By losing to a surprisingly rampant Arsenal in their previous league game before the international break, Manchester United more or less confirmed our sneaking suspicions about this team’s place in the EPL hierarchy. Their spot in the table may make them technically contenders but there still remains a gap between the Red Devils and the two real title chasers.
This weekend, with a difficult trip to Everton, United could’ve gone one of two ways. Either they could’ve dropped points again—which, while being no great embarrassment when facing this very talented Toffee team, would’ve cemented United’s place as top four locks with little hopes of pushing for something more—or they could beat the Merseysiders, proving that for however much doubt anyone might have about their performances so far this season, the sheer mathematics of their campaign makes it impossible to write them off. As you can see with the absence of our lolunited tag up top, they did the latter.
This was a legitimately impressive United victory. It speaks to the depth and versatility of the squad that they can drop what was supposed to be their creative stud this season, Memphis Depay, shuffle around the attackers a bit, bring in the curiously underused Ander Herrera, and have the newcomer outplay everyone else on the pitch.
Manchester United have the raw materials of a really good team. Naturally, it will take time for it all to come together in its ultimate form. As long as they continue to grow and snatch up wins as they go along, they’ll have the points for a real title push by the time their play catches up. The Manchester Derby this weekend will go a long way towards measuring how close they are.
Man City 5-1 Bournemouth
Speaking of the Manchester Derby, the blue side of town also made a statement this week. While we were busy charting the route for the nearly certain Man City victory parade a few weeks ago, the players themselves were doing their best to let their rivals back into the race. In the past month, City have dropped six points, and even worse, have seen their two best players, Sergio Agüero and David Silva, pick up a couple injuries that will have them out for a couple weeks at least. The one way we thought they could cough up their lead—bad injuries to key players—has come to pass.
That’s the thing about this team, though: it’s just so, so preposterously good. Short Agüero and Silva, the onus was put primarily on City’s newest additions to step up in their absence. Which they did, to devestating effect.
Raheem Sterling deservingly won the headlines with his first-half hat trick. Sterling has impressed in his time in Manchester, even to the extent that few have questioned the enormous transfer fee it cost to bring him in, but he hadn’t had a signature performance until this weekend. Trying to contain Sterling with the ball at his feet has always been like playing tug-of-war with a puppy for 15 minutes, then trying to keep the dog in your lap on a car ride; if the Englishman was to live up to his potential, though, it would only come through improvement of the other facets of his game. His finishing has long been the weakest aspect of his attacking game, so seeing him bag three bodes well.
Besides Sterling, Kevin De Bruyne hasn’t missed a beat and looks just as imperious in England as he did in Germany. The Belgian has three goals and three assists in just five appearances for City, and on Saturday went some way towards showing that he can coexist with the missing David Silva by playing well out wide instead of his favored position in the hole. Agüero’s direct replacement in the lineup, Wilfried Bony, also enjoyed his best game since joining the Sky Blues last winter, scoring twice and setting up one of Sterling’s goals.
Saturday’s romp wasn’t against the toughest of competition, admittedly, but the performance as a whole was as impressive as you’d hope for when a giant takes on a minnow. Silva and Agüero will almost certainly miss the Manchester Derby this weekend, so it’ll take more performances like this to regain their status as champions-elect. The Bournemouth game showed that, even severely hobbled, this team still has the capacity to run opponents off the pitch.
Tottenham 0-0 Liverpool
Does anyone want to keep Chelsea out of the Champions League? It doesn’t look like it, not after Tottenham and Liverpool settled for a fairly drab draw in Jürgen Klopp’s managerial debut.
There’s not much to say about the game itself, except that even at this stage, we can see that Klopp’s Liverpool will involve lots and lots of running. Spurs have had a pretty good season thus far, and have quietly built a very exciting young roster that, if it can stay together, should be legit top four challengers in the not-so-distant future. Liverpool too aren’t far away either, and even under Brendan Rodgers, you could see this team was very talented.
Still, neither team has set itself up particularly well for a serious top four push this season, despite the Chelsea collapse that has all but begged someone to keep the reigning English champs out of Europe next season. This is the time would one of these teams should be padding their points total, racing out far enough ahead of Mourinho’s boys so that they can’t easily get caught once the Blues finally (and it has to happen, right?) start looking like themselves again. As it stands, Chelsea are only two points behind Liverpool and three behind Tottenham. It’s probably already too late.
Watford 0-3 Arsenal
We here love few things more than lauding the creative brilliance of certain Gunners, so we’ll spare you more gushing right now. Instead of the impressive way they navigated a tough first half and turned a close match into a blowout in the final 30 minutes, let’s focus on one particularly confounding play by a man we generally love, Mesut Özil.
What was he doing on that first goal? In the build up towards the opener, Özil received a perfect Santi Cazorla pass right into his stride as he slipped through the defense into the heart of the box. He took one touch, presumably to set up an ensuing shot, and you expected him to then smash it towards goal. He took another, you thought maybe to fool the keeper into going to ground, and when that didn’t happen, surely, you imagined, he’s slide it into the far corner. And yet he kept shuffling alongside the ball, flat-out refusing to shoot despite being in perfect position. Rather than try to score himself, he eventually fell to the ground in search of a penalty, which thankfully led a real goal scorer like Alexis Sánchez to step up and thump it past the keeper.
This was no fluke. Özil has an almost comical aversion to shooting. (An affliction shared, by the way, by City’s Jesús Navas; scroll back up to the video from their game and watch an even more embarrassing urge to not shoot on Sterling’s third goal.) For as slick and crafty as he is, with the ability to dance into the most dangerous areas on the pitch and put the ball exactly where he wants it, he doesn’t score nearly at the rate you’d expect.
Has he so idealized passing that he considers the imprecise and ungainly act of reaching back a leg and hurling a foot at the ball beneath the exacting artistry of a through ball? Is he so shy and unassuming that he abhors the attention that comes with scoring, so much so that he’d rather forgo an open net in favor of setting up an onrushing teammate to soak up the eyes of the crowd? Did Cristiano Ronaldo brainwash the youngster in his first months with Real Madrid, convincing him that what all the girlies really dig nowadays are assists, and that goals are played out? The situation is baffling and we need answers.
Photos via Getty