Friday, January 27, 2023

Manchester City 1-1 Everton: Talking points as Premier League champions lose title race ground

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Manchester City and Everton shared the spoils at the Etihad on Saturday, the last day of 2022, with Erling Haaland (who else) capitalizing on some excellent work from Riyad Mahrez to break the deadlock in the 24th minute, and Demarai Gray blasting in a superb top-corner equalizer in the 64th.

Is the title lost for City?

With Liverpool, the only team to have presented Manchester City with any challenge for the Premier League title since 2017/18, well out of the race, many would have believed the trophy would easily stay put at the Etihad at the end of this season, but Arsenal have surely been the surprise package of the campaign. Their excellent performances and results have been putting Pep Guardiola’s team under pressure to keep up for a long time, and it seems the defending champions are crumbling under it.

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Having entered the weekend with a five-point deficit, City obviously needed to win this match and hoped Arsenal would stumble away to Brighton and Hove Albion later, but neither their need or their hope was to be. Everton managed to knock two points off from their potential tally, while the Gunners smashed past the Seagulls at the Amex, to nobody’s surprise anymore. The gap now stands at seven points, and it would take a serious crisis to hit Guardiola’s former assistant Mikel Arteta and his team for things to become exciting at the top again.

There’s nothing for City to do at this point than keep their heads to the grindstone and win every match they can, and hope for an Arsenal slip-up, but as things stand right now, their chances of retaining the title this time appear very slim.

On the other hand, Everton will see this point as a huge one as they find themselves in a relegation battle again, though it may be too early in the season to be talking about that. There’s a long way to go, and if they manage to achieve some stability, Frank Lampard’s team could yet get out of it well before the warning lights start flashing red. Avoiding defeat at the Etihad is certainly a significant step in the right direction, but one point is still just one point and if it doesn’t serve as a foundation for something more, it won’t be much use.

The wonder called Haaland

After 16 matches City have played in the Premier League this season, Haaland has 21 goals to his name and he’s well on his way to break the record of 32 in a 38-game season set by Mohamed Salah in 2017/18. The fact that he missed the Leicester City clash at the end of October with a bruised foot only makes his numbers more impressive.

City, a team that creates loads of chances in almost every game, have added a striker that converts chances like no other to their ranks, and it was clear from the moment the Norwegian signed for the club that he would be a huge success. With playmakers like Kevin De Bruyne, Ilkay Gundogan, Bernardo Silva and Mahrez, City find it easy to get the ball to Haaland inside the box frequently, and that’s all they need to be doing for him to be consistent at hitting the back of the net.

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Haaland obviously has a perfect frame for a striker. Tall and powerful, formidable in the air, with pace to burn and excellent finishing, and a rare knack for being in the right place at the right time, he still only 22, and if City manage to beat off the reported interest of Real Madrid in the future and to keep him happy in Manchester, they will have the No. 9 position settled for at least a decade.

Haaland will, of course, need to avoid any serious injuries as well, and this is where the potential problem for City lies.

Before his arrival, Guardiola rarely relied on one attacker to contribute that many goals to his team and because of that, he never had to worry about losing one or two to injuries for a while. But with Haaland coming in, the likes of Raheem Sterling and Gabriel Jesus, Guardiola’s long-serving forwards, chose to leave in search of a place where their own attacking contributions would be needed and appreciated more. Sergio Aguero, who has retired from playing since, left the year before, and Ferran Torres followed the Argentinian veteran to Barcelona last January.

The depth of City’s attacking department has been significantly reduced over the last 18 months, and it is a fact made irrelevant for the time being by Haaland’s incredible numbers. But if Haaland were to miss a couple of months, City would either spend a fortune in the transfer market again, or likely risk dropping rapidly away from the top-end of the league.

Nerves

Another potential worry for Guardiola right now is that his players have started showing signs of nerves in certain situations, something that’s rarely been the case in earlier seasons. It seems the fact that the title is gradually slipping away from their grasp is starting to get to them, and they’ve been reacting to opposition tugs and shoves much more fiercely.

This game was probably the worst yet in that aspect. Haaland was roughly thrown to the ground from behind in the first minute by Everton’s Ben Godfrey, and from that moment on, it seemed he had made it his personal mission to get revenge on any opponent who came within the reach of his studs or elbows.

Bernardo Silva was booked for a blatant dive after just 15 minutes, but that’s not anything new for the Portugal international; he’s never held to the standards of normal sportsmanlike behaviour much. That, on the other hand, isn’t usually the case with Haaland or De Bruyne, and yet, both of them picked up bookings for unnecessarily foul play, and they will consider themselves lucky that referee Andy Madley chose not to send either off on several occasions after those bookings.

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Passion on the pitch is a good thing, but Guardiola will want to have a word with his two best players about exercising some control over it in certain moments.

The Gray quality

Having risen through the youth setup at Birmingham City, Demarai Gray spent five years with Leicester City before going to Bayer Leverkusen for six months. Everton brought him back to England in the summer of 2021 for as little as €2 million, a ridiculously low fee for a player of such talent. Or would be, but for the fact that the winger still appears stuck with labels like ‘talent’ and ‘potential’ at the age of 26.

What exactly stifled Gray’s progress is difficult to tell without any inside knowledge of what has been happening with him in the dressing rooms and training grounds of the clubs he’s played for. But there is an overwhelming feeling that a winger with such natural ability as his, with loads of pace and considerable dribbling and shooting skills, should have done much more in his career up to now. He probably would have, had he been coached properly in the period most crucial for his development.

Watching Everton play this term, Gray obviously stands out from the rest of the team as the player who can take the ball and make something happen. The goal he scored, the way he scored it, leaving Ederson Moraes rooted to the spot, will have come as no surprise to anyone who has properly seen him play. It was a perfect example of that ability.

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There is a feeling that his talents were wasted at Leicester. Looking at his numbers there, there is a notable drop in his game-time starting with Brendan Rodgers taking over as the manager, in the second half of 2018/19. Confidence is a very important ingredient of any player’s development, and the arrival of a coach who wouldn’t trust him sufficiently was the likely reason for his stagnation and maybe even regression for a while.

Back in the present, it’s probably too late for Gray to achieve the career his talents announced once upon a time. By the time his contract with Everton expires, he’ll be 28, and even then the Toffees have the option to extend it by a further year. It’s simply difficult to imagine any big club showing genuine interest in him again, and his fate should be a reminder for younger players to think carefully when weighing out decisions about the future. If they don’t play regularly between the ages of 22 and 25, then it’s time to think about leaving as soon as possible.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Veselin Trajkovic


Vesko is a football writer that likes to observe the game for what it is, focusing on teams, players and their roles, formations, tactics, rather than stats. He follows the English Premier League closely, Liverpool FC in particular. His articles have been published on seven different football blogs.

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