Date published: Sunday 20th February 2022 10:01 – Ian King
Spurs arrived in Manchester off the back of three straight Premier League defeats, but rumours of their demise proved to be premature.
1. There are times when football transcends common sense, transcends madness, and enters into a truly other-worldly realm. Manchester City and Tottenham Hotspur have form for this sort of thing, but few predicted a repeat of such shenanigans from this match. Spurs arrived at The Etihad Stadium off the back of three consecutive league defeats, two of which came at home, and with a familiar cloud starting to settle over The Tottenham Hotspur Stadium again, while Manchester City had won 14 of their last 15 league matches, scoring 41 goals in the process. Considering how Spurs have already rolled over against Arsenal, Chelsea, Manchester United and Liverpool this season, few doubted that Manchester City would do the same.
2. With four out and two in during the January transfer window, whether Spurs actually ‘strengthened’ when they had the opportunity has been a subject of heated debate amongst the Spurs supporters since the window closed. On the one hand, to end up with two fewer players come the end of the window might be considered an unusual form of strengthening, and this was certainly implied by Antonio Conte in his recent interview with Sky Italia. But there is a counter-argument, that none of those moved on from the club were anything like regulars, and that clearing out some of the dead wood from a team that has only fully functioned in fits and starts all season is a necessary move, if it’s to be improved.
3. Manchester City, on the other hand, have continued to look imperious. Their mid-season run has propelled them clear at the top of the Premier League table, and even with their lead at the top of the table cut to six points by Liverpool’s win against Norwich earlier in the day (and there was a point when it seemed possible that Liverpool might even drop points from this game), the feeling that a championship race might yet break out again appeared slight, prior to kick-off. City arrived at this game off the back of a midweek 5-0 win against Sporting that renders the second leg pretty much an irrelevance. Before kick-off, the difference between the two teams looked cavernous.
4. But if one of the defining characteristics of this Manchester City team is a near-absence of complacency (it’s the trait that makes those lengthy winning runs look so effortless), it took just four minutes for them to surprise us all, playing a defensive line so high that, when Harry Kane span a ball down the left-hand side for Son to run onto, Son found himself alone and able to thread the ball through for Dejan Kulusevski, four minutes into his debut after becoming one of the two players to brave a contract at The Tottenham Hotspur Stadium in January. He rolled it into an unguarded goal from the edge of the penalty area to give them the lead.
5. There followed, of course, a relentless blue wave. City attacked and attacked, hitting the post, forcing saves from Hugo Lloris and last-ditch tackles from whoever could throw their bodies in the way of the ball. The press was immediate, whenever Spurs tried to clear, with unforced errors and clearances to nowhere in particular growing as the half progressed. In the inside-left channel, Raheem Sterling caused particular problems, with Cristian Romero having to cover for Emerson Royal’s shortcomings.
But when Spurs did break, they broke with pace and purpose. Harry Kane almost released Son through the middle, only for his pass to be half a yard short of where it needed to be, while Royal shot narrowly over. But these were outliers. The forward movement was very much in Manchester City’s favour, from the moment they kicked off again after conceding.
6. A dam can only hold for so long, but when it does finally breach it’s not ideal if it happens as a result of your own mistake. 1-0 leads at The Etihad Stadium don’t come around every day, after all. But Hugo Lloris has been a mixed bag in goal for a while now, and on this occasion the blame could only be laid at his door. A low, curling ball into the penalty area from Raheem Sterling should have been a routine collection for a goalkeeper at this level, but under pressure from the onrushing Kevin De Bruyne, Lloris allowed the ball to squeeze from his hands and back to Ilkay Gungodan, who lashed it across the goalkeeper and into the corner.
But for all the talk of Lloris’s slippery hands, Spurs did have some reason to feel aggrieved at having been pegged back; Kyle Walker got away with a foul on Ryan Sessegnon which won possession for City in the first place. It was too far back to really be considered worthy of VAR attention and it was hardly as though Spurs didn’t have plenty of chances to stop the goal afterwards, but it certainly looked like a foul.
7. The goal lifted the noise levels inside the stadium, and Spurs spent the remainder of the first half pegged back inside their own half again. If the game plan was to score early and sit back, it had failed, and as the half progressed City’s passing became crisper and cleaner, while the Spurs defence looked increasingly stretched. They were, as might have been considered entirely predictable, hanging on by half-time.
8. This relentless City pressure continued throughout the early stages of the second half, with the commentators very much enjoying the statistic that they had 90% of the possession throughout its first ten minutes. It almost felt as though they were laying the pretext for what they assumed what was going to happen next, even though possession statistics have long been contentious. Except what everybody expected to happen next wasn’t what happened next.
9. Is it too simplistic to say that Harry Kane was up for this match because of last summer’s transfer farrago? It’s difficult to say for sure, but he put in a season-best performance, and 13 minutes into the second half he was on hand, to general disbelief, to restore Spurs’ lead. And the goal was everything that you would want from a modern striker. Son collected the ball and pinged a curling ball into the penalty which Kane appeared on the end of, needing just the one touch to steer the ball past Ederson and in. It was a wonderful finish, every inch what you’d expect for a striker worth the amount of money that Daniel Levy expects City to pay for him, should they want his services.
10. The second Spurs goal did change the feel of the game. Until this point, it had felt like it was following a straightforward script; Spurs take the lead, defend as doggedly as they can for as long as they can, then eventually concede as their heads drop and Manchester City continue to relentlessly attack. But that second goal did change its feel, even though Hugo Lloris had to maintain their lead by his fingertips, pushing a shot from Gungodan just around the post.
But Spurs held on and might even have had a third goal when Kane was put through but had his shot superbly saved by Ederson, or when Kulusevski’s shot deflected to Kane, who put the ball into the City goal, only for play to be called back for an earlier offside against Kulusevski. This eventual decision was greeted with a predictable roar from the home crowd, but again Manchester City’s extremely high press had left them unnecessarily vulnerable at the back.
11. The disallowing of the goal may not have particularly deflated Spurs, but it put a little something into Manchester City tanks again, and the pressing and pressure soon restarted. Conte moved Spurs into a slightly more compact position over the last ten minutes, replacing Son with Lucas Moura and Emerson Royal with Matt Doherty, but these tactical switches were no match for the drama that would envelop the game in its closing minutes.
12. The penalty kick given to Manchester City on 89 minutes was pretty much a nailed-on penalty, though it was also possible to have sympathy with Cristian Romero, whose wayward arm conceded it. Romero was sliding to try to block a low Bernardo Silva cross from the left, but while his forward momentum probably couldn’t have been stopped had he wanted to, his arm was still in such a position when the ball struck it that the referee had little alternative but to award it. After a substantial delay, Riyad Mahrez lashed the penalty into the roof of the goal.
13. Almost immediately the ball hit the net from the penalty spot, attention turned to the seven minutes of stoppage-time that had been indicated, and whether this would be long enough for City to get their inevitable winning goal. They poured forward, of course they did, but this remarkable match still had a sting in its tail, when Kulusevski broke on the right and crossed for Kane to head a winner for Spurs. Pep Guardiola dropped to his knees. Antonio Conte was sufficiently overcome by emotion to take off in a semi-circle on the edge of a greasy pitch, even though he was wearing sensible shoes. There was stoppage-time for the stoppage-time, but City had run out of time, and Spurs had run off with a most unexpected three points.
14. The narrative demands that, even now, Harry Kane’s performance will almost certainly be talked about in the context of the Manchester City transfer that didn’t quite happen. This is understandable, but it’s also worth pausing to consider Kane’s performance in its own right, because it deserved all the plaudits that it will undoubtedly receive. He had the ball in the net of the champions in their own back yard three times, once pulled back because someone else was called offside, and played the ball that released Son for the first goal.
Kane went through periods when he wasn’t particularly involved in this match. Such was the relentless nature of Manchester City’s attacking throughout much of it. But when he did get involved, almost every touch was perfectly used – even his second-half miss when put through on goal was a superb piece of goalkeeping – and his link-up play with Son Heung Min at times looked as good as anything they managed during Spurs’ more successful period.
15. Kane will grab the headlines on account of a sparkling performance, but it is also worth flagging up the performance of Dejan Kulusevski. Kulusevski is no novice. Even at 21 years of age, he’s already played for Juventus, Parma and Atalanta in Italy, and has 20 caps for the Sweden national team. But after a couple of appearances from the substitutes bench this was his first full appearance, and he took just four minutes to score his first goal for the club, as well as setting up that late, late winner. It was an accomplished performance for a young player to slot into the team as comfortably as this on his debut, especially at such a difficult venue.
16. The common assent is that the championship race is back on. Manchester City still have their six-point lead at the top of the table, but Liverpool have a game in hand and the two sides still have to play again this season. With City’s goal difference now only being two goals superior to Liverpool’s and Liverpool having a better goals scored record, it is, somewhat surprisingly, now back in Liverpool’s hands. But this wasn’t quite ‘one of those nights’ for City. They had a lot of possession and had a lot of shots, but managed no more clear chances on goal than Spurs did. They had 17 shots off-target and three on, to Spurs’ one off-target and four on. Ultimately, having all that possession helps, but possession isn’t enough in and of itself, and Manchester City didn’t do enough with theirs.
And somehow or other, Spurs remain in the chase for a Champions League place. They’re four points off fourth place, although that may last less than 24 hours, but winning their games in hand would enable them to leapfrog both Manchester United and West Ham. Arsenal are three points better off than them having played the same number of matches, and they still have to play each other, while Wolves, two points behind them having also played the same number of games, can’t yet be discounted either. But perhaps it’s still too early to be making confident predictions about where this all ends up. After all, if there’s one thing we should be taking from an evening like this, it’s that all the forward planning and prediction in the world can’t stratify football when it’s in this sort of mood.