Despite the coronavirus pandemic causing postponements around the Premier League, the Boxing Day fixtures that went ahead still offered plenty of drama and talking points. From the nine-goal mayhem between Manchester City and Leicester, to Romelu Lukaku‘s game-winning turn for Chelsea, there was lots to discuss. Also: Antonio Conte’s Tottenham are starting to take shape.
It’s Monday, and Gab Marcotti reacts to the biggest moments in the world of football.
For better or worse, Pep Guardiola’s Man City are different… but do they have enough depth?
Did Manchester City switch off vs. Leicester on Boxing Day, or are the goals they conceded just a by-product of the way they play?
The above question is inevitable after a rip-roaring game that scaled the heights, and plumbed the depths, of what is possible in a football match. With 25 minutes gone, City were already 4-0 up and it would have been five if Bernardo Silva‘s sublime stroke of genius hadn’t caught Raheem Sterling unprepared.
The first half on Boxing Day — against a depleted Leicester City, sure, but still an XI with plenty of quality and experience — served up whatever adjectives you care to muster. It was beautiful, balletic, breathtaking… you name it. It had those magical moments any coach in any sport dreams of: when the whole becomes greater than the parts. (And when the parts are as high-quality as City’s, then the whole is even greater.)
But you can’t ignore what happened after the break. Not just the 11 minutes during which City got caught three times on the counterattack and conceded three times, but the other opportunities Leicester had — including the Kelechi Iheanacho finish that came off Ederson‘s head — as well.
Leicester’s first two strikes were very much a function of the risks City willingly take by committing men forward and gambling to win back possession straight away. In those situations, an unsuccessful gamble that leaves you out of position or an accurate ball through your press can have disastrous consequences. It’s the price you pay for playing the way Pep Guardiola plays and most of the time, the risk-reward makes it worthwhile: You generate so much at the other end, while, at the same time, you do more with less defensively. There’s a proactive, front-foot nature to what they do that keeps opponents off balance.
Brendan Rodgers spotted this at half-time (and four goals down), and reacted by changing the defensive shape to be more compact and launch more men forward on the counter. He was rewarded, but in most games, that won’t work, and even when it does, City create so much that it feels as if they can score at any time, something they proved again with the two late goals. Both of which, incidentally, came off of set-pieces — the first a header from Aymeric Laporte, the second when Raheem Sterling reacted quicker than anyone after a knock-down.
Only Liverpool have scored more goals from set pieces this season, and it’s an area in which City have undeniably improved. It also flies in the face of a lot of conventional wisdom. City aren’t a particularly physically imposing team, but if you have a quality delivery, a desire to be first to the ball and intelligent players, scoring from set pieces these days need not be just about sending up the big boys at the back.
Sorry to trot out the cliché, but City are as finely tuned a machine as you could hope for right now. No part stands out to the point of being irreplaceable — not even Kevin De Bruyne, their most gifted player. In the name of team chemistry and authority, Pep Guardiola even felt secure enough to leave out Phil Foden, his homegrown wunderkind, and Jack Grealish, his most expensive signing, after they violated team rules. That’s a luxury for any manager.
City ain’t perfect, nor invulnerable — no team is. But their weak points are the organic yin to their yang; they’re the flip side of what makes them so good going forward. They exist because City defend by keeping the ball and the opponents far away from their own goal for most of the game and, when that doesn’t happen, it’s easier to get to Ederson. Pointing it out as a weakness is like pointing out that a Formula One car is more difficult to park than your mini-van with a 360-degree camera.
You wonder then, with the side in such lockstep and so delicately balanced, whether Pep Guardiola is thinking of adding a part this January.
City began the campaign with 18 senior outfield players. With Benjamin Mendy unlikely to play for the club ever again and Ferran Torres reportedly leaving, they’ll be down to 16. Throw in Cole Palmer, who has made four appearances in the league, and you’re up to 17. Nobody else on their books has featured in the Premier League other than another kid, James McAtee, and that was for a whole four minutes.
Conventional wisdom would suggest one, if not two, signings just to give yourself cover, particularly since a number of City players have suffered from long injury layoffs in the past (Aymeric Laporte, De Bruyne, Ilkay Gundogan) and let’s face it: money isn’t really an issue.
Guardiola preaches harmony and chemistry, and it’s hard to see him introduce a superstar into the mix in mid-season. So if there is a move to replace Torres (and/or Mendy) you’d imagine it will be a younger player who is OK with sitting and learning if he doesn’t get to play. That’s what conventional wisdom would suggest anyway. But equally, there’s nothing conventional about City. And they’re so fine-tuned right now, you wonder if Guardiola would accept even the slightest disruption.
Lukaku returns and powers Chelsea to key away win
Gab Marcotti and Nedum Onuoha discuss Thomas Tuchel’s frustrations with his injury list and COVID cases.
If Chelsea win the Premier League this season, Boxing Day may be remembered as a turning point.
When Thomas Tuchel sent on Romelu Lukaku at half-time away to Aston Villa, things were looking grim. At the time, Manchester City were eight points clear, and Chelsea had not scored from open play for 245 minutes in all competitions. Lukaku himself had not scored a league goal since mid-October, and Tuchel had opted to drip-feed him into the side following his injury.
With Kai Havertz and Timo Werner sidelined and Christian Pulisic struggling up front, he felt he had no choice but to call on the big man. Lukaku’s glancing header made it 2-1, and he later won the penalty that Jorginho converted to make it 3-1.
It was a compendium of Lukaku’s array of skills: the aerial ability, the powerful running, the intelligent movement. There’s a reason he is Chelsea’s record signing: When fit, he papers over cracks and right now, there are plenty of cracks in this Chelsea side. But Lukaku can help Tuchel grind out the results he needs until his injured guys return and Chelsea regain the chemistry they’ve been lacking on the pitch.
Conte’s vision for Spurs is coming together… but Kane remains key
Shaka Hislop says Spurs are looking like a team that can challenge for the top four again.
Anyone who knows Antonio Conte knows that he’s the sort of workaholic who believes patterns of play are best drilled into players’ heads through endless repetition on the training ground. With time already tight — and COVID-19 robbing him of more opportunities to practice — it’s probably no surprise that he’s stuck to his version of the 3-4-2-1 formation, which is itself a riff on what he played at Chelsea, where Diego Costa set up ahead of Pedro and Eden Hazard.
If Conte continues to get the Boxing Day version of Lucas Moura at Tottenham, he’s in good shape. The Brazilian impressed in the 3-0 win, operating with Son Heung-Min behind Harry Kane. Bear in mind, though, that Kane, especially in the past few seasons, has turned into a very different striker to Diego Costa, one who likes to drop deep and pick out teammates running behind. (In fact, last season he was more of a “false nine” than many of the guys we label “false nine” simply because we’re not accustomed to seeing them up front.)
Conte can make that version of Kane work or, if Kane leaves, he can go in a different direction. But what he — and Spurs — will need is some sort of clarity either way. Conte’s systems have always been built around the skills of his difference-makers. If it’s not going to be Kane, he can work with that, but he’ll need to know sooner rather than later.
Ferran Torres’ move to Barcelona still mired in mystery
The mystery part isn’t that Barcelona have agreed a deal to sign Ferran Torres from Manchester City for €55m (rising to €65m with performance-related bonuses) and that he will sign a contract through 2027. The mystery is how they’re going to do it.
Thanks to the loan from Goldman Sachs, they have the liquidity; the issue is LaLiga’s rules. Given that they’re already over LaLiga’s spending cap, not only will they need to make cuts in order to be able to register him, but they’ll only be able to use 25 percent of what they save to acquire him. In other words, if you make savings of €100m, you can spend €25m in wages, amortisation and commission for a new player.
A very loose, back-of-the-envelope calculation suggests Torres will cost at least €8m in wages and amortisation between now and the end of the season, which means they need to find €32m in savings. Sergio Aguero‘s retirement means they’ve saved maybe a quarter of that; the question is how you generate the rest?
Scenarios include sending Luuk De Jong and Yusuf Demir back from their loans, persuading current players to take further pay cuts, saving on Philippe Coutinho and Samuel Umtiti‘s wages by loaning them somewhere or by letting them go for free (assuming someone is willing to take on their salaries), or selling Riqui Puig and/or Sergino Dest. A possible situation might also be taking Torres on loan (without a fee) through the end of the season, but with an obligation to buy him outright in the summer, though there may be regulatory issues.
Whichever way you slice it, while Torres makes sense for Barcelona in many ways, it’s a tricky situation and a race against time.
Arsenal run rampant as Aubameyang stays on the sidelines
Against a depleted Norwich side that compounded their fate with a string of unforced errors, Arsenal were at their free-flowing best. You can only beat what’s in front of you, but the likes of Bukayo Saka and Alexandre Lacazette were there to punish every mistake en route to a 5-0 win that keeps them in fourth place.
Aubameyang, who was disciplined earlier this month for turning up late to a training session, was once again left out, and all Mikel Arteta would say is that he was available, but not selected. I’m not sure how this one ends, but several things are evident.
Aubameyang isn’t getting any younger, and with every day that passes, he won’t be getting any happier. And as of right now, he’s the only center-forward Arsenal will have on their books come next season (Eddie Nketiah and Lacazette will be out of contract in June).
When you take a hard line with players who break team rules (especially your captain and highest-paid player), you need to be sure of one of two things, and ideally both. Either you need to be sure you’re pushing the right buttons and Aubameyang will return contrite and productive, or you need to be sure you have a plan B that will work (whether it’s extending Lacazette or Nketiah or bringing in a top target in January). Otherwise, the outlook will be grim for a club that can take a huge leap forward by finishing in the Champions League spots.
If you’re an Arsenal fan, you’ll be crossing your fingers and hoping that Arteta made the right call here.