Our last word on the Man City game is a supporter’s one, with season ticket holder Giles Smith writing his regular column from a fan’s perspective and pinpointing more than one of the decision-making processes in the modern Premier League game…
Sky Sports gave its Man of the Match award on Saturday to Kevin De Bruyne and the fact that this decision could only cause you to tip your head back and honk with laughter said a great deal about the nature of the game we had just witnessed.Good player, of course, De Bruyne. But did scoring with the help of a massive deflection and then pretty much disappearing for the rest of the evening truly make him Saturday’s outstanding contributor? Correct me if I’m wrong, but N’Golo Kante had scored, too (without the help of a deflection, as it happened), and on top of that, he remained visible all game long. Mateo Kovacic and Jorginho didn’t score but were arguably even more visible and even more impressive than Kante, and if we’re committed to isolating individual performances, all of them had masses more to talk about after the game than De Bruyne.But I guess television needs its victory scene – needs to have happy players on camera when it’s handing over that odd, outsized deodorant thing that has replaced champagne as the official prize for individual excellence. Which means the accolade is practically always going to go to a player on the winning side, no matter how much you have to scratch around to find one who deserves it.It’s unusual, to say the least, for a visiting team at the Etihad to dominate the ball. Yet on Saturday we had 54 per cent of the possession and made nearly 100 more passes than City did – which is to say a fifth as many passes again. Okay, you would probably want to arch an eyebrow at the number of shots we had on target after that opening goal in the 21st minute. (It was none.) But that didn’t mean that plenty of opportunities weren’t resourcefully carved out in that time – enough to make a defeat seem a bit rough. When Spurs played at City near the beginning of the season, they were massively out-possessed, massively out-passed, managed three shots to City’s 30 – and came away with a draw. Nobody ever said football was fair, or even that it made any kind of sense.
But the consolations, as so often at the moment, were ample. To make City look dull and leggy on their own ground was no insignificant achievement for a team just three months into its fledgling journey. Let’s also remember what the score was the last time we visited this ground. Actually, let’s not remember that. Let’s purge it from the memory banks entirely, in as much as wholly traumatic experiences can ever be entirely purged.De Bruyne, it seemed to me, was just one of a host of extremely good Manchester City players who were kept unusually quiet by our players’ increasingly typical industry, ambition and imagination. Sergio Aguero, for instance, seems to have been scoring when he fancies this season, yet he only got a sniff on Saturday when Kepa accidentally picked him out unmarked on the edge of our penalty area, and even then the defensive pressure around him was instantly too much and he couldn’t finish.Meanwhile, for all that he contributed materially to the entertainment, David Silva might as well have devoted the evening to getting some early Christmas shopping in the bag, and until he had that goal ruled out in injury time, I assumed Raheem Sterling had done exactly that.Incidentally, I’m no supporter of VAR. Indeed, if the call ever went out for volunteers, I would happily report to Stockley Park with a screwdriver to help unhook and re-box the technology prior to returning it to the manufacturers. Nevertheless, the system is in place, we’ve all got to live with it as best we can, and there is no disputing that on this particular occasion, VAR got it spot on: 0.007cms of Sterling’s shoulder was ahead of Kurt Zouma’s toe at the point the ball was played – assuming we can be sure that the moment the ball was played was correctly determined, and that the tolerances applied at one end of the measurement were the same as the tolerances applied at the other, which I’m not entirely sure is the case with these VAR reviews.
I mean, do the pictures allow you to isolate the split second of impact between boot and ball in the same way that, once frozen, they apparently allow you to measure the exact distance between Zouma’s toe and Sterling’s shoulder? Or are they just taking a rough guesstimate when it comes to the point at which the ball was played? Because all the precise geometry with the various coloured lines only seems to be going on at the striker’s end of the business, and nobody seems unduly concerned about arguing over the other bit.But anyway: offside, clearly. No goal. And good job, too. 2-1 was an unfair enough reflection on the game. 3-1 would have been like passing the game through a Hall of Mirrors and stopping in front of the one where your stomach looks seven feet wide and your head looks like a pin.Elsewhere in the country, the fun went on. Tottenham’s defensive struggles continued at lowly West Ham; Arsenal needed a 96th-minute goal to draw at home to Southampton and still basically resemble a child’s plastic windmill in a field of wind turbines; and Manchester United showed their new resilience by coming from behind against Sheffield United, only to show their old lack of resilience again by conceding a late equaliser. Some cheering outcomes in there, of course, on a weekend when your side has failed to bank any points.However, if you had said that, in late November, City would have to beat us to rise above us, I think a few people would have laughed in your face. If you had added that by then a small canyon would have opened between us and fifth place and that Arsenal, Tottenham and Manchester United would be way behind, covered in mist, eight or nine points away, in (respectively) eighth, ninth and 10th places, then those same people might have been doubting your actual grasp on reality.But that’s the kind of team we currently have, that’s the pleasing vista we’re currently looking at, and that’s the kind of striking and enormously enjoyable season it’s turning out to be. And even, it seems, when we lose.