No Harry Kane? No problem. Tottenham began their new season in outstanding fashion with a superb counterpunching display in which Heung-min Son's second half strike earned them a 1-0 victory over champions Manchester City on Sunday. With the Premier League's top scorer and leading assist provider left out of the squad to face the team he wants to join, there were scant expectations that Nuno Espirito Santo's first match in charge would end in victory against a side who had their £100 million signing Jack Grealish in the starting lineup.
Spurs rode their luck early on, Hugo Lloris missing a cross from the left that Fernandinho flicked wide, but grew as a counterattacking force from midway into the first half with Son customarily incisive in front of goal.
A brilliant low drive off his left foot ten minutes into the second half gave the hosts a lead they never looked like losing as City slipped to their fourth straight defeat in the Tottenham Hotspur Stadium.
Here are takeaways from Sunday's match:
A vision of a Kane-less Spurs
The dawning of a new era, certainly without Jose Mourinho and quite possibly without Kane, and Tottenham had become… a hard tackling and fouling team who will look to hit their opposition on the counter. Naturally it is too soon to be saying "meet the new boss, the same as the old boss." A game against Manchester City is no clear indication of a long-term tactical vision.
Equally it might just be the best way for Tottenham to play, particularly if Kane does get his way between now and the end of the transfer window. Assuming there is no equivalent replacement on the market – and how could there be for a team with only Europa Conference League football to offer – it may be that Nuno Espirito Santo has to design his attack around the talents of Son and Lucas Moura, in which case it makes sense to exploit their pace on the counter.
All the more so if you have a player as capable of winning the ball high up the pitch as Pierre-Emile Hojbjerg. This was Euro 2020 Hojbjerg, nothing like the sitting midfielder from the Mourinho era but instead fizzing with energy, always in the face of the City defense with Oliver Skipp left to deal with the holding.
Certainly early on you could sense Spurs' players were looking for Kane, trying to familiarize themselves with a way of playing without the man who monopolizes their chance creation and shots. Early on Son found himself set up one on one against Nathan Ake on the right corner of the box. Rather than drive at his defender or play a one-two with Kane he instead felt he had no option but to go all the way back to his defenders.
Still he learned his lesson quickly and in the second half did exactly what he should have done in the first, working space for a shot and firing a brilliant drive beyond Ederson. His chance had come thanks to a smart clearance by Bergwijn and hard running from Lucas. Time and time again those two would cause chaos on the counter, a reminder that if you have fast, direct and technical players sometimes the best way to play can be to soak up pressure and spring forth.
City's awkward start
Perhaps the explanation for City's sloppy start to the title defense lay in their bench. Peruse its £350 million contents and you would find the likes of Kevin De Bruyne, Rodri, Gabriel Jesus and Oleksandr Zinchenko, most of whom had been key cogs in Pep Guardiola's side. Even among the starters there were many players, for instance Jack Grealish and Raheem Sterling, who had had next to no time with their teammates new and old due to their lengthy participation in summer tournaments.
If any players were most missed one could have argued it was the more defensive-minded duo of Rodri and Zinchenko. Fernandinho has been one of the cornerstones of City's recent success at least in part because of his willingness to risk a yellow to bring down marauding counter attackers. At 36 he may no longer be able to keep up with the quickest of them; certainly against Spurs you rarely saw him keeping pace with Lucas and company.
As for Zinchenko, the greatest issue was that his replacement at left back, Benjamin Mendy, was a very clear weak link in the side. In defense Son consistently targeted him when Spurs had the ball and Hojbjerg pressed him aggressively when he was in possession.
Get him further up the pitch and he seemed intent on doing one thing and one thing only. In his 79 minutes on the pitch Tottenham attempted seven open-play crosses. Mendy attempted eight. It was a curious approach to take when City had no one in their attack who was not giving up a few inches to Davinson Sanchez and Eric Dier.
We have seen this game between these two sides before. City dominant territory, win the expected goals battle but the ball seems to be magnetically drawn away from the net. That was as good an explanation as any for Ferran Torres missing from such close range (well that or him failing to open up his left foot sufficiently) after a smartly taken free kick found space from which Joao Cancelo could cross. Had Fernandinho's header or Riyad Mahrez's hooked volley creeped in early on then the pedestrian pace of their build up would have felt like their customary ruthless composure.
Indeed once De Bruyne entered the fray they looked far more like the best version of City, a little more swift in their attacking build up. Given more than 11 minutes he might have swung this game. When he is eventually ready to start, this team will be far better and they will need to be. Four more of last season's top eight lie in wait over the next six Premier League games. This was not the start City wanted.
Japhet Tanganga – Serenaded off the pitch with a chant of "he's one of our own" usually reserved for Kane, Tanganga earned it with a robust but effective display against the combined might of Grealish and Sterling. He certainly left his mark on both but his defending was fair as often as it was firm. RATING: 9
Jack Grealish – The £100 million man will need time to learn the attacking rhythms of his new teammates and certainly the overriding sense in this game was that he was a little out of the groove even amid moments of virtuosity. RATING: 5
Lucas Moura – No player made more chances for Spurs than Lucas' three. No player recovered possession more times than the nine times the Brazilian did. In every capacity he delivered. RATING: 8