Premier League Diary: Manchester finds inspiration in the ghost of Rafa Benitez

We begin this week’s installment of the Diary by returning to the wisdom and knowledge of an old, old friend. One who may not be managing in the Premier League any more, but who is always managing in our defensive, negative, rigorously well-structured hearts. We speak, of course, of Rafael Benitez.

“Wait!” we hear you cry, in tones of shock. “Rafa Benitez?” we hear you ask, in tones of confusion. “Wisdom and knowledge?” we hear you whimper, in tones of fear. Yes, the very same, we reply, in tones of giddy delight. Sure, you’re thinking about the time he read out all those factual facts, or that time he claimed that every single white liquid in the world was milk, especially the ones that weren’t. But you’re forgetting his Theory of the Short Blanket: “if you cover your feet, you get cold at the top and if you cover the top, you get cold feet.” It’s a fine guide to both football and life, and one that was conveniently demonstrated by the state of Manchester’s Premier League football this weekend.

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STOKE ON TRENT, ENGLAND - DECEMBER 05: Manuel Pellegrini, manager of Manchester City looks on during the Barclays Premier League match between Stoke City and Manchester City at Britannia Stadium on December 5, 2015 in Stoke on Trent, England.  (Photo by Laurence Griffiths/Getty Images)Laurence Griffiths/Getty Images

City first, since that’s how things went down. We should acknowledge that Stoke were hilariously great. This shaqiris y shawcrosses magic is really something. And we should take a moment to imagine just how pleased with himself Mark Hughes must have felt. Well, maybe not pleased. Hughes doesn’t really seem like the kind of person who does pleasure; indeed, he comes across as perhaps the most vinegary man in the Premier League. But we can be sure that the schadenfreude was of an excellent vintage, with fine notes of “have that, you bastards,” and a long, warming aftertaste of “God, I’m so good.”

City, though. City were bobbins. More worryingly for Manuel Pellegrini, they were the same kind of bobbins that they were against Tottenham back in September, and Liverpool last month; the kind of bobbins that looks strong and terrifying on paper yet startlingly inept on grass. Missing Vincent Kompany and Yaya Toure is one thing. Playing as though they’ve been both been sent off and only nine men remain on the pitch is quite another. Maybe that’s the best way to understand the performances of Fernando, Martin Demichelis, and Nicolas Otamendi: as a dirty protest against imaginary corrupt refereeing. It certainly makes more sense than trying to understand it as defending.

But so it goes with City: this is a team that can lose 4-1 one week then win 6-1 the next. Their shoulders, their neck, their chest and their arms are all wrapped up snug, but sticking out of the blanket, there at the bottom of their bed, are their toes, icicles slowly forming as the winter closes in.

Somewhere, Rafa’s spirit smiled.

MANCHESTER, ENGLAND - DECEMBER 05:  Bastian Schweinsteiger of Manchester United is brought down by West Ham United defenders during the Barclays Premier League match between Manchester United and West Ham United at Old Trafford on December 5, 2015 in Manchester, United Kingdom.  (Photo by Clive Brunskill/Getty Images)Clive Brunskill/Getty Images

Over to United. United, we can be certain, have the warmest feet in the entire country. Across all four divisions no team has conceded fewer goals, and this despite Sergio Romero having made more than zero appearances in the league. Yet as toasty warm as their ten tiny ones must be, one can only shudder to think of the state of their upper half. Their poor shoulders, whipped by the chill winds of another nil-nil. Their neck, frigid and stiff in the freezing air. Their nipples are showing, and in a sad act of cross-town treachery, their nipples are blue.

United, you see, are in the strange position of being both unable and unwilling to attack. Plenty of football teams are one or the other; the first is a consequence of incompetence, the second of an iniquitous approach. But to be both is something very special, even paradoxical, as Rafa Benitez well knows; it’s a delicate philosophical balancing act that leads to games like Saturday’s blank stalemate with West Ham, a game in which United shot 21 times and hit the target once.

The initial plan for this blanket riff was to bring the two clubs together and construct an elaborate conclusion involving Louis van Gaal and Manuel Pellegrini sharing a bed, with Benitez perhaps involved as some kind of marriage counsellor. But we quickly realized that in that situation, Van Gaal would simply commandeer all the blankets, duvets, pillows, teddy bears and pajamas, and leave poor Pellegrini shivering on the meager quarter of the bed that he’d been left, desperately attempting to spoon the snoring Dutchman for any second-hand heat he could steal.

That doesn’t really work as a metaphor for the footballing situation, so we had to abandon it. But we liked it anyway, so we sneaked it back in under the guise of an explanatory note. Will it suffice instead of a proper conclusion? It will have to.

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In Everybody Else Is Rubbish news, everybody else is rubbish.

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during the Barclays Premier League match between XXX and XXX atStu Forster/Getty Images

Oh, fine, we’ll do some details. Everybody is rubbish except Leicester, who are great, and Arsenal, who are currently in the ‘getting by admirably’ phase of their injury crisis, a phase that will last until their next important game. Wednesday, then.

The state of everybody else at the top, though. Liverpool delivered a week-long two-part investigation into the nature of hubris and nemesis. One finding was particularly interesting: It turns out that scoring six goals in the League Cup doesn’t help you win the league. Tottenham got Tony Pulised. Chelsea have now reached the point where conceding a late winner to Bournemouth, at home, feels less like a hilarious surprise and more like a hilarious inevitability. And Dulwich Hamlet got suckerpunched by Needham Market, which has nothing to do with the Premier League but appears here because ham is a fun word to write. Look at it. “Ham”. So lovely and round.

Two futures now lie ahead of us, one terrifying, one beautiful. In the latter, Claudio Ranieri’s makeshift band of journeymen and Robert Huth somehow manage to keep doing what they’re doing, and in the process become the Premier League’s most unlikely champions. Riyad Mahrez is elected king of the universe. Kasper Schmeichel can finally hold his head high at Christmas dinner. Everybody agrees that Jamie Vardy is a bellend and that Esteban Cambiasso was, in fact, holding the team back.

In the other, Arsenal win the league and everybody has to pretend to respect their achievement. And that sounds like no kind of future at all. Help us, Shinji Okazaki. You’re our only hope.

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