They say a week is a long time in politics but rarely could the same saying be applied more aptly to the Premier League title race. The battle for the title has taken many twists over the last few months with none more predictable as Arsenal’s implosion and none more unpredictable than Liverpool’s renaissance. However, when all is said and done, the title champions have been decided by a very logical rationale – they happen to be the best team in the league over 38 games. This weekend summed it all up in a nutshell.
Manchester City arrived at Goodison Park aware of the potential banana skin that Everton would provide, yet the team’s primary qualities came to fore when the need was greatest. Ross Barkley scored a wonder goal but City had the attacking artillery to respond in kind through goals from strikers Sergio Aguero and Edin Dzeko. The defence is a tad shaky and it beggars belief that Joleon Lescott and Micah Richards can be as useless as to allow Martin Demichelis a consistent place in the first team but this defensive frailty has been camouflaged by outstanding full backs, the occasional brilliance of Vincent Kompany and the added protection provided from defensive midfield recruit Fernandinho. Realistically, City are the most balanced team in the league and have overcome shaky early away form to play winning attacking football that the owners crave directed by a manager in Manuel Pellegrini who has a greater appreciation for man-management and getting the best from players than was evident throughout the Roberto Mancini era.
On Sunday we witnessed another occasion in which Chelsea have come up short in terms of scoring the decisive goal in a stalemate with Norwich. In a previous week when José Mourinho conversely boasted about his team having beaten both Liverpool and Manchester City home and away, he ignored the inconvenient truth as to why his team have failed to outscore minnows such as Norwich on numerous occasions choosing instead to condemn their negative tactics. The so called “little horse” would be winning the big trophy if they had beaten Norwich or Sunderland at home in recent weeks….and for the record Norwich’s negative tactics didn’t stop Manchester City beating them 7-0 at the Etihad nor Liverpool beating them 5-1 at Anfield earlier in the season.
For Mourinho, the game versus Norwich was an illustration of how the leopard can try but has thus far failed to change his spots. Clean sheets have always come at the expense of scoring goals for a pragmatist such as Mourinho. In January when he had the opportunity to remedy what ailed him in terms of signing a centre forward, he chose security over inspiration in the signing of Nemanja Matic. It’s all well conceding over 70% of the possession at Anfield if it serves a greater tactical purpose but in contrast, when you have over 70% of possession at home to relegation no-hopers such as Norwich and fail to score, well that neatly sums up just one of the many challenges facing Mourinho into next season.
The 78th minute had passed at Selhurst Park on Monday as Liverpool cruised to a 3-0 away victory against Crystal Palace that would set them up nicely for one final forlorn tilt at the title come the following Sunday. That the subsequent 20 minutes should play out like some slow motion car-crash illustrates precisely what Liverpool’s season has been built upon.
This Liverpool team can’t defend and at no stage this season have they sought to fix this resulting in occasional skating on very thin ice. “If the opposition score three, we’ll score four” has seemed as reliable a strategy as any when you can score goals with such ease as this team have found them to come by. But when does this strategy become folly and we enter “The Ian Holloway School of Footballing Purity” abandoning common sense for the sake of attacking football at all costs. If we condemn Mourinho for pragmatism, Liverpool had the entirety of January to sign a defensive player of any kind and instead targeted (and failed in acquiring) a series of wingers. Liverpool were three goals up on Monday and could easily have closed out the game by bringing on Daniel Agger but instead the cavalry of Phillipe Coutinho and Victor Moses were brought on to add petrol to a fire that was beginning to rage when Crystal Palace had no right to claw their way back into the game.
Brendan Rodgers deserves unyielding credit for the job he has done but did he lose the plot at a critical juncture on Monday night?
This may look like one freak draw clutched from the jaws of victory but it has wider significance for the summer and into next season. Liverpool’s league fairytale has been built on no European football, being knocked out early of cup competitions and utilising a squad of scarcely more than sixteen players. The lessons Rodgers has learnt over the past fortnight in defeats to Chelsea and Crystal Palace may prove far more valuable than anything learnt during their eleven consecutive wins subsequent to that. It may well define Rodgers’ reign as Liverpool manager how he reconciles his immense pride in Liverpool’s style of play versus the inherent weaknesses that are visible within it.
With City’s emphatic victory versus Villa last night all but ensuring them the league title bar a massive upset versus West Ham, the title can be summarised as follows:
Chelsea had the defensive stability but didn’t score enough goals, Liverpool scored an abundance of goals but couldn’t defend and Manchester City were simply the best balanced team in terms of both defensive cover and attacking threat.
Football analysis is a simple game, isn’t it?
Stephen Twomey, Pundit Arena.