Trips to Tottenham’s various grounds have had a significance in Pep Guardiola’s reign as Manchester City manager. His first defeat came at White Hart Lane in October 2016. In April, his side responded to three consecutive losses to Liverpool and Manchester United by winning 3-1 at Wembley, a result which meant they became champions when West Bromwich Albion won at Old Trafford the following day.
A bogey team became victims. After taking just one point from a possible six in 2016-17 against Mauricio Pochettino’s team, City secured the maximum six last season. A major reason was Kevin de Bruyne, who produced an outstanding performance in the 4-1 victory at the Etihad Stadium and excelled again in the spring rematch.
Now the Belgian should make a belated first league start of the season. Rather than examining his cameos, before and after injury, against Arsenal and Burnley, it is worth revisiting his display against Tottenham last December to see just how influential he can be.
Untick the “only important actions” box on Twelve’s pitch map and it shows the range of his contributions: while David and Bernardo Silva have excelled as Guardiola’s No. 8s this season, De Bruyne brings the most running power of all of them, and rather than operating from box to box, he made contributions from goal-line to goal-line.
Using Twelve’s rankings, he earned 1,482 points for his attacking efforts, which included six key passes as well as City’s second goal. It said something about Tottenham’s struggle to stop him that both Harry Kane and Dele Alli were booked for fouls on the Belgian, and that both perhaps could have been dismissed.
Another point worth making is that De Bruyne only had a 72.3 percent pass completion rate that day; it was only 76.7 percent against Shakhtar Donetsk in Tuesday’s Champions League win. Both figures are low for a Guardiola midfielder, but they show that De Bruyne is not a typical one: he plays more long passes and he is willing to risk conceding possession to try and create.
Mauricio Pochettino experimented with a midfield diamond last December. If the scoreline shows it did not work, there was some logic to the system, giving De Bruyne an immediate opponent as well as the insurance policy of a holding midfielder. Much of the Belgian’s best work comes in the inside-right channel.
A map of his season’s contributions – and he figured second only to Mohamed Salah in last season’s Twelve Premier League rankings – shows how often he crossed the ball from infield positions. It is something Spurs will have to look out for. The difficulty may be getting a defensive player in the suitable position – left of a midfield three or a diamond – to track De Bruyne.
In a campaign when several Tottenham players have struggled to repeat the feats of previous campaigns, Erik Lamela has been an exception. The Argentinian ranks 10th on Twelve’s Spurs leader board, which may not sound especially impressive. Yet he has only played 164 minutes in the Premier League. Almost half came at West Ham last week, when he scored the only goal.
If Lamela has long been a player who defies categorisation – not really a winger, as he does not hug the touchline, not really a No. 10, though he may want to be, as he does not play there enough, not really a striker, though he can operate up front – a map of his important actions this season suggests he can be more of a forward than is often acknowledged.
Unlike many a creative midfielder, he gets into goalscoring positions inside the penalty box. It helps explain why he is averaging a goal every 55 minutes in the top flight and if that ratio is not likely to last, he nevertheless could be Spurs’ likeliest match-winner if history is to repeat itself and they are to inflict City’s first defeat again.