The comeback to start hauling Arsenal back? The top of the table does look that much better for Manchester City, because Pep Guardiola’s side looked like champions again. This was one of those vintage responses that repeat title winners produce, and was so common on the other side of Manchester for so long, to prevent a vintage and common Tottenham Hotspur victory in this fixture.
The fact this rousing 4-2 win actually fell into its usual pattern, with Antonio Conte exploiting Guardiola’s weaknesses for his team to go 2-0 up, this time only served to draw out City’s strengths. The Spurs manager might reasonably point to how he can’t keep doing this indefinitely, especially as this Abu Dhabi project could afford to keep Kevin De Bruyne on the bench. City didn’t even need him as they responded to Tottenham’s one-two just before half-time with a one-two-three just after it. Whatever Guardiola said at half-time, it meant his team won this game just as quickly as they’d lost it. It was quite the show of power, right down to Erling Haaland of course scoring again.
Riyad Mahrez was the ultimate match-winner, though, setting up the Norwegian for the equaliser then scoring the goal that finally put City ahead and then the one that clinched it.
Whether it sends the team on the way to a third consecutive title remains to be seen but it at the very least proved this won’t be the Arsenal procession that other clubs had been fearing. They might say you could never have depended on Tottenham.
Conte’s analysis of that may be even more interesting. If this was at last a game that he actually got right, it only made his position worse, as the threat rises that Spurs might tailspin.
A game at City this time didn’t disrupt a bad run. It only perpetuated it, ahead of a tough spell. There are meanwhile bigger questions about some of their senior players. Hugo Lloris was at least partially at fault for goals again. Ivan Perisic did not look like the rampaging World Cup finalist that once made his arrival so exciting. Son Heung-Min, most alarmingly of all, had none of the explosiveness that has marked his career at Spurs and his previous effect in this fixture.
He just looked slow.
City outstripped Spurs and for the first time in a few weeks looked like they can overtake Arsenal.
That is some consolation for the visiting fans, even if a competitor like Conte would never see it like that.
A greater problem here, however, was that it didn’t look like his players believed in the same way.
Spurs didn’t actually start with the fireworks they did in their last victory here, or in the win over City before that. It was as if, cowed by their own recent displays, Conte was attempting the same approach but testing the lie of the land first.
City actually looked a bit shaky, the flow of the game further sapping belief. They had already started without De Bruyne and as the game ticked past the 28th minute, that actually made it 309 minutes without a goal for Haaland. It represented the second longest drought of his career since leaving Norway in 2019, which is pretty much all of his career as an adult. He didn’t have to wait too much longer for a goal, but it was like he needed the spark. A miss shortly before half-time seemed to show how subdued he was.
He needed the Spurs explosion. So did City.
It was Ederson that set the timer, mind, and quite a short one. Just before half-time, the goalkeeper played the most casual pass out to Rodri. The midfielder didn’t have a chance, as Rodrigo Bentancur immediately sensed opportunity. He won the ball to set up Dejan Kulusevski for a sweeping finish. Spurs were going with it. They were in their usual flow against City, as the champions began to cave.
Harry Kane did superbly to win the ball off Rodri but the rest was almost a gift. Ederson flapped at it, and there was Emerson Royal to send a header back past him.
The away end chanted his name as well as that of Conte, while a few home fans booed.
It was to be as good as it got for Spurs, and perhaps that was the issue. It was as if the sudden extent of the gap offended City, and no doubt Guardiola.
They went from one of their worst results of the season to some of their best football. Spurs just couldn’t withstand the onslaught, especially with Lloris again looking fallible.
On 51 minutes, with City now swarming the opposition box, Lloris stretched for a ball he couldn’t quite reach and Julio Alvarez guided it into the roof of the net. The fuse had already been lit. Within just two minutes, Haaland’s “drought” ended. City just forced Spurs back to the point the ball was constantly just yards from their goal and there was the Norwegian to of course head one in.
That barren spell only went to 333 minutes. City as a whole were just looking daunting. Spurs were making the mistakes. Ivan Perisic, having just seen a tame shot diverted onto the post by Ederson, was then too meek against Mahrez. The Algerian just kept going and lashed a low shot past Llors. It took a deflection but the goalkeeper still should have done better.
City still weren’t perfect, as Spurs still threatened a breakaway goal that would have been as mentally costly to Guardiola’s side as a defeat. On one, Son seemed to be away, only to again be caught so easily.
The chance was there. City made sure to take it away. With the game still notionally in the balance, Mahrez raced away to make sure.
It was almost a vintage Spurs goal in this fixture. It was instead a vintage champions’ win.