Ever had that recurring nightmare? You know the one, where everything is in slow motion and no matter what you do, whenever you have the dream, you cannot affect the outcome. The one that happens every weekend.
Daniel Farke struggled to find the right balance between defensive solidity and attacking potency in the latter days of his reign. Dean Smith seemed to find the right answer was there all along in the shape of Milot Rashica, whose ball carrying endeavours kept opponents on the back foot. It seems no coincidence that, shorn of his pace and running, in the last two games City have returned to looking toothless and lethargic.
Yet it could have all been so different. As early as the second minute, City broke forward, Idah held up the ball well and played it inside to Pierre Lees-Melou, who returned the favour. Adam Idah laid the ball back to Teemu Pukki but the Finn could only direct his somewhat underpowered effort straight at Hugo Lloris.
For perhaps the first 8/10 minutes, Tottenham sat off City, happy to allow them possession, doubling up on Max Aarons in order to prevent him getting free on the right. City were unable to make the most of this and gradually Tottenham gained more significant possession.
Before then, a foretaste of Christmas past, and perhaps Christmas future. Last years loan star, Olly Skipp, picked up possession deep in the Spurs half, made a surging run forward, brushing off the ineffective presence of this year’s loanee and media darling, Billy Gilmour and left the Scot trailing in his wake. The run came to nothing but nothing more epitomised the difference between the two loanees than this moment.
After 9 minutes, the brutal reality of the Premier League struck. Lucas Moura received the ball in the middle of the pitch, played the ball one side of Gilmour and ran the other. A little one-two with Son before turning Andrew Omobamidele with a neat trick and then unleashed an unstoppable shot into the top corner giving Tim Krul no chance. Not one City player got near enough to him to make a meaningful challenge.
With that, all incentive for Spurs to play ambitious football evaporated. For much of the remainder of the half they were content to preserve energy and only challenge City when they attempted to move forwards. Frequently the wide channels were overloaded with Spurs defenders, preventing Aarons being an effective outlet, exacerbated in the 20th minute when Reguilon went off injured to be replaced by Ryan Sessegnon. The former Fulham man gave Aarons a torrid time for the remainder of the afternoon and although honours were just about even, it stymied the progress City could make down the flank.
On the opposite, Brandon Williams was engaged in a bruising physical battle with Tonganga. One of the lessons that Farke learned was that with a back five, Williams offered too little going forward compared to the more progressive Giannoulis. The Man Utd loanee did better going forward yesterday and contained the Spurs academy product better than Giannoulis would have managed.
At half time, City had dominated possession, yet had little to show – barely two shots on target.
No changes at half time, no tactical tweak from Smith and the half began in much the same manner as the first half ended. Idah was trying hard to get on the end of some sweeping long balls out of defence but everytime the Irish youngster strayed off side. He had a golden opportunity to open his Premier League account on 58 minutes.
Williams surged down the left before pulling the ball back for Pukki. He slightly miss-hit his shot and it fell straight to Idah, but the youngster couldn’t get enough on it to get it on target.
The strange thing about recurring nightmares is knowing what is coming. After 65 minutes, Spurs had two corners in quick succession. From the second, a near post flick hit Gibson at close range. The ball sat up nicely for Sanchez who thrashed home from two yards. That was game over to all intents and purposed and the cue for Josh Sargent to replace Idah.
The national media will no doubt eulogise about how amazing Gilmour was in this game; how he was at the heart of everything and dominated City’s passing. The truth is that, as we found out earlier in the season, Gilmour is ineffective when played in the deeper role he occupied against Spurs.
The issue was one of angles, and to be fair, not entirely of the Scot’s making. Too frequently, the ball was played to Gilmour in the middle of the park, only for him to return it straight back again. The passes were all square or diagonal with little forward progress being made. Perhaps the invisible Melou could have made an appearance to help. Fellow Scot McLean was a willing helper but more often used as physical ballast further forward.
This was illustrated perfectly by Spurs’ third. Whereas City’s movements out of defence could be described as the letter ‘L’, Spurs moved forward as a ‘W’ from the back, each pass gaining ground up the pitch. The ball came to the right and the initial danger was cleared. The ball fell into an area vacant of the unfamiliar orange shirts and Davies picked it up in acres of space. He ran forward, played it to that man Skipp again for a one-two and squared it to Son. He made space and rifled a shot home for 3-0.
Perhaps the scoreline flattered Spurs, certainly from a possession point of view, but the difference between the sides was rammed home on 84. Pukki did superbly well on the right to win and retain possession before playing the ball back to Sargent. To be fair, the ball was slightly behind the American but his dreadful swipe made minimal contact with the ball, only enough to deflect it onto his standing leg.
Too slow in possession, not enough attacking threat, weak in midfield. We thought that Dean Smith would wake us up from the nightmare yet in only his fourth game in charge, we are back again with the same questions.
City were undone by the superb Skipp, the bitter irony being how finely the pitches of NR1 and Colney developed his talents, and by the individual excellence of Lucas Moura and Son – no shame there at least.
Yet the lack of threat going forward, the embarrassing lack of first touch from Idah and Sargent illustrates starkly where Dean Smith needs to work his magic. The final kick of the match summed it up. A cross from Mclean. Pukki battled and won the head down to knock into space. Sargent moved not one inch.
No wonder the Sunday papers talk about a return from loan for Hugill. He could do no worse, surely?