didn’t need Grealish for that either. And of the two brilliant, brilliant footballers it is surely Kane who adds greater value to this particular group of players.

 

9) The alarming drop-off in the pace of City’s football after the one-way traffic of the first 15 minutes was ultimately the key to this game. Clearly some credit must go to Spurs, but City really ought to be better able to impose themselves on this Spurs team and whether it was more by accident or design is neither here nor there: it cost City dear. Having this as an opening-day fixture with everything going on around it was clearly not what Spurs would have chosen at the time, but in hindsight it might have been the ideal time to play them. Key players were missing or not yet signed and City really did look like a side finding their way. Once they do, things will be far tougher than they were for Spurs.

 

10) And to extend that obvious point further, everyone will need to take care not to extrapolate too much from this result. When City lost this fixture last season they were 11th in the league after eight games. They’re 13th now, so it’s pretty much fine. Spurs, for what it’s worth, were top and now they languish in mid-table at just 10th after an opening round that not a single draw.

Until we acquire far more evidence and know how the transfer window pans out, both these teams remain precisely what they were before a ball was kicked: title contenders and European hopefuls. You can decide which is which.

 

11) That a half-fit Kevin De Bruyne was able to come on with 15 minutes remaining and instantly be the best player on the pitch is genuinely absurd. Another reason that Spurs might ultimately consider themselves to have got slightly lucky with the fixture list even if it did force their star striker into hiding.

 

12) Nuno hasn’t yet managed to solve Steven Bergwijn’s problems in front of goal, with his failure to accept a gilt-edged chance to double Spurs’ lead scoring an Expected Rue rating of 0.9 yet ultimately ending up in the No Harm Done file, but he was mighty impressive that moment apart. We’ll stop drawing direct comparisons between this Spurs and Jose’s Spurs soon (some time around November I reckon) but it’s going to be a feature of the first part of the season for sure. Two players like Bergwijn and Dele, whose confidence absolutely flatlined under Mourinho, making such eye-catching contributions to such a statement win is a huge plus for Spurs. It wasn’t too much of a surprise to see Son, Hojbjerg or even to an extent Lucas do what they did, the sight of players who drifted to the fringes under the old regime taking centre-stage again is hugely encouraging.

 

13) Is Dele Alli even potentially in the Like A New Signing category if he can get back to something approaching his very, very best? Long way to go, for sure. But it’s an enticing prospect and it does at least seem possible now. He looks in a better place physically and sounds like he’s in a better place mentally than he has for a very long time. Under a manager who looks like he won’t entirely outlaw fun under pain of permanent banishment to Thursday nights, Dele might just remind himself and the rest of us just how brilliantly, blindingly good he can be. Daniel Levy does not get everything right as we know, but not allowing Mourinho to just bin Dele off might prove one of his better decisions.

We know Dele has the talent, but he himself would admit he hasn’t always had the application. His workrate and commitment here were exemplary and if Hojbjerg and Skipp are going to be involved regularly then this Dele can absolutely work in what looks like being Nuno’s preferred 4-3-3 set-up.

Nuno Espirito Santo Harry Kane

 

14) Far easier after a win like that, but Nuno’s post-match handling of the Kane Situation was perfect. Talk of Kane being dragged to Portugal to play in the Europa Conference League play-off first round against Pacos Ferreira is a delicious prospect however unlikely it may actually be and he was right to say it. “He has to get ready and help the team.” It still feels like Kane has played his last game for Spurs but Nuno is giving him every chance for reconciliation without any indication of being a soft touch about it.

 

15) There has to be a word for Eric Dier and Davinson Sanchez here after a vastly maligned centre-back pairing produced such a composed and assured display. It would be a stretch to say they were untroubled, but they weren’t at full stretch either. Both looked more comfortable in a team not set up to pile immense pressure onto the central defenders’ every contribution and they actually complemented each other quite wonderfully, with Sanchez winning four tackles and Dier making two interceptions. Both made a stack of clearances to go with it and it’s hard to think of a moment when either was notably out of position.

Cristian Romero will displace one or other of the pair before long and Joe Rodon’s development surely won’t be delayed too long but on this evidence Spurs might have four centre-backs capable of doing a perfectly decent job under an actual coach.

 

16) “Are you watching, Harry Kane?” Just great to have fans back, isn’t it.

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