For the first thirty minutes, I tried to be positive.
The first goal scored by Manchester City against Tottenham at the Etihad Stadium on Sunday came from what can be called a howler of a miskick by keeper Hugo Lloris, ultimately leading to a goal from Jesus Navas in his first league start for the hosts. ("Ultimately" might not be the right word here since it took all of 13 seconds for City to grab the lead.) I had a bad feeling when Younes Kaboul made a back pass to Lloris -- not the most promising way to start the match. Lloris's delivery of the ball to Sergio Aguero just outside the box invited an early shot, which Lloris saved, but Navas somehow curled the rebound into the top far corner.
It was a nightmare of the beginning, but for the next half hour, Spurs looked the livelier team. Sometimes managers do read the papers, and it sure seemed as if Andre Villas-Boas had. Abandoning the inverted winger system with which we've all grown impatient, AVB put Aaron Lennon back at his familiar position on the right while giving Erik Lamela his first league start on the left. Both players showed early flair, and with the Brazilian pairing of Sandro ruling the back (and making a world-class tackle from behind on Samir Nasri in the box) and Paulinho handling things between the boxes, Spurs were dominating possession. It's easy to say City were just hanging back for the counterattack, but I don't think so. I doubt the club with the league's best attacking squad went into a home match thinking they would sit back from the outset -- and I doubt a goal in the first 15 seconds caused manager Manuel Pellegrini to rethink his tactics. I think Spurs were just hungrier and City perhaps complacent after their early strike.
But then in the 34th minute, Lloris blundered again. Looking like an NFL punter who outkicks his coverage, he drilled a clearance straight to a City's Fernandinho at midfield and helped initiate the sequence that led to a second goal; moments later, Sandro was tagged with an own-goal for Spurs after a shot from City striker Alvaro Negredo was blocked by Kaboul but then bounced off the midfielder.
City began to look more proactive toward the end of the first half, and soon the match was out of reach. In the 41st minute, a pass from Pablo Zabaleta released Navas on the right. The winger blew past Lamela and sent a perfect cross to Aguero, who'd lost Spurs center half Michael Dawson and directed the ball past Lloris for goal number three.
With the situation desperate and Roberto Soldado still mired in his season-long struggles in Tottenham's single-forward system, AVB took off Lewis Holtby and sent in the long-banished Emmanuel Adebayor for his first appearance in any competition for Spurs this season. But the only thing achieved by the move to a 4-4-2 was surrendering Tottenham's one consistent strength -- the middle of the pitch -- to the hosts. Three more goals came from City, who handed Spurs their worst ever defeat in the Premier League. Man of the Match? Some will say Aguero. I say Navas. It really doesn't matter. City was the Team of the Match and could well be top of the league by season's end if they ever get their travel itinerary in order.
Even with their road struggles, we knew City was not an eighth place club, and Sunday's historic result saw them leap past Spurs into fourth place with a bullet. Two match weeks earlier, Spurs had been favored to beat Newcastle and climb to second in the table. Tottenham now find themselves ninth, and it's where they deserve to be having scored just nine goals in twelve matches -- or just one more than Loic Remy has scored for that same Newcastle club over its last eight matches.
It's not so much Sunday's loss to a very accomplished squad--let's remember Spurs lost at home to City 5-1 two seasons ago and went on to finish fourth--as it is the home losses to West Ham and Newcastle and the on-going goal drought (four matches now without an open-play goal) that have revealed this to be a season in which Tottenham is rebuilding more so than reloading. The Richie Riches (City, Chelsea, United, Arsenal, a resurgent Liverpool) are all up at the top ready to do battle with each other. Spurs are decidedly second tier right now -- an Everton-caliber club with a stronger midfield but lacking a true scoring threat. Tottenham has coped with lackluster output from their central forwards in recent seasons, but there was a van der Vaart or Bale to make up for it.
Moving forward, the most important question might be not what the Spurs XI should be next week but what it's shaping up to be for 2014 and beyond. Are we aiming toward: Lloris; Walker, Chircihes, Vertonghen, Rose; Sandro, Paulinho; Lennon, Eriksen, Lamela; Soldado? Those last two names are the wild cards. Among the club's three biggest expenditures during the summer of the Bale windfall, Paulinho looks to be an emerging star -- it should be a pleasure to watch him and Sandro playing together for Brazil next summer -- while Lamela and Soldado have yet to establish themselves. Lamela has some magic in his feet but comes out of challenges looking like a baby giraffe; he will need a season to adjust to the physicality of England. Andros Townsend, the English international who may well be more popular outside North London than within, might be the better option on the left for now (but please not on the right) against clubs that need to be pinned back on the wings. But what to do of Soldado? He's got a quality shot, though unless someone else gets himself tripped in the box, he never gets to use it. The striker managed 24 goals in La Liga last season but after twelve matches, the B word has become more than a faint whisper. Far too much money and far too many contractual years are tied up right now in two forwards who have been absent from the pitch -- one literally, one figuratively.
Meanwhile, the club continues to pay for the decision to head into this season with just one true left back in Danny Rose. With Rose out, our best center half in Jan Vertonghan was forced into action as fullback again. He's said he doesn't like playing out wide, and you could tell on Sunday. We've been dreaming of a central pairing of him and Younes Kaboul or Chiriches, and the wait continues. Club captain Michael Dawson gives his all but will get carved up by the Agueros of the league in AVB's high-line.
It's Manchester United up next at White Hart Lane. Spurs took four points off the eventual league champions last season, and they need another positive result on Sunday to right the ship. Of course, a goal or two might be required toward that end.
Follow Rob Kirkpatrick on Twitter: www.twitter.com/wrappedupinboox