In a way, the entire history of Manchester City Football Club was summed up by the first 27 minutes at Old Trafford on Sunday.
City started brilliantly. It took the lead with a sumptuous goal and created two other excellent chances. It was dominating, but then conceded two bad goals to fall behind. City had a chance to win a fourth straight Manchester derby, but instead it was humiliated, 4-2.
The reigning English champion is fourth in the table and in a free fall. It has won four of its last 15 matches. It is a City in ruins. If it carries on like that, it won’t hold off Southampton, which is five points back but has won its last three and five of its last seven. The two teams meet on the final day of the season in Manchester.
City has always had a remarkable knack for switching from dazzling success to complete disaster in the time it takes Fernadinho to give the ball away. This is a team that has won the league twice in the last three years. Yet on Sunday, and in the defeat at Crystal Palace last Monday, it was hard to identify many players who look good enough to make City contenders for a third title next season.
Sergio Agüero and David Silva remain among the best in the Premier League. Yaya Touré can still seize control of a match when he wants, although it seems to be less and less often. At 29, Vincent Kompany’s from has collapsed. He was fortunate not be sent off, again, short before he limped off at halftime. Pablo Zabaleta, Joe Hart and James Milner are all solid, admirable pros who can be useful cogs in a successful team. As for the rest, they are proof that throwing a lot more money at the problem won’t solve it if City continues to spend too much on players who do too little.
Much has been made of the age of the City squad. The club has spent its way into a trap. It has given huge contracts to players whose play means no other club will want to pay their wages. Many are there to stay. On the other hand, age is not the only explanation of what happened at Old Trafford.
As Ashley Young, who scored United’s opening goal, told Sky TV: “Only one team was going to win it once we went ahead.”
Injuries meant United played the last few minutes with only 10 men. City’s players seemed neither to notice nor to care. After Agüero cut the deficit to two with a couple of minutes left, the City players trudged slowly back to the halfway line.
For manager Manuel Pellegrini, the issue was not age but errors.
“I don’t think that it was a problem of the pace of the United team," he told Sky. "I think it was our own mistakes on two of their goals."
There was a lot of bad defending by some mediocre defenders.
“We have to play six more games to try to be as top of the table as we can,” Pellegrini said.
Even that might not be enough to preserve his job. In any case, missing out on Europe may be a good idea. This season, City was fined £49 million (almost $72 million) for breaching UEFA’s Financial Fair Play regulations. The club needs a new defense, a new midfield, new wide attacking players and another central striker. Every selling club will know City is both very rich and extremely desperate. City will have to continue to overpay. Even with the accounting lag built into FFP, this might be a good time to take a break from Europe.
A THING OF BEAUTY
The BBC has been celebrating 50 seasons of broadcasting English league soccer by showing all the winners of their annual goal of the season award. It is a numbing collection of long-range thumps and thunderous volleys. All are breath taking and most required superb technique, yet soccer is a team sport. It is the most beautiful game when it is an extemporized dance of astute passing, clever movement and quick imagination. The goal with which City briefly took the lead on Sunday might not win goal of the season because Sergio Agüero scored it by tapping the ball into an empty from two yards, but it was a thing of great, great beauty.
None of the players involved did anything which any decent amateur player anywhere could not do. Gaël Clichy started the attack by spotting some space and carrying the ball into it. James Milner drifted slightly inside, waited while David Silva ran past and then slid a diagonal pass 10 yards into the Spaniard’s path. It did not requite great skill, but it sliced open the home defense like a Ginsu knife. Silva collected the ball in space, turned and rolled a pass between David de Gea and Phil Jones who had badly mislaid Agüero. The Argentine was free to score in a move of beautiful geometry. Perhaps, City’s players were still swooning in self-admiration as United responded by pummeling the visitors.
REDS LEAN LEFT
Maybe Louis van Gaal hit upon the tactics that have revived United’s season by listening to the fans. He could hardly fail to recognize the old socialist anthem when the Old Trafford crowd sing: “We'll keep the red flag flying here.” United’s recent success has come after a pronounced movement to the left. In the first half at Old Trafford on Sunday, Sky TV calculated that almost 60% of United’s attacks came down the left. That repeats the pattern in recent matches as Daley Blind, Ashley Young and Marouane Fellaini terrorize opposing right backs.
It helps that van Gaal has a team of workers. Pablo Zabaleta was not helped by the refusal of Touré, one of the few Premier League midfielders who can match up physically with Fellaini, to drop back and cover the big Belgian. Both United’s first-half goals came from crosses from the left. Juan Mata scored the third after switching to the left. United might be the richest club in the world, but its fans are happiest waving the red flag.
There are ugly 1-0 victories and there are ugly 1-0 victories. After Arsenal won its eighth straight league game, a 1-0 victory at Burnley on Saturday, manager Arsène Wenger told the BBC, “It was a scrappy one with less fluency in our game.”
Yet Arsenal took the lead after 12 minutes and could have added other goals as it held off a home team desperate to claw its way out of relegation. It was a job well done. The victory cut Chelsea’s edge to four points and put pressure back on the league leader.
On Sunday at Loftus Road, against a team that had lost five straight home games and languished in the bottom three, Chelsea looked weary and punchless. And at 37, Didier Drogba is a shadow of the striker he once was.
“He doesn’t have the legs for 90 minutes,” Blues manager José Mourinho told Sky.
In truth, Drogba, albeit the heroic competitor that he is, didn’t look as if he had the legs for 90 seconds. But with Diego Costa out for the season, Loïc Remy also hurt and Mourinho reluctant to utilize any of the stars of the club's highly successful under-21 team, Drogba is all Chelsea has. Cesc Fàbregas, so deadly before Christmas, cannot seem to find a pass. Ramires, Willian and Nemanja Matic were out-hustled by the journeymen Joey Barton, Karl Henry and Sandro. Only two typically impressive saves by Thibaut Courtois prevented QPR from taking a deserved lead.
After 88 minutes, Chelsea had not managed a single shot on target. It did not look capable of winning. Then the ball broke to Fàbregas on the edge of the QPR box. As three defenders lunged, he finally connected with an accurate pass and popped the ball through a tiny gap and into the corner of the net. Chelsea had found a way to win, which is supposed to be the hallmark of a great team.
“The reality is that three points is always three points,” Mourinho told Sky TV after the game.
Chelsea needs only 11 points from its last seven games, but if it plays like this in its next two games, against Arsenal and Manchester United, it will require all Mourinho’s big-match magic and all Courtois’s brilliance to earn the Blues any points.
FEED THE BEAST
Soccer is about goals. That would seem obvious. Yet for the second season in a row, Aston Villa manager Tim Sherwood has revived a team by identifying who its most dangerous striker is and then setting up the rest of the team to feed him.
Last season it was Emmanuel Adebayor at Tottenham; this season it's Christian Benteke at Aston Villa. When Benteke scored the lone goal as Villa won at Spurs on Saturday, it was his eighth tally in the last six games.
After the game, Sherwood talked to the BBC and implied that his tactics explain Benteke’s recent burst of goals because “the shackles are off.”
On Saturday, Benteke had more touches than any player on the Villa team, which is extremely rare for a striker. Sherwood’s tactics have something to do with that.
Yet Benteke, like Adebayor, had scored goals before. With Adebayor the problem is mental, with increasingly rare bursts of energy interspersed with bouts of sulking. Sherwood was canny enough to briefly re-ignite the touch paper. With Benteke the problems have been physical. He hit 23 goals in his first season at Villa under Paul Lambert and then started last season with five goals in five games before a hip injury and then a ruptured Achilles’ tendon wiped out more than a year.
Sherwood, who had nothing to lose at Spurs and has nothing to lose at Villa, has undoubtedly been more willing to take risks than Lambert was, yet he might simply be lucky enough to have arrived just when Benteke was beginning to trust his body again.
The test will be what happens next season. Opposing managers watch tape. Over the first three months of this year, Tottenham was the top-scoring team in the Premier League. Over the last two weeks, Spurs have struggled to muster a shot on goal. Harry Kane has been silenced.
Benteke, unlike Kane, brings not just skill and an eye for goal. He has brutish strength and breakaway pace. He can overpower any defense. If his injury record scares off wealthier clubs, Benteke is strong enough to carry Sherwood a long way.