Miguel Delaney: Near perfect Spurs prove that we'll have a Premier League title race after all
After a Tottenham Hotspur win that was so much more impressive - and meaningful - than the 2-0 final score suggests, Mauricio Pochettino almost said it all.
“The performance was nearly perfect.”
That is something that has been said of Manchester City so often this season, and the reality is Spurs probably had to be near that level to inflict a first defeat of Pep Guardiola’s reign. What was so striking about this win over the previously runaway leaders, though, was not just that Tottenham beat them. It was how they beat them at their own game, by almost taking it up a level themselves.
“We are a team that always wants control,” Pochettino said. “In front was City, who want the same as us. Then it’s a battle on the pitch.”
Spurs more than won it, and more than made City look mortal. They made them look small, almost completely overpowering them.
“They were better than us, it’s as simple as that,” Guardiola conceded rather magnanimously afterwards, refusing to point to Kevin De Bruyne’s absence. They were also bigger than them, and that made it so difficult for City.
On the rare occasions in the first half when Guardiola’s side managed to work the ball out from Spurs’ near-relentless press, they then struggled to get past the steel-strong midfield of Victor Wanyama and Moussa Sissoko. There was one moment just before half-time when the latter had Raheem Sterling hanging off him like an English back on Jonah Lomu in the 1995 World Cup.
This win wasn’t just down to the kind of power that forced Aleksandar Kolarov into that calamitous ninth-minute own goal that gave Spurs the lead. There was also the home side’s precision and sleekness on the run. On 37 minutes, Spurs surged up the pitch with a speed that City struggled to handle, with their only successful block seeing the ball make its way through to Heung-Min Son. He cleverly clipped the ball on for the on-running Dele Alli, who rolled it past Claudio Bravo.
Spurs were certainly playing flawlessly at that point, and forcing all manner of errors in City. Pochettino might even have been able to describe it as completely perfect had Erik Lamela scored the 66th-minute penalty. After a debate with Son, though, the under-press Claudio Bravo dived left to push it away.
The win was so impressive, however, that Pochettino was able to laugh about it afterwards.
“Harry Kane is the first and then we pick a two, three. But different things can happen on the pitch and the players can say I'm confident and discuss. They are allowed to discuss and then take the decision inside. It's difficult from the touchline to say 'no you' because they're fighting and I cannot run to the middle of the pitch and say ‘no, you’!”
Guardiola also refused to point fingers afterwards, or blame the defeat on the absence of Kevin De Bruyne. He merely said that he felt, from the start, something wasn’t right.
“I have to review. From the beginning I didn’t feel we could adapt, we couldn’t make the build-up play the way we wanted. Every time we attacked behind his high pressing, we caused problems, situations.
But we had problems. We put long balls, they won the second ball. We had to go backwards. It was a bit difficult to control. Long balls, second ones they always won. The first reaction is to say we didn't run. It's not that. It's not about not trying, when you are not in the right position when you attack, you defend, this kind of thing can happen.”
It also means that, after much talk that Guardiola’s side could run away with the league, a proper title race might happen. It is not an exaggeration to say that a City win would have been bad for the Premier League in terms of competitiveness, given how commanding their lead would have been, and what it would have confirmed about them. In the first seven games, they would have won away at most hyped rivals Manchester United, and beaten last season’s main challengers.
Instead, this win looked like it might have confirmed a lot about Spurs.
“I feel very proud, very good. It's true that we're on a different level to other clubs, we work very hard to try to improve the way we want to play. We have enough quality. Always if we play with passion and the passion we showed today, we have enough quality to fight with the big teams.”
They proved that today. It was close to perfection.