LONDON — Manchester City might need to revise their valuation of Harry Kane after all. At first glance, that may appear a knee-jerk reaction to Sunday’s 1-0 defeat at Tottenham, given that Pep Guardiola’s side strolled to the Premier League title last term despite operating without a recognised striker for much of the campaign. Yet it already looks a harder trick to pull off this time around after an early reminder of how City can be beaten by a contain-and-counter method that Spurs are making a habit of pulling off.
Tottenham have now beaten City in their last four meetings at this stunning stadium, each time employing a broadly similar approach predicated upon allowing City to dominate the ball in certain areas because they do not possess a clinical striker able to thrive in tight spaces.
Of course, time and again Guardiola’s team overcome this with a blur of invention and movement, an often irresistible combination that the £100 million arrival of Jack Grealish will surely only augment in time after showing flashes of quality on his debut here. Yet of the two sides on show at the Tottenham Hotspur Stadium, it was City who missed Kane more.
That was down to both the sublime pace and penetration brought by match-winner Heung-Min Son, in tandem with Steven Bergwijn and Lucas Moura, but also an anonymous showing from Ferran Torres as a “false nine.” Gabriel Jesus fared little better in a 20-minute cameo.
“Are you watching, Harry Kane?” sang the Tottenham fans — far louder than they chanted positively about their captain earlier in the game — and the 28-year-old was indeed doing just that, in attendance, but not deemed ready to take part having only returned to training on Friday following England‘s run to the Euro 2020 final. Spurs coach Nuno Espirito Santo insisted Kane’s lack of match fitness was the only reason for his absence, but it’s hard to escape the conclusion the uncertainty over his future was a factor in his absence.
Tottenham continue to insist they will not sell Kane, who believes he has a gentleman’s agreement to leave the club this summer. City intimated they were prepared to pay around £100 million, but despite near-constant speculation over the past few weeks, they are yet to make a formal offer anywhere close to the £150m it would take to tempt chairman Daniel Levy into a serious conversation. Surely that will change in the coming days after the opening weekend of the season provided a blueprint for the rest on how to beat the champions.
On the eve of this game, Guardiola backtracked somewhat after going public with his desire to sign Kane last week, meaning he wasn’t about to double down afterwards, but it wasn’t difficult to decode his real feelings at the end of a weekend in which Manchester United scored five times while Chelsea and Liverpool netted three.
“We arrived in the final third many times, we could not be clinical enough and at the end, one action, we lose the game,” he said after watching City register 66 percent possession and 18 shots, but only four on target.
“We are the same people [as] last season. Sergio [Aguero] is gone. Unfortunately last season we could not use him much, he played just seven games. Then in came Jack [Grealish], but we are the same people who won the Premier League. We make very good things and it is normal. They are a tough rival for us, always I have the same feeling that we are good playing here, but we cannot get results because they punish you in the transitions.”
Although the parallels with Tottenham’s previous victories over City were clear, it would be doing Nuno a disservice not to recognise there was more to Spurs on the day. They grew into Sunday’s game after a nervous start as their tactic of staying narrow in midfield began to give them a foothold. Pierre-Emile Hojbjerg, Oliver Skipp and Dele Alli formed a three behind Moura, Son and Bergwijn, effectively pushing six players into a tight central area the width of the penalty box, forcing City to play out wide earlier than they would ideally have liked.
However, when they worked the ball quickly and efficiently to the flanks, City had an overload with Japhet Tanganga left to battle manfully against Grealish and Raheem Sterling as one overlapped the other.
Under Mourinho in particular, there was a sense Spurs were hanging on as City dominated after taking one of precious few chances at the other end. Yet on this occasion, Spurs could have been further ahead: Bergwijn missed a glorious chance to double their lead on the hour mark at the end of another blistering breakaway in the mould of the one five minutes earlier that had given them the lead.
The game’s only goal was a treat. Moura hooked the ball forward just outside his own box to release Bergwijn, who surged forward at speed. Son drifted out to the right to receive the ball, cut in on his left foot and curled a superb shot beyond Ederson from 20 yards. The majority of the 58,262 fans in attendance cranked up the noise and although City responded well, there was little meaningful for Spurs goalkeeper Hugo Lloris to deal with aside from an 84th-minute shot from substitute Kevin De Bruyne and a stifled effort from Grealish.
Kane’s next outing could still be for either of these teams, but Nuno continued to insist the striker is merely in the process of readying himself for Tottenham’s next game — a trip to Portugal for a Europa Conference League qualifier against Pacos de Ferreira. It isn’t exactly the European competition Kane has his sights on, but Nuno said post-match that “Harry worked this morning, he is preparing himself and when he is ready he will join the group and help the team.”
Guardiola might urge the City hierarchy to test that theory a little more after this.