Performance of the Weekend – Tottenham
Indulge Tottenham's supporters for a minute, because in the week preceding Sunday's game, their team had been patronisingly reduced to a support act.
Instead of a contest between last season's third- and fourth-place team, this was billed as an opportunity for them to bow at the alter of Pep Guardiola and to get a first-hand look at 2016/17's benchmark side. They were the Washington Generals, what a privilege to have the Globetrotters in town. Pull up a chair, maybe learn something?
Not so. Manchester City remain an ominous force, but they were out-played, out-thought and ultimately out-coached this weekend. Mauricio Pochettino's front four, incorporating Son Heung-min as a nominal forward, regularly zig-zagged their way through Guardiola's backline and created a stream of chances which, reasonably, should have resulted in more than just a couple of goals. It was a particularly fluid sort of potency.
Son played at the formation's tip, coping admirably in central areas and buzzing with intent in the channels, but the collective movement within the unit often seemed too spontaneously eclectic for City to cope. Spurs were a threat on the front foot, they looked lethal on the break; the result was a multi-dimensional problem which flummoxed their opponents for the entire game.
Returning duo Kyle Walker and Danny Rose spent the afternoon roaring back and forth, and Dele Alli periodically darted into the more advanced areas, but the attacking system as a whole – constructed hastily in response to Harry Kane's injury – was illogically harmonious.
But as is more often becoming the case with Spurs, this was was a complete performance. Attacking intent is nothing new at the Lane, but composed front-running definitely is. How often in the past, in this type of game, have Tottenham started well, found themselves in a winning position, and then conspired to drop points? They are a notoriously fragile club who play in front of an habitually fearful crowd; that's as engrained in the culture as the crest or the colours. So here was more evidence of a broken habit.
While the fans nervously checked their watch and braced for City's inevitable show of strength, it never actually arrived. In fact, it was never given a chance to materialise.
Just as Pochettino's players attack in numbers, they also oppress en masse: the front five hassled Guardiola's defence mercilessly, restricting the flow of possession into midfield. But, when they were able to skip that high press, City typically stumbled into the jaws of a resolute defence. Toby Alderweireld and Jan Vertonghen subdued the menace of Sergio Aguero and defused any aerial threat. In front of them, Victor Wanyama was the game's outstanding player, blocking up passing channels, bullying City's diminutive playmakers off the ball and seizing the initiative back for his side.
The end of Guardiola's winning sequence will spawn hand-wringing in the north-west and, perhaps, reckless long-term thinking in north London.
But this should be celebrated for what it was in the here and now: a mighty performance which should remind everyone that, regardless of what has been spent and who has arrived, Tottenham remain one of the best teams in the country.
Player of the Weekend – Victor Wanyama
Wanyama was done a slight disservice after his Champions League performance in Moscow. Though integral to Tottenham's win in Russia, his thunder was somewhat stolen by Pochettino's late tactical reshuffle and Son's subsequent goal.
That mistake won't be made again: the Kenyan was unequivocally the outstanding player in his side's 2-0 win over Manchester City.
Wanyama came to White Hart Lane with a few caveats, most notably over his discipline. But while his reputation casts him as a tough, sometimes clumsy tackler with a habit of collecting yellow cards, he will have added a few layers to that perception this weekend. Naturally, he also found time to be booked for a reducing challenge on the edge of his own box, but Victor is Victor.
What separated Wanyama from his team's performance was his contribution to helping them protect their winning position. With Pep Guardiola missing the influential Kevin De Bruyne, City's attacking emphasis narrowed on the middle of the pitch and the burden fell on David Silva and his dainty creativity.
There were only brick walls, though, and until a late flurry of advanced possession, the visitors failed to regularly infiltrate the areas in front of the home box. That was largely Wanyama's doing. For someone who is new to this squad, he has adapted admirably to it.
With Moussa Dembele still injured and Eric Dier only fit enough to make the bench, he started alongside Alli who, among his many abilities, is neither a natural ball-winner nor an orthodox central midfielder. Inevitably, there were gaps to plug and spaces to cover and, in addition to his efficient use of possession and occasional attacking bursts, Wanyama filled it all. He was, as the banal observation goes, everywhere.
Because of his size and physical gifts, it's tempting for some to portray him as a pure nullifier. Sunday showed just what a fallacy that is, because Wanyama protected his defence as much with his anticipation as his tenacity.
— TottenhamAMF (@TottenhamAMF) September 25, 2016
He's a wonderful athlete and one who undeniably enjoys certain advantages over smaller opponents, but that shouldn't obscure how well he reads attacking situations and how effective he is at shutting them down. That was the crux of his performance: it wasn't predicated so much on what he can do on a football pitch, more on how much of it he's able to see at any one time.
Tottenham didn't panic on Sunday and they didn't keep a clean sheet by hurling bodies at goal-bound shots or being reliant on Hugo Lloris. That was to their collective credit but, you suspect, it also owed something to the calm, cerebral tone set by Wanyama.
And, for those who persist in challenging his control and sense of responsibility, it's worth noting that he spent almost an hour of that game on a yellow card. A tightrope walked, but impressively so.
Goal of the Weekend – Dimitri Payet
Dimitri Payet's slalom through the Middlesbrough backline was as much about their defending as his ability. But, joylessness aside, look at the trail of broken ankles he left in his wake.
The French midfielder has established a reputation for being one of the purest ball-strikers in the Premier League and his made his name from a glowing showreel. But Payet's brilliance can often be glimpsed in smaller, more subtle doses: his close control is masterful and the ease with which he maneuveres out of narrow corridors is often breathtaking.
This goal was that: a compelling blend of technique and touch, deception and balance, and with a sense of inevitability which grew until its climax.
The internet sneers at everything, so has reliably scoffed at the Messi comparisons. But watch it closely and squint: that could quite easily be the little Argentine. No, that doesn't make them equals. No, drawing that parallel doesn't warrant the deployment of three-dozen cackling emojis.
It's just that in those few seconds, Payet replicated that level of brilliance. Unfortunately so for George Friend, who complemented the aesthetic with a very passable Jerome Boateng impression.
Moan of the Weekend – Liverpool's defending
Dictatorships have fallen, Prime Ministers have resigned, and comets have been sighted, but Liverpool's peculiar vulnerabilities remain as they were. If Jurgen Klopp wasn't building anything of note, nobody would care how good his side were at defending. But he is and so their susceptibility from crossing situations is a frustrating inconvenience for Reds.
Appearing on a recent episode of Monday Night Football, he attributed these woes to his team's lack of height and their inability to cope with more physical players. That's unconvincing, though. Liverpool are a small team and beyond their two centre-halves they do lack players who are good in the air, but they're also prone to confused moments in their own box which transcend that disadvantage.
Their trip to Swansea this weekend, though ultimately successful, was a pertinent reminder of what Klopp's coaching emphasis must be if his time are to challenge this season.
The hosts created very little, operating cautiously and with few attacking numbers from open play. And yet they were able to be consistently dangerous from formulaic attacking situations. Borja Baston should have scored twice from unmarked positions, Loris Karius flapped hopelessly at a second-half cross, and Mike van der Hoorn should have equalised in stoppage time when a hopeful diagonal landed at his feet inside the six-yard box. At his feet. Inside the six-yard box. That would have been an unforgivable way to throw away three points.
Importing physically bigger players might make Liverpool more confident when defending such situations, but that wouldn't instantaneously fix the pervasive disorganisation which runs through that backline.
Goals are being conceded and chances presented because of individual errors rather than actual limitations and that must be considered a coaching problem.
When full-backs lose aerial duels to rugged centre-forwards, or when an Andy Carroll-type player dominates a penalty box, it's perfectly legitimate to bemoan a lack of size. When a team routinely mismanages itself in one area of the game, however, a more diligent response must be made.
This issue pre-dates Klopp and was a perennial weakness of Brendan Rodgers' teams. A year in, though, is it getting worse?
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