Saturday September 26th, 2015

Thank goodness for match officials. If they did not make occasional mistakes, then managers would have to talk about the far more frequent errors they and their players make.

Tottenham’s 4–1 victory over Manchester City on Saturday was unusual because the officials really struggled with the offside law.

Kevin de Bruyne was marginally offside as he received the ball before putting City ahead. Kyle Walker was yards offside as he burst down the wing and crossed into the goal mouth. City half cleared the ball to Eric Dier, who drilled a low shot in off the post to level the score. For Tottenham’s third, Harry Kane was standing offside before he scored off a rebound from a free kick.

The other two Spurs goal were the result of flat out bad defending.

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Toby Alderweireld put Spurs ahead with a soft header from a free kick. No City defender made a challenge and Willy Caballero had wandered off his goal line with no clear destination in mind.

For the final goal, Clinton N’jie undressed Aleksandar Kolarov on the wing. Erik Lamela failed to control the pass, but Caballero and Martín DeMichelis considerately fell over as the Spurs player meandered around the area before rolling the ball in.

The thrashing could have been worse if Son Heung-min, who must have known he was so offside even the linesman could not fail to notice, greedily poked a goal-bound header from Nacer Chadli over the line.

City lost for the third time in four games in all competitions. This time it finished the match being badly outplayed.

Manuel Pellegrini is one the few modern managers who seems to know the word “dignity.” Nevertheless, he mentioned the two dodgy Tottenham goals repeatedly when he talked to BT Sport after the game.

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“Yes, yes, I know that two goals were offside but we played very well in the first half,” he said. “They draw the game with that offside goal. In the second half there were two set pieces, one of them was in offside, decide the game. After that they play very well. We did not have a good match with two set pieces, I repeat one of them was offside.”

Howard Webb, a former World Cup referee, now paid by BT to look at replays of offside goals and say if they are offside, said he could not remember a game when the officials had gotten so many offside decisions wrong.

Yet it’s also difficult to remember a game when City got so much wrong. This was the first time since May 2008, when it was still owned by Thaksin Shinawatra, that it has conceded four in the league (though, on that occasion, City let in eight against Middlesbrough).

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City has since spent a fortune on players, but, naturally, some are better than others. Its best goalie, Joe Hart, its two first-choice central defenders and its best creative player, David Silva, were all missing from the lineup. Sergio Agüero and Yaya Touré limped off before the end. Agüero does not look as if he has fully recovered from a challenge by Scott Dann of Crystal Palace on Sept. 12 but, with Wilfried Bony injured, he started. Touré appeared to damage a hamstring in the first half but stayed on until Tottenham took the lead, then he limped off.

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With the money City has spent, its backup keeper should do better than Caballero did. The centerbacks, Nicolás Otamendi and Demichelis, were in shambles, which explains why ​Eliaquim​ Mangala has been starting. But there are better players at the club.

Yet Pellegrini has a point about the first half. There was a period, after De Bruyne scored, when City looked like City. If Raheem Sterling could finish, or if Hugo Lloris were not so good in goal, City might have buried the match. The trouble was that, in the second half, with Tottenham resurgent, several City players seemed to remember that they aren’t really first-choice City players.

This defeat was bad. It might not be a crisis, but, unlike the linesmen, the game did raise warning flags.

GLASS HALF EMPTY

Meanwhile in a relegation battle, Chelsea scored two late goals to salvage a 2–2 draw at Newcastle. The result means Newcastle is 19th and Chelsea remains 16th.

With 11 minutes left, Newcastle led by two goals and was poised for its first league victory. It blew it. A point against the league champion looks like a step forward, but so did the point Newcastle took at Old Trafford in August. It lost its next three league games.

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Chelsea might take encouragement from the way it fought back at a ground where it has lost in each of the last three seasons. Its first goal, a wonderful long-range pass from Kurt Zouma, a bewildering first touch from Eden Hazard all finished with a blistering shot by Ramires, was the best of the 35 scored in the Premier League on Saturday.

Yet Chelsea wasted a chance to exploit City’s slip. The Premier League champion was utterly outplayed in the first half by a team that has looked clueless and scared in recent weeks. José Mourinho said that “on a scale of 1 to 10, the first half was minus 1.” Chelsea’s defending for the two Newcastle goals, one scored in the second half, was awful.

For both these teams, the glass is far from full.

A FAMILIAR FEELING

The great beneficiary of City’s loss was its neighbor, Manchester United. It made typically heavy work of the first 45 minutes against hapless Sunderland before taking the lead in added time at the end of the first half when Juan Mata cutely set up Memphis Depay.

Wayne Rooney and Mata scored at either end of the second half to seal a 3–0 victory. United climbed into first, which its fans believe is its natural habitat but where few outsiders expected to see it this season.

Louis van Gaal, the United manager, has not been able to decide in recent weeks whether to talk up his team as a title contender, or damp down fan expectations by dismissing the club’s chances.

United is in first place for the first time under Van Gaal.

"It's a nice feeling to be top of the table,” he told the BBC.

It’s a feeling to which United fans are rather addicted.

RAIN RETURNS

Saturday was a day that droughts ended.

Kane had not scored in more than 12 hours of premier-league play when he struck for Tottenham. Rooney had not scored a league goal in more than 17 hours when he scored against Sunderland. Alexis Sánchez had not scored in eight games in all competitions for Arsenal this season. Suddenly, on Saturday, the ball bounced their way.

Kane shot into an empty net after a free kick bounced off a post to him. He was offside. Rooney was shoved by Lee Cattermole of Sunderland but fell into the ball which hit his knee and flew into the net from two yards to put United 2–0 up. Sánchez was two yards from an empty goal when the ball deflected into his path.

After that easy goal, Sánchez’s drought broke in spectacular fashion. He went on to score a perfect hat trick, one left, one right and one header, as Arsenal defeated Leicester City, 5–2.

If you’re a striker, all you need is luck.

SPOILED FOR CHOICE

After Kane scored, Roy Hodgson, sitting in the stands at White Hart Lane, leaned forward to talk to Daniel Levy, the Tottenham chairman. Levy, as ever, was stone faced. Hodgson wore a huge grin.

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The England manager might have been even happier by the end of the afternoon. Kane and Rooney scored. Jamie Vardy, a recent England selection, hit two sharp goals as Leicester City lost. Daniel Sturridge, just back from injury, scored for the first time since March and then added a second as Liverpool hung on to beat Aston Villa, 3–2.

There was even a rare sighting of Andy Carroll, the Sasquatch of English soccer. He came on in the 72nd minute. Carroll did not score, but his charge at a curling free kick in the final seconds distracted John Ruddy, the Norwich goalie, into spilling the ball. Carroll then deflected it into the path of Cheikhou Kouyate, who scored to give West Ham a 2–2 draw.

Suddenly, Hodgson seems spoiled for choice in attack.

WORLD CLASS

Sir Alex Ferguson, who has a new book to sell, cannily stirred up one of soccer fans’ favorite debates when looking back at United’s unprecedented run of greatness when he identified only four “world class” players. They were Ronaldo, Eric Cantona, Ryan Giggs and Paul Scholes, with Ronaldo the “ornament on the Christmas tree.”

That provoked debate. David Beckham told the BBC he was not offended because he was not world class. Rio Ferdinand wrote a long Facebook post, which asked, in a polite and reasonable way, why the entire quartet were essentially attackers and why no defensive midfielders, goalies or defenders, such as Ferdinand himself, were included.

Ferdinand concludes, “a world class player must be someone who could walk into any team in the world & improve them.”

But that cannot be right. Pretty much anyone could walk into Sunderland and improve it. Would that make them world class?

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