Tuesday, 3 April 2018

The most cynical team in the Premier League?

Manchester City were awesomely good in their three goal exhibition first half at Goodison Park on Saturday. Their superiority (82% possession - the highest ever for an away game in the Premier League - that's embarrassing!) was made all the greater by an insipid Everton performance, aggravated by a lunatic team selection by manager Sam Allardyce.

I'd never thought of Allardyce as a gambler, but I was wrong. City played in their usual formation with a front three and a midfield three including two of the players of the season, de Bruyne and David Silva along with the useful Fernandinho. So Allardyce fielded a 4-4-2 line up with 2 wingers. This effectively left his two central midfield players - Rooney (not really a midfield player and slow these days) and Schneiderlin (also slow and not really a player of any kind in my book) up against City's three. If the result wasn't a foregone conclusion before the game - and it shouldn't have been, Everton beat City 4-0 at home last year and got a draw at the Etihad earlier in the season; City have big games coming up and probably wouldn't have bust a gut if the game had been heading for a draw - then pitching these two against those three made it pretty much inevitable.

Allardyce didn't have Idrissa Gueye available due to injury, who would otherwise have been a certain starter. Also out injured was Gylfi Sigurddson, but he is an attacking player of dubious defensive merit and so that's not really relevant. Allardyce did have Tom Davies available but chose to leave his youthful energy and grit on the bench until half time. And the youngster Baningime looked a better bet than the players Allardyce had picked when he came on. So Allardyce didn't have to pick the team he did.

I am guessing that Allardyce, recognising that Everton wouldn't have a lot of the ball, felt they had to be set up to play on the break. He selected an adventurous team with wingers Bolassie and Walcott in the midfield 4 and Calvert-Lewin supporting Tosun up front. Bar Tosun, that's a lot of pace. Now sometimes you can defend a threat by making the other team worry about you. If he really thought that he's dafter than the proverbial brush to attempt it against this confident City side.

Fortunately I had more to do than tear my hair out watching the game. The previous weekend the Sunday Times had a piece entitled "Man City - are they the Premier League's best ever?". Despite concluding that City are probably the fittest side to play in England, as well as the most choreographed, most prepared, most perfectly coached team in Premier League history, Jonathan Norcroft argued that they don't quite match up (yet) to the Champions League winning Manchester United team of 1998-99, which showed such belief in itself in all circumstances. This City side will no doubt have the opportunity to prove themselves too. But Norcroft went on to note that Guardiola's team, in addition to its collective football and superb individual skill, know all the arts, including the dark ones. He reported that the chairman of another Premier League club noted that his team had so little possession against City that their opportunities came down to eight or nine counter-attacks "but they fouled us on six of them, so what did we have left?" Fouls at three-quarters of the dangerous transitions in possession - wow.

So I specifically watched the game with that in mind. Not only did I not have to wait long for City's first goal - Sane scoring with a superb strike after 4 minutes - I also didn't have to wait much longer for City's first professional foul to stop Everton from breaking. Walker overran the ball near the corner of Everton's penalty area. Baines relieved him of it and immediately looked up to start a counter. As his momentum took him past Baines, Walker stretched his left boot out, nowhere near the ball, and clipped Baines's ankle, enough to make him go down immediately in obvious pain.

Now remember, Everton had three speed merchants on the pitch. I don't think this incident was remotely an accident or coincidence: I am convinced it was totally deliberate. The referee took no action as it was Walker's first foul of the match and, while cynical, did not endanger his opponent. But given the anonymous Premier League chairman's comment it looked to me about as sporting as the Maradona "hand of god".

Shortly before City's second goal, on 12 minutes, Everton built up their only sustained period of pressure in the first half. As Everton pinged the ball around with some purpose Sane, standing ten yards or so inside his own half, stretched out a hand to prevent a pass reaching its intended target. A quite deliberate handball, which is meant to be an automatic booking. But a card wasn't produced. Teams playing as well as City seem to get breaks from referees. Its just a fact. My club has benefited from it enough in the past. Think how often England captains like Steven Gerrard or Wayne Rooney have been cut some slack by a referee.

My problem with all of this is that in the modern game referees won't let teams get stuck in to a team like City; the cards would soon follow. I must emphasise I'm not talking about "tackles" like Roy Keane's career ending challenge on Alf-Inge Haland here, just going in hard and firm without hestitation, risking the odd late tackle. Surely then it is incumbent on referees to also ensure that City are not allowed to make a mockery of the contest, to the limited extent that this one was, by fouls which, while not aggressive or malicious, kill any chance the opposition has of making a game of it.

Sour grapes? Maybe. But I will be watching the Liverpool - Man City Champions League game tomorrow night with this point in mind, hoping that a continental referee will be more wise to this behaviour. After all, Liverpool are the only team in England at the moment that do not play as if they are scared of Manchester City.

Everton were architects of their own misfortune on Saturday, woefully unable to deliver Allardyce's hopelessly unrealistic game plan. Everton tried a high press at City's goal kick soon after the Sane handball and Bolassie's header which should have levelled the score, if only temporarily. Presumably following instructions, Everton lined up for the kick in 3-4-3 formation, man for man at the back. Ederson found Sane who flicked the ball over Jagielka's head. Jagielka, failing to follow the City approach, didn't pull his man down, maybe because he was left on his backside anyway. It left City, with de Bruyne joining the other three forwards far quicker than Rooney or Schneiderlin could track, with 4 attackers onto two defenders. They executed perfectly to pretty well make the game safe with 78 minutes still on the clock.

Liverpool are, of course, much better equipped to press City and, though it didn't work in the league game at the Etihad, it did in the return at Anfield.

Will I be counting goals or cynical fouls tomorrow night? We'll see. In the meantime I'm happy to join in with the praise for Manchester City's play when they have the ball. Just don't ask me to admire everything about their game. And count with me the game stopping fouls on players like Salah when Liverpool win the ball with City players mainly upfield.


  1. I said the Liverpool V Man City game could be 4 nil either way or 4 all. Not a bad prediction with the result being 3 nil to Liverpool although City were by a long chalk the better team in the 2nd half.

    1. It ain't what you've got, it's what you do with it. All that possession and not a single shot on target for City in the second half. Denying City an away goal was huge for Liverpool and, refreshed, they can look for one of their own at the Etihad to kill the tie.

    2. It ain't what you've got, it's what you do with it. All that possession and not a single shot on target for City in the second half. Denying City an away goal was huge for Liverpool and, refreshed, they can look for one of their own at the Etihad to kill the tie.