Monday 19 March 2018 / 10:28 AM


Talking points and analysis from this weekend’s Premier League action

Spurs stumble, again

The gap between Arsenal and the top four slammed shut as they marched to a commanding victory, but the majority of the focus from the outcome is on the losing end. For the third time this season, Tottenham have failed to make their mark in a marquee match-up, thoroughly outplayed by the Gunners in a disappointingly one-way affair.

Whilst the 2-0 result is dispiriting for Spurs, they can find solace in knowing they weren’t at full strength and definitely have another gear. They looked disengaged and at times flat, their lack of intensity undoing them in the period which lost them the game. They failed to recover after Arsenal caught them napping twice, and within the space of five minutes they went from up against it to out of the game.

Pochettino crying foul about offsides and missed calls misses the mark here. No mention of their inability to penetrate through Arsenal’s midfield or get good looks at goal. Tottenham didn’t do nearly enough to remain competitive and that has nothing to do with the game’s officiating. Whilst the first goal was contentious, complaining about a goal that came from a free kick is missing the point of emphasis.

Usually I’ll just let such comments slide, but there’s something particularly frustrating about these managers wearing whatever hat suits them at the time, and relinquishing blame for poorly played games by slamming referees. Here’s Wegner from two weeks ago complaining after being outplayed by City: “I feel referees don’t work enough. The level drops every season at the moment and overall it’s unacceptable.” Sounds familiar right? No similar comments after a win though. It’s not a good look for the game and throws unnecessary pressure on the officials who hear enough criticism as it is.

What Mauricio failed to address: it was yet again a case of the Spurs stagnation that has come to underline each bad performance — 58% possession only leading to 4 on target shots from fourteen total attempts. Arsenal’s back five was terrific, but their function by design is to protect the goal-square and snuff out penetration from across the front line. With no transition opportunities on offer, the Spurs effectively relied on breaking down a defensive formation perfectly designed to stop their offence.

Despite failing to make a mark on the game, Delle Ali has to remain alongside Eriksen in that dual centre-attacking-mid role, otherwise they don’t have enough playmaking to generate chances. They did little to break Arsenal down, but they’ll find a groove and begin tearing apart defences again in no time.

Spurs have now lost three games, only one behind their tally for the whole of last year. We can’t believe in Tottenham until they prove themselves against the best.

City continue dominance

The international break wasn’t enough to dampen the confidence radiating from Manchester, with the Citizens picking up right where they left off with another dominant display reminding the league that they are the absolute benchmark. Their 2-0 manhandling of Leicester lifts them to 34 points from their opening 12 games — equalling their own league record set in the 2011-12 season, a year which they took home the title.

Everything is going right for City. Their squad looks cohesive and focused, whilst Guardiola has clearly got a firm grip on the tactics of the English game after some growing pains last season. Having a top-five player in the world and the most in-form player in the competition at the centre of everything really helps. Kevin De Bruyne is firing off passes at all angles, unleashing his deadly long shot in slivers of space and is just an all-round nightmare for defences.

The problem it poses for defences is frightening: key in on KDB at risk giving space to City’s other attacking options (and to KDB’s passing) or attempt to cover him regularly and hope he doesn’t slip free.

Sometimes you don’t even have a choice — City’s ruthlessness can be confronting. The best example of this came with the Foxes first and only foray deep into scoring territory, which nearly left the game 1-1. It instead locked the points up for City 22 seconds later:

Leicester toggle through both options and end up leaving KDB wide open, in rhythm and within range. The result is going to be a goal. Brutal and beautiful simplicity.

With 16 goals and 34 assists, De Bruyne been involved in 50 Premier League goals through his 76 games, the quickest midfielder to reach the landmark in the division’s history. The linchpin on the best team in Europe, he is the best player in the world right now.

But he isn’t going at it alone: how quickly Leroy Sane went from questionable transfer to undeniable superstar — Sane has been involved in 12 goals (six goals, six assists) in only eight starts; Gabriel Jesus has had a hand in 20 goals in his 21 league appearances (15 goals, 5 assists) and there is a very minimal drop-off when he stands in for Sergio Aguero, about the best praise a young striker could get; and David Silva is as crafty as ever. This is as complete of a squad as we’ve seen.

They didn’t concede a single shot on target, held Leicester to a measly 25% possession whilst generating chances with such ease they made the Foxes — a legitimately competent defensive team — look soft.

Leicester boss Claude Puel was rightly full of praise for his opposition, but also attempted to avoid swallowing the result, saying “City deserved a red card. It is not possible to come back after the decision.” It’s fair for Puel to dismiss the result as an indication of his team’s progress — they’ve come far from their early struggles and City are operating on a different level — but sticking it on a decision from inside the first 10 minutes isn’t fooling anyone.

The only disappointment was the apparent hamstring injury to Jon Stones, which strikes the centre-half down the midst of career-best form. Kompany’s return enthuses, but he looked far behind the pace and was lucky to escape a red card after a clumsy, poorly-timed challenge early in the game.

Talks of City going undefeated are premature, but the fact those talks are already happening is proof of their dominance. The 100-point barrier has never been broken in premier league history, but if City continue at their current rate they’re on track to reach 108 points and 126 goals, both smashing the previously set records.

With Huddersfield showing signs of vulnerability in a 4-0 flogging from Bournemouth, the party looks likely to continue for another week.

Gimmicky United

An emphatic win, no doubt, but United’s 4-1 victory over Newcastle does little to rebuff the notion that their effective performances are gimmicky and lack any substance.

Not to sound facetious, but a 4-2-1-3 is very 2014; teams have adjusted to that whippety style, and against more controlled opposition they’ll need to find something else — but in overpowering lesser teams, it works just fine.

Taking care of inferior opposition is an integral part of putting together a successful PL campaign, so wins like these aren’t to be dismissed. But we’re waiting to be convinced United can remain in the hunt for the title, and we still have no tangible proof that they are the real deal. Don’t be fooled by the big scoreline, that wasn’t the statement game we’ve been waiting on. Pogba’s return does make the chances of them turning a corner feel more imminent.

Parting Shots

• A 2-0 win with 39% possession is about as Burnley as it gets, but firing off 17 shots with such little ball highlights a potency in playing their deep-set counter-attacking style that speaks volume about their comfort with this style. Didn’t concede a shot on target until the 95th minute, which is simply staggering. Another commanding win to consolidate their great start. They remain seventh in the table, just one point behind Spurs and level with Arsenal and Liverpool.

• 121 games that resulted in 36 draws and 49 losses for a win ratio of 29.7% — Tony Pulis is going to lose his job soon. The writing’s on the wall; it’s a matter of time now.

• Everton are about as good as Crystal Palace right now, so a draw seems fitting. David Unsworth’s weirdly content tone was a strange one to take — drawing with the worst team in the league isn’t a step forward.

• After inexplicably leaving Alexander Lacazette out of the line-up against City and Liverpool, Wenger finally got his formation and line-up right — and results were as expected. The three-pronged attack of Ozil, Sanchez and Laca up front looked potent, fluid and imposing, causing problems for Tottenham’s back line all game. Playing alongside a mobile striker brings the best out of Ozil — who was absolutely brilliant — and diverts attention away from Sanchez, which opens up space for him to create in the final third. There are no better options, and he has to stick by it.

• Hazard Warning: Playing with a true forward means Eden can disappear deep in the gulfs of Chelsea’s midfield, where he’s almost impossible to guard. When he’s orchestrating like this, he’s KDB-level good. That was as dangerous as the Blues have looked all season, and it’s clear Hazard is vital to their success.

• Jonjo Shelvey, finally finding his feet after an awful start to the season.

• Arsenal have made Emirates a fortress: they’ve won their last 11 games at home, their best run since 2005.

• Southampton aren’t the team to poke at Liverpool’s weaknesses, and the result went as expected. The only genuine talking point from the game was whether Salah has done enough to surpass Raheem Sterling as the best right winger in the division. He and Coutinho were again outstanding.

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About the author

Brayden Issa

Brayden is a Sydney-based sports management student and sports fanatic, specialising in rugby league, basketball, football and cricket. He is concerned with everything related to professional sports performance and management.

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