Pep faces toughest test
Spurs' settled, pressing side best equipped to stop City
TOTTENHAM v MAN CITY
(Sunday, 9.15pm, Singtel TV Ch 102 & StarHub TV Ch 227)
In the end, Manchester United turned out to be the appetiser, the hors d'oeuvre, the strange sausage on a stick served at cocktail parties.
The recent derby whetted the appetite, but United were not the main course for Manchester City.
That comes tonight at Tottenham.
Pep Guardiola sits for his toughest test not at Old Trafford, but White Hart Lane.
Spurs have operated beneath the radar for weeks now, largely sidestepping the hype that has engulfed Manchester and Merseyside to sneak up on the shoulders of giants.
When City look behind them, they practically see themselves, a neat facsimile of their attacking philosophy.
When Guardiola shakes hands with Mauricio Pochettino, it'll be like looking in a mirror.
Both managers champion the omnipresent p-word, the tactical flavour of the month that has replaced the other p-word, which has fallen out of favour.
Possession, for its own sake, is so tika-taka now, so Barcelona and Spain in the 2000s, so yesterday's news.
Today, it's all about the pressing and nobody presses better than City and Tottenham (although Liverpool aren't far behind.)
Guardiola obviously has better players. But Pochettino has the foundation.
As the Argentinian fine-tunes and tweaks in his third season in North London, Guardiola has barely completed three months.
The Spaniard's early impact has exceeded even the most optimistic of expectations, taking a lethargic squad and injecting them with greater confidence and creative freedom.
City remain the title favourites, but even Guardiola concedes that they are a work in progress, smartly deflating the hyperbole that follows the English Premier League like a foul odour.
Tottenham, on the other hand, are established and quietly determined.
From front to back, there is an admirable resilience and organisation, which are a testament to Pochettino's work ethic, one that insists on double training sessions throughout the season.
Unbeaten after six games, Tottenham are enjoying their best start in 51 years. Singapore was taking its first, fledgling steps as an independent nation the last time Spurs were anywhere near this consistent.
And Pochettino could hardly care less.
He's the antithesis of the cliched English manager, bringing an entirely different barometer of what constitutes success.
Under the likes of Harry Redknapp, all silly sound-bites and outdated ambitions, a Champions League place was considered a trophy in itself, the end of Tottenham's rainbow.
Pochettino rejects such archaic thinking. Being an outsider, he doesn't accept the old hierarchy and Tottenham's traditional place in the world. He's at White Hart Lane to win the title.
Like Guardiola, Pochettino pursues perfection. It's a destination he can never reach, but he has no intention of derailing the journey.
Spurs are not only undefeated, they've also conceded the fewest goals, which provides a clear advantage over their opponents.
Swansea and Celtic breached the City wall far too many times for Guardiola's liking this week, but Tottenham's back four fit hand in glove.
Close defensive relationships were forged in the last couple of years and reinforced through relentless training drills. The fantastic four of Danny Rose, Toby Alderweireld, Jan Vertonghen and Kyle Walker are also the familiar four.
They pick themselves.
And, even then, the likes of Ben Davies and Eric Dier are prepared to plug gaps when necessary.
The shenanigans at Celtic suggested that Guardiola needs another season to put together his own fab four. With John Stones in the middle, it's more a case of Cliff Richard and the Shadows, rather than The Beatles.
City boast the highest possession rate in the EPL - 64 per cent - but they're up against the meanest defence and a team that counter pressing by counter-pressing.
United's disastrous first half in the derby showed that any attempt to absorb City pressure can be the tactical equivalent of wide-eyed lemmings scampering towards the edge of a cliff.
Swansea did the opposite. They squeezed City's defenders. It almost worked.
And Celtic fought fire with counter-attacking fire in a blistering Champions League contest.
Tottenham also press fast and feverishly, eager to release the in-form Son Heung Min and Dele Alli, safe in the knowledge that Dier or Victor Wanyama are on hand if the move breaks down.
On current form, Spurs represent the great white hopes for those seeking to avoid a one-horse canter to the title.
Should Guardiola still find a way to pick the locks at White Hart Lane, then everyone else might as well pick up their ball and go home.
"Of course, he is one of the best managers in the world who has showed his quality at barcelona and bayern Munich before coming to Manchester City and I think it is exciting to play his team."
- Mauricio Pochettino, on Pep Guardiola
"I don’t think he’s one of the best managers in England — he’s one of the best in the world. If I hadn’t been a coach, I’d just be a fan. If I were a young coach, I would see Tottenham and say: ‘I want to play that way.’"
- Guardiola, on Pochettino
BY THE NUMBERS
2 This game pitches together the only two unbeaten teams left in the Premier League this season.