Pep Guardiola says that he draws more satisfaction from performance than results. That being the case, there was a lot to cheer against Tottenham on Saturday.
Their previous three Premier League outings had seen Manchester City defeated by Liverpool and Everton, with a victory over Burnley (albeit after a disastrous first half) sandwiched in between. The risk that Spurs, who had comprehensively defeated them (in terms of results and performance) when they played back in October, could upend them again was very real.
Instead, Guardiola went for the jugular by putting Yaya Toure on his own in front of the back four, dropping John Stones, and putting Leroy Sane and Raheem Sterling wide, thereby neutralising Mauricio Pochettino’s game plan. It’s not that Spurs were poor necessarily, though Harry Kane did call it their “worst performance of the season” — it was just that they struggled to keep up with City as Mauricio Pochettino’s plan backfired badly.
City’s two goals may have come as a result of uncharacteristic blunders from the usually uber-reliable Hugo Lloris, but don’t let that fool you: They were fully deserving. Contrast this with Tottenham, whose two goals came off their only two shots on target. This was in keeping with a theme from City’s match the week before, when Everton also hit the target four times and came away with maximum results.
Still, while chance and probability weren’t going Guardiola’s way, what really infuriated him was the officiating. When Sterling was through on goal, he was clearly pushed by Kyle Walker. He stumbled but stayed on his feet, though his tame finish was obviously affected. Referee Andre Marriner did nothing.
“Raheem is too honest,” said Toure afterwards, implying that the penalty would have been given had he gone to ground. This, of course, opens up a whole other can of worms. Years ago, Jose Mourinho told me he called it “helping the referee to make a decision.”
Players should not have to go down to get calls; it’s as simple as that. Nor should they be encouraged to do so. Simply put, referees ought to do a better job. Even if you weren’t sure about the force of Walker’s push, if you saw it and you saw Sterling stumble, that’s it: You give the penalty. There is no provision in the laws of the game for a defender to extend his arm out and push an opponent.
Yes, City deserved more and paid the price for a bad decision, but the risk for Guardiola now is to move into another simplistic narrative like we had before. First, it was “what is tackling?” Now, it’s “what are the rules?”
Guardiola met with Mike Riley, the head of the PGMOL (the body that supplies Premier League match officials) less than two weeks ago. And now, according to The Times, he’s seeking another meeting. I don’t think it’s good practice to allow private meetings between referees (or their bosses) and managers. Indeed, in many countries it’s forbidden. If you need clarification, you do it via public channels, or via meetings with referees where representatives from each club are in attendance.
All this does is sow suspicion and paranoia. If Pep gets more bad calls, he’ll grow even angrier and maybe request more meetings. If the officiating improves (from City’s perspective), then others will credit the meeting with Riley.
Still, there are many more positives to take away here, including the debut of Gabriel Jesus. Fourth place is two points away; they’re also just four points from second place. There is plenty to play for, and Saturday ought to offer plenty of encouragement.
There were boos again at the Bernabeu on Saturday, where Real Madrid overcame Malaga 2-1. It wasn’t a sparkling performance against a mediocre opponent who sent out an injury-riddled lineup, though Zinedine Zidane’s crew did hit the woodwork twice. More importantly, it was their first victory in four games. And it came without Dani Carvajal, Pepe and Gareth Bale in a match which saw them also lose Marcelo and Luka Modric through injury.
You’d imagine most home crowds would chalk up the performance to the moment and at least applaud the resilience of their players. Not the Bernabeu, a stadium unlike any other and (probably) not reflective of Madridismo as a whole.
So Madrid hang on to top spot, but the squad is now definitely stretched even further. Marcelo will be out for a month, which means Zidane has both starting full-backs missing. Their theoretical backups, Fabio Coentrao and Danilo, are about as popular as ringworm around these parts — so much so that rather than playing them, Zidane finished the match with Nacho (a center-back) and Lucas Vazquez (a winger) in those positions.
The schedule is relatively soft between now and the Champions League clash with Napoli in mid-February. But in terms of personnel, the margin for error has all but vanished.
Manchester United shared the spoils at Stoke on Saturday, 1-1, and we’d probably be talking more about how they were actually rather unlucky and how this result affects their hopes of a top-four finish (they’re four points out, but crucially, they’ll need to leapfrog two teams to do it) if not for the fact that Wayne Rooney stole the show. His late free kick didn’t just level the score, it was the 250th goal of his United career, eclipsing Bobby Charlton’s mark of 249.
It’s odd, because most of us don’t think of Rooney as a traditional goal scorer, yet at 31, he’s now the leading scorer for both the England national team and England’s best-supported club. If 20 goals in a season across all competitions is some kind of minimum for a “recognized striker,” it’s worth noting he reached that mark only four times in 14 professional seasons.
Then again, Charlton also only achieved that mark on four occasions. Like Charlton, he operated in various roles throughout his career, and like Charlton, he owes his mark to longevity rather than being a goal-a-game type.
As uncertainty surrounds his future — Jose Mourinho said he wouldn’t stand in his way if Rooney opted to move to China, and his playing time has definitely diminished this year — it’s worth remembering that Rooney’s primary contribution was never that of a goal scorer. Goals didn’t define him, even though he scored many — and some really good ones. At his peak, he was a rare combination of energy, work rate and technique.
Rooney ranks 32nd on the list of English football’s all-time goal scorers. Take out the guys whose career began before World War II, when it really was a different game, and he’s still only 13th.
This isn’t to diminish his achievements. Rather, it’s to serve as a reminder that unlike some of the guys above him on the list, his contribution went way beyond goals.