Following the Super League debacle earlier this year, it doesn’t take much for owners and chairmen at Europe’s major football clubs to give off the air of scheming supervillains.
Still, Spurs chief Daniel Levy chuckling away to himself before kick-off amid no other visible amusement in the directors box felt a little on the nose.
Perhaps he was pondering a best-case scenario in the current context of his own club, visitors Manchester City and Sunday afternoon’s absent superstar.
On their three previous visits to the Tottenham Hotspur Stadium, the reigning Premier League champions had been beaten without scoring a goal. In each of those games, City’s expected goals (xG) figure, as per Opta, was superior to their hosts, including a comedic 0.3-2.9 when Jose Mourinho’s Spurs won 2-0 in February 2020.
It was the same story here as Tottenham won 1-0 with their first shot on target from Son Heung-min, although few could begrudge Nuno Espirito Santo this stirring start in his new job.
As they did for much of last season, City lined up without a specialist centre-forward in their XI. Fernandinho and Joao Cancelo spurned glorious openings within the opening five minutes as the fledgling link-up between Raheem Sterling and £100million man Jack Grealish on the left laid the foundations for early domination by Pep Guardiola’s side.
Riyad Mahrez shanked off target from 10 yards in the 35th minute but, by that stage, Spurs had a foothold in the contest. Indeed, had it not been from some unusual hesitation from Son on the break, they might have led.
Harry Kane, Son’s usual partner in crime, would have prayed on those opportunities but was out of Nuno’s matchday 18 on account of lacking fitness, City’s widely reported interest or most likely some combination of those factors.
Ferran Torres, leading the City attack, managed nine first-half touches and only two of those were on the fringe of the Spurs box. When the early momentum that saw the away team hog 79 per cent of possession in the first 15 minutes waned, they lacked a presence and a focal point to help them wrest it back.
Half-time did not settle Guardiola’s men and they resumed in ragged fashion, increasingly ill-suited to a game being played in transition.
Steve Bergwijn sprung in behind Fernandinho, who looked every one of his 36 years here, and fed Son. If City seldom score in this fixture, the Korean star always does. He whipped in a left-footed shot that beat an unsighted Ederson for his seventh goal against these opponents.
7 – Son Heung-Min has only scored more against Southampton (11) than he has against Manchester City (7) in all competitions for Tottenham, while only Jamie Vardy (9) has scored more goals in all competitions against Pep Guardiola’s Man City than the South Korean (7). Breakthrough pic.twitter.com/QMAyhRsegh
— OptaJoe (@OptaJoe) August 15, 2021
Mahrez and Cancelo each delivered dangerous crosses to nobody in particular but City were dealing in what Guardiola referred to as “incredible almost chances” after their Champions League final loss to Chelsea. At least until Torres added another howler to their north London catalogue after a well-worked 70th-minute free-kick.
Often free-scoring during Guardiola’s trophy-laden tenure, this was a third 1-0 loss for City after their reverse to Chelsea in Porto and last week’s Community Shield defeat to Leicester City.
The most damning aspect was how inevitable this meek surrender felt after Son scored, on a weekend when Manchester United, Chelsea and Liverpool all won comprehensively. That trio of title contenders will have enjoyed what they saw, although an eye-catching substitute cameo from a half-fit Kevin De Bruyne means it is not a time to draw too many conclusions beyond a gaping hole at centre-forward.
City’s area of need is obvious after an afternoon of sweet success to savour for Spurs. Whether he enters negotiations or opts to divert all calls from Manchester, Levy can certainly afford to cackle his way through next week.