Almost every goal in soccer is scored, or created, by a decisive attacking action to create or score it. Yet almost every goal is also the result of at least one defensive error.
The 25-minute salvo with which Liverpool demolished Manchester City at the Etihad Stadium on Saturday evening was a perfect storm of brilliant attacking and horrible defending.
In the end, Liverpool beat the league leader, 4–1. The final score flattered the losing team.
Liverpool went for the jugular from the start. Jürgen Klopp has not yet had time to produce a tactical revolution. He has though convinced the talented group of players he inherited to believe they can win and work like dogs to do so.
On Saturday, Liverpool met a team utterly unable and unwilling to cope with a high-speed pressing game.
Klopp field a front line made up of three under-sized attacking midfielders. They tore at City from the start.
“We tried to close the spaces where they want to play,” Klopp told Sky after the game. “We pressed high and I think the crowd was a little bit nervous when they couldn’t build up their game like they want. That’s the first step in a game. We did it.”
Philippe Coutinho ambushed Bacary Sagna to steal the ball deep in the City half after seven minutes. He drove forward and passed to Roberto Firmino who was bursting into space. Firmino drove the ball across the goal and Eliaquim Mangala turned it into his own goal.
Mangala’s photo is probably even now being inserted in the Wikepedia page on “nightmare.” He was lumbering, in thought and step. For the first goal he made the mistake of trying to play Coutinho offside and then tried to clear with the wrong foot. But the back four was constantly exposed because City’s central midfielders, Yaya Touré and Fernando refused to chase the Liverpool men racing past them.
Firmino left Mangala trailing as he set up the second for Coutinho. Emre Can took out the City defense with one back-heel to allow Coutinho to set up Firmino for the third and prettiest goal, after 31 minutes.
Liverpool could have scored more. Sergio Agüero gave City hope with when he opened Liverpool up on his own just before half time.
“They are a little bit like they are surprised that we are 3–0 in the lead,” Klopp said of his players. “That was a big problem in the last 10 minutes of the first half. With results like this the boys will start to believe.”
While City looked more solid for a while at the start of the second half, Firmino and Coutinho looked more likely to score before Martin Skrtel, finishing like a striker, crashed in the fourth goal.
After Liverpool thrashed the top team, Klopp could afford to dampen enthusiasm.
“It was very, very good,” Klopp said. “It was far away from perfect but it was very good. We took our chances and we made our goals. Brilliant goals of course in counter attacks.”
Indeed, Liverpool remains far more dangerous as a counter–attacking team, which is why its results are better on the road than at Anfield.
Liverpool played like a champion, but it remains ninth, eight points off the lead. City, as City manager Manuel Pellegrini pointed out, is just two points off the top of the standings.
City travels to Turin this week to play Juventus needing just one point to be sure of reaching the Champions League knockout rounds.
Pellegrini said he wanted his players to erase the loss from their memories—although perhaps he does not want Touré to forget about being yanked off at halftime.
“When you have so many mistakes, with the ball, without the ball, in the way you work, in the way you mark, in the way you attack, it is very difficult to try to analyze those things.”
City did not look it wanted to win the Premier League. Nor did the team that started the weekend in second, Arsenal, which ended its match at West Brom dazed and reeling.
Two weeks ago, Santi Cazorla was taken off at halftime in the North London derby, because he was dizzy.
The symptoms seemed to be lingering as Arsenal lost. Maybe it was because he was hearing voices in his ear.
After the Gunners took the lead at the Hawthorns, the home team replied twice before the break. Those were the only three shots on target in the first half, and one of them was a hand–balled own goal.
Because of Arsenal’s problems finding healthy defensive midfielders, Cazorla has been playing deeper this season in a role that does not really suit him.
Arsenal’s difficulties worsened on Saturday. Francis Coquelin, who started in the holding role, went off injured. His replacement, Mikel Arteta punched the ball over his own line just before halftime and limped off in the second half.
With six minutes left, Arsenal won a penalty.
As Cazorla walked forward, the West Brom players showed the sporting spirit associated with a Tony Pulis–led side.
Craig Gardner, suddenly needing to tie his laces in the middle of the box, bent and whispered in Cazorla’s ear as the Spaniard placed the ball on the spot. After Olivier Giroud angrily dragged Gardner away, the hulking Jonas Olsson, who was one of the most obnoxious players in the league long before Pulis arrived, stepped forward to continue the sledging.
When Cazorla finally ran up, he slipped and kicked the ball against his standing leg. As he fell, the ball rose, slowly, over the bar.
It was a tame and undignified way for wounded Arsenal to capitulate.
In added time at the end of the first half at St James’ Park, Jamie Vardy, struck a shot that did two remarkable things.
Vardy, who was probably offside as he collected the ball on the edge of the Newcastle box, spun sharply leaving a bemused Moussa Sissoko with twisted blood, and then drilled the ball low inside the near post before goalkeeper Rob Elliott could move.
Leicester scored two more goals in the second half to win 3–0, but so comfortable were the Foxes, that Vardy’s goal was always likely to be the winner.
The victory lifted Leicester to the top of the table more than a third of the way through the season.
“It was a very fantastic performance today,” Leicester manager Claudio Ranieri told Sky TV.
“Fantastic” might be an understatement.
After 13 matches last season, Leicester was in last place.
Vardy became the first player to score in 10 consecutive English top-flight matches in the same season. Ruud van Nistelrooy, who holds the Premier League record with 10, and Stan Mortensen, who scored in 11 straight, both spread their streaks over two seasons.
“When a manager has a striker who scores a goal, it is good,” Ranieri said. “Now he is very confident and the teammates are very confident in him.”
While City and Arsenal might not have seemed hungry, Leicester did. Strikers are meant to resemble predators and Vardy, all pointy nose and ax-blade cheekbones, looked like a starving, startled, predator, as he did his duty and spoke on TV after the game. He is the face of the Foxes.
Vardy also showed himself the master of the defensive deflection.
“Obviously I’ve matched Van Nistelrooy’s record,” he said, before rapidly falling back on soccerspeak, adding: “But at the end of the day we got three points and a clean sheet.”
For those playing cliché bingo at home, Vardy proved a card filler.
“We just take every single game as it comes,” he said.
He also managed a “fair play” an “at the end of the day” before bursting out laughing during his first attempt at “never-say-die attitude.” He regained his poise for: “We’ll fight for each other right to the very end.”
These seemingly meaningless phrases are useful handholds for players who suddenly find themselves far higher up the cliff-face than they expected to be and know they must neither look down at the ground, nor start thinking about how they will celebrate on the still distant peak.
Vardy is defying gravity. He was playing non-league soccer when he was 25, and now he is a record-breaking striker for a team that is on top of the Premier League. Asked if he is ever pinches himself, the clichés fell away as he answered: “Every day.”
United Shows its Teeth
Manchester United settled back into its defensive crouch after it took the lead in the 11th minute at Watford on Saturday.
By the 87th minute, United’s defense had gone more than 10 1/2 hours without conceding. It could have increased its lead if Jesse Lingard had accepted a delicious chance on the counter–attack. At the other end, David de Gea made three impressive saves.
Defending a one-goal lead is risky because bad things can happen. With five minutes left, Marcos Rojo first wrestled and then tripped Odion Ighalo to concede a penalty. Troy Deeney, who had blazed two earlier shots straight at De Gea, again smashed this one straight at the middle of the goal. This time De Gea, guessing wrong, dived out of the way.
In response, United showed it could attack if it wanted to. It besieged the Watford goal. Heurelho Gomes made a theatrical save from Chris Smalling. From the corner, United pressed again. Bastian Schweinsteiger, who had barely left his own half for 85 minutes, pounced on a rebound and drilled the ball into the goalmouth. Deeney, who had just scored his first goal at Vicarage Road this season, slid to block and scored his second.
United won 2–1, and went, for a couple of hours, to the top of the standings.
“I was amazed about the spirit in our team,” United manager Louis van Gaal told BT Sport, which broadcast the match. “Because [of] the late penalty and then you give [us] as a team another stimulus, you can create in five minutes, three opportunities.”
Which raises the question of why Van Gaal’s United wasn’t stimulated to attack for most of the match.
Hero to Zero to Hero
When Memphis Depay arrived at Old Trafford in the summer, United fans expected great things. Memphis had been the top scorer for the Dutch league champion the previous season and was named best young player in the world by France Football.
By mid-November, Memphis had been dropped by United and had been part of a Dutch team that had, astonishingly, failed to qualify for Euro 2016. With just one goal for his club, he was suddenly a failure.
On Saturday, recalled because Wayne Rooney was ill and Anthony Martial injured, Memphis put his team ahead after 11 minutes with a pretty volleyed goal. He sparkled at times over the next 80 minutes even tough he was also sometimes wasteful and selfish. Suddenly he was United’s hero again.
The bewildering pace of his three-month rise, fall and rise again is only proof that instant headlines are obliterating all soccer common sense. Memphis has played less than 11 hours of competitive soccer for United. A good general rule is that, although great players, particularly strikers can look good from the start, any newcomer needs half a season to settle into a team and at least two seasons to show his best. Memphis is also just 21. If he keeps working, he will probably peak in five seasons.
He has immense potential. Will he fulfill it? Ask again in 2020.