Manchester City keep Arsenal within reach thanks to Haaland and pantomime villain Grealish
Leeds put up quite a fight and looked impressive in stages, but Manchester City had too much for them and the title battle is still very much on.
The chase continues then. A win for Manchester City puts them back to five points behind Arsenal in the Premier League, back above Newcastle United into second place. There were stages at Elland Road when they didn’t quite look on top of things, particularly during a profligate first half. But despite a dogged performance from Leeds, who never quite gave up no matter how lost their cause felt at times, they won reasonably comfortably, with that guy bagging another couple of goals.
Manchester City went into the World Cup break with a glitch in the matrix still fresh in their minds. Their last match against Brentford was supposed to be a home banker, but two Ivan Toney goals caused one of the upsets of the season, all the more so because Brentford were full participants. A smash and grab it was not. Coming just four weeks after another defeat at Liverpool, the Death Star had been showing signs of wear and tear in the weeks before everyone headed to Qatar.
Leeds United have had a strange old season. After having only avoided relegation on the final day of last season, they started this time around with a flourish, taking seven points from their first three games and briefly occupying third place in the Premier League table. An eight-match run without a win followed, culminating in a 3-2 home defeat against Fulham at which the atmosphere at Elland Road made the sacking of Jesse Marsch feel inevitable.
But Leeds kept faith in Marsch and from out of nowhere came a revival: a 2-1 win at Anfield and a thrilling comeback from 3-1 down to beat Bournemouth. Even in defeat at Spurs in their last match before the winter break they led three times before being edged out by two goals in three minutes towards the end.
Leeds were up to 15th in the Premier League by the time they took to the pitch to play Manchester City, although such is the nature of that very congested half of the table that they were also just three points off the bottom.
For 45 minutes, Leeds were in the game. For the first 15 of those they looked a little tactically messy – on more than one occasion they found themselves with three or four players on the touchline at the same time – but once they settled into compact lines of three they played their part.
Manchester City created all the chances, of course. It took just under 40 seconds for Erling Haaland to get through on the left-hand channel, only for Illan Meslier to get a hand to his shot and a defender to clear.
Much of the rest of the first half was set to a soundtrack of increasing derision from the home supporters towards Jack Grealish, who wasted opportunities from increasingly straightforward looking positions, culminating in him ballooning the ball over the crossbar from eight yards when it may have been easier to hit the target.
But for all of Meslier’s best efforts, when a team of the quality of Manchester City step up a gear, they can become simply unplayable. In one move at the very end of the half, they spread the ball from the centre to the left, across to the right and into the centre for Rodri to score from close range. It was simple, elegant and perfectly executed.
It was also a little tough on Leeds, especially coming as it did, a minute into stoppage-time.
The ability to step up a level is at the heart of what it means to be able to stuff your squad with such lavishly talented players. By the time 20 minutes of the second half had been played, Manchester City were 3-0 up, both subsequent goals scored by Haaland, both created by Grealish.
It’s likely that Grealish in particular was pretty pleased with his role in both of those – especially in light of recent speculation – and his withdrawal came with Leeds players starting to lose their tempers with him a little. He was replaced by Phil Foden – just another reminder of how massive the gulf between the haves and the have-nots is, even within the Premier League.
But Leeds didn’t give up. After losing their way with the two second-half goals the home crowd started to get behind the team – the loudest rendition of ‘Marching on Together’ heard all evening came shortly after City scored their third goal – and with 17 minutes left Pascal Struijk headed in from a corner to reduce the deficit.
The volume inside Elland Road rose another notch. Leeds continued to push forward and within minutes Joe Gelhardt pushed the ball just wide of the post.
A second Leeds goal with just over 10 minutes to play would have set up quite a finish. Perhaps the point is that Manchester City could afford to waste their chances because they can be reasonably certain that there will be more coming, and probably fairly soon. This is, broadly speaking, seldom an option for teams playing them. You have to take those chances when they present themselves, because you can never say for sure that there will be others.
Leeds kept going – even in stoppage-time they were slinging a corner into the Manchester City six-yard box in the hope of making the remaining four and a half minutes considerably spicier – but City dealt with that without having to break into too much of a sweat. If Leeds had been disappointing throughout this game, it was in attacking positions, in which they offered very little until the game was almost out of their reach regardless.
It does rather feel as though the Premier League is holding its breath for the two matches between Arsenal and Manchester City, which will be played on February 15 and April 26, as though people are still refusing to accept that Arsenal could have improved that much on last season as quickly as they have. Both teams won 3-1 in their Christmas fixtures and both looked fairly comfortable in doing so. But if Haaland can keep tapping them in and Grealish can keep teeing them up, City won’t be giving up that particular chase for some considerable time to come.