Manchester City’s title toil, the latest episode in the Manchester United soap opera and the rot setting in at Tottenham. Buckle up: It’s Nick Miller’s Premier League weekend review.
Have Man City already lost title?
It’s the end of the first week in October, and already the title race might be over after Man City’s shocking loss to Wolves on Sunday.
That’s a little hyperbolic, of course — particularly when we know what Manchester City are capable of. Plus, they still have to play Liverpool twice, so that lead could disappear in a hurry. But since three points for a win were introduced in 1980, only one team has ever been eight points clear at the top after eight games in the English top flight
Oh, yes, that other team to lead by eight points: It was Manchester United in 1985-86. They ended up finishing fourth, 12 back from champions Liverpool, and manager Ron Atkinson was sacked the following year. It’s a cautionary tale.
An old Pep Guardiola quote from Marti Peranau’s book “Pep Confidential” has been doing the rounds this weekend. “League titles are won in the last eight games, but they are lost in the first eight.”
Of course, there are lots of sage maxims from the game’s most learned figures that might not ultimately mean anything, but there is truth in what he said: City have, at best, made things extremely difficult for themselves. It adds further spice, if further spice was needed, to the game between the two sides in a few weeks: If City win, we have a proper title race, but if Liverpool win, it could genuinely be all over.
Have City become too predictable?
In terms of points, City are currently closer to Brighton in 14th place than they are to Liverpool. They’ve already dropped more points at home this season than they did in the whole of last. For the first time in a long while, they should be worried.
How to explain this one? The absence of Kevin De Bruyne was a factor, but you struggle to weep for them, considering they had David, Bernardo Silva, Riyad Mahrez and Raheem Sterling while leaving Phil Foden on the bench.
The common factor in their adverse results is that the longer you manage to frustrate City — and there are various ways to do that — the less they seem to know what to do. You can almost see their players looking toward the dugout when things aren’t going well, baffled as to why the plan isn’t working, as if there’s some sort of glitch in the system.
They aren’t going to change, and Guardiola has a body of work to justify that. But it’s possible that this super-charged automation, the machine that is City, has become predictable and too easy to combat.
Assist of the weekend
Among all the picking over City’s performance, a word for Wolves, who look back to their big boy bothering best of last season. A word for Nuno Espirito Santo for maximising their threat on the counterattack by shifting Adama Traore into the middle; for Traore, who carried out that plan; and for Raul Jimenez for his two brilliant assists, the first of which featured an outrageous shimmy that you can watch over and over.
Liverpool the new United?
A comparison such as this is probably premature, given the respective trophy hauls, but there is something about this Liverpool team that is reminiscent of Sir Alex Ferguson’s Manchester United in the 1990s. Like that United, Liverpool are relentless until the end, and any accusations that they consistently get lucky with late goals or penalties can be countered by that fact that they just keep going, aggressively pushing and putting themselves into positions to benefit from luck or “seen them given, seen them not given” penalty decisions.
Liverpool will go into their next game with the chance to equal Manchester City’s record for consecutive league wins at 18. Their next game is at Old Trafford. It should be spicy.
Luckiest moment of the weekend
As mentioned, it’s not that the penalty awarded to Sadio Mane against Leicester was necessarily an incorrect decision. It’s more that it was a coin flip. It could have been a penalty, but Liverpool could not have seriously complained if it hadn’t been given. Such luck is required to be champions.
United no longer United
It really is difficult to think of new ways to describe how desperate Manchester United are, so let’s keep this brief after another bad loss, this time to Newcastle at St James’ Park.
Many have pointed to the players available to Ole Gunnar Solskjaer, suggesting that he can’t do much more with them, and indeed nobody could. That is nonsense.
This is a distance from being a vintage United squad, but they have somehow looked less than the sum of their parts this season, which is almost impressive in its ineptitude. Sure, not many managers could make these players title contenders, but most coaches with a bit of nous and experience could at the very least do better than this.
Appointing Solskjaer was understandable, given the sentiment and the results in his first couple of months, but it’s clear now that it was a mistake. Keeping him for much longer would compound that mistake further.
A little respite for Newcastle
The only good thing that Manchester United did was give Newcastle a bit of respite. There were plenty of elements to encourage in Steve Bruce’s side’s win, not least Matty Longstaff’s performance and goal, but this victory doesn’t solve the problems that were apparent in last weekend’s defeat to Leicester.
They’re still there and won’t be solved by this one win. A long season still lies ahead for Bruce and his team.
Spurs aren’t stale — they’re rotting
There are so many problems with Tottenham at the moment that it would take far too long to discuss them all. Let’s just pick one of them: Spurs looked so incredibly passive in their 3-0 defeat to Brighton. This used to be a team that was utterly relentless, that would take charge of games, smothering and throttling the opposition. On Saturday, they were tentative and completely unassertive, they barely looked dangerous, and they were absent-minded in defence, conceding three avoidable goals.
This time Mauricio Pochettino couldn’t use the line that “everything they hit went in,” as he did in the 7-2 loss to against Bayern Munich. If that was a spectacular flaying, this felt much more mundane, a relatively routine home win by a team that on the day looked superior. Yet this was a team that at the start of play were a point off the bottom three and had won only once at home in 2019, which was against Huddersfield.
It has becoming increasingly apparent that Spurs haven’t gone stale. Rather, they’ve been rotting. When things go stale, they just sit there slowly going bad — nothing sudden happens — but when something rots, eventually it just collapses. Since around February, Spurs have been like a rotting roof beam that someone put a few coats of paint on as they progressed to the Champions League final: on the surface. Things looked OK, but beneath that they weren’t, and now the beam has collapsed.
There’s no easy answer to the question of where they go from here: It involves Pochettino leaving, the squad being torn up and painstakingly rebuilt, a combination of the two or some other, no less painful option. There could be grim times ahead.
Old boys’ act
The narrative around Chelsea this season has broadly, and rightly, been around the excellence of the young players, and while Tammy Abraham and Mason Mount scored brilliant goals against Southampton, the driving force behind the 4-1 win over Southampton was the old guard.
Willian was exceptional and singled out for praise by Frank Lampard, Cesar Azpilicueta has regained some of his form after a troubling spell early in the season, and Jorginho has grown in influence to become the still point around which everything else spins.
A week ago, Dean Henderson let a weak shot squirm through his grasp to cost Sheffield United their game against Liverpool. This weekend, he produced a string of brilliant saves to earn a point at Watford. That’s being a goalkeeper for you.
Misplaced confidence from Marco Silva?
Turf Moor is a bad place to go if you’re a manager under pressure. Not necessarily because Burnley are such an overpowering proposition on the pitch but more because if you lose, you have to walk past the away fans to reach the tunnel.
That fate befell Marco Silva at the weekend, and those Everton fans made their feelings clear, but it doesn’t seem to have made him doubt his methods too much. “We’re not worried at the moment,” he said. “I have the same confidence I had at the beginning of the season. The same confidence about our quality and what we’re doing every single day.”
One suspects his confidence might be very slightly misplaced.
Will Villa’s win loosen the jar?
Aston Villa’s performances had been better than their results suggested before this weekend, and you suspected that someone was going to get a hiding at some point. That someone turned out to be Norwich, and perhaps the 5-1 win will be the equivalent of that first bit of ketchup to come out of a troublesome bottle. Plenty more could follow after this.