It was in November last season that it became clear Manchester City were going to be champions. Their lead at the top was already handsome and their form too daunting for any other club to reasonably match it. Having struggled during his first season in England, Pep Guardiola had gone away, regrouped and come back three or four times stronger.
In 2018/19, City will face far stiffer competition. Liverpool have strengthened, Chelsea are revitalised under Maurizio Sarri and Tottenham refuse to leave the party held by the financial elite. Spurs have enjoyed their best ever start to a Premier League season – more on that later – at precisely the time when we assumed they would fall away.
And yet that creeping feeling of Manchester City dominance is back. Guardiola’s team have played Arsenal (a), Liverpool (a), Tottenham (a) and Manchester United (h) and have taken ten points from a possible 12. They may only have a two-point lead at the top, and a five-point cushion to Spurs in fourth, but City are the dominant team in the league.
In those four fixtures against the teams most likely to finish in the top five alongside them (according to the odds at least), City allowed only seven shots on target and Anthony Martial’s penalty was their only conceded goal. Even their closest rivals are finding it difficult to lay a glove on them.
That dominance was emphasised spectacularly in the Manchester derby (read 16 Conclusions here). That minute of passing, in which City players exchanged possession with each other 44 times without a Manchester United player getting a touch of the ball, was truly glorious. It was only ended by Ilkay Gundogan’s simple finish, sealing victory in the most magnificent manner possible.
Of course City may stumble, in the reverse fixtures against their peers or against weaker teams who latch onto some City complacency. But it’s a big ask. Right now, the Premier League is trying to play catch-up with a defending champion that is quickly disappearing over the horizon.
David Silva is the magician and deservedly took so many of the plaudits, but it is the form of Bernardo which covers so brilliantly for the absence of Kevin de Bruyne even in City’s biggest matches. On Sunday, Bernardo created six chances. No Manchester United player has beaten that in any game since the start of last season. He made our team of the week.
The new rock of this Manchester City defence. Laporte has played every minute of every league game this season, the only City player to do so, but most impressive against United was how he won aerial duels against Romelu Lukaku and Marouane Fellaini while also keeping pace in a footrace with Marcus Rashford. Laporte? More like Lemur, if you know your GCSE French.
In his previous six matches against Big Six teams at Everton and Watford, Marco Silva had taken a single point. A draw at Stamford Bridge combined with none of the four teams directly above them winning made it an excellent weekend for Silva.
Back on track after a tricky run of form, Wolves should consider themselves unfortunate and annoyed not to have left the Emirates with all three points. If Henrikh Mkhitaryan scored an unmerited equaliser with minutes remaining, a cross evading everyone including Rui Patricio, Morgan Gibbs-White came agonisingly close to a stoppage-time winner. Play like this every week, and Wolves will finish in the top half.
Tottenham, grinding it out
Honestly, I get it. I understand that every time you praise Mauricio Pochettino a raft of replies must follow sarcastically asking what he has won. That’s despite Chelsea and Manchester City being the only English clubs to win a trophy last season, and despite both of those clubs having far greater budgets than Tottenham. Oh, and it’s despite Tottenham finishing in the top three in each of the last three seasons, something no other club can match. There is apparently a new law where managers can only be praised for winning trophies. Maurizio Sarri, Eddie Howe, Chris Hughton et al will be furious. Sorry lads, you know the rules.
I understand too that it must lead to replies from Arsenal supporters saying that Arsene Wenger was criticised for doing the same in the late 2010s. That’s an argument that ignores several things: 1) Wenger wasn’t really criticised for that; the criticism came later. 2) That Arsenal period came after competing for titles, whereas Pochettino took over from Tim Sherwood. 3) There is far more competition at the top of the Premier League than ever. The rich got richer and further ringfenced their cabal.
Tottenham have now enjoyed their best ever start to a Premier League season, despite the stadium farce, a lack of any transfers over the summer and an injury crisis fuelled by fatigue. Tottenham had more representatives in the World Cup semi-finals than any other club in the world, and less depth than any other club in the top six. What’s more, Tottenham have now won five straight away league games, 11 of their last 14 and over the last nine months only Manchester City have a higher points-per-game total away from home.
Nothing epitomises Tottenham’s rise in fortunes under Pochettino, a manager who is now responsible for more than a quarter of his club’s away wins in Premier League history, than the anger praise of him provokes. A Tottenham manager is actually getting flak for his side’s display during an away win. Questions are being asked of Tottenham’s ability to stay ahead of Manchester United, a club that has a net spend £435m higher than them since Pochettino took over. Take a step back and appreciate that. Those saying ‘but how many trophies’ are either being wilfully blind or wilfully obtuse.
Salomon Rondon and Newcastle
Wonderful cross whipped in with a left foot, placed onto the onrushing head of a striker who powered it into the net. This could have been Laurent Robert servicing Alan Shearer.
For Rondon, a welcome arrival after injuries and patchy form. If he can continue to lead Newcastle’s line like this, he will be cherished by a city and a set of supporters crying out for a saviour. For Rafael Benitez, further vindication after unfair criticism. Newcastle have now won consecutive league games for the first time since April and have moved up to 14th in the Premier League. He’s working his magic again, despite the grim mood.
If Naby Keita and Fabinho expected to arrive at Anfield and immediately play a pivotal role in the first team, Shaqiri probably expected a slightly different start to this season. Having been signed from a Championship club and most comfortable in the position occupied by Mohamed Salah, Shaqiri was back-up.
But while Liverpool’s other two outfield signings have had far less impact than expected, Shaqiri is having fun. Only Salah and Sadio Mane have contributed more goals and assists to Liverpool’s league season than him.
Leicester, getting it right
A disappointing result and performance against Burnley, but one that is entirely forgivable given the emotion at the King Power. Thousands of supporters met at Jubilee Square in the city and took part in a memorial walk to the stadium, coming from as far as Australia and America to be involved. They held up scarves to honour their former owner, and chanted their thanks for his role in their title miracle.
By the time that former managers had taken to the field to pay homage and offer respects to Vichai Srivaddhanaprabha, Time To Say Goodbye playing out over the tannoy, there were few in the stadium who still had dry eyes. Football doesn’t always get it right, but this was spot on.
“It wasn’t a dangerous tackle, he hasn’t endangered the life of the player, so I don’t know why it’s a red card” – Warnock, October 7.
“Dale Stephens is an honest and genuine lad, but I can understand why the referee gave it” – Warnock, November 10.
What a man.
Jose Mourinho and stats
“So, when I analyse the game today, I think the difference was, you can go for stats,” said Mourinho after Sunday’s derby defeat. “That’s the way people that don’t understand football analyse football, is with stats. I don’t go for stats, I go for what I felt and I watch in the game and the game was there until minute 80-something.”
Firstly, this is a manager who has regularly held up three fingers over the last three weeks to indicate the number of league titles won. Mourinho also turned up to his Manchester United unveiling with a list of 49 players to whom he has given a debut, a retort to criticism about his development of young players. He is happy to talk stats and numbers when it suits.
Secondly, what Mourinho might interpret as ‘stats’ are actually just pieces of factual information. His team are currently ceding points to Manchester City at a rate of one per game, but are also ten points behind Liverpool, seven behind Tottenham and four behind Arsenal. They scored with their only shot on target in the derby and barely looked like creating danger in open play. After 12 matches of their league season, they have a negative goal difference.
Finally, those ‘feelings’ that Mourinho had during the derby were optimistic bordering on delusional. If Mourinho honestly felt Manchester United were in the game at any point after City’s first goal, he is mistaken. United were fortunate that the scoreline was not more emphatic, and so was he.
Mourinho has a valid defence for defeat to City, both on Sunday and in the title race. Pep Guardiola has created and collected arguably the best team in Premier League history, and the derby was proof that Mourinho cannot cope with that strength.
But that defence only stretches so far. We have played almost a third of the league season and Manchester United are behind Watford and Bournemouth. They have Romelu Lukaku, Anthony Martial, Alexis Sanchez and Marcus Rashford and are getting a tune out of one of them, at best. They have created fewer chances than Wolves, Everton, Southampton, Watford and Fulham. They have faced more shots than Wolves, Leicester, Everton and Leicester. How can any of this be dressed up as anything other than disastrous for club and manager?
Marouane Fellaini and that threat
“One of the things that broke our plan a lot was the fact Fellaini had to start the game,” said Mourinho post-match. “Because Fellaini is not in conditions to play 90 minutes. I can imagine when it was 2-1 to bring a fresh Fellaini, I think they would be in big, big trouble.”
Would they, Jose? Or would they deal with him exactly as they did in the first 20 minutes, using short passing triangles to leave him and Ander Herrera chasing space like out-of-shape five-a-side footballers? The midfield of giants were embarrassed by City’s speed of thought and movement. Anyone looking for a metaphor for Mourinho’s struggles is welcome to stick around.
Mourinho’s argument was that Fellaini’s aerial presence would have caused havoc in the City area, but if that was indeed the case and he knew that Fellaini would not last the full 90 minutes in peak shape, why did he not start the match with that strategy? Or even pick the £50m midfield summer signing who remained on the bench throughout? Instead, United sat back as virtual spectators for the first 20 minutes as City scored once and could have increased that lead.
It all feels like a bad excuse, one that inadvertently highlights the deficiencies of club and manager rather than covering for them. Mourinho’s greatest trick was convincing a section of Manchester United’s support that this is anything other than unacceptable.
Alvaro Morata’s infuriating offside problem
You can see why Maurizio Sarri wants to keep faith in Morata. After all, he’s 26 years old, cost an awful lot of money and there have been signs over the last few weeks that the Spaniard could play his way back into form. On Sunday, we saw an emphatic repudiation of that argument.
Morata’s problem – similarly to Lukaku’s, actually – is that when he is playing badly it is very obvious very quickly. While Eden Hazard and Willian try to zip around him, Morata looks sluggish and sulky. It doesn’t make you a Proper Football Man to conclude that he spends far too much time on the floor with his arms in the air.
Most frustrating of all is how often Morata gets caught offside. The highest number of offsides a team has registered in a Premier League match this season is seven, but Morata managed five by himself against Everton. He’s been caught offside twice more than any other Premier League player this season, and he’s played less than 65% of Chelsea’s league minutes.
A draw against Everton to continue their unbeaten record is no disaster, you say? That may be true, but put into the context of this season and that assessment shifts. Such is the performance of the top four at home to the Premier League rest, any slip-up is worthy of criticism.
Before Sunday’s fixture at Stamford Bridge, the current top four had played 16 home games against non-Big Six teams this season. All 16 matches had been won, with the top four scoring a total of 51 goals and conceding seven.
Arsenal, starting slowly
This has been coming. Against Leicester City a fortnight ago, Arsenal could have been two goals down before the away team eventually took the lead. Arsenal are starting matches far too slowly, and they should be more relieved with a point than Wolves.
It is an issue that Emery admitted was causing him problems, and he now has a fortnight to identify exactly why Arsenal are so careless in the first quarter of matches. Some supporters do seem keen for him to fail – and I don’t understand that attitude – but this sluggishness represents the first big test of Emery’s reign.
We all had a good laugh at Charlie Austin’s angry post-match rant about poor refereeing decisions costing Southampton, but Austin strangely failed to point out that the officials also failed to spot Ryan Bertrand’s foul in the penalty area that would have given Watford a penalty and potentially a second yellow card shown to Bertrand.
It’s also a handy deflection tool for Mark Hughes, a manager who has now won five of his last 32 Premier League matches. From his last 38 league games in charge of Stoke and Southampton, a full season of matches in which he inexplicably earned a promotion, Hughes has taken 31 points.
So you’ll forgive me – and several thousand Southampton fans – for ignoring a disallowed goal and focusing on the bigger picture. At their current rate, it will take Southampton over 800 shots to match even their limp goal total from last season. Good luck with that.
Stephens can reasonably claim that a yellow card would have sufficed. His tackle made contact with the ball and he only skimmed Greg Cunningham’s ankle. The red card was a debatable call.
But why oh why are footballers so dim? Stephens’ tackle was 40 yards from goal. From the moment he jumped into the challenge, a red card became a possibility. It also cost his team in a vital game against a probable rival in the fight against relegation.
Jurgen Klopp brushed away the question with a joke, remarking that until he was allowed to start more than 11 players he would have difficult selection decisions. But the question was valid and aptly timed. Keita was signed to be the perfect link between midfield and attack, but he last started a Premier League match on September 15.
He’s been left out for games at Anfield and games on the road. He’s been left out for games against clubs in the top six and the bottom three. Of course Keita still has time to come good, but we were excited about him hitting the ground literally running. So far, we’re still waiting.
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