Tottenham Hotspur secured a stunning 2-1 victory at the Etihad Stadium on Sunday against Manchester City, cementing their status as a Premier League title contender in the process.
Harry Kane opened the scoring from the spot after a contentious penalty was awarded on a Raheem Sterling handball, but Kelechi Iheanacho—on as a second-half substitute—leveled matters in the second half.
With the minutes seeping away and City looking the more likely to win, it was Spurs who nicked it via a cool, collected Christian Eriksen strike following a brilliant run and pass from Erik Lamela.
Formations and XIs
Manchester City opted for a 4-2-3-1 with Yaya Toure just behind Sergio Aguero. Gael Clichy came in for Aleksandar Kolarov at left-back, while Fernando entered the midfield fray.
Tottenham Hotspur played a 4-2-3-1, too, with Heung-Min Son as the No. 10, Dele Alli left and Eriksen right. Kyle Walker and Danny Rose were both restored to full-back duty.
The first half of this game never really took off; we got to half-time, 0-0, wondering why and how so many attacking talents could combine for such a limp showing.
Manchester City, despite showing great fluidity in their personnel rotation, didn’t seem to have an actual attacking plan. David Silva flitted about from his right-wing role and enjoyed free reign of the pitch—even joining Sterling on the left for a few overloads—while Aguero was, at times, seen tracking Walker's runs all the way into the left-back position.
Spurs were far neater in their buildup and the attacking midfield trio interchanged nicely, while Walker and Rose pushed very aggressively up the flanks and won the visitors' territory. But again, a plan was lacking. When manager Mauricio Pochettino’s men hit the 18-yard line they had very little idea of what to do with the ball.
Such hesitancy and indecision—in addition to the bluntness at both ends—turned the centre of the pitch into a real battleground. Spurs won the fight, recording impressive tackle (31) and interception (23) numbers, per WhoScored.com. Alli, Mousa Dembele and Son were particularly impressive here, helping create turnovers and aid dominance of possession (60 per cent in the first half).
But they couldn’t turn it into an advantage on the scoreline; the game plan as to how to actually get the ball into the net felt entirely lacking. Goalkeeper Joe Hart did very little in the first 45 minutes.
Wake Up, City!
Tottenham’s rather fortuitous goal woke City up. That referee Mark Clattenburg felt it necessary to award a penalty after Rose’s hopeful cross struck Sterling in the ribs/armpit area is a shame, but Kane’s conversion of it jolted the hosts into life.
All of a sudden, the midfield started playing and the full-backs got their foot on the ball. Pablo Zabaleta began hitting the right-hand byline and sending in crosses (which Kevin Wimmer did very well to clear), while Clichy began linking play on the left better.
Manager Manuel Pellegrini capitalised on the swing in momentum by sending on Iheanacho for Fernando, moving to a base 4-4-1-1 (4-4-2) shape and asking Toure to drop back into the midfield two, and it took the Nigerian just eight minutes to equalise.
Silva and Clichy combined on the left, and the low ball sent in found Iheanacho’s late run into the box perfectly. He used Aguero’s first run as the occupier for the centre-backs, hung back a little, then sped up to meet the cross and bury it. Dembele, who was brilliant in the midfield zone, completely ignored him, slowing to a walk as he watched the equaliser beat Hugo Lloris.
Lamela the Spark
By the 80th minute Spurs were tired. They couldn’t keep up the snappy tempo set earlier, and the midfield battle had turned against them. If any side looked likely to net a winner, it was City. So Pochettino made a brilliant move: He sent on the incredibly energetic Lamela for Alli and utilised him, loosely, as a central player and counter runner.
The run and pass by Lamela in the buildup to Eriksen’s winner was sublime; it was every bit the dynamic, instinctive and cutting action Spurs thought they were buying when he arrived from Roma two-and-a-half years ago.
He was just what Spurs needed: someone who was fresh and strong enough to carry the ball forward and relieve pressure. The visitors had been stuck in their own third for 15 minutes and had just conceded; the traffic was only going one way, but Lamela reversed it.
It’s actually the same move Claudio Ranieri tried earlier in the day by bringing on Demarai Gray when Leicester City were hanging on against Arsenal, but the key difference was—aside from the fact the Foxes were down a man—that Lamela is strong enough and direct enough to fulfil the pressure-relieving role.
It was a masterstroke from Pochettino, who, like at Selhurst Park several weeks ago, sealed three points from this game thanks in large part to his excellent moves from the bench.