There has been a lot of debate in recent seasons about football and the clock, the impact of time-wasting and the allocation of stoppage time. Ninety minutes has not meant ninety minutes for a long time. How long should a game of football be?
On Saturday, Manchester City manager Pep Guardiola had fifteen minutes in mind. Because his new opponent, Sam Allardyce, has been out of football for two years and had only been working with his new players for three days, Guardiola had no data on what Leeds United might do. “Always [there is an] impact [of] a new manager on the players for the first one or two games,” he said. “Every team [is] playing for important things. We don’t have any info on what system they are going to play. We will need fifteen minutes to adapt.”
Allardyce wasn’t thinking even that far ahead. “I’m very interested in the first ten minutes,” he told Sky Sports before the game. “The first ten minutes is going to tell me an awful lot about how we are going to be today. And if that’s a positive start I will feel a bit more comfortable. The last thing we want to do is concede a goal, in any period, but particularly in the first ten minutes.”
In the end, the end didn’t come until minute 95, although it should all have been over long before then. And the two managers’ pre-match assessments had things about right. Leeds did not concede in the first ten minutes. But after fifteen minutes, Manchester City had worked Leeds out. By the nineteenth minute İlkay Gündoğan scored, after Riyad Mahrez beat Junior Firpo and pulled the ball back to the unmarked midfielder on the edge of the area. Eight minutes later Gündoğan scored the same goal again, only changing which corner he shot into. Fifteen minutes to adapt, fifteen minutes to settle the match, half an hour of a game, thank you all for coming or tuning in, enjoy the rest of your day.
It wasn’t quite that simple. Erling Haaland of Leeds was in a weirdly barndoor mood, hitting shots against the post, the crossbar, and wide, and over; heading at the goalie or even letting the ball hit his standing foot and tripping himself up when he should have scored. Guardiola went mad at Haaland when, with six minutes left, he let Gündoğan hit a decisive penalty off Joel Robles’ fingertips and the post after Pascal Struijk had clumsied through Phil Foden’s legs. Guardiola was assuming it had been a sentimental choice to let Gündoğan score a hat-trick. Perhaps it was — in Salzburg, Jesse Marsch had to stop Haaland letting other players take penalties, when it was Erling’s way of helping his teammates get in on the goalscoring. But maybe, this time, Haaland just didn’t fancy it, not with the day he was having, not with his secret wish to swap the sky-blue shirts of Manchester for, well, probably not the Black & Decker works team kit Leeds were wearing this time, but a Leeds shirt in general.
The missed penalty set up an unexpected ending. From City’s second goal until the penalty, there wasn’t much game to speak of. Manchester had more than 81 per cent of the possession during that time, and although Allardyce was pleased his players were a bit further up the pitch in the second half, and “didn’t embarrass themselves”, a lot of that felt due to Haaland’s off day and Manchester slowing to a testimonial pace with their Champions League semi-final ahead. After the penalty, though, came the pay-off, from some classic second ball Big Sam shenanigans. A free-kick was booted forward into some head tennis that Junior Firpo won — he won a lot of headers in this game — and when Manuel Akanji fluffed his clearance, substitute Rodrigo pounced and buried his shot. Game on! Sort of. In fact the game was more off than it even had been in the 55 minutes at 2-0. At 2-1, Manchester City retreated into their own half and let Haaland keep the ball in the corner. It felt a little like a moral victory for Leeds, and it helped the goal difference, but in the end City just flipped into their own version of Big Sam Ball and were better than Leeds at that, too.
Apart from Rodrigo’s goal, Leeds had ticked off most of their Allardyce template in the first fifteen minutes, as both managers had hoped. United set up 4-5-1, with Pat Bamford alone looking upset miles away from his team. The defence and midfield were compact and tight, hitting long balls either to Bamford or into the channels for Jackie Harrison or Wilf Gnonto. Before ten minutes were up Weston McKennie had unveiled a knack for very long throws, and by full-time he was throwing them from deeper and deeper in his own half. The final stats were 19 per cent possession, 56 per cent passing accuracy, a quarter of passes launched long. Leeds completed 123 of 219 attempted passes. Gündoğan on his own completed 170 of 183.
So much, so Big Sam, so that’s what he’s here for. The problem with parking the bus in 2023, though, is that coaches like Pep Guardiola have changed the balance by changing how they defend against double deckers. When Manchester City win the ball, they pass it around until they’ve regained their shape, then move forward with accurate confidence that allows them to push full-backs into midfield and defensive midfielders into attack and suffocate the opposition until they’re in the penalty area. A parked bus could stifle a front two or three twenty years ago. Now it has to deal with teams like Manchester City attacking with a front seven or eight. The odds are no longer in the defensive team’s favour.
Not against Manchester City, anyway. Newcastle, West Ham and Spurs ought to be different tests, less effective teams. What Manchester’s 81 per cent possession and 89 per cent passing accuracy says is that they don’t make mistakes — except they made one, and Rodrigo scored. Newcastle are 3rd in the Premier League, but beating Southampton last week they notched only 63 per cent possession, 80 per cent accuracy. West Ham’s average possession this season is 45 per cent, pass completion is 78 per cent; Spurs play off 51 per cent average possession, 81 per cent pass accuracy.
At the end Allardyce said he was “not upbeat … [but] we can build the confidence on the second half performance and we can play a lot better for ninety minutes next week”. The game ended up being less about the first ten or fifteen minutes than about the last ten, when Leeds got in on a mistake that Manchester City don’t make, and showed what they could do against the teams ahead, who do make mistakes. If there was a win for Leeds in Manchester it was the swift application of new, ugly ideas and, more importantly, ninety-five minutes of head-retention. The big story of last weekend in Bournemouth, from the team hotel to the post-match dismay, was how few Leeds players could look their travelling fans in the eye. There are lots of parallels between Allardyce and Jesse Marsch — “My biggest strength is making people feel better,” Big Sam said after this game — and like Marsch he was on the pitch afterwards with his fists clenched following a defeat to Manchester City, like Marsch after his first game he was gathering the players together for a public display on the pitch. After his debut at Leicester, though, Marsch actually pulled the players away from the fans to form a circle facing inward. The difference with Allardyce was that he pushed the players as close to the fans as he possibly could. “Their response to our players shows that our players fought today,” said Allardyce, “and they saw a bit of fight in that, a bit of spirit, which maybe gives them a bit of hope.” That’s what this four-game rumba was always all about. Well, three-game rumba, because we were never beating City. “I can say yes [to that] now it’s over,” said Allardyce. Not as over as it might have been, and now it starts against Newcastle at Elland Road. There are 270 minutes left. ⬢