Every single footballer in the world aims to be the big-game player who constantly shows up against the champions, but Danny Drinkwater may have taken this all a little too literally. His only start in his wasted half season at Burnley came at the beginning of last month when they were obliterated 4-1 at home to City. His last appearance for Chelsea? Their 2-0 loss to Manchester City in last season’s Community Shield. His last league start for Chelsea? A 1-0 defeat at the Etihad in March 2018. That fact alone should have been a red flag for Dean Smith.
Instead, five days after arriving on loan at Aston Villa, there he was in the starting lineup against the defending champions and for a few short minutes, things were actually going well. Playing from the left of a midfield two, he was handy in the early sterile exchanges as both teams settled into the match. One of his first touches was an interception in the middle of the field, which elicited applause from the home crowd, and he relieved pressure for his new team with a couple of nice, simple passes. He pointed, he yelled, he seemed comfortable in possession.
And then, 18 minutes into Drinkwater’s Aston Villa debut, his world was on fire. First Riyad Mahrez strolled down the right, untouched for what felt like an eternity, until Drinkwater stretched a lazy foot out in Mahrez’s general direction before watching as his former Leicester teammate strolled past him and towards scoring the first goal. Five minutes later he picked up possession inside the penalty area and seemed to think he had all the time in the world. He didn’t. As he was rushed from behind by David Silva, his panicked pass found Mahrez and that was the second goal. In the third goal, Kevin De Bruyne calmly dribbled past him and then found Sergio Agüero. Within half an hour he had helped City to three goals.
The trajectory of Drinkwater’s career has been alarming and a sad series of bad decisions. He remained at Chelsea after his manager told the world he was an irrelevance. He has been caught drink-driving after crashing into a wall. He has been beaten up after another drunken night out. The ruins of his career are not just the consequence of errant situations on the pitch, but wrong decisions.
But perhaps this instance isn’t all his fault. It was a bad choice from Smith to include him from the start against such a big team, so soon after his arrival and with so few minutes under his belt this season. The reason why is certainly clear: by Christmas, Villa had lost four games in a row, with one win in nine, and they finished 2019 in the relegation zone. They are in the midst of an injury crisis with Wesley, Tom Heaton and John McGinn all out with serious injuries. Their midfield has been constantly overrun. But Villa had also won two of their last three league games and against Leicester in the Carabao Cup semi-final they secured a productive first-leg draw with an extremely organised defensive display. There was little sense in starting such an unprepared player against one of the most vicious attacks in the world.
The thriving brilliance of Mahrez only emphasises the crisis of Drinkwater’s career. The Algerian has not always had the easiest time in the years since Leicester’s triumph. But his professionalism is reflected in how he has reacted to the opportunity borne out of Leroy Sané’s injury. From the very beginning of the season his game has flowed; he is dribbling more, contributing more key passes, taking fewer shots.
His two goals and performance were also a reflection of a City team that seem to be getting into gear. At the beginning of the Christmas period, City lodged a complaint with the Premier League over the schedule forcing them to play twice in 48 hours, yet through the heavy legs and countless dogged performances from Fernandinho, Manchester City appear to have come out of it stronger and after Agüero’s hat-trick, they have the Premier League’s top overseas goalscorer to show for it.
Drinkwater departed with his head down in the 79th minute, but the remaining fans in the stadium still applauded. He will surely get more games for Aston Villa and the opportunity to improve his form and rebuild his career. Whether he takes it is still a big unknown, but at the very least none of those Premier League games will be against Manchester City.