About an hour before kick-off at the Etihad Stadium a member of staff walks around handing out puzzles. At most grounds they are more popularly known as “team sheets”, but ever since Pep Guardiola arrived at Manchester City the exercise of deciphering his starting XI has become almost as absorbing as watching it. Brows are furrowed. Heads are scratched. Is that Bernardo Silva as a false 9? João Cancelo in midfield? That can’t be an 8, or a 7, and the 5 goes there, so … Ederson at centre-half?

The real trick, of course, is realising that at Guardiola’s City, formations and starting points are largely an irrelevance. Roles switch every 10 minutes. Positions switch every 10 seconds. What matters is the situation, of which no two are ever the same. City’s equalising goal came from a Raheem Sterling cross, attacked by Kevin De Bruyne at the near post, bundled home by Ilkay Gündogan. But you could swap any of those three names around and still picture exactly what happened.

Guardiola loves players who can do it all, which brings us neatly to the protagonist in this enthralling, physical, warp-speed game. The fact that it was Harry Kane who undid City on Saturday provided the obvious narrative hook. But as the home side pounded away in the second half, swapping positions, picking and rolling, weaving their customary triangles, there was also a certain footballing irony at work here.

What made Kane’s performance one of the greatest by a Tottenham player in the last 30 years was its multiple levels of excellence. Yes, Lucas Moura scored a hat-trick in a Champions League semi-final and Gareth Bale destroyed Internazionale on his own. But Kane did more than score and create. He was essential in restricting the service to Rodri in the City midfield. He helped marshal the defence at set pieces. He kept possession when he needed to, played rough when he needed to. He brought others into the game.

Kane helped marshall the defence and played rough when needed.
Kane helped marshall the defence and played rough when needed. Photograph: Laurence Griffiths/Getty Images

Kane made 22 touches in the first 59 minutes. About half of them had been exquisite. One was the sumptuous first-time through ball around the corner that created Dejan Kulusevski’s opening goal. And the vast majority had come in a little midfield band 10 yards either side of the halfway line. Not a single touch was in the penalty area. This was playmaker Kane, the deep-lying springboard, the platform-layer.

This evolution over the last two or three seasons has been well-documented. But what exactly is Kane now, almost a decade after his Premier League debut? A 9½? A striker who drops deep? A No 10-cum-quarterback? What feels absolutely certain is that playing Kane as a simple meat-and-two-veg centre-forward is pretty much the least interesting thing you can do with him these days.

Yet as the hour mark dawned Kane was yet to make his mark in the City box. Characteristically, the move that produced his first goal began with his own diagonal pass to Son Heung-min. As Son regathered the ball and looked for a cross, Kane suddenly charged forward. It was as if some old ley line of memory, some vision of a former life, had twitched awake in him. And yet this was not really a Kane-type tap-in at all: rather it brought to mind a midfield poacher such as Frank Lampard or Bryan Robson, or even Gündogan.

And so came the agonising finish: the swinging crosses, the desperate defensive rearguard, the mesmerising whirl of blue shirts, the inevitable City equaliser via a VAR penalty. But in the fifth minute of injury time, as City roused themselves for one last push, Kane rose highest to nod in Kulusevski’s cross and burgle a spectacular winning goal. Pressing midfielder, playmaker, false forward: and yet here at the very end was a reminder that for the many masks Kane wore here, the original remains the best.

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The obvious question in the short term is what Kane, now bubbling to a peak after an indifferent autumn, can do for Tottenham. Great moments do not necessarily presage a change in the weather: the great robbery of Leicester a few weeks ago was not the new dawn it felt like at the time. The home form remains a real concern. But Champions League qualification and perhaps even an FA Cup tilt no longer feels like a distant ambition.

The more intriguing question is what City might have done for Kane, had that summer transfer flirtation been consummated. The old assumption was that Kane would simply be the fairy on Guardiola’s Christmas tree, banging in 40 tap-ins a season and finally solving their penalty problem. But as this game showed, Kane can be so much more. In a strange way, he already feels like a Guardiola player in his appreciation of space, his hybrid instincts, his ability to flick through roles in an instant. Idle conjecture for now. But maybe not for too much longer.