A script reversal
Even when Tottenham Hotspur flip the script they manage to make a mess of reading it properly.
Antonio Conte could only laugh when football.london put it to him that after a season of poor first half displays and good second periods, Spurs had somehow managed to play well in the first half at the Etihad Stadium before completely collapsing in the second.
The north London side did everything asked of them in the first half. They soaked up plenty of City possession without letting Pep Guardiola's men anywhere near the Tottenham goal until later in the period when Hugo Lloris pulled off two top drawer saves.
Spurs looked dangerous when they broke and were duly rewarded for their energetic pressing with two goals in the final moments of the half, first from Dejan Kulusevski and then a rare but welcome effort from Emerson Royal.
READ MORE: Tottenham player ratings vs Manchester City: Perisic shocker after Kulusevski and Emerson goals
Just days before Conte had reacted adversely to football.london's questions about Spurs only pressing teams for the first 10 minutes of matches, stating that it would be "stupid" to leave themselves so open with a high press due to the characteristics of their defenders.
Yet when Tottenham were at their best on Thursday night it was because of far prolonged periods of pressing compared to recent games, with the returning Rodrigo Bentancur leading the efforts.
What caused the collapse within moments of the second half beginning were problems out of Conte's control, a series of individual errors from some of his most experienced players.
City and the crowd within the Etihad Stadium grew more and more confident with each passing goal and Spurs folded like a deck chair under the pressure. An Ivan Perisic shot that deflected on to the post could have swung matters back the way of the visitors but it was not to be.
While disappointed with that second half, Conte told football.london that he felt the performance overall was better than the one last season in Manchester which brought a dramatic 3-2 victory.
"(Laughs) Yeah, it's strange because in the last period the question was why is the first half is poor and you wait until the second half to change the situation," he said. "Yeah, but I think that I have to analyse very well the game.
"If I have to compare this game with the game we played last season, I think we played much better today. The performance was good today because we played with personality, we created a lot of problems for Manchester City.
"I remember very well last season that we played for a long period in our box to defend the result, then one, two, three counter-attacks. No, one counter attack and we started from the back, from the goalkeeper to build from the back and we scored the other two goals."
He added: "Today we were really brave to press high and we scored two goals this way. I think last season we were a bit lucky and this season, today when the result was 2-2, we had a massive, massive chance to score.
"I think if you go up again 3-2 I don't know how the result would have finished because the game changed totally under the mental aspect. Then if you ask me, compared to last season we are conceding a lot more goals. A lot, a lot.
"It's not good and to concede four goals in one half, the second half. This is the first time in my career that one of my teams has conceded so many goals. We have to continue to work and we have to continue to improve and try to do our best. We are really disappointed for the final result because we could deserve much more in the end."
Conte is right in that Spurs were braver with their play this time, and at times they played the ball around City's own press with some confident passing.
The possession stats showed that back in February, Tottenham had just 29% of the possession while on Thursday night they had 42. Back then they had six shots on goal and not a single corner while this time they had nine shots at goal and three corners.
Yet the key number is the goals conceded and having been two goals up at the break before conceding four times, it's difficult to suggest that a braver performance was in fact a better one.
Experienced heads do the damage
Conte tied himself up a couple of times when speaking to football.london after the game as he explained the individual errors in his team.
First the Italian claimed that you cannot "buy experience" before laughing and admitting that in fact you could actually buy experience. He also stated that had Spurs had more experience in their ranks then they would "never, never lose" that match.
football.london pointed out politely that his most experienced players were at fault for all of City's goals, the 33-year-old multiple title-winner Ivan Perisic torn apart by Riyad Mahrez for three of them, his 36-year-old World Cup-winning captain Hugo Lloris having a part to play in two of them and then 27-year-old Barcelona and France defender Clement Lenglet gifting Mahrez the final goal with a horrendous touch.
When asked about the individual errors that are killing Conte's Spurs this season, he said: "You know we are really disappointed because many times, you have try to justify the goals that we are conceding. For sure this is a period we are not so lucky because we are making many, many mistakes, many mistakes, but football is this.
"Sometimes you have a positive performance. Sometimes you are in situations that are not so positive but we have to continue to work and believe in ourselves.
"As I said in the past, this type of game with more experience you never, never lose. You don't buy experience, (laughs) well you can buy experience. You can buy it, but you know very well that we have to buy experience step by step, year by year.
"For this reason when I speak and I tell you we have just started the process to try to become competitive, it means that we are also working under this aspect because a team with experience never concedes four goals."
When football.london pointed out that experience had brought the mistakes on this day, Conte paused before responding: "Yeah but I don't like to go about the single player, but for sure when we concede four goals the first person responsible is the coach. Then the players because I don't put the mistakes on my players.
"The mistake first of all is mine because it means that maybe we have to work defensively more to be more compact, like the whole team not only the defenders because when concede a goal it means the whole team not only the defenders, the keeper or a single player."
Conte was being kind to Perisic in particular with his comments. The Croatian offers plenty to Tottenham going forward but defensively the Premier League has proved a tough adaptation for him when faced by any attacker with a modicum of pace.
Mahrez ran rings around the Croatian on Thursday night. First he danced around him in the build-up to the first City goal, then he ghosted in behind him with ease to head across for Erling Haaland to score and then Perisic lost the ball to Mahrez outside his own box which led to the third goal.
At the other end, the experienced wide-man had that big chance to put Spurs back into the lead but his shot was deflected up and on to the left-hand post with City all over the place in front of goal.
Conte hooked Perisic off not long after City's third and it's perhaps telling that the only difference between the team that won at the Etihad last season was that his replacement Ryan Sessegnon played instead that day. Conte often selects the 22-year-old for the big games because of his pace and that day he put in one of his most defensively disciplined performances in a Spurs shirt.
This was not Perisic's day, but he was not alone. With the spotlight well and truly on him, Hugo Lloris started well with a couple of good first half saves only to struggle with a couple of the goals.
It came after the Frenchman flapped at a cross that Haaland headed over, after which Lloris could not get enough on a ball deflected up in the air in front of him and it fell for Julian Alvarez to cushion a shot into the top left corner of the net.
Then for City's third, Lloris was beaten at his near post by Mahrez's low shot. In a month that has brought mistakes against Aston Villa and Arsenal, the Frenchman defended himself against the criticism after returning so quickly after the World Cup final.
“I can’t complain. You’re a professional and you just follow a rhythm," he told the Evening Standard on Thursday night. "But obviously when you’re involved with the national team and you go until the last day of the World Cup, you come back and miss mental freshness. But you need to get back on track and help your team.
“When you look at the Arsenal goal, I can be in a good position but the deflection hit the ball on my chest and with the spin it goes over [the line]. It’s something that even if I wanted to do on purpose, I can’t. Even last night, when you look at the third [City] goal, a deflection makes the ball go over my knee.
“At any moment I try to anticipate, just setting and waiting. There are a lot of things like that happening to our team. It’s a period where we need to stick together, keep working and hopefully bring the luck back."
He added: "On the mentality, there’s nothing to say. When you look at the guys working every day, we can’t blame anyone. Probably we have a lack of consistency in our performances. I believe we struggle a bit to play 90 to 95 minutes at our best, things we were able to do last season, especially in the last two to three months.
"But the most important period is ahead of us: February, March, April and May is where you play for everything and it’s important going forward to get our level back and everyone to finish the season strongly, hopefully."
The problem for Conte is that if anything it's the experienced players on the whole who look short of confidence while the younger players have actually offered the Italian more when he's used them.
Eric Dier continues to look a shaky presence in the back line. Like Lloris, Dier, who turned 29 this week, enjoyed his most consistent season in years under Nuno Espirito Santo and then Conte last time out but in this campaign, after a bright start, he has slipped back to old ways with concentration lapses, getting caught out of position and his confidence has taken a hit with it.
Spurs have no real leader in their back line and as a consequence they are leaking too many goals as a defence and as a team.
It's not just at the back though where experience is letting them down. Son Heung-min continues to look a shadow of his former self. The Etihad Stadium has been a happy hunting ground for the South Korean star in previous seasons as he's torn the City defence to shreds with his direct running. They hate playing against him but this time they had a far easier ride.
On Thursday night, Son looked bereft of confidence, rarely running at full throttle or taking a shot when he found himself around the box, often turning inside and playing a safe ball that hampered the momentum of some moves.
As a go-to outlet for Harry Kane, Son's lack of confidence and therefore attacking movement is also impacting one of the range of passes the striker can play and he's losing the ball more as he hesitates and tries to find another option. Despite his goals this season, Kane is not looking like the player of previous years either.
Dejan Kulusevski was Spurs' main attacking threat against City and the 22-year-old is carrying much of the north London club's creative work on his shoulders right now. With Richarlison still rusty, Bryan Gil picking up a training ground knock this week and Lucas Moura still out injured and coming to the end of his time at Tottenham, the need for Spurs to add another attacker to their ranks has rarely been more pressing.
Thanks goodness for Bentancur
There was one real shining light for Spurs amidst the Manchester gloom and that was Rodrigo Bentancur.
Back fit after six weeks out with an adductor muscle tear suffered at the World Cup, the Uruguayan was straight back into the team and the biggest compliment to his fitness is that he didn't look as if he had been away.
Bentancur had been an irrepressible force before he left for Qatar, driving Tottenham back into games they had no right to still be in. The midfielder sets the tone with his pressing and harassing of opposition players, often to be seen bursting past Kane as the furthest man forward in putting the other defence under pressure.
Such a run caused the defensive mistake that led to Kulusevski slotting home the loose ball for the first goal before the break. Then Bentancur showed his composure and bravery to motor away with the ball before hitting a key pass, as he got taken out by a late tackle, in the build-up to Tottenham's second goal before the break.
The Uruguayan seemingly has that Neo in The Matrix-like ability to slow down everything around him while he moves at normal speed, showing remarkable composure in tight situations and his team-mates trust him implicitly with the ball. That confidence rubs off on them and was partly responsible for many of Tottenham's good passages of passing play out from the back as City ran at them.
Bentancur managed 75 minutes of action after so long out and that speaks volumes about not only his fitness levels but how Conte and the sports science staff have managed his return to individual training and then taking part in full sessions with the team.
Conte said the midfielder was tired after his first game in six weeks and Spurs will hope that he recovers quickly for Monday night's match at Fulham because his influence is clear to see.
That January deadline day a year ago now looks to have been one of the club's best in recent memory with the arrival of Bentancur and Kulusevski.
With the Uruguayan, Spurs prised him away for just £15.8m, payable within three financial years, with up to £5m more on top if specific 'performance objectives' are met during his time with the north London club.
When he joined Spurs that day in 2022, Bentancur was asked what he would bring to the club.
"I would say I’m a very tactical player who covers free spaces, does well when winning the ball back and moves it forward quickly. I also think I have scope to improve even more and I can do so as part of this team at Spurs," he said.
"I am looking forward to learning from Antonio Conte - I think he’s a great coach, he wants to win and gets 150 per cent out of his players. I think he’ll make me improve even more, both mentally and as a player. I like that, and it’s a big motivation for me."
Bentancur has improved a lot on top of making an immediate impact and the offensive side to his game has been a major progression this season.
He has grown within the team and with his increasing responsibility and the respect he has garnered among his team-mates he could end displaying the material of potential captain.
Others play better when he's alongside them, most notably Pierre-Emile Hojbjerg, with the Dane knowing he has less covering to do out of position because of Bentancur's fitness levels in getting up and down the pitch quickly.
Spurs must try to replicate the impact of that January transfer window in the remaining 11 days of this month because their season could well hinge upon it.
Tired Conte and the present
Antonio Conte looks to be growing increasingly weary with each passing day. He's getting the concentrated version of the full Tottenham Hotspur experience that the club's fans have been 'enjoying' for decades.
On Tuesday in his pre-match press conference ahead of the trip to Manchester the Italian was spiky, hitting out at a few questions and making it clear that he believes the hierarchy of clubs across England should be made to regularly speak to the media as they do in Italy.
He's certainly not wrong in that regard. In his homeland boardroom figures at Serie A clubs are always speaking to the media. Fabio Paratici would speak on camera most weeks before Juventus matches during his later years at the Turin club.
If ever there was a club that needed someone to drag them out from the shadows and into the light to try to connect with their own fans it's Tottenham Hotspur.
Many a manager has had to explain decisions that have enraged the fans when he's had absolutely nothing to do with making them. Pity poor Ryan Mason who at 29, as a caretaker manager, had to speak on the club's behalf on his first day in the job about the Super League shambles because nobody else above him would.
The man who looked set to change all of that was Paratici with his experience and confidence in speaking to the media back home, but no. Since his arrival, the 50-year-old has been wheeled out twice a year for his transfer window round-ups for the club's own media channels with the odd bonus annual appearance if they are short on content.
That hits at the crux of it really. Tottenham rarely explain decisions they make, even the ones that infuriate the fans the most. Daniel Levy communicates once a year in written form in the final home game of the season's matchday programme with the 'Chairman's Message' which no doubt goes through various stages of editing before it reaches the page.
Those around him on the club's board are nothing more than names to the fanbase, if they're even aware of them, so when they finally get a confident speaker with top level football experience in the game taking on a huge role in what they do, what happens?
He only gets to appear once in a blue moon on their own club channels, which might cause a cynical person to suggest that driving people to their own website or subscription-based streaming service is more important than creating a stronger bond with their fans through increased communication from the club hierarchy in the wider media.
There's certainly an irony that a mistrust of the media has aided in the mistrust of those who make the decisions at Tottenham. Even it was on their own club channels, a weekly Paratici slot would help them tenfold in their communication and clarity with the supporters.
Of course the chances of Paratici appearances with the wider media will not have been helped by his involvement in the recent investigations and hearings involving Juventus in Italy with a verdict expected on the latest round of those on Friday evening.
Conte looked tired of the whole Tottenham experience on Thursday night deep within the bowels of the Etihad Stadium. He rubbed his eyes and his temples as he tried to explained this latest performance from his team and tried to defend their inexcusable defending and individual errors.
On Friday morning, he was bleary-eyed but that was entirely understandable after a late night flight back from Manchester with the pre-Fulham press conference being scheduled at Hotspur Way just 12 hours after his one the night before.
Conte's messages are so mixed and that probably plays a part in keeping the fans entirely unsure about whether he will be at the club next season. It all feels very similar to last season, although he did end up staying after that one.
On Thursday night he was asked whether this was his most difficult season after previous title-winning campaigns at other clubs, further weighed down by the sadness felt after the deaths of those friends who have passed away in recent months.
"I think that we have to try to understand that we are talking about two different situations. For sure under the personal aspect it is a difficult season for what happened (with three friends passing away) but now this situation is not important.
"This situation is my personal situation and then will be the time to make the right decision for me, for the future, for my family, but this situation doesn't affect the work and doesn't affect the team. I'm really focused. About this aspect I'm an animal because I'm really focused."
On the difference in clubs, he added: "For sure if you tell me about my previous experience with Inter, Chelsea and Juventus, but also with Siena and Bari, yeah these are different situations.
"When you understand very well what is the situation you realise and then you go into it with more strength, you understand? It's logical if my expectations continues to be the same at Juventus and Inter, then maybe could be dangerous because my frustration could be big.
"Instead I know what is my task in this situation and then I'm working very hard because I want to improve. I want to improve the team and the club with my vision, with my idea, with my suggestions.
"Then for sure we see. I'm totally into the new situation and know that my task is to be part of this process and try to, with a team in transition, to start to become solid and to build a solid foundation and try to build a team ready to fight to win."
Then 12 hours later at Hotspur Way, he appeared to switch back to speaking about needing patience and he spoke of the long-term.
"Honestly, yes for sure when you are used to win many, many games and to lose three or four games in one season, this could be frustrating," he said. "Honestly I have to tell you, last season when it happened in a part of a season like this, especially when we lost three games in 14 days against Chelsea but I think a clever person, a smart person, an intelligent person has to understand what is the situation, what is the moment, what we can reach and what we have to do to change the situation.
"Because I think the situation compared to my past is different. I always said to you it's different. My task here is to build, to help the club and try again to build a solid foundation and then to improve step by step to become competitive and to fight for something important.
"I understand this is my take and in the moment you understand this then for sure you have to put your heart, your mind, your head to lose some games more than the past because you need a process. You need a a process, you need patience, you need time and this is what I can tell you. Only this, but without recrimination or to try to be offensive for something.
"Only then I know that my way is only one way, to work hard and to try to transfer my mentality to the players. The players are doing everything to try to improve themselves but I know that we need time to improve, to improve this process and to become stronger than now."
Time, patience, progress - it's all well and good as long as Conte has the time, shows the patience and makes the progress along with Tottenham.
He needs help from Daniel Levy and the club, and in the 11 days ahead the Tottenham chairman needs to pull a thing or two out of the hat.
Once again there were chants from the travelling fans aimed at the Spurs chairman early in Thursday's game and when those who travel the length and breadth of the country - and often the world - are disgruntled you have to listen.
Social media noise can be brushed aside by football clubs as coming from keyboard warriors, but when those fans who really put in the miles and pay out thousands every year are disillusioned then it's time to give them something to grasp back on to. They only want to be proud of their club again.
Spurs still hope to bring in a couple of players before the transfer window closes at 11pm on January 31 and the more rapidly-conducted business of their London rivals only increases the pressure on and need for Levy to ensure his club keeps pace otherwise Champions League qualification next season can be forgotten about.
This feels like one of those critical junctures at Tottenham Hotspur. Last January they got it right but in previous seasons they haven't, most notably the two disastrous transfer-less windows in the 2018/19 season that left Mauricio Pochettino with a rapidly stagnating squad.
Those woeful windows formed the basis of the rot that was to come, papered over at first by Pochettino leading the club to the Champions League final which if anything only convinced most of that squad that they had peaked after they suffered defeat in Madrid.
This feels like another one of those stick or twist moments that will define what comes next for Tottenham.
Get in a couple of key players and the mood lifts, Conte has a greater chance of succeeding and there's a big platform to build on next season to persuade Harry Kane to want to stick around yet again and the same goes for the head coach. If there's no better offer, and there's no indication at this stage that there will be, then the Italian has less reason to head off, unless he wants a sabbatical which would be out of keeping with his work-driven nature.
The alternative for Spurs is to pause and take stock, worried about signing new players that might fit a manager who could up sticks sooner rather than later and leave the club with expensive signings the next manager might not want.
Tottenham cannot afford to take that chance. Once they get the return match against Manchester City out of the way, the fixture schedule opens up and they take on many of the teams in the bottom half of the table well into April, as well as a home game against a currently struggling Chelsea side next month.
There's a big chance here to spark some momentum and the club need to take it before they get left behind.
Spurs continue to try to sign Pedro Porro from Sporting Lisbon without triggering his all up front £39.5m release clause and the 23-year-old fits the club profile - they have been tracking him for a few years since before Conte's arrival - while providing the experience despite his age that Kulusevski brought with him last January.
Porro has had two seasons' worth of Champions League experience and 111 games under his belt across Liga Portugal and La Liga in Spain.
Tottenham will have to move right wing-backs out the door if they are to accommodate a fourth player in the position. Emerson Royal would have to be convinced his game time would be minimal if he is to consider a move with clubs in Spain and Italy considering him while there is interest in Djed Spence from Bayer Leverkusen and Premier League clubs including Crystal Palace, Southampton and West Ham.
Conte also needs another attacker with Lucas Moura's injuries and Spurs time seemingly coming to a close this year. Any further injury problems up front mean just one offensive option on the bench, as shown by Bryan Gil's training ground knock this week.
Upgrades in the centre of defence and midfield as well as a long-term successor to Lloris are all planned for the summer with better options available then, but late opportunities that arise will be looked at in case any of those plans can be moved forward.
Beyond that, a right wing-back to make Conte's system truly work and an attacker to bolster his options and Spurs will be back on the right track. For Tottenham, Levy and Conte this is about the now, the future can wait.
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