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Tottenham’s evolution represents a gift and a curse against Pep Guardiola’s Man City

Tottenham make the trip to the Etihad on a three-match losing run and with their list of absentees into double figures

Richard Jolly
Senior Football Correspondent
Friday 01 December 2023 19:30 GMT
Guardiola encourages Man City fans to come to Spurs clash because it will be 'fun'

It was a pre-season friendly with a legacy, one that sparked an interest in Pep Guardiola. As he did his research – even with nothing at stake, he wanted to be prepared – he took heed of a manager who plied his trade almost 6,000 miles away, in a league that attracts little attention in England.

On Sunday, for Manchester City vs Tottenham Hotspur, he will share a touchline with Ange Postecoglou as peers: in 2019, they worked within the same wider footballing family, but the similarities may have ended there.

Postecoglou coached Yokohama F Marinos; the City Football Group have a stake in the Japanese club and as Manchester City prepared for the 2019-20 season, they faced Yokohama, part-way through a J1 League campaign that saw them crowned champions.

“I saw some games before,” Guardiola recalled. “And I said, 'wow, there are things that I like'. I said to the players that I know we are not ready because it is pre-season but we are going to face a good team who can challenge us.”

City won 3-1; as Guardiola readily recalled, they had better players. Kevin de Bruyne and Raheem Sterling scored that day. The starters also included Kyle Walker, John Stones, Aymeric Laporte, Rodri, Leroy Sane and David and Bernardo Silva.

But it formed a conviction in Guardiola that it was worth keeping an eye on the Australian manager in Japan. “He makes football a better place,” the Catalan explained. “Because I'm a manager but I'm also a spectator and I enjoy watching them a lot with the approach they have.”

Now they meet as two treble winners, and if Guardiola’s trio of trophies includes the more prestigious prize of the Champions League, Postecoglou did a clean sweep of the Scottish silverware with Celtic. But there is one triple manager of the month this season, and it is the Tottenham head coach. “All Spurs fans and people in England can admit the impact has been big,” Guardiola said, and if, after a stunning start, Postecoglou has suffered three straight defeats, Tottenham are unlikely to go on the defensive at the Etihad Stadium.

Ange Postecoglou’s side have lost their last three games (PA Wire)

“If you ask him whether he will change because they are playing against us? Absolutely not. This is not going to happen,” Guardiola said. “I know they lost their last games but you see how they play: courage, high line. It doesn’t matter who jumps to the ball, a lot of combinations, using the keeper for the build-up and arriving in the sides, incredible runners from everywhere, so dynamic. In a few months, you recognise perfectly his team.”

All of which reminded him of his initial impression in Japan – “the build-up, how intense their high-pressing, how they use the keeper for the build-up; it was true,” he enthused – and sounds distinctly familiar. They are all traits of Guardiola’s football. A few weeks ago, explaining his tactics, Postecoglou deadpanned: “I’m just copying Pep, mate.”

As Guardiola realised, he was not being entirely serious. “It was a joke,” he said, outlining a couple of differences.

“I'm not the only person when I was born to become a manager to play a high line. It belongs to him. I would say that sometimes my full-backs go inside [into midfield] but their full-backs go to the pockets, they are attacking midfielders. I never seen that before or use that. It belongs absolutely to him.”

That use of full-backs to get into the inside-forward positions, ahead of the midfielders, is an indication of Postecoglou’s boldness. He is an idealist after the trio of pragmatists, an adventurer after the dullards, the Antipodean antithesis to Antonio Conte, Nuno Espirito Santo and Jose Mourinho.

And yet, even amid a decidedly mixed few years for Tottenham, they have often had the habit of beating City with the kind of approach – deep defending and quick counter-attacking – that is scarcely the Postecoglou ethos.

“You see his team and the influence from the manager is there, compared with the past,” Guardiola said. “You see Antonio Conte's Spurs: you see his stamp, [they] play the way he wants.”

Guardiola’s respect for Postecoglou stems from a pre-season friendly against Yokohama F Marinos in 2019 (Getty Images)

The difference does not just lie in the dugout. Guardiola infamously branded Tottenham “the Harry Kane team”. There is no Kane now, and he is reluctant to attach another label to them. “I wouldn't do the same mistake, otherwise my colleagues are angry at me and I don’t want that,” he said. In a way, though, they are the Son Heung-min team: the South Korean has seven goals against City.

But with their reinvention as attackers, they are the Postecoglou team. It is a reason why Guardiola is so excited by Sunday. “I think that is such an incredible advert for our game and for our sport,” he said. “When two teams want always to go forward, it's always nice to watch, all the time. It's impossible not to see an interesting game when both teams want to try to do it.”

And this time, he won’t have to seek out footage from Japan to watch Angeball.

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