The Premier League has reached the portion of the season when it paws at having a winter break, splitting up the 21st round of fixtures over two weeks to give half the teams the week off this week and half the teams the week off last week. Unless they have a FA Cup replay. Or a League Cup semifinal. But every team will get at least a long weekend-plus off, which is better than nothing. It’s not the month they get in Germany or the holiday breaks in Spain and Italy, but that’s life in England.
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So with only five games on the calendar, we can just go through them individually. Yes, I can even muster thoughts about Luton and Burnley, because I’m just that depraved!
While Liverpool supporters like me or Arsenal supporters or even Villa supporters have pretended at various times that any of those teams are genuine title contenders, there’s always been a foreboding feeling akin to hearing Godzilla is making his way inland from the coast that come March or April at best it’s all not going to matter, because Man City will shake off their first half malaise, stretch out their arms and yawn and go back to kicking over whatever building that happens to be in their way.
Most of that had to do with the fact that Kevin De Bruyne hadn’t played at all in the first half, and is now returning from injury, and he’s still the league’s best player in a team already bursting with stars. And, well . . .
The only caveat anyone else can cling to is that City stormed back against a Newcastle side that’s had to play the same 11 players for about two months now and they always run out of gas after about 60 minutes (Bruno Guimaraes has played 750 minutes in the past month, for example). But it’s not much of a caveat.
The hardest part to stomach about De Bruyne’s tying goal is that Newcastle know exactly what to do, they just can’t stop it. It is clear they want to stop the Belgian from getting the ball between the midfield and defensive line. Look at Guimaraes and Lewis Miley here as Rodri has the ball in the center circle, their only focus is to cut off the pass to De Bruyne.
But Rodri is hardly a slouch, and his ability with the ball at his feet, and a simple movement from De Bruyne, and suddenly the world opens up:
Miley and Guimaraes get caught ball-watching, don’t notice De Bruyne moving into the space to their left, but Rodri does, and now De Bruyne is getting the ball with his head up and an ability to run at the defense and Newcastle’s entire midfield is out of it. There’s little to do when this much skill is around De Bruyne to make sure he gets the ball in the spaces he wants.
As for the winner, Kieran Trippier has been woeful for a month or so now, mostly due to exhaustion, and the look of horror he has when he realizes that he’s trying to play an offside trap three yards ahead of the rest of his defense is good for a laugh if you don’t follow a team trying to hang onto to anything with City clawing at their ankles. None of Newcastle’s midfield have the gas to get out to De Bruyne, giving him four seconds of time when he only needs one to pick out Oscar Bobb.
What can men do against such reckless skill?
A pretty typical Chelsea performance, with more flash than it might look, but an inability to finish most of it off until Cole Palmer can take a penalty. Fulham had their chances too, but the main story out of this one is for USMNT fans in that Antonee Robinson has become one of, if not the, best left-back in the league so far this season.
Robinson had Palmer mostly shackled on the right side of the Chelsea attack, and after about the 30th minute, Palmer took up residence in the middle of the field to get away from Robinson as much as he could. Robinson racked up four interceptions and three clearances to go with four recoveries, while covering just about every inch of grass on the left half of the field.
The only mark on Robinson’s report card is that for as often as he gets forward, and finds himself in advantageous attacking spots, his final product isn’t much. He’s not much of a crosser, not much of a passer when it comes to making the killer one that leads to a chance, and he rarely shoots. The defensive dominance he’s shown this season is more than enough, and he’s a lock in the first 11 for the USMNT. If he ever finds his footing in attack, he’s probably a $40-50 million player.
Not your normal nil-nil as it was actually watchable, and if Dominic Calvert-Lewin hadn’t been replaced by a pod person in the past calendar year, this wouldn’t have ended up scoreless. As it always seems with Everton, the big news was off the field (and we’ll get to it), but a word on Douglas Luiz for Villa.
Luiz ran this game for both teams, and even though Everton’s midfield is specifically set up to destroy anything beautiful and is filled with tough-tackling giants like Abdoulaye Doucouré and Amadou Onana, Luiz waltzed through it all for the entire match like it was a musical. Luiz completed 90 percent of his passes while never falling in dribbling past defenders and threw in 12 ball recoveries while he was at it. Everything good that Villa did, and they did pile up 16 shots, sprang from Luiz’s work, which has been the story for most of the season.
As for Everton, they’ll be sweating until April at least as they’ve been charged with financial goofiness again, along with Nottingham Forest, and could see a second points-deduction this season. Again, it’s a different case than City’s, which all Toffees will be screaming about whenever punishment is handed down, but also is still less about malice and more about incompetence. This wasn’t a team trying to buy success from an endless bank account. This was a team and ownership with no direction or plan. That won’t be enough to save them totally, however.
Same story as it is for United, who got a point they can claim is a good one, but were still pretty much rolled over at home by a Spurs side that was missing its three best attackers and two important midfielders. Erik Ten Hag clearly has given up on what his overarching plan was supposed to be and has gone back to the emergency plan of last year. That was to soak up pressure, sit a little deep, and provide more space behind opponents for Marcus Rashford, Garnacho, and Rasmus Hojlund to spring into like a slingshot. It isn’t the worst plan considering how good the three have looked on the counter at times, but Ten Hag wasn’t hired to be Mourinho 2.0.
Especially when he gets defensive efforts like this from his captain Bruno Fernandes. Just watch him simply watch Rodrigo Bentancur stroll away from him and into the box to score:
Fernandes does start a good five to 10 yards behind Bentancur, but the latter is hardly sprinting and checks up to find space. Fernandes just wanders back into his own penalty area marking no one, leaving Bentancur to freely accept the ball in the box. This is United now, back to hoping that their forwards can catch a heater all by themselves while they hope the other seven outfield players don’t bork it up badly enough to cancel it out.
Want the worst VAR decision of the year?
Elijah Adebayo even looks to see where the Burnley keeper is before barging into him while the cross comes in. That’s a full box-out that would get any high school basketball coach weak in the knees. That’s not going for the ball. And then VAR decides it’s fine? Burnley are probably going down anyway, but if it’s by one or two points, then VAR will have its biggest toll to answer for, because we know what relegation or safety can mean to clubs.
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