It’s been a bit of a slow week in City news if you aren’t a Manchester City YouTuber, so instead I take a look at the rest of the action in the Premier League this weekend.
Crystal Palace hate City
If there’s one game outside of the top six I thought might be the cartoon banana skin that Liverpool would slip on, landing comically on their backside and shaking their fist at the air as stars and chirping birds circle their head, it was Crystal Palace. Liverpool would take to the field with a lead at the top of the table, Manchester City giving chase, before each member of the squad, especially those who weren’t even at the club in 2014, would suddenly be wracked with PTSD as images of Dwight Gayle poking home past a hapless Mignolet, Suárez crying into his shirt and Stevie G trying to swat away a pesky cameraman would flicker through their heads like Vietnam flashbacks.
Palace even managed to get a win at the Etihad recently and fully deserved it, we know what they’re capable of. This could be the weekend that City make up some ground!
Let’s give Palace some credit to begin with – they scored three goals at Anfield, they’re the first team this season to have scored more than one in the Premier League, so they clearly did something right. But then they also lost, so they mainly did something very wrong.
Much as I’d like to now go into a foul-mouthed tirade about how their defending was like watching schoolchildren running away from a wasp, I can’t. All but one of Liverpool’s goals came from some kind of fortune. Whether it’s a deflected pot-shot from Baresi-incarnate, Virgil van Dijk, which loops fortunately into the path of an attacker with such luck we’ve not seen since last month when literally the same thing happened against Everton, whether it’s a shot from Firmino deflected massively into the opposite post and out of the keeper’s reach or whether it’s a moment of brain-dead goalkeeping handing them a goal on a silver plate, the likes of which we’ve not seen since last month when literally the same thing happened against Everton. It’s infuriating viewing for fans of a club who are trying to keep pace with them. As any lazy pundit will tell you, this is the mark of champions and definitely not a team riding their luck.
Of course, it’s not a Liverpool game nowadays without a blatant dive from the Egyptian Golden Boy, harshly cut down in the prime of his life by Sergio Ramos, Mo Salah. This week it was his former team-mate, Mamadou Sakho, who had the temerity to try and get the ball off him. Admittedly, it was clumsy. Sakho took a swipe at the ball and, rather than getting the ball, he made contact with Salah’s ankle. Salah, affected by lag (damn those EA servers), realises two seconds too late that he’s supposed to go down when he receives contact. It’s such unapologetic shit-housery that it’s almost to be admired.
Thankfully, unlike the Newcastle game, no penalty was given for this terrible act of unsportsmanlike conduct and whilst much of the footballing world (except Liverpool fans) agreed that this was a pretty shameless dive, there was one who stood against the tide. She wouldn’t let any perfectly valid criticism of her beloved Liverpool go unchecked. I am speaking, of course, of Allyson Rudd.
That’s right. You’re reading that correctly. She legitimately believes that Salah should be praised, not criticised, for “fooling defenders into thinking they can take the ball off him”. Begone with your conspiracies about diving, your unfounded, unedified slander. Mo just isn’t that sort of player. He doesn’t go down because he’s trying to unfairly gain an advantage in a historic title race for the club he plays for because he legitimately worries that the team will crumble if City get within one win of surpassing them, he actually goes down because he’s too good. How can anybody of his talent be expected to stay on their feet?
Call me an embittered blue who’s just salty over the fact that his team isn’t catching up with Liverpool despite their utter mediocre performances of late… well, I didn’t really have any antithesis to that, I just am one. If Danilo hadn’t perfectly, and intentionally, rocketed in a shot off a Huddersfield defender’s head this weekend I’d be wondering where the justice was in the world.
Sarri hates his players
Saturday evening saw the headline game of the weekend, a real clash of the inconsistent, as Arsenal, coming off the back of a defeat to West Ham, dishing out a battering to Fulham and being served a battering by Liverpool, came up against Chelsea, who have beaten Newcastle, suffered a semi-final first leg defeat to Spurs, and endured a dull 0-0 against Southampton in their last three. Arsenal came out on top and are now, along with Manchester United, only three points behind Chelsea who were abject for the vast majority of the game.
Maurizio Sarri, enraged by the performance, didn’t hold back as he slowly crept into the press conference through a haze of cigarette smoke and issued a very clear message to his players.
This Chelsea squad is notoriously difficult to manage. The club as a whole has been almost entirely run by the players since Mourinho’s first stint at the club and, if they don’t fancy it, they can get a manager sacked. I’m not implying that this is what’s going to happen any time soon but, like Riyad Mahrez running into the penalty area before cutting in on his left and taking a shot even if it isn’t the best option, it is inevitable.
Coming out after a game and saying that your club were second-best in determination and application in a one-off game is one thing, outright calling your squad “difficult to motivate” is something else entirely. Sarri knows he’s got a job on his hands and it’s clear that there are players in the squad that need to leave, as the same bad eggs that got Mourinho and Conte the sack have obviously not left the club, unless it was secretly Fabregas all along. It’s always the quiet ones.
Chelsea had high hopes as the season started, as “Sarri-ball” seemed to have been quickly ingrained in the players. Their pressing game had improved since Conte’s time and they were scoring quite freely, going twelve games without a defeat at the start of the season. Since then, they’ve gone off the boil somewhat, finding themselves now 13 points off the top, well and truly out of the title race. If anything, they’re now part of the hunt for top four. They’re a victim of their own initial success as expectations were probably raised a bit too high during that initial run, much like when you hear the first lottery number announced, look down at your ticket and see you’ve got a match, and immediately you start thinking about what colour your Lamborghini is going to be. Then the second number is read out and you’re immediately brought crashing back to reality as you look at your Vauxhall Corsa sitting on the driveway… just me?
It’s worth noting that Sarri is certainly not blameless in this run of inconsistency. Chelsea fans seem to be less than impressed with his insistence on playing the same starting line-up in almost every game, including a midfield trio of a wildly out-of-form Jorginho, a box-to-box Kanté who can’t do his best work as a ball-winning midfielder when he’s spending so much time in the opposition box, and Kovačić, who has been pretty good but nothing special. Ultimately the midfield lacks creativity and whilst Jorginho can keep possession ticking over quite nicely, he’s yet to register a single assist. Sarri then turns to his bench and sees Ruben Loftus-Cheek and Ross Barkley staring longingly into his eyes, desperate for some game time, and understands the pickle he’s in.
The fans are also understandably quite annoyed that Sarri insists on playing Hazard as a false 9, seeing as Alvaro Morata finds a way to look like he’d rather he absolutely anywhere else in the world even when he rarely actually scores a goal, with the trade-off being that both Pedro and Willian, two ageing wingers who are in desperate need of being replaced, start every game. Hazard can’t utilise his strengths when he’s got two centre-backs and a holding midfielder on him and neither Willian or Pedro have been anything more than average. What’s worse is that no matter how well he plays whenever he’s given the chance, Sarri seems intent on giving Callum Hudson-Odoi every reason to want to join Bayern Munich by not starting him in Premier League games despite the obvious lack of form in the front three.
Combine this with their failure to replace the goals Diego Costa gave them (Chelsea fans will hope the imminent arrival of Gonzalo Higuain will change that), a back four containing David Luiz and Marcos Alonso, who for all their worth going forward provide very little defensively, and a star player who keeps fluttering his eyes and flashing his thighs at Real Madrid whenever he’s given the chance and the last 18 months at the club start to make sense.
In Naples the Italian had a squad which was entirely invested in his style of play, whereas in London this isn’t the case. Time will tell if he’ll get his way in the long-term but, certainly right now, they’re no challengers for the title. If the Chelsea players don’t turn it around soon, they’ll be Sarri.
Rúben Neves is quite good
There’s been a lot of talk about the eventual replacement for Fernandinho lately, including a brilliant set of articles by City Xtra’s own Ben Golding here, and honestly, it’s difficult to say who City might go for. Pep Guardiola, when asked in his recent press conference, confirmed that the club has identified multiple targets who could possibly fill the role, though has obviously decided not to give out any names.
One name he did pretty unambiguously rule out, however, was Rúben Neves. Or at least ruled out under the assumption that he’d cost the club £100 million and it’s difficult to see Wolves dropping their asking price after an impressive season in the Premier League, assuming his performances remain consistent.
I don’t doubt that City will absolutely refuse to pay £100 million for a holding midfielder, largely because we’d be breaking the Premier League transfer record in doing so and if there’s one thing this club doesn’t want on its hands, it’s negative press surrounding the UAE regime and its involvement with the club. But it also doesn’t want to be the club that breaks a high-profile transfer record.
I won’t go into too much depth on Rúben Neves, I’ll leave that to Ben’s article, however it’s safe to say he had quite a good game this weekend. I’d encourage those who haven’t already seen the highlights of Wolves’s 4-3 victory of Leicester to find them, as Neves plays a crucial role in Wolves’ third and fourth goals.
The third goal sees Leicester pressed high up the pitch before Neves receives the ball on the edge of the Wolves area. He then plays a long and looping ball which would see the likes of Gerrard and Scholes be given a knighthood as he plays it perfectly into the path of Diogo Jota, who makes no mistake.
For the fourth goal, Neves received the ball just outside the centre circle in the Wolves half in the dying minutes of the game. He looks up for a split second, spots the run of Raúl Jiménez and plays a pass which can only be described as perfect between the Leicester full-back and centre back, giving Jiménez a clear run to the right hand side of the area and allowing him to play an easy cross into Jota.
Is Neves physical enough to fulfil the Fernandinho role? Perhaps not, he doesn’t exactly charge around the midfield mopping up after his team-mates but then Fernandinho and Kanté are the only midfielders in the league who do so quite so effectively. Is he capable of moving the ball progressively as Guardiola would no doubt want? In the opinion of this fair-weather Wolves viewer, absolutely.
Txiki has struck up somewhat of a relationship with Best Agent of the Year winner (yes, that is a real award, Google it), Jorge Mendes, and will no doubt have sent a couple of cheeky WhatsApp messages his way over the last six or seven months to enquire about the Portuguese midfielder. I don’t doubt that Mendes would be open to Neves moving onto a bigger club, that’s pretty much his entire motive as an agent. Wolves are his latest cash-cow and in them he has his golden ticket to the final frontier that is the world’s richest and most-viewed league for him to showcase his clients to the wider footballing world.
Much like Benfica, Valencia and Monaco before them, Wolves will find themselves with their footballs in a vice, with Mr Mendes holding the screw. “Let Rúben go for £60 million and I will get you Gedson Fernandes as his replacement,” he will demand, the jaws of the clamp held at an uncomfortable distance, “Bayern are sniffing around Gedson but I can pull some strings!” Wolves, knowing that Mendes is now a fairly integral part to their transfer strategy (not to mention the agent of their manager), will no doubt succumb to his demands and the cycle of being a Mendes profit-engine will rumble on.
Or maybe Neves will stay at Wolves for his entire career and, aged 35, retire a club legend. But probably not.
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