TWO minutes may come to define a season. Two minutes may represent the lifespan of a stunted title race. Two minutes may suggest everyone is out of time with Manchester City and we may be slightly out of step with English Premier League reality.
At the moment, there is an admirable, collective effort to gloss over the evidence, to ignore the bleeding obvious and play pretend. Of course, there’s a title race. It’s there in black and white. Arsenal are top of the table with an unblemished record. Tottenham are hanging around and Liverpool appear to be in recovery.
Look at the numbers. This is the most open title race in the English Premier League’s recent memory (which is admittedly short at the best of times). Anyone could lift the jug-eared pot. It’s a veritable lottery
But those two minutes might indicate otherwise. In the 69th minute, Manchester City sent on Kevin de Bruyne against Nottingham Forest. In the 71st minute, Liverpool threw on Fabio Carvalho against Newcastle United. Those substitutions say everything – or nothing – about the EPL’s competitive health, depending on one’s sense of optimism/pessimism.
But the context is critical, crushing even. De Bruyne effectively joined a party for a final conga around the Etihad, getting involved in a sixth goal to add a flourish to the previous five. It was all a bit of a lark, a giggle, the latest rudimentary destruction of mismatched opposition, like drunken Dads knocking over their kids in a pub garden.
And de Bruyne replaced Erling Haaland, one potential GOAT taking over from another in their respective positions, like Federer passing his racquet to Nadal for a swing against the ball boys.
Riyad Mahrez had also kept de Bruyne company on the bench. And does anyone remember Jack Grealish, the lost boy formerly known as the most expensive English player ever? He cost £100 million, but he’s currently injured, not missed and may end up serving as a fun pub quiz question. Name the footballer who epitomised the gulf between EPL clubs in the early 2020s, the one who cost £100 million to tell jokes at the post-title celebrations.
Just ponder that logline again.
De Bruyne replaced Haaland.
It’s a harrowing reality, sounding more like an elevator pitch for a monster movie. The Predator replaced the Alien. The threat is omnipresent, unrelenting. And monsters only get killed in the movies. No one is stopping de Bruyne or the freakish Viking with a 70s porno ponytail any time soon.
But the symbolic response to this savagery came two minutes later at Anfield.
Carvalho replaced Jordan Henderson. In cinematic terms, this switch was the rookie cop replacing the grizzled veteran forever complaining that he’s too old for this shit. And it worked, dramatically and deliriously, with the Portuguese upstart scoring a late winner.
Carvalho turned 20 two days ago. His future appears positively dazzling, but he currently feels like a stopgap for a stopgap, as Jurgen Klopp dashes through a listing vessel armed only with a silicone gun and a handful of motivational team talks. How long can this last? Liverpool overachieved to get close to City in the past. Now The Beatles’ hometown is relying on kids and veterans to take down Norwegian wood.
In fact, stretch the two minutes. Absorb a 10-minute spell to fully savour the whiff of that encroaching chasm. In the 76th minute, Tottenham introduced Richarlison in a late bid to defeat lowly West Ham United. It didn’t work. In the 77th minute, Gabriel Martinelli did score a winner against relegation-threatened Aston Villa in a scrappy affair.
The Gunners, like Liverpool in previous seasons, are arguably overachieving, maintaining their flawless start to a campaign, despite lacking the squad depth of superior rivals. Their victories have the feel of improvised white-knuckle rides, making it up as they go along – which is a sincere compliment – playing Indiana Jones to City’s James Bond.
One gets banged about, hanging on by the shortest of fingertips as the latest disaster is narrowly averted. The other adjusts the tie, pulls the cuffs and whacks Forest 6-0.
But the Gunners have so far avoided the traditional heavyweights. In the coming weeks, Manchester United, Tottenham and Liverpool will probe the seriousness of their title credentials (as well as ensuring that all four may drop points to each other).
Klopp must take his silicone gun to a Merseyside derby at Everton, to Stamford Bridge and then on to Napoli in the Champions League in September before heading to the Emirates in the first week of October.
The madcap routine of throwing on kids to smash in 98th-minute winners makes for uproarious parties at Anfield, but a sustained challenge seems a tad hopeful, at this stage. Still, cling to that hope, we must, to paraphrase Yoda, if the EPL isn’t going to serve as a dull demonstration of what happens when an immovable object is also the unstoppable force.
Of course, pretentious, flowery columnists are always eager to find deeper meaning, context and symbolism in anything. Those two minutes came with caveats aplenty. Liverpool have an injury crisis in midfield. Newcastle are not Nottingham Forest. The Reds still had six shots on target. The Magpies wasted time.
But those two minutes also encapsulated a gulf in quality and resources. There was de Bruyne on the bench. There was Mahrez beside him. There was a £100 million-signing missing, forgotten, redundant. There was a team capable of being 4-0 up at half-time without their best player and their most expensive player, without breaking sweat.
There was Manchester City … and the rest.
And the rest are making up the numbers, sending on kids, veterans or showboaters to win games, salvage games and just hang on, by any means possible, to the oil-fuelled, sky blue juggernaut that threatens to pull away by Christmas, if not earlier. (Yes, John Stones may lose the odd marker, but it hardly matters when City can score 19 in five games.)
The rest are making up the numbers, sending on kids, veterans or showboaters to win games, salvage games and just hang on, by any means possible, to the oil-fuelled, sky blue juggernaut that threatens to pull away by Christmas, if not earlier.
And Liverpool, Arsenal and Tottenham must hang on and mind the gaps, bringing their silicone guns to a title fight because those two minutes did offer a glimpse of a predictable, lopsided future.
There’s not much of a fight, in a literal head-count sense. There is no real comparison between squads so any attempt to maintain the competitive illusion is most welcome because a rampant, runaway Manchester City benefits no-one but Manchester City.
Neil Humphreys is an award-winning football writer and a best-selling author, who has covered the English Premier League since 2000 and has written 26 books.
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