Soccer is an unpredictable game to begin with. The scores are low and the margin for error is razor thin. “Against the run of play,” is the unassuming British idiom for a goal scored by a the team getting their asses kicked, and sometimes that goal is enough to swing a match to the underdogs. Add skinny rosters and out of form players to the mix, along with a heaping helping of “That’s a Handball?” drama, and you have a recipe for exciting if a bit awkward football.
Optional musical accompaniment for this post by the under underappreciated Micheal Penn…
Game of the Week: Manchester City 2 vs Leicester City 5 at Etihad Stadium
Only two players have ever scored a hat trick against a Pep Guardiola’s Man City side. One is the G.O.A.T Lionel Messi, who scored three in a 4-0 neck stomping in the 2016 Champions League group stage. The other is Britain’s Most Aggrieved Woodland Creature (ht/ The Men in Blazers,) that most vulpine of Foxes, Jamie Richard Vardy, who has now done it TWICE, the first in the Foxes 2015/16 title run, and now again in a 5-2 thrashing, the first five spot ever dropped on a Pep squad as well.
Knowing the end result it’s easy to forget that the Citizens had started the scoring first when Riyad Mahrez blasted an unstoppable shot off his weaker foot against his old mates only four minutes in. City hogged the ball, ending with 71% possession of the ball, and looked to be bossing Leicester about the pitch. But the first crack in the Sky Blue defense came at the half hour mark when Vardy zoomed past Kyle Walker as both chased a ball into the box. Walker flat out mugged his fellow Englishman for the first of Leicesters three penalty kicks, which Vardy put away with authority.
The second half was all about the Fleet Foxes, as Leicester City made the most of every chance to exploit the space behind the disorganized Manchester back line. The second goal was classic Vardy, using his pace to put himself in the exact right spot to get the last touch on the ball, a beautiful flick past a flailing Ederson after a nifty passing sequence by Timothy Castagne and Youri Tielemans. Leicester’s #9 earned his second penalty kick of the day the same way as his first, by beating an overmatched Eric Garcia to the ball and forcing the befuddled teenager into a foul. James Maddison put the match out of reach with an postage stamp delivery from 30 yards, rendering Nathan Ake’s header and Youri Teilman’s own penalty kick academic.
Guardiola said most of the right things after his first five game shellaccing as a manager, refusing to blame the loss on injuries or the Covid mess. But it’s become obvious that his setup can be vulnerable to counterattacks and speed in general. Part of that might be his own focus on on the “sent from the future to destroy English Football,” offense at the expense of defense. Ever since Vincent Kompany returned to his old club Anderlecht as player/manager, the City back line has lacked a leader on the field who could keep things organized. Aymeric Laporte was supposed to be that guy, but injuries have kept the Frenchman sidelined. The City Football Group deployed it’s most powerful weapon, dump trucks full of money, to bring in Benfica’s rising star Ruben Dias the next day. Benfica personnel were surprised to find Nicolás Otamendi asleep under all that money, but the Argentine veteran seemed glad that someone had remembered him and happily ambled over to his new locker room.
More expensive center halves may help, but the truly transformative players at that position are rare. Guardiola might need to adjust the rest of his system to cover the holes Leicester exposed by adding someone with serious hustle to the midfield. The holding midfield duo of Fernandino and Rodri, as well as new center half Ake, were selected for their ability on the ball and their passing prowess. One of those three needs to give way for a player who can use his legs to cover more ground, like Liverpool’s Naby Keita or Chelsea’s N’Golo Kante.
As for Leicester City, nine points out of nine is a fantastic start to the season. Brendan Rodgers has his men laser focused on what they do best, get the ball to Vardy as close to the net as possible, and use speed to punish the defenders. And they are doing most of their damage from open play rather than counter attack. Five goals from the spot through three games probably isn’t sustainable though, expect some regression to the mean there. Lifting some of the attacking load off of the 33 year old Vardy should be a priority, the recent loan signing of Roma’s Cengiz Under looks like a smart move in that direction.
The Rest: Liverpool Dominates, Leeds United Celebrates, and Wolverhampton Gets Hammered
Oof… that GotW used up a lot of words! Let’s get through the rest of the slate quick before we run out! Spoiler Alert, there will be handballs.
The Seagulls looked to be the better side for most of this match, creating plenty of good chances but denied by the woodwork FIVE times. Still, it looked like Solly March had secured a point from the match when drifted into the six yard box unmarked and headed home Alireza Jahanbakhsh‘s cross with a mere minute to go. But credit the Red Devils, who quickly earned a corner. VAR revealed a clear handball on Neal Maupay when everyone though it was over and Bruno Fernandes sealed the win with the last kick of the match, (it was without a doubt the least controversial handball call of the day.)
This clash of surprisingly unbeaten teams could have been worse for the Eagles. Everton dominated possession throughout and though Cheikhou Kouyate’s header for Palace cancelled out Dominic Calvert-Lewin’s fifth goal of the season, Richarlison’s 40th minute penalty kick was all the Toffees needed. The handball was awarded after VAR review and was roundly condemned by the announcers and analysts as yet another example of the new rules leaving defenders penalized for completely unintentional contact.
“From our Haus to Yours”