* Jurgen Klopp’s own brand of gegenpressing might get most of the headlines, but the first 25 minutes from Tottenham was the best spell of football by any side in England this season, beating Manchester City’s own display at Old Trafford last month. Mauricio Pochettino isn’t a man whose tastes scream ‘heavy metal’, but the energy and effort from his players was breathtaking.
Tottenham’s plan to deal with City was obvious. They would go hard for as long as possible, asking the attacking half of their side to get them into a lead through hard work and quality. Pochettino wanted this to last until at least half-time, although accounting for an inevitable dip before the break. Half-time would allow for energy to be regained ahead of a final 15-minute burst of high-intensity pressing.
Then comes the second part of the plan, with the defence asked to defend a lead that the attacking elements of the team has established. That involves sitting deeper (but still holding a flat line), winning aerial challenges, blocking shots, concentrating on positional discipline and the goalkeeper making fine saves.
Against City, Tottenham carried out every part of that plan to perfection, and it was achieved without their best player (Mousa Dembele) and top scorer (Harry Kane) from last season. If Pochettino’s team were way ahead of estimated schedule last season, there is no sign that they intend to fall back into line. There are too many young, hungry, talented players managed by a young, hungry, talented coach for that to happen.
Having outplayed, out-thought and outfought the title favourites, why shouldn’t Tottenham dream of glory? Titles are not won and lost in October, but Pochettino has a team still unbeaten, sitting a point from the top of the table, and with a level of confidence that you simply cannot fake. Players want to stay, players want to play and players want to win. They’re good enough, too.
* For Pep Guardiola, a reality check. They were bullied by Tottenham in the opening half an hour, but defended appallingly. If Celtic on Wednesday offered evidence of their shortcomings in their own third of the pitch, Sunday saw those deficiencies exploited.
However, we must be very careful not to bring out the ‘Pep in crisis’ talk that may surely follow in some quarters, for that would be foolish. City are still top of the league, and still possess enough attacking weapons to win this title race. The Premier League is not a competition in which teams can win every game at a canter; the quality of opponent and workload dictates otherwise. This was a backward step, but not a fall.
* As we mooted on this site, Mauricio Pochettino chose to drop Vincent Janssen from his starting line-up in favour of a false nine formation with Heung-Min Son the furthest forward. Janssen was criticised in Champions League winners and losers, and will struggle to get back into Pochettino’s team for the biggest games.
This new Spurs shape made sense, too. Without a recognised centre-forward, Pochettino was trying to pull John Stones and Nicolas Otamendi out of position, thus allowing one or more of Erik Lamela, Dele Alli and Christian Eriksen to exploit the space. Otamendi in particular is prone to positional indiscipline, while there are questions too about Aleksandar Kolarov’s appetite to track a runner drifting infield.
* How much did Guardiola’s team selection assist Tottenham in their quest? There were certainly surprises in the Manchester City side.
Ilkay Gundogan’s legs might not yet be up to playing three high-intensity games in a week, but Guardiola’s decision to leave out Bacary Sagna was a massive shock, given Pablo Zabaleta’s form in the last 12 months. Gael Clichy seems to have fallen out of favour, but is clearly a better defensive left-back than Kolarov. Jesus Navas has never convinced, and Leroy Sane provides more pace and would struggle to cross the ball with less quality.
It’s easy to say in hindsight, but there are three players in that City back six who I wouldn’t trust to get me in the top four, never mind winning the league. It was like Manuel Pellegrini had been allowed to cash in a chip where he got to choose Guardiola’s team for one game.
* It started after 30 seconds, Son surging forward and shooting over the bar, and carried on for the first quarter of the match. Every player in white was hunting down their opponent, forcing them to hit the ball long and tackling them if they were given a sniff of the ball. In the first 25 minutes, Guardiola’s City had a pass success rate of just 67%, 18% below their season average. They didn’t even have a shot until the 28th minute.
A note to Jose Mourinho: This is how you take on City in a big game. Sit off them and try to get a foothold in the match, and City will pass around you and make you look amateur. Get in their faces, and they, like every other team in world football, will struggle to cope.
* It must be said that City did invite pressure onto themselves, at least partly due to Guardiola’s own demands. The coach might wish his team to play out from the back in an ideal world, but three months into this project he cannot expect every player to be comfortable doing so. Faced with a hunting pack of attacking midfielders sprinting down every ball, is there really anything wrong with adapting the plan, at least temporarily?
City were even given an example of a different way of playing. After 35 minutes, Fernandinho played a direct ball through Tottenham’s high press rather than passing to Stones or Otamendi, and it led to a City counter-attack. Every other time in the first half, they tried to pass their way out, and made Claudio Bravo look uneasy.
* Kolarov was our early loser after City’s trip to Celtic in midweek, and Guardiola did indeed move him from central defence to avoid further cock-up. Unfortunately, he didn’t keep moving him until he was sat on the bench.
I fully understand that there are advantages to playing Kolarov against weaker teams, when you expect to dominate possession. He can roam forward and effectively play as a left winger, his defensive responsibilities lessened. Yet to pick Kolarov against Tottenham, a team against whom you need to be hyper-vigilant, is suicidal. Guardiola paid for his decision.
* Tottenham’s first goal came from some customary Kolarov idiocy, the defender getting his legs tangled before offering a fine impression of Djimi Traore’s fine own goal for Liverpool against Burnley. His haphazard approach to defending didn’t end there. Time and again he dwelt on the ball, at fault too for giving away the penalty in the second half.
Kolarov is exactly the type of defender that looks great in a dominant team, but the Premier League is too strong for City to carry him in big games. I’m sorry, but he’s just not good enough when it matters.
* On the penalty incident, Jamie Redknapp made an excellent spot watching the game. Before the kick was taken, Son and Lamela had an argument over who would take it, with Danny Rose eventually breaking up the argument. That’s a ludicrous scenario at the highest level.
At every club, a manager will have agreed on a penalty taker order for the next game. It is unlikely that the list would be changed mid-game, but can only be done so by the manager. Either Lamela ignored that list in demanding that he took the penalty or, as seems more likely, Son ignored it in trying to persuade Lamela that he was the right man for the job. Whoever was in the wrong, you’re an idiot.
It’s important because Lamela missed the penalty. It did not turn out to be a crucial point in the game, but imagine if City had come back to draw 2-2. Lamela was not put off by the antics of a goalkeeper or the crowd, but his own player. Pochettino will be keen to ensure it never happens again.
* Having carried out the first half of their plan perfectly, Tottenham then reverted to firefighting mode, their defence tasked with thwarting City’s advances. The absence of Kevin de Bruyne obviously assisted that, but in Raheem Sterling and Sergio Aguero, City still had two of the form players in the division.
The introduction of Gundogan and Kelechi Iheanacho as substitutes also caused Tottenham a potential headache, because it meant City changed their shape to a 4-4-2 diamond with David Silva at the top, Sterling right and Gundogan left.
It will receive fewer plaudits – and I’m sorry for lumping both Toby Alderweireld and Jan Vertonghen together here – but Tottenham’s defence was simply outstanding. On commentary, Redknapp remarked that this pair gives the rest of the team the confidence to play, and that’s absolutely true. You feel far more confident closing down higher up the field when you have complete faith in those behind. See too Arsenal’s improvement as a whole as Shkodran Mustafi and Laurent Koscielny have grown as a central defensive partnership. North London might possess the best two central defensive pairings in the country.
Between them, Vertonghen and Alderweireld made 24 clearances, blocked shots and were never caught out of position. The latter is continuing his campaign to be known as one of Europe’s top central defenders. On this evidence, he’s not far off.
It would also be remiss not to praise Hugo Lloris for both his saves and his assurance behind his defenders, particularly given the contrast to Bravo at the other end. Lloris is not the perfect goalkeeper (as if such a thing exists) but there are few goalkeepers in Europe who are more reliable.
Lloris’ best moment came from a deflected Aguero shot that looped up and over the Frenchman. He somehow generated the power in his leap from a low starting position to tip it over the bar.
* I’ll make this quick, because he boils my p*ss every time he plays. If someone can explain to me how an uncapped 29-year-old Brazilian defensive midfielder can play more than 80 times for *this* City team, I’d appreciate it. Fernando has never once demonstrated that he deserves to be there, and he never should be in a big game again.
* Okay, let’s just do this in one conclusion.
Nicolas Otamendi was lucky not to be sent off after a deliberate handball (for which he wasn’t booked) was followed by a yellow card for a stupidly overzealous challenge on the edge of the box. He then also tripped Dele Alli and looked very sheepish indeed.
Rose was lucky not be sent off after being booked and then pulling back Sterling on the edge of the penalty area. Rose was excellent, but also weirdly theatrical on at least two occasions.
Sterling was lucky not to be sent off after going slightly over the ball on Rose (not one of his theatrical moments) when already on a yellow card. Referee Andre Marriner did not even award a free-kick.
* One oddity of the match caused by the high defensive line operated by both teams, coupled with attacking midfielders and full-backs overlapping, was the number of offside decisions. It was slightly mitigated by Tottenham dropping deeper in order to try and close out the game, but the match brought 13 offside calls. Before Sunday, the highest number in a Premier League game since the start of 2014/15 was 11.
* On commentary, Gary Neville made the point that the games between the biggest teams in the Premier League have been of much higher quality than in previous seasons. Looking at the scorelines, it’s hard to doubt it: Arsenal 3-4 Liverpool, Chelsea 1-2 Liverpool, Manchester United 1-2 Manchester City.
However, is that reflective of high-quality play in every case, or simply a weakness in defending and a propensity for teams to fall to pieces? There is no doubt that Tottenham, Liverpool and Manchester City played a significant role in causing the downfall of opponents, but nor too that their opponents demonstrated a soft side at precisely the wrong time.
Whatever the answer, it makes for absorbing entertainment. The Premier League hasn’t got rid of its bottom-half dross, but it feels like every other week brings a sumptuous spectacle. Good news for fans of 16 Conclusions…
* Yet the final complimentary word must go to Victor Wanyama, who was sensational in defensive midfield. Comparing him with Fernando is enough to make you squeal with laughter.
“Without Mousa Dembele, we do not exist,” said Mauricio Pochettino on August 28. “Tottenham does not exist.” It was a quote issued in jest, but the point was obvious. There might have been better Tottenham players last season (although that itself is arguable), but there were none more important.
After the end of September last year, Dembele failed to start in eight Premier League games last season. Tottenham’s record in those game was one win (against Sunderland at home), two draws and five defeats. His presence became Tottenham’s inspiration, his absence their downfall.
Now in Wanyama, Pochettino has support act, replacement, helper or whatever word you might use for a holding midfielder so good that he doesn’t deserve to be a back-up. Maybe it’s Eric Dier who is suddenly wondering where his place in this side is.
Wanyama made six tackles, more than any other Spurs player, and also registered the highest passing accuracy of any Tottenham starter. When all other midfielders were pressing high, he was guarding the back door. When all the defenders were under City siege, he was the perfect screen and first line of defence. A Man of the Match award well deserved.
* He’s baaaaaaack.
Honestly, at what point does he just get the t-shirt printed up, get the Mourinho posters on the bedroom wall, forget being a journalist and just become a full-time version of Alan Partridge’s stalker?
Superbly executed by Tottenham, yet that Man City defeat has been coming. Defensively fragile; no referee to bail them out today. #TOTMCI
— Duncan Castles (@DuncanCastles) October 2, 2016