Thrills aplenty in the Premier League’s great sportswashing derby
Pep Guardiola was agitated. He stalked the touchline, hands on hips, brooding. He gestured at Bernardo Silva and, during a break for an injury, gave him lengthy instructions. Manchester City were 1-0 up and creating chances, but Guardiola often serves as his own canary in the mine, his agitation indicating long before it becomes apparent in concrete actions that something was amiss.
When Ilkay Gündogan put City ahead in the fifth minute, the assumption was that Eddie Howe was on his way to a 11th defeat in 11 games against Guardiola. Everybody knows the drill: Guardiola praises Howe for the football his side plays, all that passing and so little of that nasty tackling, all that space and so little of that closing down, and then helps himself to a comfortable win: the cumulative goal-difference between the two before kick-off was 31-4 in Guardiola’s favour.
But Guardiola was right. Something had gone awry. The game was surprisingly open; there was little of the control City so privilege. Newcastle landed blow after blow, City landed blow after blow. There was brilliant football, an extraordinary finish from the outside of Callum Wilson’s foot, an exquisite pass from Kevin De Bruyne; there was a breathless physicality to it all, men at it all over the place, something aided – for good or for ill, depending whether you were kicker or kickee – by the willingness of the Australia referee Jarred Gillett to let the game flow, which culminated in his VAR-aided decision to overturn the red card he had initially shown to Kieran Tripper for a cynical knee-high challenge on a flying De Bruyne.
This was, by some margin, the greatest sportswashing derby the Premier League has yet known. It may have sold its soul to nation states with questionable human rights records (or their public investment funds), but at least it seems to have got a good price for it. There was, needless to say, no reference from the home support to the case of the Leeds student Salma al-Shehab, who was sentenced last week to 34 years in jail by a Saudi court for apparently supporting activists and dissidents on Twitter.
And yes, the transition is awkward, but then so is the whole concept of states owning football clubs; a disconnect of tone is impossible to avoid, which is why these cherished institutions, these beacons of local pride, these theatres of excitement and fun, should never have been allowed to fall into the hands of foreign states looking to gain influence and burnish their images. It should never have become the case that fans should have their weekend recreation tainted by the activities of a distant court.
At the heart of the afternoon’s drama was Alain Saint-Maximin, a player whose fizzing, unpredictable talents are the antithesis of Guardiola’s football. Again and again he got a run at Kyle Walker. Inside the full-back, John Stones had the sort of wild, staring look that in the 80s would have won him an Oscar in a film about Vietnam.
City, imperious in dismissing West Ham and Bournemouth, suddenly looked as anxious as they had in the final minutes of the Community Shield against Liverpool when Darwin Núñez briefly ran them ragged – which perhaps isn’t saying much more than that it’s difficult for defenders when big powerful forwards run at them. Two of those Saint-Maximin incursions brought goals before half-time; a third led to the free-kick from which Trippier whipped in Newcastle’s third.
But 3-1 was not lead enough. De Bruyne found a new gear and inspired a City comeback capped by Bernardo Silva’s equaliser, a clever run and neat finish entirely typical both of him and City’s football. Lots of aspects of Barcelona’s pursuit of Silva don’t make sense, of which their capacity to pay for yet another player seems almost the least significant – in their world of fantasy economics, it seems, there is always another lever to be pulled, more family silver to be flogged. Far more profound is the issue of why City would be prepared to let him go.
Perhaps it was simply a matter of economics, that if somebody offers £100 million for a 28 year old, it makes no sense not at least to consider it. But Silva, diminutive, technically gifted, industrious, intelligent, feels like the physical embodiment of the Guardiola philosophy. This was his first league start of the season, something that perhaps reflects less uncertainty about his own position than the enhanced status of Gündogan since he was voted club captain in the summer. With Rodri and Kalvin Phillips contesting the holding midfield role and De Bruyne essentially guaranteed to start, that reduces midfield opportunities for Silva.
At St James’ he was deployed on the right, offering both vital attacking width and drifting dangerously infield. It was from wide that he set up the opener for Gündogan, having received the ball in space and then held possession expertly, evading four half-challenges without really having to beat anybody. Yet it was down his flank that the majority of Newcastle’s threat came.
So, three games into the season, only Arsenal are left with a perfect record and the more sanguine of City’s rivals will draw heart from the unexpected vulnerability they demonstrated. The less optimistic will note how ominously impressive City’s fightback was. And neutrals will feel blessed to have witnessed a magnificently entertaining draw – while trying their best not to think what has funded it.