Manchester City got stunned by Leicester on Boxing Day while Liverpool and Tottenham dominated their competition, opening the door for criticism of Pep Guardiola’s side. 

By Jonathan Wilson
December 26, 2018

It was a dramatic Boxing Day in the Premier League as Liverpool opened up a six-point lead at the top of the table and the champion Manchester City slipped to third.

City went down to a shock 2-1 defeat at Leicester and now trails Liverpool by seven points after Jurgen Klopp’s side brushed Newcastle United aside 4-0. Tottenham Hotspur climbed to second, maintaining its rich goal-scoring form with a 5-0 win over Bournemouth.

Ole Gunnar Solskjaer continued his good start as manager of Manchester United, with Paul Pogba scoring twice in a 3-1 win over Huddersfield Town which slips to the bottom of the table after Fulham drew 1-1 with Wolverhampton Wanderers.

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Everton bounced back from Sunday’s 6-2 defeat to Tottenham to win 5-1 at Burnley, which is now three points from safety after Cardiff City and Crystal Palace drew 0-0.

CITY’S WOBBLE

At the beginning of the month, Manchester City was top of the table and the widespread expectation was that Pep Guardiola’s side could break the 100-point barrier for the second successive season. Then came the defeat at Chelsea, since then City has beaten Everton and lost 3-2 at home Crystal Palace before today’s setback. The initiative in the title race is very much with Liverpool. So what’s gone wrong?

City has not kept a clean sheet in nine games in all competitions. To an extent, that’s always going to be a risk of the way Guardiola plays. The focus on attack means gaps can appear at the back. “It was a similar performance to the Crystal Palace game,” said Guardiola. “We started well but conceded a goal the first time they arrived in our box. Mentally we are lacking confidence in that situation.

“We have to accept it, we have to realize that we have to work harder and try to get immediately one good result and get our confidence back. Of course we are worried [about not keeping clean sheets], the result is what counts, we lost. It was another fantastic goal against us. There are games when your opponents have clear chances and don’t score and games when they score goals like this.”

To an extent he is right. Ricardo Pereira’s winner, driven in with nine minutes remaining, is not the sort of goal City will concede every week. It’s probably not a coincidence that Fernandinho has missed the last two games with a knee problem; there are limited options at the back of midfield.

But that lack of confidence is troubling. There has been a tendency for City under Guardiola—and for Guardiola sides as a whole—to concede goals in clumps. That suggests a lack of leadership, as though the way Guardiola controls the game from the touchline, the way he is the creative brain of the side, which helps produce the extraordinary passing patterns that makes City such a joy to watch, means there is a lack of leadership on the pitch, nobody to grab a match and yank it back City’s way when things are going wrong.

And for all of Guardiola’s success, it's been a long time since one of his sides has won a tight title race. It may be that when the pressure is on, his intense personality serves to magnify any anxiety players are feeling. City remains an exceptional side, and there is still half the season to play, but there are unexpected questions now to answer.

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LIVERPOOL AND TOTTENHAM REMORSELESS

Neither Liverpool nor Tottenham began the season especially well. For a long time, it felt as though both were clinging on, winning games without playing especially well. Both as City has wobbled, Liverpool and Spurs have both hit form and are playing with a fluency and a verve they were not earlier on. In the past month, Tottenham has salvaged a failing Champions League campaign, reached the League Cup semifinal and beaten Chelsea. Its last two league games have brought 11 goals: today it felt like it never really had to exert itself in beating Bournemouth, with two goals from Son Heung-min and a goal each for Christian Eriksen, Lucas Moura and Harry Kane. Liverpool similarly barely broke a sweat in putting four past Newcastle. Its biggest challenge comes in its next two games, at home to Arsenal and away to Manchester City.

OZIL IN WILDERNESS

Mesut Ozil’s future at Arsenal was thrust into further doubt as he was substituted at half-time of the 1-1 draw against Brighton. Ozil was left out of Arsenal’s win at Bournemouth a month ago because manager Unai Emery deemed him insufficiently physical; he has struggled for pitch-time since. The former Germany international is the highest-paid player at the club, but does not seem an obvious fit for Emery’s high-tempo style. He was captain for Saturday’s win over Burnley, and that seemed to offer a way back, but his failure to track was a significant factor in Jurgen Locadia’s equalizer after Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang had put Arsenal ahead with his 13th league goal of the season.

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