No more “the Harry Kane team”? Pep Guardiola once infamously labelled Tottenham Hotspur just that and as Kane remains desperate to join him at Manchester City this was a glimpse of what might just be achieved without the star striker.
The line from Tottenham remains that they steadfastly do not want to sell but Kane was, as expected, not even in the squad as Nuno Espirito Santo achieved a defiant, memorable victory in his first game as head coach and it was match-winner Son Heung-min who took the applause as he was last to leave the pitch, with the broadest of smiles and patting his heart as he did so.
It was Son’s goal that settled it and how delicious that will feel for Spurs given he committed his own future to the club by signing a new four-year deal earlier this summer.
Nuno played Son as his central striker with the outstanding Lucas Moura on the right and, behind him, Japhet Tanganga an uncompromising defender with the 22-year-old academy product earning renditions of “he’s one of our own” which used to be reserved only for Kane.
Instead there was another song for him. An angry, defiant chorus.
“Are you watching Harry Kane,” belted out the jubilant Spurs fans and it grew more spiky as the realisation settled in that they were actually about to beat City who became only the third team to win the Premier League and then lose their opening fixture the following campaign. For Guardiola it was, in fact, the first time he has lost an opening game since 2008.
Finally Spurs came out fighting. Finally they counter-attacked. After months of feeling under siege, of fearing an implosion as Kane pushed to leave – and still pushes – they emphatically hit back.
Defeating City is a result to savour at any time but especially under these trying circumstances and especially, finally, again in front of a full stadium when the atmosphere could so easily have turned against them with another poor performance.
The acoustics were astonishing as was the enveloping sense of defiance in what was a richly deserved win. There was no fortune about it. Nuno had them fired up.
For Guardiola there were more questions than answers and not least whether City can prise away Kane. But also how does he get the best out of the £100million signing Jack Grealish who, here, too often played almost the same role as Raheem Sterling – drifting out to the left – until the latter was replaced with 20 minutes to go.
There was also a worrying injury to Ilkay Gundogan who appeared to damage his shoulder.
“Harry Kane, he wants to be blue,” sang the City fans but they were left feeling that colour as their team barely achieved a meaningful effort on goal despite a string of chances.
Guardiola admitted they were not “clinical” although he continues to protest (publicly at least) that he does not desperately need a centre-forward. But, if not Kane, City have to quickly try and find someone else.
The only goal summed up Spurs’ superb endeavour. They broke from their own penalty area with Lucas hooking the ball over his shoulder to Steven Bergwijn who ran from deep before finding Son. Nathan Ake erred by backing off and Ederson was distracted by Ruben Dias’ awkward attempts to block Son’s shot as the forward cut in on his left foot and angled the ball into the corner of the net from the area’s edge.
That was poor defending from City but it was no more than Spurs deserved. “He’s a killer,” Nuno said of Son.
Whatever happens this season then it appears Nuno will have them more organised; more aggressive; more purposeful and that was summed up in a magnificent second-half performance with Davinson Sanchez hunting down substitute Kevin de Bruyne and Oliver Skipp, another academy graduate back from his loan at Norwich City, harrying and scurrying around the pitch.
Once they conceded City had time. But they never really looked like turning this game around and it was Spurs who went closest when Lucas once again ran with the ball, riding challenges until he was chopped down. Referee Anthony Taylor played advantage and the ball fell to Bergwijn who only had Ederson to beat but struck the side-netting.
And to think Nuno did this with none of the summer signings on the pitch until Cristian Romero came on in the 90th minute and without Kane and with scepticism as to whether he is the right man for the job (given he was way down Spurs’ list of potential managers).
City were also weakened but in the opening exchanges looked like they would blow Spurs away. “They came very strong, clear chances,” Nuno said and there were. There was Gundogan’s free-kick deflected narrowly over; a Fernandinho header just wide as Hugo Lloris flapped at a cross and a shot from Joao Cancelo just past the post.
On the touchline Nuno stamped his foot in frustration. As well he might. Spurs could not even gain a foothold. Thousands of flags had been distributed before kick-off and it seemed Spurs were raising a white one as the game unfolded.
But how that changed. Yes, City had the best chance before Spurs scored with Riyad Mahrez slipping and miscuing from just seven yards out when he was unmarked and latched onto Sterling’s cross but Spurs had settled by then with Lucas’s volley turned behind by Gundogan on the goal-line and Son’s shot deflected a foot wide.
Once they scored, once there was lift-off Spurs had even more of a cause to fight for, even more of something to hold onto and there was never a moment when they looked like letting go even if Kane still wants out. Maybe there is a future for them without him.