Pep Guardiola called Tottenham Hotspur “the Harry Kane team” four years ago. It was a patronising, somewhat dismissive throwaway line. It came back to haunt the Catalan during Spurs’ 1-0 victory over Manchester City at White Hart Lane.
Nuno Espirito Santos’ team won without their wantaway talisman. Son Heung-min scored the only goal in the 55th minute as Tottenham proved they were more than a one-man band.
Yes, the England captain would have improved Spurs significantly but he probably would have made a bigger difference to City. The champions bombarded the Tottenham goal for the first 20 minutes but lacked the cutting edge that Kane would bring them.
Yet even if Guardiola gets his man, City’s structural flaws will remain. They are frequently thrilling to watch but their insistence on dispensing with a traditional midfield means they leave huge gaps in the centre of the park. Spurs exploited them on the break.
If Kane had been wearing a City shirt it might not have been a problem. The visiting side created enough chances to be out of sight after 20 minutes. Their approach work was mesmerising. Their finishing was not.
Jack Grealish drove towards the area, forcing Oliver Skipp to bring him down. Ilkay Gundogan’s free-kick was deflected over and, after the subsequent corner was half-cleared, Benjamin Mendy lofted the ball in and Fernandinho headed over the bar. Tottenham were under siege.
Spurs were all over the place in the early exchanges. Eric Dier made a perfunctory attempt at a clearance and was lucky Joao Cancelo shot wide.
Grealish and Raheem Sterling made a devastating dribbling combination on the left. Japhet Tanganga and Pierre-Emile Hojbjerg were overwhelmed. Sterling wriggled to the byline before Skipp was able to stop his cross.
For Tottenham it seemed that a good spell was five minutes where City did not create a chance but, as the champions took a breather, the home side began to get a foothold in the game. They forced two corners without threatening Ederson’s goal and then, after a free-kick, Lucas Moura had a shot cleared inside the six-yard box by Gundogan.
When City pour forward they radiate threat but Ferran Torres is not an effective spearhead. When attacks break down they can be vulnerable. Steven Bergwijn began to exert an influence. He ran 40 yards unchallenged but Son Heung-min dithered on the ball and allowed the defence the time to get back. Here the absence of Kane showed. He surely would have offered his team-mates a better option. Yet Spurs were beginning to look dangerous.
Sterling almost made Tottenham pay. He picked out Riyad Mahrez unmarked close to the penalty spot but the Algerian sliced his shot.
City’s tendency to leave the back door open was on display repeatedly. Bergwijn charged again from deep but wasted his pass. Moura freed Son but the South Korean’s shot from the edge of the box went just wide. A game that should have been out of the home team’s grasp was in the balance as half-time approached. There was a vast amount of space between City’s attackers and defenders. It was exposed again early in the second period when Dele Alli disposed Fernandinho and was able to run straight at Nathan Ake. Alli’s surge fizzled out; he made this sort of run so many times when combining with Kane but when he looked up his old partner in crime was nowhere to be seen.
The space City ceded would prove their undoing. Bergwijn ran from just outside his own area to beyond the halfway line and rolled the ball to Son on the right. The 29-year-old went wide but cut inside before Guardiola’s men could get back. His shot from just outside the box left Ederson flatfooted and nestled into the corner of the net.
City’s frustration was palpable but even though Fernandinho signalled repeatedly for the team to calm down, a panic overcame them. Their pressure was without purpose and Spurs had chances on the counter. Moura was given licence to run with the ball and as defenders converged, he slipped a pass to Bergwijn. Ruben Dias got a foot to it but could not stop it. He was lucky that the Dutchman hit the side netting.
Kevin De Bruyne entered the fray from the bench and tested Lloris. Torres shot tamely but Tottenham maintained their composure. Kane cannot arrive at the Etihad quickly enough for Guardiola but the striker’s presence will not address City’s soft centre.
Tottenham had a glimpse of what life will be like when they are no longer “the Harry Kane team.” On this evidence, it will not be so bad.