EPL

Guardiola gamble backfires as Kane hits the jackpot for Spurs... and Arsenal

By Sports Desk February 05, 2023

A victory to unite north London. Harry Kane's record 267th goal for Tottenham sank Manchester City and pushed Arsenal a step closer to the Premier League title.

But if the Arsenal aspect is a bitter pill for Spurs to swallow, then surely everything else about this day would have pepped up the recuperating Antonio Conte, absent after midweek gallbladder surgery.

As for Pep Guardiola, another big-match masterplan has to be called into question.

If every match at this stage of the season is a final, as managers are wont to suggest, then how is it justifiable to make Kevin De Bruyne, the Premier League's most creative player, a substitute?

The Belgian's benching was the pre-match bombshell from the City camp, and by the time he came on, just before the hour mark, City were not only trailing but they were ragged.

Erling Haaland was seeing nothing of the ball – he did not have a shot all game long, or even a touch in the Spurs penalty area – and City's possessional dominance was getting them nowhere.

Arsenal, beaten by Everton on Saturday, would have been fearing their lead at the summit being trimmed to two points, but the longer this game went on, the more Mikel Arteta would have been perked up.

So too Conte, who was said by captain Hugo Lloris to be at home in Turin. It was decided on Saturday that Conte should skip this game, and assistant Cristian Stellini saw Tottenham show battling qualities that have not always shone through this season.

So what of the De Bruyne gamble? Was it up there with Guardiola's 2021 Champions League final punt on starting without a natural holding midfielder, giddily capitalised on by Chelsea?

De Bruyne plays the sort of high-tariff passes and crosses that bring chances and goals, but they also often result in a turnover of possession. Guardiola would have looked at the likes of Son Heung-min and Dejan Kulusevski, and decided City did not need that pair sprinting away on the counter-attack.

Before this game, De Bruyne had lost possession on over 200 more occasions this season than the four players Guardiola selected in Sunday's midfield. De Bruyne had lost possession 469 times, compared with Rodri's 258, Bernardo Silva's 248, Riyad Mahrez's 237 and Jack Grealish's 219.

On average per 90 minutes, De Bruyne had lost possession 19.91 times, and among Sunday's quartet the worst offender during the season had been Mahrez (13.36 per 90).

Nobody in City's ranks has come close to De Bruyne's 16 assists, however, with five from Rodri and Bernardo Silva the next most from a City midfielder.

So this was unmistakably a gamble, Guardiola trusting his midfield to be robust and fend off the risk of Tottenham bursts, but also sufficiently creative to unlock the home defence.

And when you pick a team to keep the ball, it helps if they avoid doing silly things on the edge of their own penalty area.

Rodri was back-tracking and almost off-balance in the 15th minute when he looked to play out through the centre of the pitch, spotting team-mate Rico Lewis but not the lurking Pierre-Emile Hojbjerg.

Spurs' Danish midfielder stole in to snatch the pass intended for Lewis and burst a telling five yards forward before flicking the ball into Kane's path.

What followed was not the cleanest strike of Kane's career, but the bobbling shot beat Ederson and found the left corner. The late Jimmy Greaves, Spurs' record scorer for so long, didn't mind how they found the net, and nor does Kane. Elation spread across his face. It was just his second touch of the game.

City had 78.7 per cent of possession over those opening 15 minutes, but Spurs had the lead and Kane had his 200th goal in the Premier League.

Later, Kane would tell Sky it was "a moment I'll never forget", but he put it to the back of his mind for the rest of the game.

Riyad Mahrez rattled the Spurs crossbar just before half-time, and that was as close as City came.

Ben Davies flashed a header a foot over the City bar from a corner in the 57th minute, just as De Bruyne was stripping for action at pitchside.

Off went Mahrez. De Bruyne fired wide from a half-chance, and then Spurs went close to a second goal in the 66th minute, Son skipping away on the counter and Ivan Perisic's skidding cross from the left just too heavy for Kane to reach.

Haaland was bristling at the lack of service, this season's Premier League 25-goal leading scorer shaking his head in frustration, imploring team-mates to do better.

City were becoming desperate. Julian Alvarez tried his luck from 20 yards and flashed the ball just wide of the top-left corner, then Kane bundled his way through Kyle Walker at the other end and only had Ederson to beat, with the goalkeeper this time winning that duel.

Tottenham had won five of their previous seven Premier League games when leading at half-time this season, but the exception came only a fortnight ago and it came at City, when a 2-0 interval lead swung around to a 4-2 defeat.

This time Spurs were sturdy, and they are back to just one point behind fourth-placed Newcastle United now, albeit having played one more game than the Magpies.

In the end it hardly mattered that World Cup winner Cristian Romero was sent off in the 87th minute.

The Argentinian's clumsy challenge gave away a free-kick 25 yards from goal in a central spot: De Bruyne territory. Up stepped the Belgian, and his shot smacked into Kane in the wall, ricocheting into Hojbjerg, who went down as though hit by a sniper.

Hojbjerg was excellent, winning possession a team-high eight times across the piece, and Tottenham have now beaten City four times in a row at home in the Premier League, without conceding in any of those games.

Only twice before had City lost four in a row to a specific opponent without scoring – against Chelsea between 2006 and 2009, and Sunderland between 2010 and 2013 – so there's another touch of history.

This is a bogey ground for City and Guardiola, make no mistake. They have lost on all five of their visits without scoring, when you throw in the Champions League quarter-final loss four years ago.

Kane, the man they wanted 18 months ago, a player praised to the hilt by Guardiola before this game, a man with history in his sights, was the last man they needed to run into.

The last thing City should have done was sit down their main man for the first hour.

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    The 62-year-old, who succeeded interim boss Fernando Diniz in January, is yet to taste defeat in his four games in charge (W2 D2), identified areas of improvement as they look to claim their 10th tournament success. 

    "I have to find a balance for a team that was put together only three months ago, and after a certain period of 15 or 20 days of work they have to find themselves again," Junior said.

    "In football you don't skip preparation phases in training, but that's why we try to accelerate each one of them to have a consistent and confident squad that can then use the individuality of its players to create opportunities."

    Much of the talk heading into their opener with Costa Rica is the inclusion of 17-year-old Endrick, who officially becomes a Real Madrid player next month. 

    Endrick has scored three goals in his last four international appearances, but Dorival called for patience in rushing him into the starting line-up, revealing he is expected to play his part from the bench. 

    "It's something that will happen naturally. It might not take long because he is extremely skillful. I'm in a hurry to get him on the pitch, but you have to have a certain balance. He has excellent skills and is one of the most promising players."

    For Costa Rica head coach Gustavo Alfaro, he aims to build on his previous success in the Copa America having guided Ecuador to the quarter-finals in 2021. 

    Los Ticos have lost 10 of their 11 meetings against their opponents, with their last victory coming in the Panamerican Championship in March 1960 (3-0). 

    But Alfaro insisted his side would not be intimidated by the challenge awaiting them, saying: "The hierarchy (of Brazil) is respected, but not feared. If you're afraid to play, you don't show up.

    "The difference in hierarchy can be fought, first with order, with a lot of determination and a lot of conceptual clarity about what needs to be done, and basically by running. If there are two Brazilians, there must be three Costa Ricans," he added.

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    Gregg Berhalter's side never appeared troubled in a routine victory at AT&T Stadium in Texas, thanks to the solo endeavours of captain Pulisic in their Group C opener.

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    Weah – son of legendary forward George – was denied from point-blank range as the USA almost doubled their lead immediately.

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    Viscarra was equal to Pulisic's effort before the hour as the forward attempt to recreate his early heroics, while substitute Ricardo Pepi prodded wide from Antonee Robinson's pinpoint left-wing delivery.

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    Bolivia have now lost their last four international outings by a concerning margin of 9-1, having suffered defeats against Mexico, Ecuador, Colombia and the USA.

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