Match of the Week: Tottenham Hotspur 1-0 Manchester City
It’s almost as though they had a point to prove. The one group of people to have been forgotten over the last few weeks of the Harry Kane’s cack-handed attempted at wantawayness more than anyone else has been the other Spurs players. Tottenham Hotspur’s reputation as the Premier League’s banter club in extremis isn’t without a solid source of fuel, but the modern tendency to push all language to the most extreme has meant that Kane’s – for now – team-mates have been largely dismissed.
They shouldn’t have been, of course. They are all professionals, paid tens of thousands a week to do this particular job because they are really, really good at it. And if they have been annoyed by the recent talk of their – for now – team-mate being ‘too good for them’, then they would be fully entitled to feel so. Kane wasn’t at the Tottenham Hotspur Stadium yesterday afternoon, so far as anybody could ascertain. It would be facile to suggest that Spurs don’t need him, but they didn’t need him against Manchester City, yesterday afternoon.
On any other weekend, the big story of this match would have been the champions giving a League debut to their new £100m signing, but such was the nature of this match that Jack Grealish feels several places down any list of priorities to discuss. He fizzed in patches and won a lot of free-kicks, but Manchester City only really showed the urgency they needed all afternoon for the first fifteen and last twenty minutes of the match, and when a team is as focussed and well-organised as Spurs were yesterday, that’s simply not enough.
Collectively, Tottenham’s cumulative effort was immense. Manchester City came at them at speed for the first fifteen minutes and it looked a little as though one away goal might push the floodgates open. The early goal, however, didn’t come. Pierre-Emile Hojbjerg and Oliver Skipp, after a slow start, dominated the midfield, and although Spurs did defend with depth, this wasn’t the stultifying, idea-free team of the Jose Mourinho years.
Instead, they were controlled and confident, and broke with pace that seemed to stretch the Manchester City defence every time they started to pour forward. But most impressive of all was Japhet Tanganga, who was more than a little lucky not to pick up a yellow card for his first half raids on Grealish’s ankles, but was otherwise was controlled, assertive and solid. He fully deserved his Man of the Match award.
The goal came nine minutes into the second half, an angled shot from the edge of the penalty area which Ederson and Nathan Ake seemed to leave for each other from Son Heung Min, who’s fresh from signing another four year contract with the club. The best chance of the latter stages of the match fell to Riyad Mahrez, who arrived unannounced and ten yards from the Spurs goal, only to slice his shot horribly wide when he really should have scored. An equalising goal, however, would have been hard on Spurs, who thoroughly merited their win, and it would have been equally unjustified for Manchester City, considering their overall performance.
This isn’t the first time this has happened to City already this season, either. The Community Shield may well be treated by most within the game as a no more than a glorified pre-season friendly, but the players are competitors and to say that it means nothing to them while they’re playing is an obvious overstatement. And Manchester City’s performance against Leicester City at Wembley last week was lethargic and one-paced. Their performance against Spurs was no better.
But last season was a strange one, for Manchester City. They started poorly, before embarking on that extraordinary fifteen-match winning run which took them clear at the top of the table, as everybody else dropped points around them. When that run ended, with a 2-0 defeat at home to Manchester United, though, something seems to have changed within the team. The league title was already won, but between then and the end of the season they lost three of their last seven league matches, and lost the FA Cup semi-final and the Champions League final to Chelsea. They won the League Cup against Chaos Tottenham, but this was a mere trinket, in comparison with the European trophy they missed out on.
Considering the high standards that have been set to get anywhere near the Premier League title over the last couple of seasons, this is surely unacceptable to Manchester City. It’s definitely true that there was oddness, over the year and a half that the fans were excluded. But is this oddness going to continue, or will we snap straight back to the huge-scoring years that preceded the pandemic? Liverpool dropped fifteen points en route to winning the 2020 title. Manchester City have dropped three, after one match.
So unexpected was the strength of Tottenham’s performance that it’s difficult to infer anything much from this result. There is no question that the players had plenty of reason to be motivated to win, yesterday, and this was hardly Sutton United vs Coventry City, either. For all the slow-motion car crash of the Jose Mourinho appointment, Spurs reached the final of the Champions League and lost to another English club just two years before Manchester City did. They’ve now played Spurs four times at The Tottenham Hotspur Stadium, have lost the lot, and haven’t scored a goal there yet.
Nuno Espírito Santo, meanwhile, has certainly passed his first test as the new Spurs manager. Santo has been, of course, another unfairly derided bit-part player in The Saga. Wolves supporters can’t speak highly enough of him, and he has conducted himself with considerably greater dignity over the endless stream of questions about it than some of the questioners deserved. With a win against Arsenal and a draw against Chelsea in a pre-season tournament and a win against Manchester City on the opening day of the season, he hasn’t put a foot wrong yet. Perhaps he should have been higher up Mr Levy’s list than he was.
The realpolitik of football still suggests that The Kane Saga will be completed by the end of the transfer window, but time is starting to run out, and just as seeing another goalless performance yesterday may well stiffen City’s resolve to acquire this player, so it may stiffen Spurs’ resolve not to sell him. Even though it was, though, yesterday’s match was not really about that one particular player. It was about a hard-working team that pulled together during an extremely trying pre-season, with a new manager to integrate after an absurdly long search off the back of a disappointing last season, and with their captain agitating to leave the club. Yesterday didn’t belong to the £100m signing or the wantaway. Yesterday belonged to the players left behind, as the hype machine departed the station.