Sunday October 2nd, 2016

In some ways, Tottenham’s 2-0 victory over visiting Manchester City brought a sense of déjà vu.

Just over a year ago, City also came to White Hart Lane top of the Premier League after six rounds of games. On that occasion, Tottenham won, 4-1. 

Yet on that occasion Tottenham was languishing in ninth place. It began this weekend in second and one of only two unbeaten teams in the division. The other, before Sunday, was City, which a year ago arrived at Spurs having already lost twice: at home to West Ham in the league and Juventus in the Premier League.

Tottenham’s performance last September ignited its season. This was another statement victory. Sunday’s victory means that over the last year and six days it has picked up more points in the Premier League than any other team; one more than Leicester or Arsenal and nine more than City.

Spurs enjoyed some fortune on Sunday. They took the lead with an own goal by Aleksandr Kolarov, who did not have a Tottenham player near him. City completed 50 percent more passes and had 58 percent of the ball. David Silva whiffed on a wonderful chance in the first five minutes. Sergio Agüero and Kelechi Iheanacho both wasted close-range changes late on. City fans could moan that the referee, Andre Marriner, was lenient toward Danny Rose after the Spurs fullback had picked up a yellow card.

On the other hand, Tottenham could have gone three goals up early in the second half when it won a penalty. But Claudio Bravo, the goalie as Chile beat Argentina in a penalty shootout to win the Copa America in New Jersey in June stopped another Argentine, Érik Lamela. Tottenham edged City in both total shots and shots on target. Spurs fans could also complain that Nicolás Otamendi should have seen a second yellow card before half time.

The highlights and the stats may suggest City was unlucky. It was not. Even when City had the ball, Tottenham was always on the front foot.

Tottenham started without Harry Kane, Moussa Dembele and Eric Dier. City was without Kevin de Bruyne. City’s loss was greater.

This season, the Premier League is again separating into a strong top six or seven and the rest who are mediocre to awful. City will beat up on the many weaker teams. The question is whether, against even the very best sides (for now, Spurs, Liverpool and Arsenal) it only needs de Bruyne back, or whether Pep Guardiola has to address more profound personnel issues.

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PRESSING ISSUES The two managers on Sunday are old adversaries and former neighbors. They overlapped for a total of a decade as players and managers with Guardiola at Barcelona and Mauricio Pochettino its much poorer city rival, Espanyol.

The two have a similar philosophies, though Pochettino is used to working with more meager resources. On Sunday, both teams tried to unsettle the opponents with the high press and unhinge then with quick passing and movement. The tactics worked better for Tottenham than for City.

Guardiola is two years behind Pochettino, who has had time to create the squad he wants and to drill his players. City has more talent in its squad but fewer players picked to play the manager’s system.

City’s defense is shaky. Kolarov’s own goal was a product of blind panic. The left back also conceded the penalty. Pablo Zableta had a miserable afternoon on the right against Rose, Son Heung-min, Christian Eriksen and all the other Tottenham players who rotated over to his wing. City never looked entirely comfortable defending.

City was anxious playing out against the press. Bravo kept well, but his passing, which attracted Guardiola, is going to become one of the memes of this season. Every time the City goalie had the ball at his feet, a Tottenham player would race in with the home fans roaring in derision and anticipation. Bravo had a series of near escapes,  after which he gesticulated angrily at team-mates. Only when John Stones dribbled elegantly out of defense, looking remarkably like Franz Beckenbauer at his most imperious, did City appear consistently convincing playing the ball out on the ground.

Even with Fernando coming in to partner Fernandinho, City was physically dominated in midfield. Fernando’s presence also undermined Guardiola’s passing game. Neither Raheem Sterling nor Jesús Navas made any progress against the Spurs fullbacks. Having been locked in a box by Kyle Walker in the first half, Sterling switched flanks only to be battered by Rose and become distracted by a quest for revenge.

Under pressure, City cracked. It is trying to live by the press. On Sunday, it died by the press.

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DRAWING A BLANK  Mesut Özil took a risk on Sunday. As the clock ticked past the two minutes Craig Pawson, the referee, had added to its game at Burnley, Özil rolled a corner short to Alexis Sánchez. Pawson could have blown the final whistle. He did not.

Sánchez swung the ball into the goalmouth. Theo Walcott, no longer even Theo Walcott’s idea of a center forward, out jumped the Burnley defense, so dominant for 92 minutes. He flicked the ball on to the far post where two Arsenal players, Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain and Laurent Koscielny thrashed at it. The ball flew into the goal off Koscielny’s hands. Arsenal won, 1-0. Özil’s gambled had paid off.

Arsène Wenger could celebrate 20 years in charge at Arsenal with a victory that lifted it to third in table, just two points behind leader Manchester City.

Burnley’s approach Sunday could hardly have been a surprise to Wenger. Many less talented, less well-resourced, teams have tried to stop Arsenal over the last 20 years with disciplined defense and hard work. Wenger builds his team to unpick the sturdiest locks. On Sunday, Burnley almost succeeded.

Despite long periods of siege, Arsenal had only managed two shots on target. Sánchez had also hit the outside of a post. But Michael Keane had hit the underside of the bar for goal-starved Burnley.

In the end, a touch fortuitously, Arsenal finally knocked down the door. Wenger can celebrate. Title challenges are built on such desperate victories. 

AMERICAN POWER After Stoke, which started the day bottom of the league, clawed out a 1-1 draw against Manchester United on Sunday, the British TV pundits picked Stoke goalie Lee Grant, making his Old Trafford debut at 33, as their man of the match. He will have to share the headlines with Joe Allen who scored the 82nd minute goal that earned Stoke its first point at Old Trafford since 1980.

But the motor of the Stoke victory was forged in the unlikely soccer factories of Attleboro, Massachusetts; Morgantown, West Virginia; and Kingston, Rhode Island. Geoff Cameron, a New Englander who split his college career between the Mountaineers and the Rams, looked utterly at home prowling the midfield of one of the most famous playing fields of England.

There was one blot on Cameron’s afternoon. He contributed an unfortunate assist to United’s 69th minute goal, dispossessing Wayne Rooney only for the ball to run to Anthony Martial, who scored. It was a rare bad outcome from one of Cameron’s many impressive interventions. Playing alongside Glenn Whelan in front of the central defenders, Cameron worked tirelessly to snuff out United attacks. He did not only destroy. He carried the ball forward, taking on opponents and beating them. The signature moment was a collision with Paul Pogba. Normally the most expensive player in the world out-muscles opponents. This time, Pogba bounced off Cameron. Stoke won a free kick.

Cameron demonstrated his growth as a player as he dragged Stoke off the bottom of the table. There should be more to come from both him and his team.

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GENIUS AT WORK Dimitri Payet salvaged a 1-1 draw for West Ham against Middlesbrough on Saturday with a goal that is reminder of soccer’s seductive beauty.

Apart from the first touch, killing a long pass from Winston Reid dead, none of the 13 caresses, 11 with the right foot and two with the left, that Payet used would have been beyond the average 10-year old in the playground. Of course most 10 year-olds would struggle to keep the ball so under control for 13 consecutive precise touches, but the same goes for many pros too.

Payet did not deceive opponents with dazzling tricks. He did not past them with pace nor overpower them with strength. Confronted by five defenders and the goalie, he retained the initiative. Every touch changed the angles on the chessboard. Payet, thinking ahead, was forcing his opponents to react, anticipating how they would move and constantly baiting them with subtle bluffs. He skipped past five defenders as he slalomed in from the wing. None laid a toe or a finger on him or the ball. Four ended up on the floor. The gentle finish back across the goal was a logical end to a beautiful run and, as it slowly rolled across the line, none of the Boro players was remotely close to it.

Payet wasn’t faster, bigger or fitter than the army that faced him. He was just smarter. And intelligence is wonderful to watch.


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