16 Conclusions on Newcastle 2-3 Man City: De Bruyne’s back so everyone else is probably doomed
That’s not the only conclusion – the very premise of the feature requires 15 more of them. But it is very much the main one. We all know what City generally do to the Premier League once the new year celebrations are out of the way, and we all know who might propel them on their title-winning march.
1. And here we go. An awful lot of this season has been spent with everyone watching Manchester City look enormously mortal, feeling a bit confused about it, but just shrugging and assuming they were probably going to be great again in the new year as is customary.
It didn’t really matter that they were looking far more mortal than usual, or that they appeared to have left themselves unnecessarily and dangerously short of seasoned campaigners for their now-traditional just-win-all-the games January-to-April stylings. There really wasn’t much evidence on which to build a theory that Man City were going to just go and win all their games beyond the fact that it’s just what they do every year. There were those – doom-laden Liverpool and Arsenal fans attempting a jinx in many cases – touting the start of The City Run after wins over Sheffield United and Everton. It felt premature. It no longer feels quite so premature, does it? Even though in this win there were still atypical signs of frailty. But here we are: the 14-match winning run that leaves everyone else eight points adrift is now three games old already. And they can take that number to 10 before they next face any kind of meaningful challenge – a trip to Anfield – with a gentle run of games against mid-table stragglers like Chelsea and Manchester United to lead them in to that big one.
2. There was one obvious reason – beyond ‘they always do it’ at least – to think that a trademark City title run might start around this time. The return of Kevin De Bruyne. We talked about it after his cameo in a 5-0 FA Cup win over Huddersfield last week, but that was mainly because what else are you going to talk about after Man City beat Huddersfield? Kevin De Bruyne’s haircut and to a lesser extent his assist for Jeremy Doku’s goal were clearly the most significant events that day for the rest of the season.
A fortnight ago both ‘Manchester City go on one of their title-rival-demolishing 14-game winning runs’ and ‘imagine Kevin De Bruyne with Jack Grealish’s hair’ both required a far greater leap of faith and potency of imagination than they do now.
3. De Bruyne didn’t start here, but he certainly finished. Coming on with City 2-1 down, it was almost too obvious, too lazy, too predictable for him to be City’s match-winner. But that was precisely the hackery we got from the Barclays writers’ room for this one. Even his equalising goal was a bit like an assist given the way he passed the ball into the bottom corner from 20 yards. On a day of brilliant, brilliant goals it was low-key the most absurd of the lot for the sheer gumption of attempting the precise slow-roll through a defender’s legs from that distance. The whole thing didn’t just look like slow motion, it was slow motion. Everyone could see as he shaped up what he was going to attempt and then it played out with time seemingly stood still and nobody able to do a god damn thing about it.
Kevin de Bruyne is back, baby.
4. And if that wasn’t enough to announce his return, he produced a stunning assist for the fifth outrageous goal of an outrageous afternoon for Oscar Bobb in stoppage time to turn a partial salvage operation – that would still have represented two points dropped given the control City had seemingly been in at 1-0 up – into a truly ominous title warning that will have sent familiar feelings of dread coursing through veins at Liverpool, Arsenal and anywhere else currently foolish enough to imagine they might be in this title race.
5. De Bruyne’s assist was one of his very best, but Oscar Bobb’s strength, composure and finesse to complete the job were magnificent. There won’t have been many better or more important first Premier League goals than this one. The first touch. The strength to ride the desperate tackle from Kieran Trippier. The clarity of thought and fleetness of foot to knock the ball past Martin Dubravka with the left foot and clip the ball into the now empty net with the right in one stride and one fluid motion the work of a player still young and carefree enough not to have realised how hard this game is supposed to be. It was the best goal of the game, and we’re sticking our necks out here and saying ‘best goal of the game’ has never been a greater accolade in any game of Barclays than this one.
More important than that, though, and definitely more important than the three points, are the certain place Oscar Bobb now occupies in the pantheon of ‘players who can only be referred to by their full name’. Welcome to the club, Oscar Bobb – just pull up a chair there between Xabi Alonso and Jonjo Shelvey. Get Harvey Barnes to shuffle up a bit and make some room.
6. Right, that’s two brilliant Man City goals covered. Just one more to go. An astonishing opening to the game saw Ederson injured in precisely the way lots of people have been desperately waiting for a player to get injured – competing for the ball after a reasonably clear offside has been allowed to play out for VAR purposes – and then trying to carry on only to discover he was too injured to run or kick or ultimately stand and almost gifting Newcastle an opening goal. After that, City just assumed a control that felt so total it seemed to be a) only a matter of time before they scored and b) that once that was achieved the result was largely taken care of. The first part was very quickly proved correct, and in the end so too was the second. Never in doubt, was it?
City’s opening goal – and also the two in hindsight more predictable than they may have initially felt Newcastle responses – owed a large amount to the location of City’s full-backs. For much of the first half, Kyle Walker was mainly to be found operating on the right wing, with Josko Gvardiol as likely to turn up at centre-forward as anywhere else on the pitch. Walker’s absurdly advanced position saw him in acres of space when picked out by Jeremy Doku, and his whipped cross was flicked in wonderfully well by Bernardo Silva.
We’ve all seen that type of goal scored before, and it’s often not necessarily the very best players who manage to pull it off. It sort of makes us think it might be one of those finishes that looks slightly more impressive and difficult to do than it actually is if you happen to arrive at a cross with your feet so positioned that there’s not really much else you can attempt. That said, we’re absolutely certain we’ve never seen a better example of the genre than this one. Silva was at full speed, the cross was waspishly quick and awkward and Silva managed to produce a sort of cushioned-half-volley finish that defied description. As you can see.
7. But Newcastle’s response to the whiplash-like tumult of that opening period – one in which they should absolutely have gone ahead but could also have found themselves out of the game altogether – was magnificent. City’s approach had to leave them open to the counter-attack, but you will struggle to see a deadlier pair than those that produced goals from Alexander Isak and Anthony Gordon anywhere all season. For them to come in the space of three minutes against the best team in the land was extraordinary.
8. Gordon actually had a significant role in all three first-half goals. He was a supporting cast member for the first two, but the undoubted star of the third. City’s opening goal came about a minute after what looked a very clear foul on Gordon by Ruben Dias. Having been waved away, it was a moment that instead served only as a bit of foreshadowing to show precisely how Newcastle could hurt their at this point free-flowing visitors. For Isak’s goal, Gordon made a textbook ‘uses him by not using run’ outside the striker, one that forced Walker to shift his position a fatal half-yard to the right and give Isak the tiny space he needed to cut inside and curl the ball inside Stefan Ortega’s far post. And for the goal that put Newcastle improbably and deliriously ahead he burst forward on to Dan Burn’s pass to send another shot curling beyond the blameless Ortega, who was very much not having the afternoon he might have expected from his nice trip to Tyneside.
9. The biggest supporting role for the Newcastle equaliser had come from Bruno Guimaraes, whose running battle with Rodri was one of the highlights of the game. Both were booked because of course they were, collecting their ninth and seventh cautions of the Premier League season respectively. Both have already served bans this season, both will likely do so again, both will be badly missed when they do, in part precisely because of those combative qualities. But both these midfielders are about far more than just the dark arts, and Guimaraes showed as much with a magnificent sweeping first-time pass from midfield to set Isak clear after a City attack had broken down. It was, until injury-time, the best pass of the match, the Newcastle man taking a look up to assess the situation as the ball came to him and being able to see and deliver the precise pass Isak needed. It really was a game filled with remarkably lovely goals.
10. While the magnificence and enormous potential importance of the action that followed happily means the discourse won’t be quite as full of ‘late offside flag causes injury’ discourse as might otherwise have been the case, it still does merit attention. City’s anger is understandable, especially if they end up losing Ederson for any length of time. But there really isn’t an awful lot that can be done about it, unless we’re going to bin off VAR for offsides altogether. That is an option with merit, but it’s not really what most people want even when they say they do because we all know it would only take one offside to go against them for all the memories of how annoying VAR is to evaporate. Same way annoyance at VAR has made everyone forget how annoyed they used to get about decisions going against them. To hear a lot of people talk about pre-VAR officiating errors, you’d be forgiven for imagining a world where these things were always just taken on the chin and everyone moved on. Which begs the question – if that had been the reality, how did we end up with VAR in the first place?
We’re getting sidetracked. VAR does that, which is just one of the reasons we hate talking about it. But the fact is that if VAR is there then offside flags have to be delayed and situations allowed to play out. And if the offside really is so egregious as to be obvious to all and defenders really don’t want to risk injury needlessly, then they retain the right to allow their opponents to score unchallenged in the knowledge that either the lino or VAR will see you right in the end. We long to see a goal end up being scored and awarded in this fashion, by the way.
11. But that incident does represent a significant failing of VAR and its implementation into football, because it’s another small but potentially costly way in which the game has been forced to bend to fit VAR rather than the other way round. We see this in so many ways – most obviously with assorted tweaks to handball laws and genuine daftnesses like Arsene Wenger’s nonsensical plan to sort out offsides, a plan whose failing is so manifestly obvious we still can’t work out how Wenger can’t see it.
VAR never seems to bend to fit the game that was here for well over a hundred years before it. It always seems to be football contorting and bastardising itself to meet the demands of the technology. There’s an allegory for modern life in there somewhere if you were enough of a prick to look for it.
12. We know where this result leaves City: right slap bang in the middle of a title race they will almost certainly win. But what of Newcastle? For a good half-hour or so, this looked like being a repeat of the xG-geddon they suffered at the hands of Liverpool at Anfield recently. It was certainly hard – after those wild initial exchanges – to see how we watching a team with any pretence at bothering the elite as City threatened to sweep them aside with indecent ease.
But the intelligence and skill with which they hit City on the break and the gumption with which they held on to their lead for so, so long offers much-needed encouragement. It’s still hard to see how this season ends up being ultimately anything other than an abject disappointment given the overachievement of the last campaign (winning the FA Cup increasingly looks the only way out of that now) but even in defeat there were signs at least of a springboard to better things. Isak is one of the Premier League’s most compelling and watchable forwards, while this was another game to hammer home just how wrong we all were about Anthony Gordon.
Newcastle are still very, very close to being an excellent team. They may now sit incongruously below Manchester United and Chelsea sides they outclassed in back-to-back games barely six weeks ago, but they still feel closer than either of those two to properly cracking it.
14. Encouraged as Newcastle can rightly be, though, this still represents a sixth defeat in their last seven Premier League games (more defeats than they suffered in the entirely of last season) and the fifth time in that run that they’ve conceded three or more goals. That’s an entirely unsustainable situation for anyone, but especially a team who took their first steps on a journey whose target destination is the very top of the game by prioritising defensive resilience. Newcastle conceded only 33 goals in the whole of last season; they’re already only one goal shy of matching that figure and now find themselves looking up the table from 10th and seeing only one team – a Brighton side who only kept their first Premier League clean sheet of the season this year – with a worse defensive record.
15. This is not a performance or result that will get Eddie Howe sacked. But his problem is that it sits among a whole bunch of performances and results that really could. When the analysis reads ‘six defeats in seven’ you aren’t really in a position to play the ‘Manchester City, though’ card with any great authority. And there’s now a two-week gap until they play another Premier League game, and that one’s away to Aston Villa. Newcastle, absurdly, are still without a second away win of the Premier League season to go with the 8-0 dished out at Sheffield United way back in September. It’s conceivable they start that Villa game in the bottom half, and inconceivable that they do so with Howe under anything but extreme pressure. Bleating about ‘the rules’ stopping them buying the league really isn’t going to cut it.
16. There is one more bit of good news for Newcastle, though. A combination of their lowly league position and this fixture now being out of the way makes them one of very few teams who don’t have to worry themselves one little bit about what madnesses Kevin De Bruyne might wreak over the weeks and months ahead. Every cloud.