Ever so quietly, Manchester City have become rather good at defending.
You may not have noticed. Not many have. Everyone is so focused on their aesthetic qualities, the wonderful front play, that this new resilience is rather passing under the radar. Yet it is there, alright. This was a sixth consecutive Premier League clean sheet, equalling their previous best run in 2015.
To achieve it, they had to repel Tottenham who were chasing an equaliser for 84 minutes, plus injury time. Tottenham are a good team, with good forwards. Protecting a single goal advantage against them, certainly away from home, is not easy.
MATCH FACTS, PLAYER RATINGS, LEAGUE TABLE AND MATCH ZONE
TOTTENHAM: (4-2-3-1) Lloris 6.5; Trippier 5, Alderweireld 6, Sanchez 6, Davies 5.5; Sissoko 6.5, Dier 6 (Winks 67, 6), Dembele 5.5 (Alli 75, 6.5); Moura 5.5 (Eriksen 82), Lamela 6; Kane 5.5
SUBS NOT USED: Gazzaniga (GK); Son, Walker-Peters, Aurier
BOOKINGS: Moura (45), Davies (90+5)
COACH: Mauricio Pochettino 6
MAN CITY: (4-3-3) Ederson 7.5; Walker 6, Stones 7, Laporte 7, Mendy 5.5; Fernandinho 6.5, B. Silva 7.5, D. Silva 8(Kompany 88); Sterling 7, Aguero 6 (De Bruyne 71, 6), Mahrez 7.5
SUBS NOT USED: Muric (GK); Sane, Otamendi, Foden
GOALS: Mahrez (6)
BOOKINGS: Laporte (53), Fernandinho (61)
COACH: Pep Guardiola 7.5
REFEREE: Kevin Friend 6.5
MAN OF THE MATCH: David Silva
VENUE: Wembley Stadium
A poor header from Kieran Trippier (No 2) leads to Raheem Sterling (No 7) playing it back for Riyad Mahrez (No 26) to easily score early on. For more of Sportsmail’s fantastic.
That match messed up a great many of City’s consecutive sequences, and perhaps as a reaction they have tightened up. One player, centre-half Aymeric Laporte, is yet to finish on a losing side in a league game since making his debut on January 31.
Of course, they needed to ride their luck a little last night. Erik Lamela missed a fabulous chance after 80 minutes, when set up by the returning Dele Alli. He was in yards of space but blasted over – although in his defence the ball did bobble on a difficult surface at exactly the wrong time. Then there was Kyle Walker’s misplaced steer in the final minute that eluded Ederson in goal but went wide for a corner.
What an embarrassment that would have been. These were tense moments for City as they saw out the game with Alli, in particular, making a huge difference to Tottenham’s forward play. It would have been very different had City not squandered an excellent chance to go two clear after 64 minutes when Bernardo Silva fed David Silva in the penalty area. Somehow, he stumbled and missed his kick, the ball falling to Raheem Sterling whose shot was blocked on the line.
Yet the title is rarely won with cigars lit, waving to the crowd, and certainly not in October and if this was City grinding one out then it was no less impressive for that. Had Riyad Mahrez not missed a late penalty they would have won 1-0 at Liverpool, too, so it was fitting that the same man got the winner here – and particularly fitting on this of all days.
With football still reeling from the tragedy at Leicester it was timely that a player who was part of the success that Vichai Srivaddhanaprabha brought to the city should be the match winner here.
Maybe Mahrez is no longer Leicester’s favourite son after the troublesome manner of his departure, but here was a reminder of that remarkable year in English football history and that it remains, in many ways, the gift that keeps on giving. Certainly, the Premier League is better for the talents of Mahrez.
When he scored he pointed to the sky in acknowledgement of the man who changed his professional life and said as much afterwards. He described Srivaddhanaprabha as like a father to him, and possessing a big heart. He said he had trouble sleeping but that it was always his intention to play. The Boss, he said, would have wanted that. As a lover of many sports, not just football, no doubt he would.
Much was made of the NFL-battered pitch but it was the empty Wembley seats that first caught the eye. Almost the entire top tier clear, and not due to safety-imposed crowd limits, either.
It seems the locals are finally tiring of their nomadic existence, or maybe simply the uncertainty that surrounds them. Either way it was unfortunate because this was a decent game played in what were, by modern standards, trying conditions and deserved a wider live audience.
Pep Guardiola: ‘To play a football game in that pitch it’s not easy
That caveat regarding the modern game needs to be applied, mind you, because to any player familiar with pre-Premier League standard surfaces, complaints about this one will have been met with guffaws. It was dreadful compared to what we are used to now, considering that today’s players tour a succession of billiard tables, and would be appalled to be wrong-footed by a divot that has not been seamlessly replaced at half-time. The Baseball Ground circa 1972 it was not. There was grass, mostly. There wasn’t even much sand.
What there was, however, were some very visible pitch markings left over from the NFL on Sunday, giving rise to some hoary gags about Manchester City looking good in the red offense zone, and Harry Kane trying his luck from the 30 metre line. Did it affect the play? Well, Manchester City certainly seemed to go a little longer than usual from the start, but not much.
It helps that goalkeeper Ederson is famed for the length and precision of his kicking. It was his direct approach that wrong-footed Tottenham early and led to Manchester City taking the lead after six minutes. That, and some woeful defending from Kieran Trippier.
He has been exceptional for Tottenham and England these last 12 months but this was an off night – certainly an off minute. To begin with, he won the header from Ederson’s kick, but misdirected it back towards goal, falling short of his goalkeeper Hugo Lloris and setting up a problematic foot race with Raheem Sterling.
Trippier lost that and was then skinned by Sterling again when he took up a recovering position. Now close to the byline, Sterling cut the ball back expertly into the path of Mahrez, whose finish was smart and clinical.
A minute later and City could have been two up, Sergio Aguero firing into the side-netting. In the 28th minute, sloppy defending from Tottenham saw them spurn several chances to intervene as Manchester City moved the ball around the box, culminating in a Mahrez shot which Lloris did well to tip round at the near post.
Mauricio Pochettino: ‘we played well and we were competitive’
Yet with City failing to take advantage of their superiority, they remained vulnerable to mistakes, and Tottenham should have cashed in. After eight minutes, Sterling attempted a careless, blind backheel in the centre circle which set Tottenham up on the counter-attack, Kane trying his luck from range, the ball catching Ederson off his line but dipping slightly too late to find its target.
Soon after Benjamin Mendy let the ball slide under his boot – and stood amused by this development rather than trying to recover – meaning Moussa Sissoko sped away down the right. It was another good chance, but the final ball wasted it.
In the 34th minute, Kane met a Lloris goal-kick – City were not the only ones experimenting with route one – sending the ball out to Erik Lamela, who returned it with a smart pass. Kane’s first touch, however, was lousy and Ederson was able to save at his feet.
To his credit, he chose not to give the pitch a dirty look; or maybe Tottenham’s players are under orders given their recent troubles with accommodation.
This is the second game Tottenham have lost at home this season to title rivals, following the defeat against Liverpool in September. The talk of their fastest break from the blocks hides these bumps, which look increasingly significant when viewing the league table. City on top – and doing the boring stuff well now, too. That’s a worry.