Notes on the 2018-19 title race with a different perspective. Writing with (and about) the enemy. By Sachin Nakrani and Simon Curtis
Under the Volcano
10th October 2018 – Back in March, following Chelsea’s Champions League defeat to Barcelona, I put out a tweet regarding Lionel Messi following yet another excellent display by the Argentinian at Camp Nou.
“I feel sorry for Lionel Messi because he hasn’t had the privilege of watching Lionel Messi play football. All he can do is take our word for it.”
The tweet was meant as a joke. All night people had been tweeting out the type of stuff you only see when Messi is playing well - ‘we’re not worthy’, ‘he must be from another planet’, ‘greatness in front of our eyes’, that sort of thing and this was my subtle, sarcastic dig at all of the online salivating.
But, as is often the case with my tweets, people didn’t get the sentiment behind it and thought I was being deadly serious. There were over 3,000 retweets, 6,000 likes and 50 responses, practically all of which were mushy in their praise of Messi.
I initially found the response baffling and nauseating in equal measure, but the more they came in the more my heart melted. Gradually this misunderstanding felt rather lovely - a collective, online appreciation of a player who, let’s face it, deserves all the adulation that comes his way.
I thought of that tweet, and the response to it, while stood on the Kop on Sunday watching David Silva play for Manchester City. He’s no Messi but, my God, he’s a wonderful footballer. One of those footballers that makes you acutely aware of how not-very-good you are at football. The way he manoeuvres into space, collects and cares for the ball like a mother collects and cares for her newborn child, and, time and again, plays the right pass at the right time.
I watched Silva do all of this on the green grass of Anfield and thought to myself, “I feel sorry for David Silva because he hasn’t had the privilege of watching David Silva play football. All he can do is take our word for it.”
The mad, bewildering, scary thing is that he wasn’t even the best City player on the pitch. Heck, he wasn’t even the best Silva on the pitch. Bernardo Silva was absolutely tremendous in centre midfield alongside Fernandinho, showing a level of aggression and robustness that I wasn’t aware he possessed. On the ball he then displayed his renowned technical class; a drop of the shoulder here, a spurt into space there; a pass to the left, a pass to the right, a few forward and the occasional one back. Always in control, always a danger.
City were very good on Sunday. Not their sparkling best but defensively excellent and, in possession, showing the type of refinement and purpose that left me convinced they were going to nick it. And of course they nearly did after Leroy Sane collected a pass from - guess who – David Silva, drove into the box and tempted the otherwise excellent Virgil Van Dijk into a clumsy lunge. Penalty with five minutes remaining, the perfect snatch and grab, and then Riyad Mahrez stepped forward and ballooned the ball so high that it still hasn’t dropped to earth.
Leaving the ground I felt a mix of satisfaction and relief. I would’ve taken a point before kick-off and even more so after Mahrez’s miss. But there was also concern, partly because of how poorly Liverpool’s front three played yet again and partly because of the savvy Pep Guardiola had displayed from a tactical point of view.
Having conceded seven goals in the two games City played at Anfield last season, he was clearly determined to keep it much tighter this time around. It was startling how reserved City were from a structural as well as intent point of view, not really coming forward until around the 15-minute mark. Even then it was tentative and never fully did the visitors go for Liverpool’s throat.
In Tuesday’s Guardian, Jonathan Wilson wrote a piece dissecting City’s display and made the point that for all the talk of Guardiola being a ideologue, he has history when it comes to pragmatism. At Bayern Munich, Wilson wrote, a 4-1 defeat at Wolfsburg led to Guardiola questioning his tactics and whether or not he had got “carried away with his experiments in using full-backs in possession in effect as old-fashioned wing-halves that he had forgotten the basics?” Determined to avoid such a drubbing again, the Catalan wrote what he came to refer to as “the bible”.
Wilson explains what the bible was but for the sake of expediency, I’ll summarise: “Defend better”.
And that’s what City did at Anfield. It earned them a point in a game which last season they got none and if Guardiola is able to mesh the thrilling brand that took City to the title with the type of display that earns them a point in games they’d otherwise lose then God help us all.
Saying that, it could transpire that this was actually two points dropped (which it sort of was anyway given Mahrez’s miss) and that rather than keeping Liverpool at bay, City have allowed them to keep hold of their coattails at a time when their football is stodgy and disconnected. Liverpool will improve and if that comes at a time when City go through a rough patch then we could see a quick turnaround at the top of the table and, ultimately, a shift in the team able to call themselves champions of England.
That team may not necessarily be Liverpool. After all, Chelsea are level on points with the ‘big two’ and look the real deal under the Italian geezer that is Maurizio Sarri, while Arsenal are also coming up on the rails. Tottenham, meanwhile, are having a properly weird season - doom and gloom all over the place yet Mauricio Pochettino’s men sit just two points off the summit having recorded their joint best start to a Premier League season after eight games.
Saying all that, I still believe it will be City and Liverpool who are tussling for the title come late spring. Who wins it remains hard to say - City rightly remain favourites, especially so after their show of canniness on Merseyside. But that display also hinted at a level of trepidation on the part of the champions and a repeat, at Stamford Bridge, the Emirates, Wembley or, dare I say it, Old Trafford, could lead to not only two points being given up but three.
Liverpool’s task is to then pounce and take full advantage, a task they’re up for and, all going well, capable of.
– Sachin Nakrani
10th October 2018 – When Malcolm Lowry wrote “I have resisted temptation for two and a half minutes at least: my redemption is sure” in Under the Volcano, his novel’s main character was almost certainly not thinking about Association.Football. Pep Guardiola, though, will appreciate the thought.
While Lowry’s consul was staving off the urge to get drunk to forget about the mess he had made of his life, the Catalan had more pressing practicalities at Anfield, stemming the expected red tide with his own version of resisted temptation. .
So, Pep had located the button marked “pragmatism” and given it a damn good prod.
That it should be pressed with such enthusiasm at Anfield was no coincidence of course. City’s execrable record there is legendary and will not be repeated in any detail here. Even recent visits have ended in tears and tantrums, despite home games yielding more positive results over the last decade.
Last season was a case in point. Four shipped in a wildly tipping league encounter and three more in a disastrous Champions League collapse. The five banged in at the Etihad in September of 2017 had at the time been a record high against Liverpool since 1937, but was somewhat buried by subsequent developments.
Liverpool and Jurgen Klopp should feel honoured that the free-wheeling man of such vivacious attacking intent decided this to be the occasion for caution, practical shape and tightly coordinated defensive blocks. Laporte and Stones were as tight as could be, Walker and Mendy mostly tucked in narrow and Bernardo Silva, that effervescent little tinker, anchored to Fernandinho’s deep midfield patch. It was all very nouveau pauvre.
Guardiola’s gung-ho mishaps had been questioned at this very place last season. Here was proof if proof was needed of further progress by a coach, who never stops learning, never stops listening.
All this was well and good and eventually worked a treat, but it had been aided and abetted by Liverpool’s queer slump in form. The very part of the side that drove everyone to distraction last season does not appear to be functioning at all well all of a sudden. Mohammed Salah, like the man who lost his sandals in the desert, continues to tip toe around hopefully but appears to have badly singed his toes.
Firminho too looked out of sorts, leaving the feisty Mané to run the City defence and get himself tangled with Fernandinho, while carrying the flag for the home side.
To complete the contrariness, Liverpool’s dynamic midfield - led by the excellent Henderson - did what was needed to take part in this tactical battle but little more. Where City had been badly overrun last season, here they produced numbers and shapes to thwart the home flow. At the back, where Liverpool had often fallen down a year back, all was serene, as City’s occasional probing brought few worries to the impressive Van Dijk and his cohorts.
Liverpool will be happy they have removed that tricky string of fixtures from their to-do list. Huddersfield, Cardiff, Fulham and Watford come next, with the only demanding trip the one that takes them to the Emirates to the media’s newly anointed “revolution club”. How swiftly things move these days. European adventures against a fast-wilting Red Star and a goal hungry PSG will fill in the spaces for the coming month or so, but Liverpool will be hopeful that they can use these fixtures to regain some of the verve they started the campaign with.
While a point has kept them as close to City as is possible (“joint top” in certain people’s minds), it also allowed the gale force wind that is Arsenal and the thoroughbreds Chelsea and Tottenham to edge closer. A two point stretch from top to fifth can only be good for the Premier League. City’s pomp and circumstance last season was an eye-catching spectacle, but a repeat of the gap which divided first and second would not be good for the competitive edge we all crave from the sport.
Liverpool have long been held as the torch bearers for the challenge to City. At the weekend they became aware that City’s hierarchy concur with that forecast. In shuttling through the game with their core beliefs under such tight control, City not only resisted the temptation to go gung-ho, but threw down a challenge to Liverpool that on this occasion they were not up to accepting. All pointers continue to suggest a close-fought battle this season. As Lowry’s consul might have said, “I’ll drink to that.”
– Simon Curtis
Thursday, October 11, 2018
DISPATCHES FROM THE OTHER SIDE #8
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