In a lively evening of football, Manchester City beat Everton 2-1 at the Etihad.
The win moved City back to within one point of second-place Leicester and left new Everton coach Carlo Ancelotti frustrated. Who were the winners and losers?
Winner: Gabriel Jesus
Sergio Aguero opened the scoring for Manchester City in their last game of 2019, but he was rested for their first of 2020. The Argentine is still on the mend after a spell out with injury and so Gabriel Jesus came back in to kick-off the new year at home to Everton and in the first-half he struggled to really impose himself.
But second half, off the back of some sharper City passing, Gabriel Jesus came to life. The Brazilian scored twice in the first 15 minutes of the second period, two absolutely storming goals with both feet. The first a classic curling effort with his right, the kind of thing we’ve seen him do before, but the second was decidedly Aguero as he ran off Yerry Mina to create a yard of space for himself before hammering it straight at goal with his left-foot, leaving Jordan Pickford no chance. Jesus scoring is no surprise, Jesus scoring so ruthlessly is a poignant reminder that this is a masterful genius in the making.
Loser: The rules of football
VAR gets a lot of stick from the media, and it’s definitely an easy target with its intrusive nature – sidling into football and getting in everyone’s face about things. If only it was as quiet and efficient as goal-line technology, eh?
Of course, it can never be that seamless because goal-line technology is for something that is purely factual and can be judged by a computer. The decisions that VAR adjudicates are mostly matters of opinion and all VAR does is use technology to allow referees to get a second opinion with the benefit of slow-mo replays and multiple angles.
That process is slow, which is never good, but worse still is the fact that it doesn’t solve the key problem of the decision still being a matter of opinion based on the rules of the game. And not only is opinion always frustrating, but the rules of the game aren’t even clear anymore.
The whole point of the offside law is to deter goalscorers from, to use childhood terminology, goal-hanging. It is designed to give defenders a fighting chance, to prevent attackers gaining an unfair advantage. It is not designed to stop an attacker who may be leaning offside or stood half offside from being flagged at such.
Today’s precision offside decision wasn’t as offensive as others have been – Riyad Mahrez had about half of his body offside when he received a pass – but it was part of the same problem as it highlighted that in an age where we can judge these calls down to the millimetre, the offside rule needs restructuring.
Yes, we want to give defenders a fighting chance, but the advantage should always belong to the attacker. More goals is better, so let’s change the offside law to make that fairer. Should daylight be required? Or how about if any part of the attackers body is still onside, then they are onside? Either way, let’s stop blaming VAR and direct our ire at the real source of frustration: the rules of the game.
Fernandinho’s career under Pep Guardiola has been quite impressive. Despite his age he has been a key presence at the base of midfield, and this season the Brazilian has emerged into an immense defender for City. An injury crisis and a failure to sign a replacement for Vincent Kompany meant someone had to step up and fill the void and that man ended up being Fernandinho.
Things started roughly for Fernandinho at the back, but the veteran showed tremendous mental strength to never lose heart or belief. He continued to do his thing and has emerged into a genuine option at the back now. Today against Everton no player made more tackles (5) and no no one made more clearances (5). He was imperious at the back and don’t be surprised to see him stay at the back to partner Aymeric Laporte when the Frenchman returns to the team.
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Loser: Claudio Bravo
Back in 2016 when he signed for Manchester City, Claudio Bravo was genuinely one of the world’s best goalkeepers. He had just won La Liga twice in a row with Barcelona and the Copa América back-to-back with Chile (as captain!) – he was enormously respected and it was clear the only reason Barcelona were willing to sell him was that they also had Marc-André Ter Stegen.
But Bravo just never got it going in the Premier League. His first season was a disaster where he posted a save percentage of just 55.93%. He was replaced by Ederson and reduced to playing the odd cup game (where he did sometimes do very well) as City became the best team in the world. Ederson’s red card has recently thrust him back in the spotlight and he has unsurprisingly wilted in it.
He began today making a decent save, but even that couldn’t disguise his poor performance. His utter failure to pass out from the back, something he used to do superbly, was directly responsible for Everton pulling a goal back in the scrappiest of circumstances, and he couldn’t command a group of toddlers nevermind his own penalty box. It’s sad to see him like this, but Bravo is truly horrendous.
Winner: Pep Guardiola
How do you solve a problem like Manchester City’s catastrophic defence? Pep Guardiola seemed to have found a problem to his only fit centre-back being teenager Eric Garcia: by playing a back three. You’d think adding more centre-backs when you you have less to select wouldn’t work, but Pep more or less got by.
The thing is, City defend best when they are attacking, and a back three containing Rodri allowed them to push forward and squeeze Everton back. Rodri would constantly step out of defence to help overload midfield, and as he was coming from centre-back he wasn’t always marked. This allowed City to keep Everton penned back and on the rare occasions they were pushed back, they had three people committed to getting back and shutting things down.
Alright City eventually conceded but that largely came from a moment of inexperience from young Garcia and more importantly an awful bit of goalkeeping from Bravo. By and large City’s structure allowed them to cope with anything Everton threw at them. Now, it’s not a long-term solution but until they get their defenders back this 3-5-2 might just keep City in poll position to finish second.
Loser: Phil Foden
When VAR swings its mighty hammer, someone has to lose. In this case no one suffered more than Phil Foden, the Man City youngster who is itching to start more games of circumstance got a chance today and looked bright enough in attack. And then he appeared at the back-post early on to slide the ball into the back of the net to give City the lead.
That was huge and could have been the start of an epic performance where he may have scored more, but then VAR struck and Foden was left still waiting for his first Premier League goal of the season. An unfortunate victim of circumstance.