Premier League: Midfield woes, self-doubts consign Tottenham Hotspur to 0-1 loss against Manchester City
Tottenham gambled that if their three midfielders want the ball more, everything else will work out. It might have worked with the likes of Arsenal or Manchester United, but Pep Guardiola's Manchester City were too good.
Before heading into the match, the two clubs were evenly poised to make several leaps in the Premier League table. A win for Tottenham would have taken them to the third position, displacing Manchester City and rubbing their north London rivals Arsenal’s noses in it. However, with a 1-0 win at Spur’s makeshift Wembley home through a solitary Riyad Mahrez goal, City are now, yet again table toppers at the close of game-week ten.
A look at the Wembley and it would feel like a scene out of an HG Wells novel. The plot reads: Football reaches for the beginning of its dystopian downfall, where American franchises are allowed to share and scar the sacred turf of a place that’s deemed to be the home of the world’s most beloved game.
The state of the pitch resembled the muddy mess of the sets of the once-famous Takeshi’s Castle - Japan’s most noted television game show, where the objective was for the participants to escape potholes and booby traps to get to the other end.
The trespassers in question were Jacksonville Jaguars and Philadelphia Eagles, who played a league-based American rugby match between them on Sunday night. That would explain the half-erased NFL logo on the Wembley centre circle. The ground staff, admittedly, hurriedly tried to remove any evidence of what had transpired the night before, like a spontaneously planned and ill-conceived stag party. But on the night it wasn’t only the Wembley pitch that had divots and pockmarks in it.
You’d imagine having home advantage (granted it wasn’t much like home) and the incentive of finding themselves in third place by the end of the night would have encouraged Mauricio Pochettino to go all in. But the Argentine, instead of serving the tactical equivalent of asados (a barbecue party, free for all) made football writers, fans, and his players sit through a bowl of soggy porridge. (Why, oh, why, don’t we get enough of that every morning to have it for supper, Senor?)
The Tottenham midfield trio of Eric Dier, Mousa Dembele, and Moussa Sissoko indicated far deeper problems that club faces than simply on the surface. It wasn’t merely just a tactical blunder to have three midfield destroyers to play at once. Yes, it choked the chance of any sustained and measured forward momentum that Harry Kane could hope for. Yes, it stifled the England captain’s willingness to make those runs into the channels he often finds himself in. It even surprised his own players to the degree that the midfielders couldn’t coordinate a defensive line with their full-backs (which is exactly what happened for Riyad Mahrez’s goal as early as the sixth minute; but more on that later). But most alarmingly, it alluded to the self-doubt Tottenham brings to almost every big-match encounter.
This mental block is fatalistic, like a self-fulfilling prophecy where a projection of negativity brings forth negative results. Mauricio Pochettino's Spurs were humbled at home by a Liverpool team grinding through third gear to a win a few weeks ago. It was a display of fearless positivism on the day from the white and blue. But with Gini Wijnaldum and James Milner on the top of their respective roles as the shuttler and the bludgeon, a Tottenham midfield of Christian Eriksen and Harry Winks wilted. Liverpool simply wanted the ball more.
While one could empathise with Mauricio Pochettino looking back at the last big game his team had to face and drawing his own conclusions, he’d be well reminded that "the great plough and the famine", as the famous anthropologist, art critic, and poet John Berger noted, "is indifferent to context of misfortune supplanted on past events." In other words, the Liverpool result shouldn’t have had any bearings to the way Tottenham set out. But it did.
The Argentine gambled that if his three midfield bouncers want the ball more, everything else will work out. It might have worked with the likes of Arsenal or Manchester United, but what do you do with tactic against a Pep Guardiola Manchester City team that doesn’t let go of the ball?
Benching the likes of Aurier, Winks, Eriksen, Alli and Son, the Tottenham manager brought this upon himself. The enterprise that is emblematic of this young Tottenham were as elusive as jaguars in Jacksonville (which is to say there are no jaguars in Jacksonville and that these American sport franchise names are an abomination and never made any sense to the writer).
Not one Manchester City player went off the Wembley pitch without a green skidmark on his kit. Pep Guardiola’s boys were asked to work and they unassumingly, and without airs or graces, put the requisite shift in.
At the forefront of that grind was a much-derided Raheem Sterling. A long, well-directed put from goalkeeper Ederson was awkwardly hurtling towards Trippier. And the higher the ball drops from the more unsure you are how to deal with it (unless, of course, you are Dimitar Berbatov, and can land a space shuttle on a coin).
A shoulder-to-shoulder ensued, with Raheem Sterling getting at the end of the bouncing ball. Assured that his midfield generals would be covering behind him, Davinson Sanchez did not bother to break into anything than a brisk jog. Unfortunately for him, all three of Dembele, Sissoko, and Dier were caught flat-footed higher up the pitch. When the challenges and blocks finally came in, Riyad Mahrez bulged the net with a side-footed spank from Raheem Sterling’s pullback in the box.
But perhaps the most impressive thing about this Manchester City side is their show of maturity, the economy with the ball, and balance. Also, the understanding that a 1-0 win sometimes is enough.
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