YYou know, this could get hot. For an hour at Tottenham Hotspur Stadium, the white Spurs jerseys and the black Manchester City jerseys played such a familiar game of contrasts, possession versus non-possession, that it felt like watching a Legends Tours sports remake, Tyson. against Holyfield or Benn against Eubank.
Perhaps the best thing about José v Pep is that he is still completely himself. Soccer can be in a state of constant refinement at the higher end. But these two, not so much. So we had Davis v Higgins in North London, and beyond that, a night where Mourinho’s backlash Spurs laid bare the weaknesses of this City team with brutal clarity. A few years ago, Guardiola referred to Tottenham as “Harry Kane’s team” with a raised eyebrow, a puff of the cheeks and a pat on the head. Well, Pep, you asked for it.
Meet Harry Kane’s team, led by a forward who traumatized City’s central defenders, jumping and struggling, always looking to turn and land one of those God-level diagonal passes.
For a while, during his days at Barcelona, there was talk that Guardiola’s rise could mark the end of the old-fashioned center forward. This is the man who popularized the fake 9, who made the sides and inside forwards a fetish. It was tempting to see a nemesis moment here, the revenge of No. 9 (wearing No. 10). But in reality Kane is already something more these days, the confirmation that Guardiola was right, that the center forwards have diversified and evolved.
Kane has these imperial games from time to time against the best teams, from Chelsea 2014 to Liverpool 2017. However, this was different. Kane tackled and intercepted, and made wonderful twisting passes. He played as a forward kingpin, a fighting approach, a foul magnet, a one-man press blitzkrieg, a rotating diagonal reverse step funnel.
Has there been a better performance in the win from a center forward who didn’t actually have a single shot on goal?
The style of this 2-0 win also offered a counterpoint to the idea that Mourinho has become a static force as a manager. There is a suggestion that he does not work on the details of his team’s attack, that he leaves this part of the field to find his way in a kind of guided improvisation. But Mourinho has perfected this team’s offensive style, creating a combination of strengths that are perfectly geared towards taking out teams that make room.
Against City it all came from the area around the center circle, the launching pad for two brilliantly executed goals. Both showed Kane’s trade in the pocket of “quarterback”. They both took advantage of the high defensive line that offers an avenue for scoring against teams that push up and condense the play. Both were, at the same time, strangely predictable.
Tottenham’s attacking game is all about finding space behind the full back, in fast runners taking advantage of diagonal passes from the center circle. It would seem only natural that City would have watched this closely, to be ready to counter it. Or maybe not. With three minutes remaining, Kane had already turned and launched a diagonal pass for the run of Sergio Reguilón, who was attacked by Kyle Walker hitting him back with puffy cheeks and arms pumping. There are reassuring images in football, images that simply convey stability and security. This is not one of them.
A minute later, the Spurs scored with almost the same move. He did so with a beautiful pass from Tanguy Ndombele, who floated the ball in a perfect arc over the defensive line from within the City half, using his foot as a wedge, tapping a toe on the grass, in the style of a matador.
In front of him, Son Heung-min was running like Son Heung-min does, into the kind of space that Son Heung-min likes, to score a Son Heung-min kind of goal. Does anyone in town really look Match from The day?
The goal was also scored by Kane’s dash to the center circle, creating slack behind him. The second, 20 minutes into the second half, came from the same area. Kane sank deeply again. This time a precious pass floated for Giovani Lo Celso to take it home and finish with elegance.
City were unlucky enough to lose their own vanguard again, with Sergio Agüero on the bench. But the key factor was Kane’s transformation from a versatile No. 9 to a comprehensive team force and an on-field rally for his coach. Mourinho loves to win these games above all others, he loves the idea of breaking down the playbook of possession football, of asserting his most disruptive style. You will have enjoyed this to an almost indecent degree.
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