Tottenham 0 Manchester City 1, Wembley.
The events of Saturday night have drained football’s colour. The game will go on of course, but the crash which took the lives of five people, including Leicester City owner Vichai Srivaddhanaprabha, have turned its world monochrome.
Sunday was bizarre. Nobody who witnessed the crash outside King Power Stadium or who saw images from its aftermath could have feared anything but the worst, yet the Premier League played on. Whether or not they should have done is a question which will linger for a while. But they did and the contrast was stark. In Leicester, a sea of grief swelled up silently around the ground while, elsewhere, decisions at Selhurst Park were debated and Paul Pogba was castigated for the vanity of his penalty technique.
It was the most horrid contrast and the compassionate decision would have been to postpone. It’s hard to resist the suspicion, though, that the games didn’t stop because it wasn’t convenient for them to do so. Normality is often a cure, that’s certainly true, but what the value was in everything being normal everywhere apart from Leicester is hard to say.
Monday was no less strange. The build up to Tottenham against Manchester City was interspersed by messages of condolence on social media and pictures of ashen-faced, devastated Leicester players. The concerns about the Wembley pitch, exposed to the heavy hooves of the NFL twenty-fours earlier, were tempered by the flowers being laid and tears being shed in the Midlands. These are strange days, deeply unwelcome ones, and it will be a while before that changes and anybody can really get worked up again by trivialities like form, title-credentials and inconvenient pitch-markings.
Spurs and City did at least try to jolt the mood. The pitch wasn’t quite the cabbage-patch promised, but it was rough and uneven, its flanks badly worn. City certainly adjusted to it better. A tentative touch from Kieran Trippier let Raheem Sterling dance to and then along the goal-line and, inside six minutes, cut-back for Riyad Mahrez to side-footed the visitors into the lead that they would never lose.
After their difficulties in midweek, it was exactly the sort of start Tottenham didn’t need. This was a night to build slowly into a game, to establish a stable base camp and move forward from there. Emotionally and tactically, the inability to do that was critical.
Pochettino had begun the game with a preventative midfield. Moussa Sissoko, Eric Dier and Mousa Dembele were all picked to bring a rough challenge to City’s gifted middle. The plan had evidently been to frustrate City’s start, to pressure and control the centre of the field, and to trade creativity for resilience and, hopefully, a counter-attacking opportunity later in the game.
Out the window that went, then. Mahrez’s goal brought a deep sigh from Wembley and the dye was largely cast; Guardiola’s side are far too good to be given a head start and, inconveniently, they are usually deadly when teams have to pursue them.
It will be of scant consolation, but Pochettino can take solace in knowing that his selection was at least partly vindicated. Sissoko’s inclusion did bring a dynamism which City occasionally looked vulnerable to. Dier’s bite provided a layer of protection in front of the defence. And, in Dembele, Spurs had a long-striding, strong midfielder that Guardiola’s dainty playmakers had difficulty in disposssesing. Dembele was short of being his slick, sleek self, but he was good enough to validate the theory at least. As a unit it never quite worked seamlessly, with the lack of chemistry between the three being semi-regularly exposed, but it was the kind of imaginative solution which Pochettino has often turned away from.
Previously in this fixture, he has been naive. Foolhardy in his insistence that his side are City’s equal, he has often been made to pay for that bravado. Here, it was different. Spurs had a gameplan which worked – they did get their counter-attacking chances and Erik Lamela and Lucas Moura were effective – but it was undermined by the insecurity which has infected this squad. At their very best, Tottenham play with great certainty. When they’re beneath that level, though, everything they do wreaks of doubt; Monday wasn’t a bad performance, but this team’s frail confidence is still clearly under repair.
Player for player, Spurs could probably hope to beat this City team once every five games, but this was one of those occasions. Guardiola’s players carried their usual menace going forward and looked a threat whenever they entered the final third, but there was a startling lack of ruthlessness to their game. At the other end, they were often sloppy. Kyle Walker and Benjamin Mendy were particularly poor and, another evening, they would have cost their side points. Harry Kane might have done better with a first half chance, Lamela certainly should have scored after a quick break in the second. At times, it was if Tottenham were playing against the memory of last season’s champions, rather than the team they were actually facing. City are City, finishing above them is a virtual guarantee of a championship, but they are only a very good team at the moment, not a truly excellent one.
Frustrating for Pochettino, then, and a further shadow for his darkening mood. He can extract some positives from the night, not least in the performances of Davinson Sanchez and Toby Alderweireld, and also from Sissoko’s encouraging thrusts, Lamela’s general play and the re-emergence of Christian Eriksen and Dele Alli. Harry Winks was also briefly impressive from the bench. Nevertheless, all of his end conclusions will be the same: City have the strength and quality to be under-par in this sort of fixture and still win. By contrast, his Tottenham team must have all of their players available and each of them at the apex of their form to be properly competitive. It’s a situation he’s having to battle rather than one he’s created, but it still amounts to the same issue. There’s only so much a manager can get from the same group of players and, with his club’s list of off-field ailments, that level is even less than it might be.
It’s not a result for their supporters to be angry about, not least because the entire sport remains obviously secondary at the moment. It will be frustrating, though. Another reminder of their team’s near, yet so far place in the Premier League and another instance in which their limitations, on the field and away from it, have softened their punching power at an important moment.