League leaders Man City travelled to White Hart Lane looking to maintain their 100% start to Pep Guardiola’s debut season in England. In their way stood a relentless and tenacious Tottenham that simply put, refused to let their opponents breathe.
Tottenham fielded a side without an out and out striker, instead opting for in-form Son Heung-min as the furthest player forward. Man City’s most notable change was Fernando coming in for Ilkay Gundogan to bring more of a physical presence against Spurs’ Victor Wanyama and Moussa Sissoko.
Mauricio Pochettino introduced an adaptation of his side’s regular 4-2-3-1 by having Christian Eriksen and Dele Alli rotate their central roles with at least one providing the no.10 role (normally Alli) in support of Son when in possession. Erik Lamela and Sissoko were the wider midfield options while Wanyama managed the impressive feat of sitting deep on the front foot as protection.
The defensive midfielder signed from Pochettino’s former club, Southampton, had a brilliant game which included nine ball recoveries and six successful tackles from the eight he attempted. One of those tackles saw the Kenyan dispossess Fernandinho which led to the opening goal as Danny Rose whipped in a ninth-minute cross that proved too difficult for Aleksandar Kolarov to defend.
Wanyama’s five fouls was a game high and included a caution, highlighting the weakest area of his game. But those disruptions ensured Man City struggled to find any rhythm, particularly during a first-half that saw Spurs take, and subsequently maintain, a two-goal lead.
Danish international Eriksen had more defensive duties than usual in his adapted role. The playmaker certainly didn’t shirk the responsibility as proven by a game high 16 ball recoveries and four interceptions that were the most amongst his teammates. This didn’t, however, prevent him from providing an attacking threat with only Sergio Aguero attempting more shots at goal and David Silva more passes in the attacking third.
Man City, meanwhile, couldn’t handle the frenetic pace of the opening exchanges, not least their normally reliable pivot in midfield, Fernandinho. The Brazilian was often refused the time and space to influence proceedings and left exposed despite the inclusion of the more defensively minded Fernando.
Unlike at Old Trafford several weeks ago, Fernandinho was unable to venture into Tottenham’s defensive third and establish City’s authority on the game.
Dele Alli’s goal with less than ten minutes of the half remaining was a fair reflection of the home side’s superiority in terms of desire, work ethic and application. The second period, as expected, saw Guardiola’s men gain more of a foothold on the game largely thanks to the disappointing and anonymous Fernando being substituted for Gundogan after 53-minutes.
City were then quicker at filling spaces thanks to a better balance and shape across the pitch. They more than doubled their interceptions during the second period whilst Tottenham’s numbers dropped.
Fernandinho was again caught out when his attempted tackle on Alli from behind led to Andre Marriner pointing to the spot. One of few negatives for Spurs was not only Lamela’s miss – a save by Claudio Bravo who appeared to bounce on his toes faster than most keepers often do – but what preceded it. Son and Lamela were caught arguing over who was going to take the penalty and whilst they aren’t the first to do so in recent times (see Tadic/Austin or Baines/Mirallas), it is baffling that professionals can’t work this stuff out prior to kick-off or even follow basic pre-match instructions. It certainly doesn’t help the eventual taker as displayed by Lamela’s weak effort.
Toby Alderweireld and Jan Vertonghen continued to prove they are one of, if not the strongest centre-back partnerships in the league as Tottenham claimed their fourth clean sheet from seven league games.
The Belgian duo were colossal in defence with 20 clearances, including just one unsuccessful headed clearance from the 12 attempted between them. Whilst having speedy full-backs like Kyle Walker and Danny Rose helps, Vertoghen and Alderweireld’s defend first attitude ensures not only that Spurs are difficult to breakdown but it also takes the pressure off their attackers. This result was only the third time in the league that they scored two or more goals.
Tottenham were more fluent in their formation and pressing than passing or creativity. It was almost tiring to watch as one white shirt after another hunted and harassed every ball possible but it does suggest this is the best way to play against Guardiola’s side. Celtic put in a similar performance, fuelled by Celtic Park’s intense atmosphere, and this seems to cause Man City the most disruptions.
Sunday was the first time they had gone behind in a league match this season and teams such as Liverpool will be looking at the game as a blueprint for their approach. The only real caveat being that star player, Kevin De Bruyne, is likely to be available then and Guardiola would have had more time to work on nullifying such teams.
After this weekend, the title race appears closer to pre-season expectations than a week ago with just two-points separating the top-four. Unfortunately it’s an international break which means a two-week wait until the next twist and turns.
EPL Results (Gameweek 7):
Everton 1-1 Crystal Palace
Swansea 1-2 Liverpool
Hull 0-2 Chelsea
Sunderland 1-1 West Brom
Watford 2-2 Bournemouth
West Ham 1-1 Middlesbrough
Man Utd 1-1 Stoke
Leicester 0-0 Southampton
Tottenham 2-0 Man City
Burnley 0-1 Arsenal