Grantland logo

The Reducer, Week 22: Separation Sunday

The Manchester clubs pull ahead of the Premier League pack.


In seasons past, Super Sunday (the term Sky Sports uses to market Sundays in which several of the Premier League’s top teams face off) meant long, tedious buildups to long, tedious matches between cagey, defensive teams. You’d come out of these double-headers feeling cheated; a 1-1 draw, a cagey, 1-0 home win. Nothing ventured, nothing gained. I’m sure Premier League titles have been decided on those days, but it sure never felt that way.

The lead-up to this past Sunday’s round of games felt different. Tottenham could legitimately make a title claim, Arsenal could gain ground on Chelsea for the last Champions spot. City and United, despite being the class of the league, were there for the taking. For those of us looking for a more-than-two-club title race, Sunday could actually be “super.”

There might have only been two good halves played between Spurs-City and Arsenal-United, but in the end the two North London clubs were left, respectively, ruing their luck and cursing their manager, while the Manchester clubs saw the rest of the league recede in their rear-view mirrors.

Manchester City 3, Tottenham 2 Highlights: Man City/Tottenham

• After a pretty tight, cautious first half, the second act of Spurs-City was the equivalent of chasing a bunch of energy strips with two cans of Monster Khaos. From the 56th to the 65th minute there were four goals.

• Samir Nasri’s goal for City’s opening score was the first time I felt like Roberto Mancini’s band of well-paid outsiders hit the dizzying heights of their early-season form. It was reported on Monday that Johan Cruyff was not particularly impressed with the quality of play in the Premier League, but even he must have golf-clapped that pass from David Silva. That was a big goal for Nasri, who had been a walking, pouting portrait of £25 million on fire for the last two months or so. Also, is the sound of a shot nearly snapping a net off the goal the best sound in sports or the best sound in sports?

• City’s second — coming off of an Edin Dzeko header into a tumbling Joleon Lescott — was an example of why this City team are so hard to stop. Their first goal was all Continental flair, movement without the ball and passes placed into the path of a cutting player. Their second was the polar opposite: ugly, physical, and equally difficult to defend.

• They’re hard to stop and they’re hard to love. City’s behavior, while nothing out of the ordinary for a Premier League team in a tight, up-and-down match, could be described flatteringly as “careless,” or more accurately, “dirty.” Lescott’s elbow on Younes Kaboul; the “sweep the leg, Johnny” move Mario Balotelli performed on Benoit Assou-Ekotto, and, of course, Balotelli’s stomp of Scott Parker’s dome.

• Okay, Mario: I don’t know that I have seen an athlete quite like him before. We’ve had jesters, geniuses, loudmouths, and game-changers. But I don’t recall seeing them all rolled into one player like this. He’s like some unholy combination of Ian Wright, Eric Cantona, and Joey Barton. He’s like his own weather system: unpredictable and always having an impact. Speaking of impact, is there a more game-changing sub in the league? When Roberto Mancini sent Balotelli on in the middle of the second, it was one part tactical substitution and one part mind game. As soon as he got in the pitch it felt like everyone was waiting for something to happen; for the storm to come. They certainly got it. Balotelli’s stomp on Parker earned him a four-game ban. His penalty kick got City that much closer to their first Premier League crown.

• If Edin Dzeko’s goal was an example of why City are hard to contain, Gareth Bale’s goal for Tottenham’s equalizer was, in turn, an example of what makes Spurs so special this year. It’s easy to attribute their success to the sheer athleticism of the squad and Harry Redknapp’s “fucking run around a bit” tactical philosophy. But there was Bale, popping up in the middle of the field, a position from which he’s becoming increasingly dangerous. This Spurs side, with every game, become more and more fluid. They play the most exciting football in England. Too bad they likely won’t have any silverware to show for it.

• Whenever I see Micah Richards do one of his bombing runs down the flank with the ball at his feet, I let out a deep, guttural “Ohhhhhh Yeahhhhh” in the voice of the Kool-Aid Man. Richards has been my favorite player of the season; he puts the fears of a vengeful, wrath-addicted god into opposing wingers tasked with marking him, and looks like he could play any position on the field (and often does). If there’s any justice in England, he’s starting for the Three Lions at right back when they take the pitch in Donetsk against France in their opening Euro 2012 fixture.

• Does Emmanuel Adebayor get to that Bale cross? Jermain Defoe nearly split himself in half reaching for it, and with Adebayor you never know if he’s going to make the run in the first place. But that miss was a matter of inches and Adebayor is six inches taller than Defoe.

Manchester United 2, Arsenal 1 Highlights: Arsenal/Man Utd

The Gunners’ loss to Manchester United, at home, was their third straight defeat. Had you offered it before the game, honest Arsenal fans might have taken a 2-1 loss to the defending champions, especially given what happened the last time the two faced off. For Arsene Wenger, the problem wasn’t so much the result but the way in which it was received by the club’s fans. The term “crisis club” is often tossed around liberally, but I can’t think of anything else to call Arsenal.

What seemed to rankle most fans, to say nothing of club captain Robin van Persie, was the substitution of Andrei Arshavin for young Gunner Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain. The Ox had just created Arsenal’s first score, carving open United and finding van Persie for the goal. Wenger promptly hauled him off for Arshavin, triggering a deafening chorus of boos from the home crowd and a look of exhausted bewilderment from van Persie.

Arshavin promptly got roasted by Antonio Valencia (who played out of his mind on Sunday), leading to Danny Welbeck’s United winner. After the match, when pressed on the matter, Wenger had this to say: “Oxlade-Chamberlain had started to fatigue … He was sick during the week. Arshavin is captain of the Russia national team. I have to justify a guy of 18 who’s playing his second or third game? Let’s be serious. I have to stand up for the substitutions I made. I’ve been 30 years in this job and have made 50,000 substitutions and I have to justify every time I make a decision? I do not have to explain to you every single decision I make.”

He was defending himself to a prying media but, in reality, he was addressing his club’s supporters. It’s hard to decide what’s more unbelievable: that a section of Arsenal’s fans want a change in management, or that they might be right.

Every year it’s the same thing: Facing a rash of injuries, Wenger is forced to put the team’s livelihood in the hands of inexperienced or unqualified players. In seasons past, the quality of players like Cesc Fabregas or Jack Wilshere helped Arsenal leg it over the line with a Champions League place in hand. But it doesn’t look like that’s going to happen this year.

No, Wenger does not owe the fans an explanation. He’s won league titles, FA Cups, and was instrumental in building the club a new mothership of a stadium in North London. But he can’t be surprised when they get so frustrated at the substitutions-by-physio-chart. Nor can you be can you be shocked when you come out and say it would be a shame to lose points because you didn’t have any fit fullbacks, then you lose points because you don’t have any fit fullbacks. He has enjoyed something that few coaches or managers have in professional sports: trust. He’s starting to lose it. Obviously from his fans, and perhaps, most important, from his players.

Many have noted the face van Persie made at the Oxlade-Chamberlain-for-Arshavin substitution; it reminded me a lot of this Liverpool moment from April 2010:

Manager Rafa Benitez was gone two months later. Fans can be won back. It’s harder to do the same with your star players.

A few notes on United …

• One of the more damning indictments of Arsenal is just how much Manchester United have done in similar circumstances. They, too, have seen their defensive line torn apart by injuries and poor form. They’ve spent a fortune on a keeper who needs eye surgery. They, too, had to bring in an aging club legend in lieu of any significant mid-season signings, and manager Sir Alex Ferguson has also had to deal with limited funds to buy players. Yet here they are, in second, three points behind City.

• I don’t know how much longer that three-point gap will stay that close, though. In the coming weeks, City face Everton, Fulham, Villa, Blackburn, and Bolton. United, on the other hand, get Stoke, Chelsea, Norwich, and Liverpool. It will take an incredible effort on United’s part to stay within shouting distance of City through the month.

• Part of the reason United has remained so competitive in the face of all this adversity is because different players have, at different points, stepped up. This is a side that used to go as far as Wayne Rooney and Cristiano Ronaldo took them. If you had said in the beginning of the season that United’s key players in January would be Antonio Valencia and Danny Welbeck, you would have been sent straight to Shutter Island.

• If you were wondering where the hell Javier Hernandez was, you’re not alone. Chicharito didn’t get off the bench Sunday, despite being available to play. According to Ferguson, “Chicharito has had his issues this year.”

Step Overs

• As joyous as the celebrations were in Manchester, there was nothing but gloom on Merseyside this weekend. Everton drew with Blackburn, and Liverpool suffered what was, in many ways, their worst defeat of the season to Bolton. For Everton this could be a case of one miracle too many. David Moyes has been shuffling an increasingly tattered deck. In seasons past he could rely on getting goals from crazy Australians (Tim Cahill) and saves from crazy keepers (Tim Howard). Every year, Everton’s best players or brightest prospects were picked off, and every year Moyes somehow kept the club competitive. But the lack of investment has finally cost the Toffees. The only reason they’ll probably steer clear of the relegation battle is because the teams below them are so awful.

• Liverpool, on the other hand, has no excuse. And nobody seemed to know that better on Saturday than Kenny Dalglish. The club legend threw his team under the bus and then backed up over them to make sure he knew they’d been run over. “The foundations of this club have always been based on respect for other people. You can’t come to places like this thinking all you need to do is turn up to get a result. That’s what I think we did today, and that’s why we were taught a lesson. It’s not the right way to represent the club. I don’t think we were even ready to play the game. That’s probably why we lost a goal after four minutes. I don’t think the way we went about our work was correct.”

• Having lost two of their last three and looked abject doing so, it would be easy to say Liverpool are out of Champions League contention. It would be easy, were it not for Arsenal, Newcastle, and Chelsea looking so awful over the weekend. Newcastle were maybe due a loss like the one they suffered to Fulham (5-2). But Chelsea is inexplicable. Norwich boss Paul Lambert sent out his side with the instructions, “Don’t get fuckin’ beat!” Perhaps Andre Villas-Boas should have taken a page from his playbook, lit his extensive dossiers on fire, and told his team, “Go fuckin’ win.”

Goal of the Week: Gareth Bale, Tottenham Hotspur

Bale might be Welsh, but he puts a ton of English on this strike.

Quote of the Week: From the BBC report on Harry Redknapp’s tax-evasion trial

“The prosecution allege Mr. Redknapp instead received a secret payment from Mr. Mandaric into an account in Monaco in the name of ‘Rosie 47’ — a combination of his pet dog’s name and his year of birth — the prosecution said.”