Written by Ian Colgan (@Ian_Colgan):
After just seven games, the Title Race, declared by some experts to be a foregone conclusion as early as mid-September, has now been blown wide open by Tottenham’s forceful 2-0 victory over Manchester City on October 2nd. It was a fine spectacle – an early contender for ‘Game of the Season’, some said, squeezing City’s lead down to a single point and forcing those same experts to hastily abandon the theory that the season was shaping up to be a 1999/2000-style campaign, when Man United had the title wrapped up before the end of April and went on to win it by an 18-point margin.
Not many saw it coming. Even those who thought that Tottenham stood a decent chance were taken aback by the high-handed manner of the victory. The effect on City, who had been on a six-game winning streak in the league up to then, was like a sudden and violent jerk of the head causing severe whiplash. Watching closely, you could just about make out the unnatural hyperextension of their necks as they were traumatically rammed from behind repeatedly by Pochettino’s Spurs who came out of the tunnel like a pack of African Wild Dogs after meat, and instantly settled into a high-speed attack/pressing blitz. When City finally started to get to grips with the pace of the game, they had already been 1-0 down for about 20 minutes and it was because Spurs at that point were in between their first and second wind.
There had been enough signs in City’s previous outings to suggest that they were vulnerable defensively. Celtic had exposed those issues just three earlier in a chaotic, end-to-end 3-3 draw, and even in City’s six league wins they’d managed to keep just one clean sheet. Until recently it remained a minor issue, an observation made by pundits who usually had to have the question put them directly as to whether they could see any weakness at all in the Guardiola juggernaut. “Yeah,” they answered hesitantly, “I suppose you could say they can be a bit shaky at the back, but they’re scoring so many goals at the other end it doesn’t seem to be much of a problem.”
City’s last two matches; taken together, represent an undeniable shift from their defensive frailties being an inconsequential issue that could be shrugged off, to a critical flaw and a topic suddenly worthy of press coverage and discussion. A small difference, but a significant one Guardiola can’t afford to ignore. Previously conceding no more than one goal in a competitive game, they’ve now shipped five in the last two, morphing – at least in the public consciousness – from an unstoppable machine to a more human entity with an obvious defect, and inadvertently altering the mentality of every team City face from now on.
That ‘Invincible Aura’ that was built up over the first six weeks was lost against Tottenham, at least temporarily, and once it happened it didn’t take long for City fans to start talking amongst themselves in solemn tones about what happened last season when, after winning their first five games without conceding a goal, they lost their next two and never properly recovered from it – lurching through the rest of the season and not winning more than three consecutive league games again until April.
Not many City supporters seriously believe the same thing will happen again this time, but in the back of their minds a lot of them will quietly fear it. The brainwaves of Man City fans are innately predisposed towards pessimism; they’ve stared into the bottom of the well too many times over the years to be able to help themselves from thinking otherwise, especially on weekends like Match Week 7, when not only did City lose, but Liverpool and Arsenal both won, creating a very slim two-point margin between 1st and 4th place.
Which makes it entirely possible that City will be sitting in third or fourth by next Tuesday morning and the Title Race would then suddenly look a lot less predictable than it did a month ago. Those who have been watching the odds from week to week will already have noticed the significant swings. A look at the odds this week shows that City are still considered to be the frontrunners, but that’s about all that’s remained unchanged since the opening weekend when most people were predicting a season-long epic struggle between the two Manchester clubs with Chelsea leading the chasing pack.
Already that idea has had to be revised, with United and Chelsea falling so far behind they’re now 5th and 6th favourites respectively, while the teams that were meant to be fighting among themselves for that last top-four spot are now thought to be ‘in the mix’ for the title. And why not? Liverpool and Spurs have each won their last four games, and Arsenal, after a nightmarish start to the season that etched nine new worry lines into Wenger’s forehead, suddenly clicked and have won their last five...Nothing extraordinary, but an unsettling sign if you happen to be from Manchester, because all of a sudden Liverpool’s and Arsenal’s trademark inconsistency looks a lot less bankable.
If Arsenal beat Swansea this weekend they’ll have bettered their longest winning streak from last season, while Liverpool, with their 2-1 win over Swansea on October 1st, are now on their best league run since Klopp took over and are 2nd favourites for the title despite having the worst defensive record of any team in the top 10.
If last season proved anything it’s that odds are essentially meaningless, but it’s hard not to be jolted when confronted with those 9/2 odds Liverpool have for the Great Prize. The reasoning is mainly to do with their free-scoring ability, but if any team can push City all the way to the end it’s just as likely to be Tottenham. Despite averaging just 1.7 goals per game compared to Liverpool’s 2.6, Spurs are second in the table, and just one point behind City, due to having the most airtight defence in the league; a highly efficient, well-drilled rearguard who’ve yet to concede a goal from open play.
That’s worth thinking about, for a moment. Just three league goals conceded so far, two of which have been free-kicks along with a penalty. At this rate, they’ll finish the season having shipped somewhere between 15 and 20 goals, but even allowing for form dips, injuries, and blunders, it’s hard to see them leaking more than 30, which makes their candidacy something that should be taken very seriously.
It’s why many suspect the Lilywhites, the only team in the league still undefeated, have the edge over Liverpool and Arsenal in terms of being Main Challengers, but it shouldn’t be overlooked that Spurs have also scored three more goals than they had at this stage last season, despite their main striker Harry Kane – for reasons of form or injury – contributing just two goals so far. Actually, two goals and an assist in his five appearances prior to that ankle injury against Sunderland in mid-September was a reasonably decent contribution, but Kane was nevertheless forced to spend the first month of the season dismissing theories that he was either suffering from severe burnout or was traumatized from Euro 2016.
At any rate, it hasn’t really mattered. The goals have been coming from other sources, chiefly from Son Heung-Min (4 goals & 2 assists), and some time out of the team will probably do Kane some good. A much less talked about factor for Spurs’ winning streak, or at least their healthy goal return, has been Pochettino’s recent tactical switch from 4-2-3-1 to a more naked and aggressive 4-1-4-1. It’s essentially allowed him to deploy Dele Alli further forward where he can run amok, with Christian Eriksen in a slightly deeper playmaker-type role, and Victor Wanyama as the sole designated shield in front of the back four…which would be a much greater risk if it was a player other than Wanyama, a 6ft 2” tactically bright battering ram who averages 3 tackles per game and names Roy Keane as his main idol.
The more I think about it, the more credible Spurs’ title bid seems. They started ‘slow’ this season, it was said, with two draws in their first three games strengthening the consensus among the whizzes that last season was a fluke and they were destined for 5th or 6th this time. Maybe so…after seven games most eventualities are still possible, but right now it’s hard to get an even-money bet on Spurs finishing lower than 4th. Not much significance was given to the fact that those draws were against Everton and Liverpool, but in retrospect those results might come to be regarded as ‘decent points’ before the season is out, and probably sooner rather than later.