Not at their best, but plenty good enough. During the first half, City were scrappy and slack as they tried to break down Manchester United’s deep defensive line. They are used to scoring early goals and therefore earning relative comfort. United did not give them that luxury.
But when it mattered, the gulf in class between the two teams was vast. City’s goals relied upon two pieces of questionable goalkeeping, but the lead was thoroughly deserved. There was a passing move – all one and two-touch football – moments after City had taken the lead where they made Manchester United look like amateurs. Forget getting a touch on the ball; United could not even get within three yards of a City player as they passed and moved with the swagger in which we know they are capable.
This may or may not be Manchester City’s biggest test on their route to retaining the Premier League. Burnley will be gritty and resolute, Brendan Rodgers will be out to cause a shock and the final day will come with nerves that are inevitable when the finishing line is so close.
But City have earned the right to be clear favourites, whatever Liverpool do. They have taken 45 points from a possible 48 down this unfathomably long home straight, and beaten Tottenham and Manchester United within the space of five days without conceding a goal. That those results immediately followed Champions League heartache demonstrates the camaraderie and mental resolve hammered into the squad by Pep Guardiola.
This team is not for moving, and it would be a great shock if they let it slip now. For the first time in a decade, the Premier League title will be retained. There is no more deserving team of breaking the pattern. Now read 16 Conclusions.
Not named as the official Man of the Match; David Silva got that honour. But the manner in which Bernardo demands the ball under pressure, draws two opposition players to him, pushes the ball away from his body to open space for the pass without losing control and then gives the ball before moving quickly into space is one of the great Premier League joys. And he’s still only twenty-bloody-four.
Only Brighton, but a Brighton that came for a 0-0 draw and defended oh so stoutly. Tottenham’s toughest tests are when they are blocked from playing on the counter and finding space, instead required to break down a mean, miserly defence. With Harry Kane replaced by Fernando Llorente (and even Vincent Janssen), that task is doubly hard.
But Tottenham got it done, and in doing so took another giant step forward in their pursuit of Champions League football once again. Participation in that competition is becoming normality when it never was before, but with a new stadium and a squad that needs high-level improvement it has never been more important to sit at Europe’s top table. Six points from three matches against West Ham (h), Bournemouth (a) and Everton (h) will be enough, and even four might well do.
The focus is so often on what Eriksen isn’t and what he doesn’t do, rather than what he is and does. That’s a compliment, really. The ceiling of his potential is so high that supporters cannot fathom why he cannot sustain the highs in every game. I partly blame the rise of FIFA, with its reset energy levels at the start of every one-off match.
But here’s the thing: Eriksen turned 27 in February and has already played 520 senior career matches. By way of randomly selected example, Nemanja Vidic made 547 senior appearances in his entire career. Mesut Ozil, another fine Premier League creator, is on 624 but is three-and-a-half years older than Eriksen. Ozil also doesn’t register the distance covered and sprint statistics that is expected of Eriksen at Tottenham.
That takes its toll. It is possible to be both a creator and worker, but it’s a damn hard balance. The two tenets, chasing players down to win the ball with intense pressing and then being immediately calm to pick out the perfect pass or shoot at goal, is tough. When Mauricio Pochettino urged Eriksen to be the complete midfielder, contributing as much without the ball as with it, he knew that he risked dimming the bright light of his creativity. But for the good of the team, he had to urge.
And yet still Eriksen gets Tottenham over the line. Not every week, and perhaps not even as much as some Tottenham supporters would like, but often enough to remind us of his brilliance. If Tottenham can add strength in depth this summer, giving Eriksen some support to stop him being laboured by fatigue, they will reap the rewards.
Shane Long’s career will be defined by the period before April 23, 2019 and the period after. Before Tuesday night, Long was an unfunny joke, the striker who didn’t score. At the age of 32, he had managed double figures in a league season only twice. His goal against Watford was his ninth in his last 85 Premier League matches.
1 – @SouthamptonFC players now hold the record for the fastest ever Premier League goal (Shane Long, 7 seconds) and fastest ever Premier League hat-trick (Sadio Mane vs Aston Villa May 2015, 2m 56s). Blocks. #WATSOU
— OptaJoe (@OptaJoe) April 23, 2019
But now Shane Long is not famous for not scoring, but famous for scoring. The most impressive aspect of Southampton’s ludicrously early goal was that Watford actually took the kick off and still managed to bugger things up so quickly, but that spoke of Long’s qualities. From minute one to minute 90, he will chase down lost causes and put opposition defenders under pressure in the hope of forcing a mistake. These are qualities that Ralph Hasenhuttl holds dear.
Wolves vs the top six
Of course Wolves ended their sticky patch against a team from the top six, because that’s exactly how their season has gone. Nuno’s team have earned four points against each of Chelsea, Arsenal and Manchester United, and no more than three points against Huddersfield, Fulham, Cardiff, Burnley, Brighton and Southampton. Work that one out.
Here is of the points per game totals in intra-top seven matches this season:
Manchester City – 2.42
Liverpool – 2.00
Wolves – 1.42
Chelsea – 1.09
Arsenal – 1.08
Tottenham – 0.83
Manchester United – 0.64
One of those clubs is not like the others.
The race for seventh
We assumed that the battle to finish seventh in the Premier League, thus probably guaranteeing participation in Europa League qualifying, would be an outright sprint. Four clubs, and four managers with different reasons for actually embracing Europe’s secondary competition. Javi Gracia and Nuno wanted to something to mark wonderful league seasons, Marco Silva has a squad big enough to cope with the added workload and Brendan Rodgers would enjoy the added glamour of European football in his first full season at Leicester.
But this has turned into a bizarre race of nip and tuck. Everton humped Manchester United but lost at Fulham. Leicester won their first four under Rodgers and then took one point against West Ham and Newcastle. Wolves had their confidence pricked by FA Cup semi-final defeat but then outclassed Arsenal and Watford required a late equaliser to get a point at home to Southampton having been on a wonderful run of their own.
Watford host Wolves against on Saturday, a match that may well determine who finishes seventh, but a draw there and it’s still anyone’s for the taking.
Manchester United, and the wastage
After 88 minutes at Old Trafford on Wednesday evening, Luke Shaw gave away a free-kick. With plenty of stoppage time on the way (four minutes was added on), Shaw should have been desperate to get the game restarted. His team were trailing in the derby, and hadn’t scored for almost three matches. These were the minutes to put pressure on their opponents, pinning them back.
But Shaw did not want the game restarted quickly. He ran over to the ball and knocked it well out of play. Manchester City were only too happy to delay proceedings, but so was he. Shaw had had enough. He was beaten. He wanted the derby to end.
Looking immediately to the stands, and Manchester United supporters felt exactly the same. Old Trafford was half-empty by the time the final whistle finally blew. They had had enough too. They were beaten. They wanted the derby to end.
On Sunday, Manchester United didn’t want it enough. On Wednesday, they wanted it plenty but were far below the standard required to be good enough. Those are separate problems that require different solutions. Nothing about Manchester United over the last five years suggests that they have the competence to solve either.
These are not bad players; I’ve said that over and over again in this column. All have either succeeded before joining Manchester United or succeeded at Old Trafford before declining. But there is something rotten at the core of this club that drips from the top down and leaves watermarks on every individual. Blame the players if you like – and they deserve some censure – but who was the last player who actually improved their reputation at Old Trafford? David de Gea in 2011?
Either you believe United somehow exclusively signed 20-odd snakes and work-shy man-children in the eight years since, or you reason that there is something about the club that drags them down, allows complacency to fester and ultimately makes underperformance inevitable.
Take Alexis Sanchez as an example of the outright negligence within United’s hierarchy. The Chilean, signed predominantly to stop Manchester City getting him, has been wretched ever since he arrived, is paid £400,000 as a weekly salary and receives an extra £75,000 just for stepping onto the pitch. On Wednesday night that got Manchester United one touch of the ball. Sanchez was signed with no plan and for no obvious purpose other than ‘we can sign him; let’s sign him’. That stinks.
If the answer lies in the transfer market, and it must do if you believe that many of this squad aren’t good enough, that’s hardly a foolproof strategy. You could pick a starting XI from United’s current squad that cost the club £437m in transfer fees alone, and that excludes Sanchez and his massive salary.
It’s not about what you spend but how you spend it and who is responsible for doing so. And that’s without considering that elite-level players may not be too keen to join a club that specialises in damaging the reputations of expensive signings and will likely not be participating in the Champions League next season.
What must now change is the structure; bad news must bring with it a double helping of humble pie. Only through an acceptance of their guilt can United bring meaningful change. And that doesn’t mean appointing Mike Phelan as the sporting director, thus starting next season with a manager and sporting director that no other high-level club in Europe would want. Manchester City sought domination, so they went out and cherry picked the best in Europe from Barcelona. Manchester United are seeking domination and are in danger of giving the most difficult task in their modern history to two rookies.
Do things properly this summer, and positive change can come quickly. Money will forever grease the wheels and Manchester United have stacks of it. But bury their heads in the sand and pretend that everything can be rosy with a few minor tweaks, and United will only fall short once again.
There are clubs that do it smarter than them, clubs that do it better than them and clubs that get more than them from less. That is a damning indictment of Manchester United’s ‘management’. The word deserves the inverted commas.
Ole Gunnar Solskjaer
The other thing Manchester United haven’t tried is a forward-thinking tactician who prides himself in his positive relationship with his players who has been recently successful at the highest level, and that covers David Moyes, Louis van Gaal, Jose Mourinho and Ole Gunnar Solskjaer.
Look down the Premier League, and a few fitting the description jump out. Jurgen Klopp, Pep Guardiola and Mauricio Pochettino, for sure. Nuno and Brendan Rodgers, perhaps. The jury may be out on Maurizio Sarri and even Unai Emery, but they both fit the bill. Even Ralph Hasenhuttl, who took RB Leipzig to second in the Bundesliga.
Solskjaer might work out, but it is a whacking great gamble for a club that cannot afford any more missteps. The nostalgia-fuelled references to the 1990s have already worn very thin, and their repetition only increases the concern that that is all he has.
But Solskjaer will not succeed until the structure above him changes. And more disturbing than his slump after being named permanent manager is the suspicion that he is not prepared to force through change at the top of the club because he considers himself so fortunate to be in his position. This may not end well, and it may end quickly.
Arsenal’s away record
Consistency, consistency, consistency. Unai Emery mentioned the word over and over again in his post-match press conference, a man visibly frustrated by his players. If the manager made the mistake on Sunday with his team selection, his players let him down on Wednesday. A top-four place that coulda, woulda, shoulda been secured by now still hangs in the balance.
For all the improvements Emery has made at Arsenal (on a lower transfer budget than plenty around him), the away-day weaknesses remain. Victory at Watford papered over the cracks – Arsenal were largely rotten and would surely not have beaten 11 men – but the record remains pretty abject for a club of their standing.
Since beating Bournemouth on November 25, Arsenal have played 11 league games away from home. They have won two (against Watford and Huddersfield, when they were also fortunate), drawn three and lost six. They have conceded 21 goals.
This is nothing new, of course, a problem that Emery has failed to solve rather than caused. Arsenal have kept two away clean sheets in the league since December 2017. One of those was against ten-man Watford and the other against Huddersfield in May 2018. That is truly pitiful.
Until Emery can solve this issue – and it takes investment, coaching and a shift in mentality – Arsenal can never truly move forward. It will be top of his list for the summer.
David De Gea
He’s the only signing in eight years to improve his reputation at Old Trafford, and now the Manchester United disease has got to him too. De Gea’s confidence is dented by every tame shot that he allows to squirm past him. Leroy Sane’s goal on Wednesday forced the type of mistake you would expect from a schoolboy goalkeeper afraid to use his hands.
First Fred gives away possession. That’s no surprise; he’s been doing it all evening to a choir of groans and moans from supporters who cannot fathom how bad this £52m midfielder is playing.
Then comes the second mistake. Fred charges at Raheem Sterling, as if to try and spook him into ceding possession. Instead Sterling dances around Fred, who is left making a limp grab for his opponent like a schoolboy rugby player who would rather be anywhere else than standing in the cold trying to stop bigger boys from trampling over them.
Six seconds later, as Fred is jogging back towards his own penalty area, Leroy Sane scores. The game is over, decided by a goalkeeping error and a masterclass in central midfield sh*ttery from a big-money signing.
Thanks for coming, Fred. But just one question before you do go: Are you Kleberson in disguise?
The top four ‘race’
The title race may be an assault of consistency the likes of which we have never seen before, but the battle for the top four has turned into a drunken pub brawl with flying fists and swaying bodies.
Manchester United have taken six points from their last six league games and failed to score in three of them. Arsenal have now lost consecutive matches against two non-top-six teams. Chelsea have won three of their last seven and supporters are booing their manager. Tottenham are missing their best player and are visibly knackered.
And yet they all still have a chance, and Tottenham’s place is virtually secured. That’s not a good look for the other three.