With a backdrop of near Champions League extinction, an admission that Monaco were one of eight clubs Roberto Mancini was "close to" last season, and the Manchester City manager angrily demanding "respect" for his track record, this appeared to be a good time for André Villa-Boas's Tottenham Hotspur to roll up at the Etihad Stadium.

Fifty-seven minutes in and the Portuguese, whose calling card is supposedly modern football thought and slick tactical awareness, was outsmarted by Mancini, who switched to the 3-5-2 system he developed during the summer.

In this shape, Maicon replaced Matija Nastasic as he and Aleksandar Kolarov became City's wing-backs and the home side quickly swept in the equaliser to Steven Caulker's first-half opening goal: within eight minutes Sergio Agüero profited from David Silva's overhit pass that fell into his path to slot past Brad Friedel.

For Villas-Boas, this was the pivotal point. He said: "They kept on going and put everything to try to get the result in the last minute. We looked good in the first half and didn't deserve to concede for the game to go 1-1. We were playing well and they scored from the counterattack and it gave them the lift and that was the key moment for them. They gained extra motivation and it lifted the stadium … [for] attack after attack it was difficult to hold on. It was down to the individual quality they have."

While it is too simple to caricature Villas-Boas as a Premier League David Brent whose fidgety touchline antics and manager-speak are difficult to decipher, he hardly helps himself. Despite this identification of the "key" moment being Mancini's formation change, Villas-Boas then said: "The change of system didn't affect us that much. What affected us was the score and 1‑1 gave the extra lift. We wanted to avoid 1‑1. After 1-1 you have to be very careful. When Mancini went three at the back, we had to adapt in a certain way. The injury to Kyle Walker [on 78 minutes] also did not help because we had to adapt quickly. He was in a risk situation because he was feeling his hamstring tighten."

At Old Trafford in September Spurs were fortunate to hang on to beat Manchester United 3-2, and Villas-Boas might have taken a lesson about conceding the initiative. "We tried to hold on to the 1-1, sometimes it pays off, sometimes it doesn't," he said. "At Old Trafford it did. They [the Spurs players] have been very brave over the last few months. What they have gained is extremely good mental strength to want to recover."

Points, though, keep on being surrendered. Spurs are the late, late show that only opposition fans wish to watch. On the opening day at Newcastle United, Jermain Defoe's 76th-minute equaliser was almost instantly negated by Hatem Ben Arfa's winning penalty. Next up, James Morrison's goal on 90 minutes salvaged a point for West Bromwich Albion, then Norwich City, too, escaped with a point when Robert Snodgrass scored five minutes from the close. Tottenham also surrendered a 2-1 lead at home to Chelsea in October to finish with a 4-2 reverse.

Against City, who had not won in a fortnight and whose 2-2 draw with Ajax in the week almost certainly means Champions League elimination, it was Edin Dzeko's turn, scoring his winner on 88 minutes.

"It means we can compete with them but what I said in the game against Chelsea is that individual brilliance makes the difference," said Villas-Boas. "To have a player so strong of character like Dzeko to come on when his team needs him deserves great credit and surprises me."

Defoe has been the surprise operator in Villas-Boas's regulation 4-2-3-1 and after a midweek hat-trick in the 3-1 Europa League win over Maribor took his season's tally to eight he might have expected more than the final 10 minutes as Adebayor's replacement. "It was very difficult to leave Jermain out," the manager said. "I think he understood it for the best of the team. We have this quality also in our squad, four or five players of extremely good talent who are out of this team."

Spurs are down to seventh, a place above Arsenal, where they travel on Saturday. "The derby is a different proposition," Villas-Boas said. "It is a positive for us because it represents so much for north London and Tottenham and Arsenal."