Two incidents, just four minutes apart late in the second half summed up Manchester City’s breathless 1-1 home draw with Liverpool on Sunday.
After 76 minutes, Sergio Agüero, exchanged sharp passes with Leroy Sané in the Liverpool box. As the ball came back to him, Agüero shimmied right to shake off Ragnar Klavan and open up the target. As his second goal of the game beckoned, Agüero slipped and fell on his face. Yet, in a game of relentless action, that was not the end of the danger, the ball flew to Kevin de Bruyne who smashed a shot against the post. City had been denied by fine margins twice in a few seconds.
After 81 minutes, Georginio Wijnaldum’s inspired chip eliminated the entire City defense. Roberto Firmino knocked the ball across goal to Adam Lallana. With the net at his mercy, Lallana whiffed.
For 90 minutes, Liverpool and City attempted to play brilliant soccer at breakneck speed. Time and again, they could not quite add the final olive to the intoxicating cocktail. The match was laced with errors.
With bodies flying everywhere, it is hardly surprising that Michael Oliver, the referee, struggled to work out what was going on. He awarded one marginal decision to Liverpool, which City old boy, James Milner converted, and denied other, equally plausible claims to both sides.
With Chelsea, Tottenham and Manchester United all winning, a draw was not a great result for either team, although it does mean that Liverpool has collected 20 points in matches against the other five top-six teams, and 19 against the bottom six. For City, the result could be seen as another disappointment just four days after its Champions League elimination at Monaco.
When Pep Guardiola appeared on Sky Sports immediately after the game and said “You cannot imagine. It is one of happiest days of my career as a manager,” he immediately provoked a storm of Twitter sarcasm.
“I am so proud,” he went on. “The spirit, how we played, it is one of my happiest days as a manager.”
Guardiola enjoys confusing the British media who don’t trust his foreign cleverness. Yet on Sunday he had a point.
Like JürgenKlopp at Liverpool, Guardiola wants his team to be great, rather than merely good. On Sunday, both teams aimed to produce brilliance at high speed and under intense pressure. Both dared to fail and fall on their faces, as Agüero did. Yet there were signs that they are getting closer. Coming so soon after the disaster in Monaco, Pep could be proud of his team’s bravery.
A HARRY SHAPED HOLE After Harry Kane suffered his first ankle injured in September, Tottenham won its next two league matches before starting a costly run of draws, three without Kane and one more on his return, at Arsenal in November. Without Kane, Tottenham slipped from third place to fifth.
On Sunday, Tottenham’s play in the first half, as it took a two-goal lead, suggested it might not miss Kane’s goals. It’s play in the second half, as it clung on to win 2-1, suggests it will miss the other things Kane does to relieve pressure on the defense.
After 14 minutes Christian Eriksen rolled the ball home from more than 20 yards to give Tottenham the lead. At the start of the weekend, Squawka reported that the Dane has had more shots from outside the area saved this season than any player in Europe’s big five leagues. On the other hand, as Opta Joe calculated on Sunday, since his debut in 2013, Eriksen has scored more goals from outside the box than any other player in the Premier League. Eriksen buys a lot of lottery tickets. His third goal in six games suggests he is going on one of his winning streaks at just the right time.
The referee, Andre Marriner, rewarded Tottenham’s first half domination with a generous penalty after 33 minutes. Bizarrely, it seemed Spurs had not decided who would do the job in Kane’s absence. Dele Alli, who has never taken a penalty as a professional, seized the ball.
“There was no Harry Kane, so for me everyone can take the penalty,” Mauricio Pochettino, the Spurs manager said after the game. “When somebody wants to shoot, for me it is okay and no problem.” Alli justified his self-confidence, striking his 11th goal in 12 games.
Alli can score. What he struggles to do is hold the ball like a traditional center forward.
After a rare mistake by Toby Alderweireld gave James Ward Prowse a goal early in the second half, Southampton found some fight. As the Saints pressed, Tottenham struggled to escape its own half. Son Heung-Min struggled to keep the ball in the opposing half. He was yanked off after 75 minutes and Alli pushed up in his place. He also struggled to protect possession. So did Vincent Janssen, when he came on for the last eight minutes.
But Spurs hung on, allowing Pochettino to turn Kane’s absence into a positive: “It was important for us to get that feeling without him, to win the game and to score goals and keep our position in the table.”
THE REPLACEMENT GAME Even before Middlesbrough kicked off against Manchester United on Sunday, the club’s directors must have felt results were justifying their decision to axe manager Aitor Karanka.
Victory for Crystal Palace over Watford meant Boro was now five points from safety, and a third straight league triumph by Leicester, this time thanks to goalie Kasper Schmeichel at West Ham, also took the champion out of range.
The only club below Boro in the standings was also the only club in the bottom six not to have fired its manager this season. Leicester, Swansea, Hull and, belatedly, Palace, have all enjoyed spurts of improved form under new management. Perhaps it is better to twist than to stick.
The early action might also have suggested that Middlesbrough was better off freed from Karanka’s obsession with defense. Boro, which had scored just 19 goals in 27 games pressed enthusiastically round the United penalty area. It must have been heartening for the bored and dispirited home fans.
What happened next, as United won, 3-1, suggested that Karanka’s caution may have been based on a realistic appraisal of the talent at his disposal. Marcus Rashford and Jesse Lingard repeatedly found holes in the home defense apart. Marouane Fellaini was able to pick on the tiny Fabio to head United ahead. Lingard then strolled through the midfield before lashing in a second goal. Rudy Gestede managed a rare Boro goal. But the home team threw the game away with a goal that summed up its problems. Goalie Victor Valdes received back pass in the dying seconds and, desperate to launch one last attack, attempted some ambitious footwork, only to fall over and present the ball to Antonio Valencia. Caution might have been wiser, though Boro would still have lost.
Under Karanka, Boro could not attack. In the first match after his firing, it showed that if it attacks, it cannot defend. The problem might not have been the coach.
WENGER’S FUTURE UP IN THE AIR Perhaps the British Civil Aviation Authority will have to join the Football Association in supervising Arsenal games, after a dog-fight broke out above the Hawthorns on Saturday.
Early in Arsenal’s game against West Brom, one small plane flew over pulling a banner demanding that the Gunners do not renew Arsène Wenger’s contract. A little later, a second plane, or maybe the same plane after a quick landing, appeared trailing a demand that the manager sign a new deal and stay. The anti-Wengers had been aced, they could only shake a fist and mutter: “Curse you Red Baron.”
The potential for a plane crash in the skies above, should not distract from the train wreck on the field. Arsenal lost, 3-1.
After the game, Wenger seemed serenely unworried. He told the press conference that he had taken a decision on whether to sign a new contract.
“I know what I will do in my future. You will soon know, very soon,” he said.
He also told the BBC that the defeat “leaves us in a unique situation that we’ve never had before.” The use of the word “unique” made it sound as if Wenger had delivered something special to Arsenal fans. It also suggested that he, and his team, have not been in this position before. But his critics should know that under Wenger’s command, Arsenal has made a habit of somehow pulling out of a death dive.
In early March 2013, Arsenal was eliminated from the Champions league by Bayern Munich (although not by an aggregate score of 10-2) and lost the North London Derby at Tottenham to sink to fifth in the Premier League, five points off the Champions League places and seven behind Spurs with 10 rounds to play.
On Saturday evening, Arsenal, with 11 games to play, was in fifth, five points off the Champions League places and six points behind Spurs. Although Sunday’s results dropped Arsenal to sixth and allowed Spurs, which has played one more game, to increase the gap to nine points, the situation is as unique as a mirror image.
Four years ago, Arsenal took 26 points from its last 10 games to overtake Tottenham and finish in the top four. On Saturday, the team looked incapable of picking up six points from its last 11 matches. Even if it does rally, overtake Spurs and finish third or fourth, that might not be enough for the club’s greedy fans. And Manfred von Wenger’s wolfish grin at the press conference does suggests he has packed his parachute (golden, no doubt) and is preparing to abandon the cockpit.
CONCENTRATED BLUE There have been plenty of opportunities since the start of October to note the many excellent things Chelsea do. The 2-1 victory at Stoke on Saturday that meant the Blues, provisionally, moved 13 points clear highlighted the thing they do not do.
The goal that won the game in the 87th minute highlighted what separates Chelsea from the rest. Erik Pieters of Stoke gave away a corner. Then when the ball came in, Pieters scuffed an attempted clearance presenting Gary Cahill with the chance to score. Pieters made two errors in a few seconds. That, depending on your view on whether Cahill’s challenge on Jon Walters in the 38th minute did merit a penalty, is one or two more errors than the Chelsea defense made all afternoon.
Chelsea’s results are in part a product of relentless mental focus. The Blues concentrate for 90 minutes on not beating themselves while remaining always alert and ready to pounce when their opponents do err.
Chelsea was not better than the Potters but still made sure it beat them.
“I didn’t think they deserved to win today, to be perfectly honest,” Mark Hughes, the Stoke manager told the BBC. “I think a draw would have been a fair result but champion teams keep on going and make things happen for themselves and that’s what they’ve been doing all season.”
Antonio Conte, meanwhile, could continue his post-match obsession on magic numbers.
‘We need to take 21 points for the title win,’ he told the BBC. He’s right about that too.