José Mourinho send Pep-ball packing in a rivalry that always delivers | Barney Ronay

José Mourinho send Pep-ball packing in a rivalry that always delivers | Barney Ronay


ou know, this might just catch on. For an hour at the Tottenham Hotspur Stadium the white shirts of Spurs and the all-blacks of Manchester City played out a game of such familiar contrasts, possession v non-possession, that it felt like watching a sporting remake from the Legends Tours, Tyson v Holyfield or Benn v Eubank.

Perhaps the best thing about José v Pep is that it remains so completely itself. Football may be in a state of constant refinement at the top end. But these two, not so much. So we got Davis v Higgins in north London – and beyond that an evening where Mourinho’s counterpunching Spurs exposed with a brutal clarity the weak points in this City team. A few years back Guardiola referred to Tottenham as “the Harry Kane team” with a raise of the eyebrows, a puff of the cheeks and a pat on the head. Well, Pep, you asked for it.

Meet The Harry Kane Team, led by a striker who traumatised City’s central defenders, jouncing and grappling, always looking to spin away and dig out one of those God‑level diagonal passes.

For a while during his Barcelona days there was talk that Guardiola’s rise might signal the end for the old-style centre-forward. This is the man who popularised the false 9, who made a fetish of full-backs and inside forwards. It was tempting to see a moment of nemesis here, the revenge of the No 9 (wearing No 10). But in reality Kane is already something else these days, confirmation that Guardiola was in fact right, that centre-forwards have diversified and evolved.

Kane has these imperial games now and then against the better teams, from Chelsea 2014 to Liverpool 2017. This was different, though. Kane tackled and intercepted, and played wonderful snaking passes. He played as an advanced central pivot, a wrestle-focus, a foul magnet, a one-man press-Blitzkrieg, a swivelling diagonal reverse-pass funnel.

Has there been a better match‑winning performance from a central striker who didn’t actually have a single shot at goal?

Harry Kane excelled in a deep playmaking role.

The style of this 2-0 win also offered a counterpoint to the idea Mourinho has become a static force as a manager. There is a suggestion he doesn’t work on the details of his team’s attack, that he leaves this part of the pitch to find its way in a kind of guided improv. But Mourinho has refined the attacking style of this team, creating a combination of strengths that are perfectly geared to pick off teams that leave space.

Against City it all came from the area around the centre circle, launchpad for two brilliantly executed goals. Both showcased the craft of Kane in the “quarterback” pocket. Both preyed on the high defensive line that offers a way to goal against teams that push up and condense the play. Both were, at the same time, oddly predictable.

Tottenham’s attacking game is based on finding space in behind the full backs, in pacy runners haring on to diagonal passes from the centre circle. It would seem natural for City to have watched this carefully, to be ready to counter it. Or perhaps not. With three minutes gone Kane had already turned and reeled off a diagonal pass for the run of Sergio Reguilón, who was reeled in by Kyle Walker haring back, cheeks puffed, arms pumping. There are reassuring sights in football, images that just convey stability and safety. This is not one of them.

A minute later Spurs scored from almost the same move. It was made by a lovely pass from Tanguy Ndombele, who floated the ball in a perfect arc over the defensive line from just inside the City half, using his foot like a wedge, stubbing a toe into the turf, matador-style.

In front of him Son Heung-min was making a run just like Son Heung-min makes, into the kind of space Son Heung-min likes, in order to score a Son Heung-min kind of goal. Does anyone at City actually watch Match of the Day?

The goal was also made by Kane’s run back towards the centre circle, which created the slackness behind him. The second, 20 minutes into the second half, came from the same area. Kane again dropped deep. This time he floated a lovely pass for Giovani Lo Celso to take it to the house and finish smartly.

City were unfortunate in missing their own cutting edge once again, with Sergio Agüero on the bench. But the key factor was the transformation of Kane from a versatile No 9 to all-round team force and on-pitch manifestation of his manager. Mourinho loves winning these games above all others, loves the idea of tearing up the possession football playbook, of asserting his more disruptive style. He will have enjoyed this one to an almost indecent degree.