Hard to pin down why scintillating City are so far off the title pace
Key injuries have hurt Pep Guardiola's defending champions
It is worth reminding ourselves that Manchester City began the season as short as 1-2 favourites to complete a hat-trick of Premier League titles, with Liverpool, who were pipped to the crown by a single point last season, available to back at 13-5.
Somehow City find themselves 22 points adrift of Jurgen Klopp’s marauders with two-thirds of the season having been played, and when you stop and think about why such a vast chasm exists between the two sides it is hard to fathom.
If the league table doesn’t lie, as is so commonly claimed, why are City clear at the top of every expected goals (xG) table you can find? Why do they still look the superior outfit for such vast spells of their matches? And why would bookmakers, as they currently do, either find it hard to separate the two in a competitive one-off match on neutral turf or make Liverpool slight underdogs?
In football, as in life, we try to rationalise everything. We don’t like the inexplicable. Everything happens for a reason, many people will tell you, which is nonsense. Lots of things just happen. Life is more random than we are prepared to accept.
But for all that it is still hard to just shrug off the fact a team that won the last two titles with 100 and 98 points are currently collecting points at a rate that would leave them with a total of 77.5 at the end of the campaign, especially when they are every bit as easy on the eye as at any stage of Pep Guardiola’s time in charge.
I still see City produce long periods of football of a quality I have never seen in another English team, and yet they have become easy to take points from.
Having won 64 of their previous 76 league games, City have lost six and drawn three of their 25 this term, a slump so significant it cannot really be put down to the fact that these things happen even by those of us who despair of the constant quest to provide a credible narrative for everything.
Suddenly going from swaggering champions to a team collecting points 25 per cent less successfully is clearly down to a number of factors, which may well include the following:
Whereas you only need to see Virgil van Dijk play to realise his importance to Liverpool, Aymeric Laporte’s value to City has become apparent since he picked up his injury. The defence has struggled like mad without him in just the same way Liverpool would have if Van Dijk had been missing for so long. Leroy Sane’s absence has also been a major hindrance in that the other City flankers have had to play more than Guardiola would have liked.
To plug the Laporte gap Guardiola has redeployed Fernandinho in a defensive position, which has had an adverse effect in the engine room, where Rodri has not impressed.
David Silva will leave English football with his status as a City legend guaranteed but this season his relentless ability to unbalance defences and create chances has deserted him and City have suffered as a result.
Arteta to Arsenal
This happened too recently to be a major factor in City’s weak title defence, but there are plenty of signs that his departure has affected City and strengthened the Gunners. Would, for example, some of the funky formations Guardiola has been dabbling in lately have got the nod from his deputy?
There can be little doubt Liverpool have had more good fortune than City, and xG worshippers will claim it is the biggest reason why the two teams are 22 points apart, although I would estimate the effect of luck to be less relevant.
So what happens now?
City won their final 14 league games last season and they have 13 to play now, although with the title battle long since lost and three other trophies still to be won it is virtually impossible that they will perform with the necessary intensity to rattle off a similar sequence.
A top-four place is assured and the focus will now be on the Champions League. But their round-of-16 foes are Real Madrid so it will not be easy and they look too short at 4-1 to be champions of Europe.
Two domestic cups may well come their way but whether that is enough to convince Guardiola to persevere in Manchester beyond this season remains to be seen. Whatever happens to him in future though, he will always be remembered by me as the man who created the most beautiful English football team I ever saw.
Virgil Van Dijk the value in PFA market
Seriously, what is going on here? Why is Jordan Henderson as short as 4-5 and no bigger than 6-4 to win the PFA Player of the Year award? It’s possibly the worst price I have ever seen.
Let’s look at it logically. If you were compiling a list of Liverpool’s most important player (and for the purposes of this, I’m happy to accept a Liverpool player will win the award) you would almost certainly have Virgil van Dijk at the top.
I’d then go Salah, Mane, Firmino, Alexander-Arnold, Robertson and Alisson. After that there is a group that consists of Gomez, Henderson and Wijnaldum, all three of whom have had decent seasons and played an important part in the club’s outrageously sensational levels of performance but are not in any way irreplaceable.
Yet Henderson’s price has shrunk to astonishingly low levels in recent weeks and it is downright comical that he is odds-on in a place.
It needs to be acknowledged at this point that the Liverpool skipper has upped his game of late, adding more of a cutting edge to his previous role as grafter, attack-stopper and ball-recycler.
But not to such an extent that anyone who has the remotest grasp of how football works could say he is the best player in the Premier League. Such a claim is preposterous.
Now we know that when people vote, the right winner does not always emerge, as evidenced in the worlds of politics, film and television. Exhibit A is Mrs Brown’s Boys winning the recent National Television Award for comedy for the umpteenth year.
So if we accept Henderson is a fair way off the best player in the league we need to examine other reasons why he is so short. The media have clearly got behind him of late and while you may think that is only relevant in terms of the Football Writers Award, it is safe to assume a fair proportion of the PFA membership place their X based on what they have ingested via the media in the run-up to casting their vote rather than by careful consideration of how well the candidates have played over the course of the season.
And yet most winners deserve it for being the elite performer on the pitch. The only exception was Ryan Giggs in 2008-09 but that was in recognition of his extraordinary career and the esteem in which he was held. I get no sense of any such love for Henderson.
Sometimes as a punter you see a price get so short you assume it has some kind of unstoppable momentum to it and it is not worth trying to stand in its way and lay it.
But in this instance I think the market has simply become strangely and illogically distorted and that opposing Henderson simply has to be done.
And as well as a fat lay on Betfair I will be getting properly stuck into van Dijk too. He has been the outstanding star for the second successive season and yet can be backed at 9-1.
Repeat winners are not uncommon, which was my only concern. Cristiano Ronaldo and Thierry Henry both won two on the trot and Mark Hughes and Alan Shearer are also double winners, albeit not consecutively.
If I’m wrong, so be it. But when you see a price that looks so peculiarly far away from where it should be you can’t just stand there and do nothing.
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