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Ken Early: City starting to look foolish for buying Grealish and not Kane

Title is still Manchester City’s to lose unless some unseemly off-field antics get in the way

When you think about how good Romelu “seven touches in 90 minutes against Palace” Lukaku looked in Conte’s team at Inter, you wonder what the ceiling might be for Harry Kane. Photograph: Stu Forster/Getty Images

Tottenham opened the scoring against Manchester City in a blur of blink-and-you'll miss it brilliance that had to be slowed and rewatched several times to appreciate the cunning and coordination that had gone into it. No wonder City couldn't keep up with it in real time.

First Son luring Rodri out of his protective zone in front of the centre backs, then Kane sneaking into the space thus vacated to receive; Davies bypassing City’s midfield with a driven pass to Kane, Rodri perceiving the real danger too late as Kane fires the first-time through-ball for Son, who has catapulted through City’s defensive line and now has ample time to choose between shooting or squaring it for Kulusevski to tap in.

This was not a counter-attacking goal - City's team had been set up in formation as though on a tactics board - and yet Spurs had unlocked them with three passes, the ball travelling from their left-back zone to the back of City's net in ten seconds. Seldom has anyone made scoring against City look so easy, but it would be a stretch to describe this perfectly-timed choreography as simple. Tottenham's last two permanent coaches were the kind who like to focus on defensive organisation and let their forwards improvise the attacking game. Antonio Conte prefers to work on automatic moves that his team can pull off beyond the speed of improvisation. In case there was anyone out there who hadn't already recognised his fingerprints all over that superb opening goal, Conte made sure to point out afterwards that Spurs had been working on that type of move all week.

If the Spurs manager seemed unusually eager to ensure that none of the credit for a brilliant victory slipped through his fingers, maybe it’s because he has just emerged from one of his most difficult spells in management. After suffering three consecutive league defeats for the first time since 2009, he had then created more problems for himself by giving a spicy interview to Sky Italia.


Initial excerpts from the interview had Conte complaining that his squad had been left weakened by the loss of four “important” players and saying that he “now” understood the Spurs vision was to buy younger players with a view to development and resale (as opposed to the kind of experienced players with whom you might actually win something). At best it sounded like a sulk, at worst a threat of imminent departure.

Conte suggested elements of his message had been lost in translation and the rest of the controversy had been manufactured by the media. “I don’t understand why someone wants to try to create a problem with me. Not only me but also in the past.” He was talking about Tottenham’s past, which according to him is a litany of public bust-ups between managers and board. But if you know Conte’s past it’s no mystery why his remarks were greeted with dismay.

This is a guy who has walked out of the two biggest coaching jobs in Italian football because of disagreements over transfer policy. His relationship with the board at Chelsea collapsed because of disagreements over transfer policy. Many would judge this the record of a diva but Conte is not embarrassed by it. He sees it as proof of his integrity. “I look at the projects and I am willing to stay at home if they do not convince me,” he said after leaving Inter. “It is a question of vision, professionalism, intellectual honesty and principles that cannot be ignored.”

Antonio Conte’s fingerprints were all over Spurs’ shock win. Photograph: James Gill - Danehouse/Getty Images

Whether Conte is a diva who wants it all his own way or just an incredibly principled, passionate professional who wants it all his own way is beside the point. More relevant is that when he gives an interview in which it sounds like he is complaining about his new club’s transfer policy, anyone who has followed his career until now is bound to take notice.

Conte may not plan on being at Spurs for much longer, but when you think about how good Romelu "seven touches in 90 minutes against Palace" Lukaku looked in Conte's team at Inter, you wonder what the ceiling might be for Harry Kane. Kane has spent most of the season making City look very wise for not paying the £140 million it would have taken to get him out of Tottenham, and has now made them look very foolish for buying Jack Grealish instead.

After 22 league games Kane has seven goals and two assists; at the same stage last season those numbers were 13 and 11. A big reason for that decline is that Kane suffered the same physical and psychological Euro 2020 hangover as most of the England players, complicated in his case by the heartbreak of a failed transfer bid.

Most of the England internationals have shaken off post-Euro syndrome by now, but not Grealish, still stuck on a meagre two goals and two assists in the league. None of those games were even close enough for Grealish’s contribution to affect the outcome - the league’s most expensive player has been almost perfectly superfluous.

Grealish was powerless to reply to Kane’s display of dominance on Saturday due to a reported recurrence of the shin problems that affected him last season at Aston Villa. The shin problems flared up around the same time as a video of him emerged apparently being refused entry to a heaving Bavarian-style beer hall on a night out in Manchester. Grealish hasn’t made a squad since.

Off-Field Problems

Aching shins didn’t stop Grealish making it to the Khan v Brook fight at Manchester’s AO Arena on Saturday night, but the City player who made the biggest splash on the night was Phil Foden. Viral videos showed Foden’s family being targeted for harassment by various groups of tormentors. One of these situations erupted into a brawl in the course of which Foden’s mother was punched in the face.

One can imagine Guardiola’s horror at the sight of Foden, his best young player, exposed to such chaos and risk. Going out with family seems a healthy way for a 21 year old to spend a Saturday night, but maybe not if you are going to be targeted like this. When Guardiola was Foden’s age he was no stranger to late nights; however, you sense that Barcelona in the early 90s lacked something of the wildness, the flare-up-the-arse edge of post-pandemic Britain. Certainly it did not contain such a worryingly high percentage of people prepared to physically attack you to generate content for their socials.

Despite the result, the title race is still City’s to lose. Photograph: Visionhaus/Getty Images

With 19 wins in 22 matches since November, City should still be cruising serenely towards a fourth title in five years. As long as peripheral chaos does not disrupt Guardiola’s best-laid plans.