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Friday, June 21, 2024

Will Man City be worried? Why did Southgate scout Henderson? Are fan walkouts valid? – The Briefing

Welcome to The Briefing, where every Monday during this season The Athletic will discuss three of the biggest questions to arise from the weekend’s football.

This was the weekend when Chelsea suffered another abysmal humiliation, Manchester United showed some signs of competence, Newcastle and Luton played out an extraordinary 4-4 draw and the people of New Jersey learned they will host the 2026 World Cup final.

Here we will discuss just how worried Pep Guardiola will be by Sunday’s events at the Emirates, Gareth Southgate making the trip to Amsterdam to watch Jordan Henderson, and why you can very much forgive Chelsea, Crystal Palace and Sheffield United fans for leaving their teams’ games this weekend early…

Arsenal’s 3-1 win over Liverpool on Sunday was a hugely enjoyable watch from a neutral’s perspective.

Not because it was a particularly high-quality game: it wasn’t, but you don’t need football to be good for it to be enjoyable. The slapstick nature of half the four goals was enough to keep the casual observer occupied, but throw in a silly sending-off and some head-loss moments of aggro, interspersed with a few passages of actually pretty impressive play, and you’ve got yourself a thoroughly diverting 90 minutes.

But while we will all have had a fine time watching it, somebody who probably had an even better time is Pep Guardiola, because there wasn’t much out there on the pitch at the Emirates Stadium that would have worried him.

Jorginho and Declan Rice celebrate their side’s win (Charlotte Wilson/Offside/Offside via Getty Images)

Arsenal’s win takes them to within two points of Liverpool at the top of the Premier League, with Guardiola’s Manchester City sitting in third, three adrift of Arsenal but crucially with two games in hand on them both. The first of those two games comes today (Monday) when City travel to Brentford. A win for the champions will mean just two points separate the top three and, in theory, sets up a pretty thrilling final third of the season.

But having watched their main two challengers go at it yesterday, could anyone honestly say either one of those teams are as good as City? Could you confidently state that one of them will deny City their sixth title in seven seasons?

It was a game fraught with insecurity, in which both sides emphatically displayed their weaknesses. Arsenal created a lot of chances in the first half but only put one of them away, then some calamitous uncertainty between their goalkeeper and defence handed Liverpool an equaliser.

Liverpool were generally disjointed but provided an example of their own frailties by donating Arsenal’s second and, while in previous games during the Africa Cup of Nations they have looked fine without Mohamed Salah, you wonder how it might have gone if their main goal threat was in the team. Their midfield looked aimless without Dominik Szoboszlai, too.

Jurgen Klopp consoles Virgil van Dijk (Justin Setterfield/Getty Images)

On paper, a three-way title race is a thrilling prospect, a trio of the best teams in the country hammering each other for the remainder of the season until one is left standing.

In reality, and on the evidence of Sunday’s game, it might turn out to be Arsenal and Liverpool trying desperately to land a blow on a City side as they simply get stronger and stronger.

What does Southgate’s trip to watch Henderson tell us?

If you are one of those people who gets incredibly annoyed by the presence of Jordan Henderson in the England squad, then we have some advice for you: acceptance of the inevitable, even of something that you simply cannot understand, is a much more peaceful way to live.

Because whether you like it or not, Henderson, as long as he’s not injured, is going to be on the plane to Germany for the European Championship this summer, a point emphasised by England manager Gareth Southgate’s presence in Amsterdam over the weekend to watch the midfielder’s new club Ajax draw 1-1 with league-leading visitors PSV Eindhoven.

And, in fact, you might want to brace yourself for Henderson being in the starting XI for England’s first group game, against Serbia in Gelsenkirchen on June 16. Trust us: it will be much easier to stomach if you try to come to terms with it now.

Henderson helped Ajax secure a point on Saturday (Peter Lous/BSR Agency/Getty Images)

We know that Southgate places much more emphasis on past performances for the national team than he does on current club form. It makes sense, if only from a continuity perspective: if you switched up your starting XI based purely on runs of form for a different team, then the players would never get used to each other and form anything close to a cohesive unit.

That’s why he stuck with Henderson, even during his short spell playing in Saudi Arabia (which even now feels like a truly surreal period that people will look back on with some bafflement). And if he stuck with him during those months while he was with Al Ettifaq, you can be pretty sure he’ll do so now Henderson is an Ajax player.

Southgate’s trip felt more like a show of solidarity than a genuine scouting mission: he apparently didn’t tell Henderson that he was coming but knew he would find out.

Perhaps he really was checking to see if Henderson had retained his sharpness, but that feels unlikely.

Southgate going to so much trouble to check on him is hardly unreasonable. Declan Rice and Jude Bellingham are automatic picks for his England team this summer if fit but nobody else has nailed down the third midfield spot. Henderson, with his experience and record with England, could be a perfectly sensible choice.

Southgate’s scouting trip shows that it is a likely one, too.

Is leaving early the last form of protest fans have?

The standard wisdom is that you never leave a game early. Who knows what you might miss? Even if all looks lost, you never know: there could be a shock turnaround, there might be a brilliant goal, there could be a fight, a dog might run onto the pitch. You don’t want to leave, then later realise all that happened and you missed it.

Sometimes, though, making your exit before the final whistle isn’t just a way of beating the traffic or making it to the pub early enough to get a seat. It can be an act of protest.

As it might have been for Chelsea, Crystal Palace and Sheffield United fans this weekend.

Empty seats inside Stamford Bridge on Sunday as Wolves run riot against Chelsea (Alex Pantling/Getty Images)

All three clubs suffered not just defeats but humiliations: Chelsea at home against Wolves, a 4-2 debagging in which Matheus Cunha scored a hat-trick; Palace at their hated rivals Brighton, 3-0 down after little more than half an hour; and Sheffield United to visitors Aston Villa, who had run in four by the 30-minute mark, added a fifth right at the start of the second half and then eased off as if offering some mercy to otherwise well-beaten opponents.

Wolves, Brighton and Villa are fine teams, but none had to play particularly well to dish out these humiliations.

It wasn’t just the defeats, or even the nature of them, that were behind the fans streaming away from Stamford Bridge, the Amex and Bramall Lane well before the match going on inside was over, it was more the context. Which for Chelsea’s fans is a case of patience having worn thin, the dawning realisation that Todd Boehly charging around Europe offering big cash and massive contracts to an array of wonderkids might not actually have been the best idea after all, and that Mauricio Pochettino might not be the man to lead their team.

Palace and Sheffield United are slightly different; at least Chelsea tried to do something exciting, but these two have essentially been set up to fail this season, or at least not set up to generate any sort of enthusiasm in the stands.

Sheffield United fans streamed out of Bramall Lane as Villa kept on scoring (Bradley Collyer/PA Images via Getty Images)

After winning automatic promotion last season, Sheffield United sold their two best players, Sander Berge and Iliman Ndiaye, and not only replaced them with players from the Championship but left their summer transfer business so late that they were hamstrung from the start of the season. Since then, they have suffered a string of dismal defeats and sit stone bottom of the Premier League with a fairly embarrassing 10 points from the 69 available.

Palace, meanwhile, do have some genuinely exciting players — mainly two of the Premier League’s most thrilling young creatives: Michael Olise and Eberechi Eze — which in many ways makes the way they approached their 2023-24 season even more frustrating.

Manager Roy Hodgson steadied things and then some when he returned for a second spell in charge late last season but the decision to keep on a now 76-year-old who had effectively retired when he stepped down from the Palace job in summer 2021 was symbolic of the malaise, and gives a good example of the lack of imaginative thinking and long-term planning that the club’s fans are so unhappy about.

This is where leaving a game early and providing a visual expression of their dissatisfaction comes in.

Fans can boo all they like but that is easy to tune out. They can put up banners but they, too, can be both ignored and written off as the opinions of a minority.

TV broadcasts showing swathes of empty seats that had someone’s backside in them at kick-off is arguably a more immediate way of emphasising just how bleak things are, and the levels of disaffection in all three fanbases.

What’s coming up?


FIFA president Gianni Infantino got dressed up to tell us the 2026 World Cup schedule (Brennan Asplen – FIFA/FIFA via Getty Images)
  • The 2026 World Cup feels like a long way off, but it has become a little more real now: the schedule has been announced and so too has the venue for the final, with New York/New Jersey taking the honours.
  • It’s been good having a proper Premier League programme back, hasn’t it? Well, the good news is it’s not over. As mentioned at the top, tonight sees Brentford and Manchester City complete the round of fixtures in west London, with Pep Guardiola’s boys looking to move within two points of top spot. Brentford beat them home and away last season, though.
  • Some managers don’t like cup replays, but when there’s nothing else to do on a Tuesday night, they’re greedily embraced by us football gluttons. Five of them take place in the FA Cup this midweek, with Aston Villa getting a second bite at the Chelsea cherry, and Nottingham Forest trying again to knock out Championship hosts Bristol City (winners will be home to Manchester United in the quarter-finals) among them.
  • Then to some slightly juicier meat: it’s AFCON semi-finals time, baby. They’re both on Wednesday, slightly surprisingly, with Nigeria against quarter-final penalty-shootout heroes South Africa first then, later on, hosts Ivory Coast face probably the most surprising members of the last four, DR Congo. The final is on Sunday in Abidjan.
  • The Asian Cup is also at the semi-finals stage: on Tuesday, you’ve got theoretical favourites South Korea facing Jordan, with Son Heung-min and the boys looking to reach their second final in the past three tournaments but win their first actual title since 1960. The other semi a day later sees hosts Qatar up against Iran. That final is on Saturday in Doha.

Your Monday reading list

(Top photo: Robbie Jay Barratt – AMA/Getty Images)

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