Goals from Heung-min Son and Giovani Lo Celso propelled Spurs to the Premier League's summit.
It was a victory of discipline, resilience and clinical counter-attacking. It was also a victory that will have Mourinho telling his players they can go the distance in this year’s title race. If they didn’t believe before, they must surely now. And why not? In Harry Kane – outstanding again here – Tottenham have the best player in Europe. In Mourinho, for the first time in the Premier League era, they have a manager who knows what it takes to win titles. Love him or loath him the Portuguese has transformed Tottenham in the twelve months since he was installed following the club’s painful parting with Pochettino. Swashbuckle is out. Clean sheets and tactical control in.
The tone of this match was set from kick-off. Spurs ceded possession to City, for lengthy periods stationing all 11 men in their own final third of the field. It is a ploy Mourinho has used for over a decade now in his duels with Guardiola. Spurs won by the same scoreline in this fixture last term. But unlike then, smash, grab and good fortune played no part in this victory. Mourinho found a way to suffocate City without the ball. Sissoko and Hojbjerg time and again blocked the avenues down which City’s creators – De Bruyne, Silva and Mahrez – rip teams apart. The more of the ball City had, the more apparent it became they were being out thought and out fought all over the pitch.
Spurs, by contrast, opened the scoring with their first combination of forward passes. With five minutes played, Hojbjerg was fouled on halfway having nipped in for what would be one of many successful interceptions during the match. While City players protested, the Dane took a quick free-kick short to NDombele. The Frenchman, so adept at creating a yard of space with his dizzying turns, freed himself of Rodri’s attentions and clipped a probing pass in behind the City defence. Laporte’s decision to follow the deep-lying Kane proved fatal. Son sped into the area the City centre back had vacated. The South Korean – so often the scourge of City – steadied himself before slipping the ball left-footed through the legs of the onrushing Ederson.
City, who relative to their own exceptional standards, have found goals hard to come by this season, immediately re-established their monopoly of the ball. Just as Mourinho wanted them to. Following another futile spell of possession by the away team, the City defence were sprung again. A sweeping move saw Bergwijn escape with Son and Kane racing to offer support. A lovely exchange of passes allowed Son to square for Kane to tap in. Unfortunately, the assistant referee’s flag denied the England captain what would have been one of the goals of the season. Kane had just failed to hold his run. It was the only error the Tottenham striker made in the entire 90 minutes.
City thought they’d levelled the match through Laporte on 25 minutes. Mahrez, fresh from scoring a sublime goal for Algeria in the international break, teased a ball to the back post, which a springing Jesus brought under control deep inside the Spurs penalty area. The Brazilian laid the ball back to Laporte, whose clinical finish flashed past Lloris and inside his near-post. The Tottenham players immediately converged on Mike Dean gesticulating the ball had touched Jesus’s arm. After a quick pitch-side monitor review the official concurred, rightly disallowing the goal.
The City players were still contesting this decision with Dean as they departed the pitch at half-time. This fixture, both in the Premier League last year and the epic Champions League quarter-final tie of two seasons ago, has provided the gold standard in dramatic, history-altering interventions by the video assistant referee. The City players, with good reason, may feel they haven’t had the rub of those decisions. But this ‘goal’ was never in any real danger of being given. De Bruyne’s protestations, in particular, looked more a sign of recognition that City felt their best chance had gone.
In the second half, City found Hojbjerg and Sissoko indefatigable in the Tottenham midfield. Dier and Alderweireld resolute behind them.
Even getting a sight of the Tottenham defence proved challenging for City. With the hour mark approaching, Harry Kane had made more tackles than any other player on the pitch.
It was Kane who created the game’s next best chance soon after. His pass left Son in a foot race with the onrushing Ederson, committed well outside of his box. Son got there first, but the keeper’s intervention was sufficient to defuse the danger by sending the forward wide of his goal.
In short order Mourinho made his first change of the contest, replacing NDombele with Lo Celso. The reward was instantaneous. Dier sent a speculative pass into the midfield which found Kane. By now the City centre-halves were totally frazzled by Kane’s elusive movement. Controlling the ball and turning in one motion, the striker drove forward. Drawing the defender before feeding Lo Celso – who had burst beyond the weary De Bruyne – with a perfectly weighted pass. Ederson did what Ederson does, storming from his line to repair the damage by adding some more of his own. Lo Celso, mind made up for him, steered the ball beyond the keeper and into the unguarded net.
From there Spurs were never in danger of relinquishing their lead. Far from the late concession of goals in home games against Newcastle and West Ham having scared the Spurs defence, they have galvanised it. Tottenham now have the joint best defensive record in the league and in Heung-min Son the division’s leading goalscorer. Mourinho, who many thought a busted flush, seems to have rediscovered his silverware-winning formula.
Lloris, Aurier, Dier, Alderwiereld (Rodon 81), Reguilon, Hojbjerg, Sissoko, NDombele (Lo Celso 65), Bergwijn (Moura 73), Kane, Son