A sluggish Manchester City were held to a frustrating 1-1 draw at home to Everton on Saturday afternoon.
Erling Haaland gave the hosts a deserved first-half lead but the reigning champions, consciously or otherwise, dialled down the tempo once ahead. Demarai Gray levelled the match shortly after the hour mark on a rare foray forward for the passive Toffees, earning Everton a famous point at the Etihad.
Frank Lampard warned of the “huge challenge” Everton faced in travelling to the home of the champions who “possibly have the greatest coach in the world”. Everton’s manager flexed his tactical nous by lining his side up in a reactive 5-3-2 shell. To underline the visitors' approach, Jordan Pickford was warned about time-wasting in the 13th minute.
When Nathan Ake carried the ball into Everton's half, the visiting rearguard of five pink shirts was in an organised line. A dizzying, dazzling interchange of passes as City weaved into the area left the quintet in a tangled knot of baffled limbs. Riyad Mahrez played the final pass, squaring for Haaland to stab in the game's opening goal from the middle of the box after 24 minutes.
In celebration, Haaland let out more than one primal roar in the direction of Ben Godfrey. Everton's centre-back had left Haaland in a heap with a heavy tackle in the opening minute which clearly played on the mind of a forward who scarcely needs additional motivation.
John Stones hit the post from a set piece on the cusp of half-time but a combination of injuries, fouls and faulty equipment for the referee's assistant concocted a staccato, almost soporific 40 minutes after Haaland's opener.
Gray certainly woke up a sodden, sleepy crowd. Leading a one-man counter-attack which started inside his own half, Gray was forced to slow down as City flooded players back, before slipping in the corner of the box. Yet, Gray had time to not only regain his footing but stuff a sumptuous strike into the top corner, hauling Everton level in the 64th minute with his team's first shot of the match.
Pep Guardiola had hinted at "distraction" as "everyone's thinking of New Year's Eve" before the match. While Gray's equaliser sharpened City's focus, the hosts struggled to pick their way through an encouraged set of stubborn visitors. Mahrez and Rodri were denied in a penalty box scramble in the final ten minutes as City failed to find a winner.
Newcastle's draw with Leeds United kept City in second place but it represents the second successive home league game in which the reigning champions have dropped points after losing to Brentford before the international break.
Man City player ratings (4-2-3-1)
GK: Ederson - 4/10 - Given precious little to do other than take the ball out of his own net.
RB: Rico Lewis - 7/10 - Tucked in so centrally, Lewis scarcely pretended to be a full back.
CB: John Stones - 6/10 - Unfortunate to be denied by the upright against his former employers.
CB: Manuel Akanji - 4/10 - Far too easily dumfounded by a faint waggle of Gray's hips as he afforded the winger far too much time to shoot.
LB: Nathan Ake - 6/10 - Sure-footed when carrying the ball forward but reluctant to charge too far up the pitch.
CM: Rodri - 5/10 - A rare turnover from the normally metronomic midfielder was emphatically punished.
CM: Bernardo Silva - 6/10 - Popping up all over the pitch, tracking back into his own box while also offering an overlapping option on the left wing.
AM: Kevin De Bruyne - 6/10 - Roaming around in constant search of the ball and space, De Bruyne struggled to pick apart Everton's blockade.
RW: Riyad Mahrez - 7/10 - Left Vitalii Mykolenko with twisted blood he turned him so viciously before teeing up Haaland's opener.
ST: Erling Haaland - 7/10 - Seemingly angered by an early challenge that left him writhing in agony, Haaland dusted himself off to inflict some damage of his own (via the scoresheet and brute force).
LW: Jack Grealish - 6/10 - Driving in off the left onto his stronger right foot regularly but not always effectively.
Phil Foden (87' for Grealish) - N/A
Ilkay Gundogan (87' for Lewis) - N/A
Julian Alvarez (87' for Bernardo) - N/A
Pep Guardiola - 3/10 - Waited until the 87th minute to make any substitutions after watching his side ambivalently coast through the middle third of the match.
Everton player ratings (5-3-2)
GK: Jordan Pickford - 5/10 - Got a few fingers to Haaland's opener but only succeeded in tipping the ball away from Conor Coady waiting on the goal line.
CB: Ben Godfrey - 3/10 - Following the old-school rules of "letting them know you're there", Godfrey inserted himself a little too far forward in Haaland's focus as the goal-guzzling number nine took every opportunity to torment him.
CB: Conor Coady - 6/10 - Couldn't marshal Everton into a rigid shape when City's passing clicked into top gear but kept a tight ship for large swathes.
CB: James Tarkowski - 6/10 - Got his body, specifically his head, in the way of numerous balls into the box - but not enough to preserve a clean sheet that scarcely looked likely.
RWB: Nathan Patterson - 5/10 - Constantly faced with a one-on-one duel, Patterson was hardly embarrassed but did get beaten more than once.
CM: Alex Iwobi - 5/10 - On his 100th Premier League appearance, Iwobi was reduced to a shuttling role on the right of a midfield three.
CM: Andre Onana - 4/10 - Only intermittently looked forward when the ball was rarely at his feet.
CM: Idrissa Gana Gueye - 7/10 - A constant spoke in City's wheel as he frequently inserted his slight frame into the opening stages of a developing attack.
LWB: Vitalii Mykolenko - 4/10 - Struggled to contain the wriggling menace of Mahrez.
ST: Dominic Calvert-Lewin - 4/10 - Guardiola may have described him as "dangerous" but Everton's number nine didn't have many opportunities to live up to that billing.
ST: Demarai Gray - 7/10 - Buzzed around energetically throughout the match, eventually earning his reward with a moment of real quality.
Seamus Coleman (70' for Patterson) - 5/10
Neal Maupay (70' for Calvert-Lewin) - 5/10
Tom Davies (78' for Gueye) - N/A
Abdoulaye Doucoure (90+1' for Godfrey) - N/A
Frank Lampard - 6/10 - Theoretically the plan of sitting back and counter-attacking worked but it's not the most repeatable formula if you have to rely upon Gray delivering a wonder strike like that every time.