The Briefing: Does Amad winner help ease United’s broader pain? Sterling’s strange season – The Athletic

By Nick MillerMar 18, 2024

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 Coventry’s win over Wolves was arguably the highlight of a thrilling set of FA Cup quarter-finals, Tottenham Hotspur slumped to a limp defeat to Fulham and the big relegation six-pointer ended 1-1 between Luton Town and Nottingham Forest.

Here we will ask just how important Manchester United’s late winner against Liverpool could be, whether the rule about automatically booking players for removing their shirts in celebration should be scrapped, and whether this is a crunch point for Raheem Sterling at Chelsea.

Does Amad’s United winner help make dysfunction tolerable?

In some respects, a game like that completely defies analysis.

For most of the second 45 minutes, it looked like the game would be a procession. Liverpool had dominated most of the first half too, culminating in their two goals, but after the break, they seemed to be toying with United, exploiting the vast space between their defence and midfield, creating chance after chance, with only the vaguest sense that their failure to take any of them would be a problem because United seemed so passive in attack.

Then Antony equalised, Liverpool seemed to panic and nearly lost it with the last kick of normal time. In extra time, Harvey Elliott’s deflected strike seemed to right those wrongs, but first Marcus Rashford then, in the 121st minute, Amad flipped both the game and logic on its head.

For a few moments after the goal, the whole of Old Trafford looked like the away end at an Old Firm game, a couple of minutes of absolute chaos as two hours of tension and violently undulating emotions were released into the Manchester skies. It was one of those celebrations you can watch over and over, picking out different people in the crowd and enjoying their reactions.

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United remain a mess. It’s still sometimes hard to see what Erik ten Hag is trying to do, in a tactical sense. Even with injuries in mind, a serious football team should not be starting with Victor Lindelof as a full-back. Even if every decision Sir Jim Ratcliffe makes from this point comes off — which is by no means a given considering his uneven record at Nice and Lausanne — it will still take a few years for United to be where they want to be. On a broader scale, it may even get worse before it gets better.

But for their fans at least, moments like that will just about make it all worthwhile. In their more clear-headed moments they will emphasise the importance of a proper player recruitment structure, or a more carefully defined style of play, or any of the other things that will, in the medium and long term, make United a better, more coherent club.

For now, though, scoring a 121st-minute winner against your biggest rivals — who are demonstrably a better team — will do. It takes the attention off the dysfunction for a time. Moments like that make it all worthwhile.

Shortly after the winner, the camera cut to a young lad in a United shirt, probably no older than about 11 or 12, who had burst into tears of joy. That’s why we keep bothering with all of this.

Should players be booked for taking off their shirts?

On the one hand, Amad knew the rule. It’s been in place since 2004, and is one of relatively few unambiguous laws in the game: take your shirt off after scoring, and it’s a yellow card. Take your shirt off when you’ve already been booked, as Amad did, and it’s a red. On a cold, clinical level: no sympathy.

On the other hand, it’s a stupid rule that punishes genuine displays of emotion when such things are being increasingly squeezed out of the game and fundamentally misunderstands the nature of moments such as Amad’s.

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Sure, Amad could have expressed his delight at scoring a 121st-minute winner against your biggest rivals in a frantic game in a slightly different way, but that’s incredibly easy to say from a sofa or an IFAB committee room.

Amad was almost certainly existing on another plane of consciousness after he scored that goal. You lose the run of things enough when you celebrate a goal like that from the stands, so imagine what it’s like if you actually score one. If he did actually have enough rational thought to really consider the consequences of removing his shirt, which is doubtful, he had almost certainly forgotten about the yellow card he had been given a few minutes earlier.

The logic behind the rule is reasonable enough: despite the old conspiracy theories about it being to ensure shirt sponsors’ names are visible at the most high-profile moment of games, the official reason is to combat time-wasting, and this is one of the few examples that doesn’t involve any form of subjectivity.

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Maybe there should be some subjectivity involved: if a player whips off their top when they’ve just put their team 3-0 up in the 60th minute then fine, book them if you like. But in a high-octane moment like that, when they can’t seriously be expected to think coldly about anything, then a referee could be trusted to deploy some discretion.

But introducing that level of subjectivity to the rule book when there’s already plenty to argue about seems like it will just create more problems: it’s much easier to just scrap the thing completely.

What now for Raheem Sterling and Chelsea?

The relatively warm reception that Raheem Sterling received when he was substituted suggests things are not entirely broken between him and the Chelsea fans.

But it didn’t feel that way a few minutes earlier when there was widespread opprobrium for Mauricio Pochettino taking Mykhailo Mudryk off before Sterling. Or a few minutes before that when Sterling launched a free kick at a scientifically improbable angle, high into the Matthew Harding Stand, and was greeted with loud boos.

All of which was informed by the almost apologetic penalty that Sterling dribbled towards the Leicester goal in the first half, a kick made all the more frustrating from a Chelsea perspective given he had been handed the ball by one of the best penalty takers in the country, Cole Palmer.

It’s been a strange season for Sterling. He started it pretty well: charged with being one of the few adults in a Chelsea team full of expensive youngsters, he seemed to be thriving on the responsibility. A clutch of goals in the autumn led to Gareth Southgate being grilled as to why Sterling wasn’t in his England squad.

Sterling is taken off by Pochettino (Alex Pantling/Getty Images)

However, come spring, when Southgate made his selections for the upcoming internationals against Brazil and Belgium and left Sterling out again, it was more of a polite inquiry as to why, because it was fairly obvious.

There’s always been much more noise around Sterling than most players for all manner of reasons — some of them fair, some of them toxic. So there is always the danger of giving inflated importance to otherwise mundane things, such as the poor run of form he’s in. And it’s not as if this is some chronic, irredeemably bad run of form, either: he scored against Manchester City only a few games ago.

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But it’s impossible not to wonder what’s next for Sterling. For all of Chelsea’s problems this season, their attack is starting to look pretty good. Palmer has been their player of the season by some distance; Nicolas Jackson is scoring a few goals without being spectacular; Carney Chukwuemeka and Noni Madueke both came on against Leicester and scored; even Mudryk, who has sometimes looked like a lost cause, is starting to look more promising. There’s Christopher Nkunku too, who is quite difficult to assess given all his injuries, but all being equal he would probably be in their first-choice XI.

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“Today is a great opportunity to support him,” Pochettino said about Sterling after the game. “He has an unbelievable CV, a player in big teams, experienced player. He missed the penalty and some chances, but I am happy with him and we’re going to support him.”

You wouldn’t expect Pochettino to say anything else, but it’s also impossible to wonder how much time this relationship has left.

Coming up…

  • It’s international week in the men’s game, but the Women’s Champions League still provides some club football — and what club football it is: we’re at the quarter-final stage, and after making very short work of Arsenal in the WSL on Friday, Chelsea travel to Amsterdam to face Ajax. Elsewhere Lyon face Benfica, PSG are against Hacken and holders Barcelona play Brann.
  • We have some men’s international games, specifically the play-offs to reach the summer’s European Championships: Thursday sees the six semi-finals, the winners of which will play in three finals next Tuesday (March 26) to take the remaining spots at Euro 2024. In Path A, Wales play Finland and Poland play Estonia; Path B has Bosnia & Herzegovina facing Ukraine, the winners of which will play either Israel or Iceland; and finally, in Path C, Georgia play Luxembourg and Greece are up against Kazakhstan.
  • There are also some friendlies too, if that sort of thing flicks your switch: the choice fixtures include Spain v Colombia on Friday (at the London Stadium for some reason), Netherlands vs Scotland, Italy against Venezuela in Miami, with England vs Brazil and France vs Germany next Saturday.
  • For fans of administrative procedures, Nottingham Forest are expecting to hear what their punishment for breaching profit and sustainability rules are early this week, probably today (Monday).

    (Top photos: Matthew Peters/Manchester United; Gaspafotos/MB Media; both via Getty Images)

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Nick Miller is a football writer for the Athletic and the Totally Football Show. He previously worked as a freelancer for the Guardian, ESPN and Eurosport, plus anyone else who would have him.

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