Last weekend, before allegedly squirting milk on the opposition manager, Manchester City poured water on the Premier League title race. Now it lies doused, gasping for life. Even the league’s affable outsider Tottenham Hotspur is unlikely to change that.
With 15 wins in a row, Pep Guardiola’s boys have already set a new record for top-flight football in England – Arsenal achieved the previous milestone of 14 in 2002. City are setting new standards for excellence too. The famed Guardiola machine has steamrolled oppositions. Eleven points separate City from their second-placed traditional rivals Manchester United. The Citizens’ opponents on Saturday evening, Spurs, lie further back in fourth, 18 points behind. It is not exactly thriving competition.
Ahead of the latest encounter, Tottenham manager Mauricio Pochettino discussed what has changed this year. “Of course, City were behind us in the last two seasons and this season they were very consistent in signing, signing, signing, invest, invest, invest, and this season they are above us. But in the last two seasons we were always above. We’re not going to change because they improved a lot.”
Spurs, though, have changed this year. The temporary shift to Wembley has not served the North Londoners well. Last season, Spurs drew only twice at home while winning the remaining 17 games. This time around, Pochettino’s men have already dropped nine points at home in as many matches. It was a change that was never going to be easy but the ongoing campaign has also put new tactical demands on the side.
The intense pressing, possession-heavy approach has made way for a more expansive style, with an increased inclination to counter-attack. In theory, a willingness to sit deep and hit on the break should help Spurs against City. It certainly fetched them rewards in contests against Real Madrid and Borussia Dortmund in the Champions League.
But it is Spurs’ floundering away record against the league’s top-six sides which is concerning. With only one win on the road in 17 matches under Pochettino, the North London side is prone to crumble in the face of major opposition. It should be recalled that the sole win arrived against City two seasons ago but the opposition was managed by Manuel Pellegrini then.
On their last visit to the Etihad Stadium earlier this year, Spurs were lucky to escape with a 2-2 draw after falling two goals behind. City swamped the visitors throughout and Kyle Walker, who left Tottenham this summer, was fortunate to escape a sending-off for a push on his current teammate Raheem Sterling.
That performance was one of the rare displays of panache by Guardiola’s team last season. However, after spending heavily this summer, the manager has been able to bring tactical coherence and consistency to his side. No player has epitomised this better than Sterling.
The England forward showed sparks of turning a corner under Guardiola’s tutelage last season when he started the campaign with four goals in the first six games. City won all of those matches; the slide, interestingly, began with a 0-2 loss away to Spurs at the beginning of October. Sterling scored only thrice again in the league as Guardiola experienced growing pains in England.
But as seen last week at United, City have turned a corner. The league leaders were not at their best but they ground out a win without breaking much sweat. Sterling did not have anything to do with the goals last Sunday but his deployment in the false-nine role was indicative of the trust posed in him by the manager. The 23-year-old started on the right, moved to a central position minutes into the match and later returned to a wide position.
Guardiola has long been known to change tactics during a game and the tactical versatility of Sterling fits right in with the manager’s plans. Of course, the number of options at the former Barcelona coach’s disposal has helped. But it is worth noting that players like David Silva and Nicolas Otamendi have stepped up from last season. Otamendi’s displays have been, by and large, heartening for the City faithful in the absence of John Stones and/or Vincent Kompany.
If Kompany does not recover in time for the match against Spurs, it is likely that the left half of the back four will be filled by Eliaquim Mangala and Fabian Delph. Although Delph has proved to be an adequate replacement for the convalescing Benjamin Mendy, Spurs will foresee opportunities on that flank. Not to forget, Mangala is not the most reliable figure at the back while Otamendi was responsible for Rashford’s equaliser last week.
Fortunately for Spurs, they will also find more space to attack against the runaway leaders. This has been an issue for Pochettino’s boys this season against teams which sit deep. However, Toby Alderweireld will be sorely missed – not just for his defending, but his ability to pick a pass and threaten aerially at set-pieces.
The likes of Heung-min Son can exploit space behind the City defence but three straight wins at home in all competitions have not completely erased doubts over this Spurs side. The November blip still feels fresh. Right now, Tottenham are not the team that finished with best goal-scoring numbers and the sturdiest defence in the Premier League last term.
In the ongoing campaign, four teams have scored more goals and three sides have conceded fewer times than Pochettino’s men. City have 52 strikes already in 17 games, a smidgen over three goals per game. Spurs, contrastingly, have only 30 goals to show for.
It says something about the two sides that City’s top three scorers this season — Sergio Aguero (10 goals), Sterling (nine) and Gabriel Jesus (eight)—are in close competition while Harry Kane’s 12 goals are followed by Son’s five strikes for Tottenham. Guardiola has done a better job of oozing the best out of the collective and he knows his team will be remembered well, if this campaign finds its way to the league title.
“In history there were amazing things like Liverpool in the 80s and [Manchester] United with Sir Alex Ferguson or Chelsea with Jose Mourinho, there were some amazing teams. But we are the first ones to win 15 in a row. If we win the title it will just be a record and this record will be broken but, of course, it will not be easy,” said Guardiola after City’s 4-0 thumping win over Swansea on Wednesday.
It certainly will not be easy for Spurs to halt the winning streak on Saturday.
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Updated Date: Dec 16, 2017 10:54:04 IST