Can Tottenham challenge Manchester City in the Premier League this year?

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We have to accept VAR – Pochettino

The groans that greeted Hugo Lloris’ skewed kick in the 16th minute summed up Tottenham fans’ feelings in the first half at Etihad Stadium.

It had taken Tottenham most of those 16 minutes to get hold of the ball after Manchester City came out of the blocks firing on all cylinders.

That game of cat and mouse continued for most of the 90 minutes, but Spurs somehow managed to come away with a 2-2 draw despite being second best throughout.

Spurs boss Mauricio Pochettino said it was a “very positive result”, but admitted his team need to “improve in all areas”.

Last season, Tottenham may have got the better of City in the Champions League, but they finished 27 points behind the eventual Premier League winners.

So just how far away are Spurs from being title contenders this time around?

Clinical but chances were too few

After Raheem Sterling scored his fourth goal of the season within 20 minutes, Tottenham’s players trudged back to the centre circle, looking at each other and wondering how they were going to stop the relentless onslaught of attack after attack.

In the opening 15 minutes, City had 68.6% of possession, strangling Tottenham and refusing to let them get into the game at all.

But out of nothing, Erik Lamela equalised with Tottenham’s first shot on target, three minutes after Sterling had scored. He had one chance and he took it.

Tottenham’s players celebrate Erik Lamela’s (third left) first-half equaliser

Even in the warm-up, Tottenham were carrying out shooting practice and Lamela came out on top with a screamer in the top left corner. But once the match started for real, Spurs struggled to test Ederson.

Only two more shots came in the second half. One was from Harry Kane from the halfway line and was well wide, and just one was on target – Lucas Moura’s header just 19 seconds after he replaced Harry Winks.

Tottenham only managed three crosses from open play too and didn’t win a single corner in the first half.

New signings but still overrun in midfield

The arrival of midfielder Tanguy Ndombele from Lyon for a club record £54m sparked understandable excitement among Tottenham fans.

He impressed during pre-season, grabbing an assist against Juventus with his first touch as a second-half substitute, and scored a fine goal on his Premier League debut against Aston Villa last week.

Manchester City (left) pushed men forward in large numbers in the opening period

But despite working hard and winning more tackles than anyone else (five), he couldn’t provide the creative spark that Tottenham needed at the Etihad, while Christian Eriksen put in a performance that suggested he wasn’t settled amid transfer speculation, which continues to link him with a move away.

“The team and squad is still unsettled,” said Pochettino afterwards. “We will need to wait until after the transfer window in Europe closes to see which players we are going to have and that is not easy.”

Any time Tottenham did break through the high-pressing line of their hosts, they were halted by the strong presence of City’s new signing Rodri or deceived by the offside trap successfully laid by the home side’s back four.

Moussa Sissoko had some rare success down the right in the first half when he flicked it over Ilkay Gundogan’s head, but he lacked composure at the final moment, blasting his pass straight into Aymeric Laporte. Kane couldn’t hide his frustration.

“When you play City you have to do something special to stop them,” former Tottenham midfielder Danny Murphy said on Match of the Day. “Spurs’ midfield were reactive, not proactive, and they should have been three or four down at half-time.

“Nobody in midfield was able to stay with the runner. Eriksen didn’t help the back four out, does he want to run back? Is it lack of awareness or application?

“They climbed a mountain in the second half but they were lucky.”

Promising depth, but can it match City’s?

When Moura nodded in the equaliser to make it 2-2 seconds after his introduction, he sprinted towards the away fans, who were deliriously celebrating with as much bewilderment as happiness.

He has proven his worth with the heroics that sent Tottenham to the Champions League final last season, but even when Son Heung-min returns to partner Kane, Spurs’ attacking options can’t compare to City’s.

Pep Guardiola was able to call upon Riyad Mahrez, David Silva and Gabriel Jesus in the second half – with the Brazilian number nine thinking he had scored the winner, only for it to be ruled out for handball following a VAR review.

The competition for places at Manchester City is so high. Aguero was so frustrated by his removal that he argued with Guardiola in the dugout.

Meanwhile, Pochettino had little choice but to leave Kane on the field despite the striker registering just one shot and 23 touches all game.

City’s intensity too hot to handle

The most overwhelming contrast in the performances was between the teams’ intensities on and off the ball.

A group of fans in front of the press box burst out laughing when Raheem Sterling and Bernardo Silva boxed poor Kyle Walker-Peters into the corner in the first half, giving the full-back little option but to smash it against Bernardo’s legs in a frantic attempt to win a throw-in.

It was the story of the game for Spurs – fighting to break through City’s press, while struggling to get anywhere near the ball.

The heatmap shows Tottenham – attacking the goal to the right – had their backs against the wall in the first half

At one point in the second half, Sterling threw his arms up in frustration at Gundogan opting to pass it backwards rather than feeding him in. The England international sensed Tottenham were struggling and wanted to pounce.

On the rare occasion Tottenham were able to match City’s intensity, creating a press of their own, Ederson coolly lifted it into Bernardo Silva, who flicked it onto Oleksandr Zinchenko and the move ended with a corner to City.

“If we played that game later in the year there would be more intensity,” said goalkeeper Hugo Lloris.

“It’s very positive for us to get a point here and it’s a good signal to the other challengers. Step by step we are improving and we all know the direction we want to take as a club.

“It’s only August so we need to give time for the pre-season process to get us in perfect position. but for now we did very well.”

A good result but a performance that didn’t match

City may look at a shot count of 30-3 in their favour and wonder how they didn’t win. But in the end, Tottenham took their chances – as few as they were – and came away from the Etihad with a highly creditable 2-2 draw against the defending champions.

Last season, they lost four of their five away games against established top six opponents and they had also taken just four points from their previous nine games at Manchester City’s ground.

So while they looked a class apart for large periods, the scoreline remained even – with Spurs shaking off their supposed ‘weak mentality’ tag to come from behind twice.

They still haven’t won a Premier League away game since January and they lost their last six in a row away from home at the end of last season. Another defeat at City would have equalled their worst run since 2000, when George Graham was in charge.

Pochettino said Tottenham “can improve on this result”, but their performance left much to be desired. Can they challenge for the title? It looks unlikely this year.

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