LONDON – The facts are that Manchester City beat Tottenham Hotspur 1-0 to return to the top of the table with a sixth-minute goal from Riyad Mahrez, but that summary does little to reflect a deeply weird occasion. Tottenham's struggles in getting its new stadium ready on time meant this game was isolated to Monday night, an uncomfortable adjunct to the weekend, and it felt it from the opening whistle.
The traditional minute’s silence all league clubs hold at the home game closest to Remembrance Sunday was perhaps given additional poignancy by the events of Saturday evening and the helicopter crash that claimed the life of the Leicester City owner Vichai Srivaddhanaprabha.
Perhaps that contributed to a slightly subdued atmosphere, but the truth is this was flat from long before the bugler played the Last Post. The top tier at Wembley was all but empty and the 50-odd thousand who were here seemed oddly disengaged, so much so that the commands of the sergeant ordering troops to the side of the pitch for a ceremonial laying of a wreath echoed around an eerily quiet stadium.
The NFL markings on the pitch, left over from the weekend, didn’t help, a reminder of the fact that this game should have been played not here but at the new White Hart Lane. The NFL had taken its toll not only on the appearance of the pitch but on its quality, with large bare patches. Whether that was enough to explain the fact that both teams found their passing accuracy roughly three percentage points lower than normal is another question. There was a sense, rather, that the unusual atmosphere disquieted everybody and the result was an oddly bad game of football.
“To play a football game on that pitch is not easy,” Man City manager Pep Guardiola said, “and that’s why there were many mistakes that usually would not happen. But even with that, we have a lot of things to improve, individually and collectively.”
The uneasy surroundings seemed a physical manifestation of the disquiet Tottenham manager Mauricio Pochettino had spoken of in the build-up to the game as he reflected on the lack of summer signings and the ongoing unease about the postponed move to the new stadium.
“It’s strange,” he had said, “because my feeling is the worst feeling I’ve had in the five years that I’ve been here. It’s the worst. But it’s the best start ever for the club in the Premier League. It’s strange, no?”
The problem is that everything feels on hold, as though Tottenham is treading water while they wait for other issues to be resolved. There was perhaps also a timorousness about playing City, who twice outplayed Spurs last season, winning 4-1 and 3-1. It took just six minutes to the champion to take the lead here, with Raheem Sterling, on his 200th Premier League appearance, outpacing Kieran Trippier after the fullback had misjudged a long ball. Sterling then cut the ball back for–perhaps appropriately, given it was Srivaddhanaprabha’s Leicester who brought him to English football–Mahrez.
The Algerian dedicated the sixth-minute goal to Srivaddhanaprabha.
"To be honest it's been very difficult for me,” Mahrez said. “The boss was very special to me. I have many memories with him. He was such a good person. So I'm very very sad, and that's why today when I scored I put my hands in the sky for him, because he did a lot for me and for Leicester. He was like a dad for us. He was very, very special. Believe me, he was such a good person, very big heart. It was heartbreaking and shocking for me to hear this news, and of course for all the other people who died with him.”
The expected City domination, though, never materialized. What did was a scrappy game, full of misplaced passes, heavy touches and clumsy tackles. Perhaps City will see this as a positive: a second away game against a fellow top-six side and a second clean sheet. Guardiola, perhaps despite himself, is learning to win ugly.
And yet Pochettino insisted he was happy with the performance, despite the frustration of the result and the error that brought it.
“Last season,” he said, “the gap was massive, but today was very competitive, an even game.”
And to an extent he was right. Spurs were not outplayed here as they had been, and Erik Lamela squandered a clear opportunity to level after Dele Alli, returning after a month out, had led a counter.
"Due to the grass,” Guardiola acknowledged, “Lamela did not score.”
But after a game like that, it must be a strange kind of satisfaction.