Was that it for Leicester, then? As Manchester City washed forward here in smooth waves, slicing them into perfect little triangles, it was tempting to wonder if the Premier League’s outstanding overachievers had finally found their ceiling. Ten points off the lead. Three games without a win. The champions ominously shifting into gear. Liverpool coming next on Boxing Day. A savage clamour! Well may I get aboard! This is the chase: I am gone for ever. [Exit, pursued by José Mourinho’s Tottenham.]
At the very least, this was a reminder that for all Leicester’s slender advantage in the table, Pep Guardiola’s side remain Liverpool’s most likely challengers. Certainly that is the impression you suspect Jürgen Klopp will draw once he returns from Qatar, cleans the alcohol-free champagne off his tracksuit and sits down to watch this game back. Guardiola was happy to play down the title talk afterwards. But the manner with which his side hunted down the Premier League’s best defence may just light a few embers of belief.
What of Leicester, then? They were, truth be told, slightly disappointing here: not as composed as usual in defence, not as fluent playing out of it, and overreliant on long balls to Jamie Vardy, which admittedly is a pretty useful overreliance to have. And yet, even in defeat one player seemed to stand out. The bare facts and fantasy league tables will record that Jonny Evans was part of a defence that conceded three goals and was perhaps lucky to avoid a genuine thumping. But they won’t tell you that he might just have been the best player on the pitch.
Partly, of course, this is the defender’s curse: that whatever they do individually, they will always be judged collectively. A striker in a losing team can still score and contribute to the narrative of the match. But it’s likely that Evans’s schoolmasterly authority, his outstanding duelling, the way he patrolled the skies like a benevolent drone, will be lost to posterity. In a way, this was his Socrates against Italy in 1982, his Le Tissier against Oldham in 1993, his Kaká against Liverpool in 2005: a consummate performance in an ultimately futile cause.
This has, in many ways, been the story of Evans’s career: a three-time Premier League winner who still carries a vaguely journeyman air. From the moment he was turfed out of Old Trafford by Louis van Gaal, Evans has had to fight the perception his salad days were behind him. There was the inevitable loan to Sunderland. Relegation with West Brom. Even as Leicester surged up the table in the autumn, it was the summer signing Caglar Soyuncu who earned the plaudits, Evans a ghost at the feast.
Naturally, this was a touch unfair. Evans was always a little better than people gave him credit for and a little quicker too: witness the way he outsprinted both Raheem Sterling and Gabriel Jesus in the first half before imperiously thwarting the home side’s counterattacks. But by and large, Evans does not deal in the fire-emoji moments. His game is about deterring danger, positioning and percentages, the elimination of error. This last facet has been one of the more notable improvements in his game over recent years, encouraged and emboldened by the warm, reassuring environment Brendan Rodgers has created. Contrast Evans’s impeccable judgment with Soyuncu’s headlong charge at Kevin De Bruyne in the run-up to the champions’ third goal – overselling himself, and finding himself turned and beaten.
Perhaps there’s a broader parable here, about the way we plot and judge players along a bell curve that almost seems predestined for them. The initial explosion; the rapid rise; the gentle decline. In a game obsessed with the shiniest new thing, occasionally we forget that the trajectory of a player rarely runs as we expect – that meaningful development can still occur beyond the age of 30. That even the most grizzled old pro can, with a little love and a little needle, discover levels that were previously thought beyond him.
Likewise, Leicester’s current run will doubtless be woven into a wider tale of atrophy, of tapering off, of regression to the mean. The teams behind them will doubtless lick their lips in anticipation of a second-half collapse. It’s a conclusion we should resist, at least for now. Things don’t always work like that. As the case of Evans reminds us, the course of football rarely runs in a straight line.