It’s at this point in the Premier League season where fans of any competitor of Manchester City’s starts to pile up the lies to themselves. Especially after watching City never really get out of second gear to see off Everton, 2-0, and even more so in trying to ignore the symbolism in Erling Haaland’s second goal that killed it off:
That’s a player doing everything he can to run with a Man City player, being equal for a fraction of a second, and then being brushed off as if he were a crumb or two that had fallen on Haaland’s lapel for merely an instant. Every Liverpool and Arsenal supporter could see themselves in Jarrad Branthwaite flying off Haaland like he was trying to hold onto the car hood at 60 MPH before Haaland and City did just about whatever they wanted. It was ever thus.
But being a fan is rarely about accepting your fate, which means the things fans try and convince themselves of start to flow after that almost immediately. In no particular order they are:
The Streak: Both Arsenal and Liverpool supporters will have already told themselves if they win every game from here on out they’ll win the title, because they both have one game left with City. Are either of them going to win 14 in a row from here? No, of course not. But it’s not statistically impossible, and you’ll reach for any crag you can find. And, hey, Liverpool get City at home and their record at Anfield isn’t all that great. Gooners will tell themselves they’ve already beaten City once, and quite deservedly. What’s another?
And then Arsenal fans will remember that they walked into Manchester toward the end of the season last year and got thumped. And the other two times that Liverpool have run City close for the title, Guardiola got the result he needed against Liverpool in the second half of the season (one win in 2019, a draw in 2022). And a draw at Anfield will likely be enough. So that’s out.
The Schedule: As pointed out in these pages a while ago, this was always the part of the schedule that City was going to rip through. Since the beginning of December, they’ve played just one team that’s 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 left. It can’t be as easy as it’s been the past two months, right?
And then we all start lining it up in our heads like a chart. “Well, City lost at Villa but Villa are worse now so there’s a place we can do better than they did.” Or “They already lost at Wolves and we won there so…” and on it goes.
But then you realize a trip to the Tottenham Stadium is a different thing for Arsenal than it is for City (whatever City’s record there). And a trip to Everton is different for Liverpool than it is for City. And maybe Arsenal’s and Liverpool’s trip to Old Trafford is to face a different United team than City had to face early in the season. And then the math all 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 around Europe can run with them or even make them sweat? Madrid? Inter? Munich just got domed by Leverkusen. Maybe Arsenal are their main rival in that competition as well.
Injuries? De Bruyne and Haaland have already missed huge chunks. What more could anyone ask?
Fatigue?: See the part about De Bruyne and Haaland already missing huge chunks of the season.
Divine intervention?: Now you know you’re screwed. So even if Liverpool got a 3-1 win without playing well, and even if Arsenal battered West Ham away from home, we’re still lying to ourselves.
What else went down this weekend?
4. Seems like Villa has been figured out
The best story in the first half of the season hasn’t carried over to the second, as Fortress Villa Park has been pierced. First Villa got thwacked by Chelsea in a FA Cup replay on Wednesday, and then they gave away yet another game to Manchester United on Sunday.
Some of this is luck, or market correction, more to the point. A good portion of Villa’s success pre-Christmas was just some ace finishing, which doesn’t always hold up. John McGinn and Leon Bailey both were finishing way above their heads, and that’s kind of flattened out leaving all the scoring burden to Ollie Watkins. He has only two goals in his last seven as opposed to nine in his first 17. Villa produced 2.4 xG against United, but scored only once, which is a pretty stark example of their finishing going poof!
Defensively, while much has been made of Villa’s high-line, both Chelsea and United, when needed, were able to shift Villa’s midfield four with big switches from a dropping forward to a charging fullback on the other side to open them up. That might not be as big of a problem as Villa’s general sloppiness yesterday, but their high line has to drop when a player gets the space to carry the ball up against it.
As far as United’s “revival,” let’s hang on. They needed yet another Scott McTominay buzzer-beater to win again, and Villa had more than enough chances to get a real foot in United’s ass. They gave up three goals to Wolves, and based on what we saw this weekend, West Ham are doing their own version of Zombieland. Sure, the determination and belief to get late winners is something to build on, but that’s not structural.
At least we got Douglas Luiz’s celebration out of it:
3. Newcastle flip the triangle
Newcastle seem to have found something by flipping their midfield triangle, with Bruno Guimaraes now the most advanced of the three instead of the deepest with Sean Longstaff and Lewis Miley supporting him. They’ve bagged 10 goals in their last three games doing so, though it doesn’t seem to have helped them much defensively. They’ve definitely needed goals from somewhere else (Guimaraes had two against Forest), as both their center forwards, Callum Wilson and Alexander Isak, have combined for one goal from open play in their past seven games.
2. Spurs are healthy again
While they’ve been the constant entertainers, in every sense of the word, the main headline of Tottenham’s season is that they’re in the top four and their only regular starter to not miss a big swath of time is Pedro Porro. Heung-min Son returned from doing whatever he can to save Jurgen Klinsmann’s job with Korea Republic at the Asian Cup to set this up in injury time:
It’s that easy, apparently.
Spurs will get a major say in the title race, as they face City, Arsenal, and Liverpool all in a row at the end of April and beginning of May. Which gives them plenty of time to shore up the fourth spot over a sinking Villa team, whom they play on March 10th. On either side of that game they have five matches against teams in the bottom half. Play their cards right and that title-chaser gauntlet might be a free hit.
1. American fans have a lot to learn about ownage
Imagine having to listen to this from opposing fans and not being able to say a goddamn word.
No wonder most Hammers fans left at halftime.
Programming note: Off next week so this diary of my descent into madness will return on the 26th. Toodles!