At this stage of the Premier League season, fans of any rival to Manchester City are starting to pile lies on themselves. Especially after watching City never get out of second gear to beat Everton, 2-0, and even more so in trying to ignore the symbolism in Erling Haaland’s second goal that killed him:
This is the player who does everything he can to make a run at a Manchester City player, is level for a split second, and then is brushed aside as if it were a crumb or two that fell on Haaland’s lapel for just a moment. Every Liverpool and Arsenal fan can see themselves in Jarrad Branthwaite flying past Haaland as if trying to cling to the hood of a car at 60mph before Haaland and City have done whatever they want. It’s always been like this.
But being a fan rarely means accepting your fate, which means the things fans try to convince themselves of will start flowing almost immediately afterwards. In no particular order they are:
Consecutive contractor: Both Arsenal and Liverpool fans will have already told themselves that if they win every game from now on they will win the title, because they have one game remaining with City. Will either of them win 14 in a row from here? No, of course not. But it’s not statistically impossible, and you’ll be able to get to any rock you can find. Liverpool face City at home and their record at Anfield is not great. The Gooners will tell themselves they’ve already beaten City once, and deservedly so. What else?
And then Arsenal fans will remember that they walked into Manchester at the end of last season and were shocked. The other two times Liverpool came close to the title, Guardiola got the result he needed against Liverpool in the second half of the season (one win in 2019, one draw in 2022). A draw at Anfield is likely to be enough. This is out.
schedule: As was pointed out in these pages some time ago, this was always the part of the timetable City were going to implement. Since the start of December, they have faced just one team in the top half of the table. And they needed a last-minute winner to beat Newcastle. They have trips to Anfield, Tottenham and Brighton, with home games remaining against United, Arsenal and Villa. It can’t be as easy as it has been the last two months, right?
And then we all start arranging them in our heads like a chart. “Well, City lost to Villa but Villa’s situation is worse now so there is a place where we can do better than they did.” Or “They already lost to Wolves and we won there, so…” and it goes on.
But then you realize that a trip to Tottenham’s stadium is a different thing for Arsenal than it is for City (whatever City’s record there). The trip to Everton is different for Liverpool than for City. Arsenal and Liverpool’s trip to Old Trafford to face a different United side may be different from what City had to face early in the season. And then the math breaks down.
Distraction?: City still has the Champions League to defend! Which gives you hope for about six seconds until you remember that their Round of 16 opponent is Copenhagen, which will amount to nothing more than a wiffle ball. Who else in Europe could run with them or even make them sweat? Madrid? Inter? Leverkusen has just dominated Munich. Arsenal are probably their main rival in that competition as well.
Injuries? De Bruyne and Haaland have already missed out on big pieces. What can anyone do?
exhaustion?: Watch the part about De Bruyne and Haaland missing large parts of the season.
Divine intervention?: Now you know you’re screwed. So, even if Liverpool win 3-1 without playing well, and even if Arsenal beat West Ham away from home, we are still lying to ourselves.
What else happened this weekend?
4. It appears that a villa has been discovered
The best story of the first half of the season didn’t carry over to the second half, as Fortress Villa Park was breached. First Villa suffered a crushing defeat to Chelsea in the FA Cup replay on Wednesday, then lost another game to Manchester United on Sunday.
Some of this is down to luck, or a market correction, which is more important. A big part of Villa’s pre-Christmas success was just a brilliant finish, which doesn’t always hold up. John McGinn and Leon Bailey were both finishing way above their heads, so that sort of flattened out and left all the scoring burden to Ollie Watkins. He has scored just two goals in his last seven compared to nine in his first 17 matches. Villa produced 2.4 xG against United, but only scored once, a very stark example of finishing well!
Defensively, while much was made of Villa’s high line, both Chelsea and United were able, when needed, to transform Villa’s midfield four with big switches from a dropped striker to an attacking full-back on the other side to open them up. It may not be as big an issue as Villa’s general stagnation yesterday, but their high line should drop when a player gets the space to carry the ball against them.
As for United’s “revival”, let’s stick with it. They needed another goal from Scott McTominay to win again, and Villa had more than enough chances to get a real foothold at the back of United. They gave up three goals to Wolves, and based on what we saw this weekend, West Ham are doing their own version of Zombieland. The determination and belief to produce late winners is certainly something to build on, but that is not structural.
At least Douglas Lowes’ celebration took us out of it:
3. Newcastle reverses the triangle
Newcastle appear to have found something by flipping the midfield triangle, with Bruno Guimarães now the most advanced of the three rather than the deepest with Sean Longstaff and Louis Mailey in support. They have scored 10 goals in their last three games, although that doesn’t seem to have helped them much defensively. They certainly needed goals from elsewhere (Guimarães scored twice against Forest), with their two strikers, Callum Wilson and Alexander Isak, combining to score once from open play in their past seven matches.
2. The Spurs are healthy again
Although they have been perennial performers, in every sense of the word, the headline of Spurs’ season is that they are in the top four and their only regular starter who does not miss a significant chunk of time is Pedro Porro. Heung-Min Son came back from doing everything he could to save Jurgen Klinsmann’s mission with South Korea in the Asian Cup to score the goal in stoppage time:
It seems so easy.
Tottenham will have a major role in the title race, as they will face City, Arsenal and Liverpool, respectively, at the end of April and the beginning of May. Which gives them plenty of time to consolidate fourth place against a sinking Villa side, who they will play on March 10. Either side of that fixture they have five games against teams in the bottom half. Play their cards right, and a title-chasing challenge could be a free hit.
1. American fans have a lot to learn about the monarchy
Imagine having to hear this from a rival fan and not being able to say a damn word.
No wonder most Hammers fans left at half-time.
Programming note: It’s stopping next week, so my diary of my descent into madness will return on the 26th. Toodles!