It is at this point in the Premier League season that fans of any Manchester City competitor begin to pile up lies for themselves. Especially after seeing City never get out of second gear to beat Everton, 2-0, and even more so when trying to ignore the symbolism in Erling Haaland’s second goal that ended the game:
This is a player doing everything he can to compete with a Manchester City player, being equal for a split second and then being ignored as if he were a crumb or two that had landed on Haaland’s lapel for just an instant. All the Liverpool and Arsenal fans could see Jarrad Branthwaite flying in front of Haaland like he was trying to grab the bonnet of the car at 60 MPH before Haaland and City did whatever they wanted. It was always like this.
But being a fan is rarely about accepting your fate, which means that the things that fans try and convince themselves of start flowing after that almost immediately. In no particular order they are:
The streak: 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 both have one game left against City. Are any of them going to win 14 in a row from here? Of course not. But it’s not statistically impossible and you’ll hit any rock you come across. And well, Liverpool receive City at home and their record at Anfield is not that good. The bullies will tell themselves they’ve already beaten City once, and quite rightly so. What is another?
And then Arsenal fans will remember that they came to Manchester towards the end of the season last year and were beaten. And the other two times Liverpool came close to City for the title, Guardiola got the result he needed against Liverpool in the second half of the season (a win in 2019, a draw in 2022). And a draw at Anfield will probably be enough. So that’s ruled out.
Schedule: As noted in these pages a while ago, this was always the part of the schedule that City were going to get through. Since the beginning of December they have only faced one team that is in the top half of the table. And they needed a last minute winner to beat Newcastle. They have trips to Anfield, Tottenham Stadium and Brighton, with home games against United, Arsenal and Villa remaining. It can’t be as easy as it has been the last two months, right?
And then we all started lining it up in our heads like a graph. “Well, City lost at Villa, but Villa are worse now, so there is a place where we can do better than them.” Or “They already lost to Wolves and we won there, so…” and so it goes.
But then you realize that a trip to the Tottenham Stadium is a bit different for Arsenal than it is for City (whatever City’s record there). And a trip to Everton is different for Liverpool than for City. And perhaps Arsenal and Liverpool’s trip to Old Trafford will be to face a different United team to the one City had to face earlier in the season. And then all the math falls apart.
Distractions?: City still have a Champions League to defend! Which gives you hope for about six seconds until you remember that their round of 16 opponent is Copenhagen, which won’t amount to much more than Wiffle Ball. And who else in Europe can run in them or even make them sweat? Madrid? Bury? Munich has just been dominated by Leverkusen. Perhaps Arsenal is also their main rival in that competition.
Injuries? De Bruyne and Haaland have already missed big chunks. What more could you want?
Fatigue?: See the part about De Bruyne and Haaland already missing large parts of the season.
Divine intervention?: Now you know you’re screwed. So even if Liverpool took a 3-1 win without playing well, and even if Arsenal beat West Ham away from home, we’re still lying to ourselves.
What else happened this weekend?
4. It seems that Villa has been discovered
The best story of the first half of the season did not carry over into the second, as Fortress Villa Park was breached. First, Villa were beaten by Chelsea in an FA Cup replay on Wednesday, and then they dropped yet another match to Manchester United on Sunday.
Some of this is luck or, more specifically, market correction. A good part of Villa’s success before Christmas was simply an ace in finishing, which doesn’t always hold up. John McGinn and Leon Bailey were finishing way over their heads, and that flattened out leaving all the scoring burden to Ollie Watkins. He has just two goals in his last seven, compared to nine in his first 17. Villa produced 2.4 xG against United, but scored just once, which is a pretty clear example of how his finishing is becoming! crazy!
Defensively, while much has been made of Villa’s top line, both Chelsea and United, when necessary, were able to change Villa’s midfield four with big switches from a dropped forward to a loaded full-back on the other side to open them up. That may not be as big a problem as Villa’s general carelessness yesterday, but their high line has to come down when a player has the space to carry the ball against it.
As for the “rebirth” of United, let’s wait. They needed another Scott McTominay buzzer-beater to get back to winning ways, and Villa had more than enough opportunities to get a real foot in United’s backside. They allowed three goals to the Wolves and from what we saw this weekend, West Ham are doing their own version of Zombieland. Sure, determination and belief in getting late winners is something you can build on, but that’s not structural.
At least we get Douglas Luiz’s celebration:
3. Newcastle turns the triangle
Newcastle appear to have found something by reversing their midfield triangle, with Bruno Guimaraes now the most advanced of the three rather than the deepest with Sean Longstaff and Lewis Miley supporting him. They have scored 10 goals in their last three games, although it doesn’t seem to have helped them much defensively. They have definitely needed goals from elsewhere (Guimaraes scored two against Forest) as their two centre-forwards, Callum Wilson and Alexander Isak, have combined for one goal from open play in their last seven matches.
2. The Spurs are healthy again
While they have been constant entertainers, in every sense of the word, the main headline of Tottenham’s season is that they are in the top four and their only regular starter who doesn’t miss a huge amount of time is Pedro Porro. Heung-min Son returned from doing everything he could to save Jurgen Klinsmann’s place with Korea Republic at the Asian Cup and setting this up in injury time:
It’s that easy, apparently.
Spurs will have a big say in the title race as they face City, Arsenal and Liverpool in a row in late April and early May. Which gives them plenty of time to shore up fourth place over a sinking Villa team, who they will play on March 10. Either side of that game has five games against bottom half teams. If they play their cards right, the challenge of chasing the title could be a free hit.
1. American fans have a lot to learn about their own property.
Imagine having to hear this from opposing fans and not being able to say a damn word.
No wonder most of the Hammers fans left at half-time.
Scheduling note: Next week is off so this diary of my descent into madness will return on the 26th. Toodles!