Carabao Cup fourth round: 16 Conclusions

Date published: Friday 27th October 2017 3:00

* It is impossible to know the contents of Mauricio Pochettino’s half-time team talk, but it is easy to suggest that his most important, most pertinent message came before the game. “Our objective is to try to win the Premier League and the Champions League. For me, two real trophies,” he said on the eve of Tottenham’s Carabao Cup fourth-round tie with West Ham.

“That can really change your life,” he continued. “And then the FA Cup, of course, I would like to win. I would like to win the Carabao Cup. But I think it will not change the life of Tottenham.”

There will not be a single manager in the Premier or Football Leagues who disagrees with the sentiment, but to express it publicly before the game was a rare oversight and show of negligence from the manager. Tottenham have not won a single trophy since 2008 – Pochettino has not won one in the entirety of his managerial career – and so they cannot afford to be so picky. The Carabao Cup is fourth on their list of priorities, but it is still on a list.

One can argue that Arsenal, Chelsea, Manchester City and Manchester United all faced more straightforward assignments in the fourth round, but it is no coincidence that those seasoned title contenders have all reached the quarter-finals of England’s tertiary competition. Tottenham, the youngest side with the most novice manager, have overlooked its value.

To Pochettino’s credit, he named a strong side containing ten internationals, and might have expected more from his fringe players. But his admission after the game that the hosts were “not on the same mental level” as the visitors was telling. He is as culpable as anyone in that respect.

“I think we need to teach our fans because it’s so difficult to fight for four competitions,” Pochettino said ahead of the game, but this was an unnecessary lesson. The momentum built by the resounding victory over Liverpool and impressive draw with Real Madrid has dissipated ahead of a weekend visit to Old Trafford.

 

* At 2-0 down early in the second half, West Ham fans had seen enough. As chants of ‘sack the board’ rang down from the away supporters, it felt like an irretrievable situation. David Gold, David Sullivan and Karren Brady would not pay with their jobs as the fans demanded, but Slaven Bilic surely would.

The first of two games the Croatian had been afforded to save his position had threatened to become a procession. Tottenham strolled to a comfortable first-half lead as West Ham toiled, struggling to string together more than five passes and failing to test Michel Vorm. The message to the players was that their manager was in danger, and the lack of response was deafening.

Bilic made no substitutions at half-time and kept the same formation, and yet appeared to send a completely different team out. Like a bowl of crunchy pasta, Tottenham came off the boil far too soon, and the visitors exposed their complacency. Manuel Lanzini assisted two goals as he continued his recovery from injury, while the club’s Ghanaian striker scored twice. Ayew not entertained?

It was the first time West Ham had scored three goals at Wembley since the 1966 World Cup final. In a 15-minute blitz, Bilic’s position was strengthened immeasurably. Saturday’s Premier League meeting with Crystal Palace is eminently more important, but the Hammers can use Wednesday’s comeback victory as a platform.

The board still seem unconvinced by the manager, evidenced by the repeatedly the leaked warnings. Some fans have long since accepted that Bilic and West Ham are perhaps simply not meant to be. But while the sustainability of similar performances and results is debatable, this was a timely vote of confidence from the players.

 

* To impress in the aftermath of the uninspiring, often seemingly uninterested Ronald Koeman was never going to be difficult. David Unsworth could don a blue suit, refer to the club as ‘we’, ensure not to put red decorations on his Christmas tree and bellow ‘Nil Satis Nisi Optimum’ while shoving toffees into his mouth, and his appointment as permanent Everton manager would be assured.

History only matters when the present is a failure, but Unsworth showed that he is perhaps the man for the future in his first game in interim charge. The Merseyside club were beaten by Chelsea at Stamford Bridge, but a much-improved performance against the champions after just one training session means the calls for his promotion grow ever louder.

Unsworth has impressed during his management of the club’s Under-23s, and followed a similar tack on Wednesday. Joining Jonjoe Kenny and Tom Davies in the starting line-up was debutant Beni Baningime. Aaron Lennon and James McCarthy also made their first starts of the season as Unsworth surmised that an equation involving 427 No. 10s had a solution: start only one of them, and as a striker. Wayne Rooney led the line.

Everton’s brave new dawn ended in defeat, but the signs were encouraging. There was a plan, a system, cause for optimism instead of concern. It seems as though he will be given a number of weeks to state his case, and difficult games with Leicester, Lyon and Watford fall before November’s international break. Pass those tests and the job is his.

 

* Fans and those with a keen eye on the development of younger players will have been delighted with the performance of the excellent Ethan Ampadu at Stamford Bridge, but Antonio Conte will be more pleased with his midfield partner. Ampadu is undeniably a talent, but cannot be relied upon outside of the Carabao Cup at the age of 17.

In Danny Drinkwater, Conte has a long overdue solution to his midfield problem. N’Golo Kante’s injury has left a gaping hole, one which Tiemoue Bakayoko, Cesc Fabregas and David Luiz have all proven incapable of filling. Drinkwater is another option, a safer option.

The 27-year-old was afforded 62 minutes in his first game since early May, and showed no signs of injury or rust against an admittedly unthreatening opposition midfield. But he was tidy, secure and completed more passes than any player aside from Gary Cahill despite sitting out the final half-hour. The £35million signing has finally arrived.

 

* Two traits define Arsene Wenger as a manager when it comes to his players: his loyalty and his dedication to nurturing, developing and improving young talent. The former can be infuriating, and is the reason Theo Walcott has entered his 12th full season as an Arsenal player. The latter is admirable, and explains why Walcott should not be permitted to reach an unlucky 13.

The England international was abysmal against Norwich, following a below-par performance in the Europa League against Red Star Belgrade. As one of many individuals demoted to a fringe side competing in the less important competitions, this is Walcott’s opportunity to impress. Yet he has done nothing to suggest he should threaten Alexandre Lacazette, Alexis Sanchez or Mesut Ozil for a first-team place.

If Walcott’s display against Norwich was not damning enough, the fact that Eddie Nketiah grabbed the opportunity with both hands should be of grave embarrassment. At the age of 18, Nketiah is not as talented as his more seasoned contemporaries, but he is hungrier and keener to impress. Walcott’s presence in the first team will only hold him back going forward.

The same stands for Francis ‘what the s***ing f*** was that?’ Coquelin. The Frenchman will never be good enough to hold down a regular starting place again, and so he is preventing Ainsley Maitland-Niles and Joe Willock from gaining much-needed competitive minutes. Wenger should be more loyal to those younger players who fight for their opportunities, not those who make it feel like a chore.

 

* As the only current manager in the Premier or Football League to have actually won the League Cup, Jose Mourinho is fully aware of its importance. The Portuguese built his first Chelsea dynasty on winning that trophy, claimed the Premier League title on the back of a League Cup victory again in 2015, and was able to convince some that he was the best manager of 2017 in no small part thanks to success at Wembley in February.

An experimental starting XI travelled to the Liberty Stadium on Tuesday, with a forward line of Marcus Rashford and Anthony Martial sure to torment Swansea throughout. But it was Jesse Lingard who shone, scoring both goals on only his fourth start of the season.

This site and this writer has been as critical as anyone with regards to Lingard, whose social media presence and wage are points of ridiculous and irrelevant contention for many a neutral and even some Manchester United fans. But what cannot be doubted is that the 24-year-old is a useful squad player, willing to play when needed and happy to sit out when not.

It is the diametric opposite of Walcott in that Lingard seems delighted to start for his club in whatever competition and in any circumstance. He might not be as good as Paul Pogba, but he never claims to be. Few carry out their role as fringe player with as much dedication.

 

* “If he plays it’s because he has recovered,” said Mourinho of Romelu Lukaku in October. The United manager was discussing the prospect of Lukaku, recovering from injury, featuring for Belgium in that month’s international break.

“It’s a very important match for them,” he added sarcastically, with Belgium having already qualified for the World Cup. The manager was described as ‘angry’ after Lukaku played 24 minutes of a dead rubber against Cyprus, scoring in a 4-0 win.

Perhaps it is because that was Lukaku’s most recent goal for club or country that Mourinho decided to risk the striker against Swansea, to try and coax a return to form. United were 2-0 up by 59 minutes through Lingard’s double, before Mourinho decided to bring on both Lukaku and Nemanja Matic eight minutes later. It was an unnecessary gamble.

Paul Clement followed much the same path, replacing Oliver McBurnie with Tammy Abraham after 72 minutes. Credit to the Swansea manager for chasing a result, but would resting Abraham, their top scorer this season, not have been a more logical step?

 

* We have reached the fourth week of October, and Bristol City have beaten as many Premier League sides in all competitions this season as Liverpool. Crystal Palace were dispatched in much the same manner as Watford and Stoke in previous rounds as Lee Johnson’s men became the only non-Premier League club to reach the Carabao Cup quarter-finals.

The Robins are flying high in the Championship, sitting one place and one point outside the play-offs after 13 games. Even the most optimistic fans are struggling to contemplate a promotion push lasting into May, but this is clear progress after 18th and 17th-placed finishes in their first two seasons back in England’s second tier.

They are not alone in exposing Palace’s problems this season, but manager Johnson should take great pleasure from the home side’s comeback victory. The visitors dominated early on and led through Bakary Sako, but a forced substitution after 31 minutes changed the course of the game.

Milan Djuric has not started a game for Bristol City since February, but was instrumental on Tuesday. He played a key role in the build-up to the equaliser three minutes after he was brought on, then scored himself five minutes later. The 27-year-old was treated to a standing ovation when he was substituted with ten minutes to go, and will provide a new dimension to an already potent attack.

 

* For Palace, confirmation of a crashing return to normality after the brief zenith that was victory over Chelsea.

“It was an opportunity for them to knock on the door of the first team and threaten the places of the team I have played in the last two games,” said Roy Hodgson after what he described as a “capitulation” at Ashton Gate. As good as the visitors were for the first 20 minutes, the collapse in the subsequent 70 was alarming.

This was the chance for certain players to state their case, to show that they are willing and capable to help rescue the situation at Selhurst Park. Wayne Hennessey, Patrick van Aanholt, Martin Kelly, James Tomkins, Lee Chung-yong and Sullay Kaikai should not expect that opportunity to come along so easily again.

 

* As underwhelming an appointment as Claude Puel is for some, the new Leicester manager will arrive at the King Power Stadium with the necessary tools already in place to make an impact.

“It was his best game so far,” said Michael Appleton, who will return to assistant manager duties after his brief interim stint, after victory over Leeds. “We recognised there was an opportunity to play through the thirds and we used Vicente Iborra really well.”

It has been a difficult start to life in England for Iborra, who was kept out through injury until late September after joining in the summer. But his class and calm in midfield is impossible to ignore, particularly when juxtaposed with the performances of Andy King this season. Leicester have won three and drawn one of the four games Iborra has started this season; alongside Wilfred Ndidi, Puel has a gift-wrapped midfield pairing.

 

* “We have alternatives in our squad – Fabian Delph, Danilo, Fernandinho, and Zinchenko – we will see as we go along,” said Pep Guardiola in September, Benjamin Mendy having been ruled out until the latter stages of the season with a knee injury. Delph has shouldered the left-back burden well, while Danilo and Fernandinho can fill in. On the basis of Oleksandr Zinchenko’s debut, he is not a viable option.

That is not to say that Zinchenko was poor against Wolves. He was bright and offered plenty going forward, but visibly tired during his 120 minutes – as any player would on their first start.

But the 20-year-old is not quite developed enough to fill in at left-back long-term, and would understandably struggle against a more expansive attack. “We will see in January,” was Guardiola’s response when asked if he will look to sign a replacement for Mendy. On this basis, it would be a mistake to hold fire.

 

* Guardiola’s intense dislike of the media meant he opted not to take the bait when asked directly whether Wolves were Premier League material. Few other managers simply refuse to dance to the tune of the press, Gegen or otherwise.

But the City manager did reserve praise for the Championship leaders between rants about the standard of the Mitre ball. “They are physical, strong, 10 players in the box – it’s so complicated to attack in that way – and they have fast players on the wing and strikers too. A lot of credit,” said the Spaniard.

Wolves are the joint-top goalscorers in the Championship this season, but Nuno Espírito Santo was not foolish enough to take on Goliath in a straightforward boxing bout. The Portuguese adapted his tactics to play more defensive and sit deep, before Wolves hunted in packs as their hosts closed to within 30 yards of the goal.

Wolves were remarkably organised, and are the first side to prevent City scoring since Manchester United in April – a run of 19 games. A side that made nine changes managed to silence Sergio Aguero, Gabriel Jesus, Raheem Sterling and Bernardo Silva.

 

* Eddie Howe might think he has “competition” for striking places at Bournemouth, but the evidence suggests otherwise. Crystal Palace are the only club keeping the Cherries off the bottom of the Premier League table, and are the only side to have scored fewer league goals.

Josh King has started eight games of a possible nine. Jermain Defoe has played eight, starting five. Benik Afobe has played seven, starting three. Between them, they have scored two goals.

A meeting with Middlesbrough at Dean Court was a boost to the confidence. It was the first time since meeting the same side at home in April that the Cherries scored three or more goals, and only the third time in their last 31 fixtures.

It would be ambitious of Callum Wilson to suggest his presence in the starting line-up was the decisive factor in such an upturn in attacking output, but it is no coincidence that Bournemouth looked more threatening on the striker’s first start since January. A goal and an assist ought to be rewarded with a chance against Chelsea on Saturday.

 

* Having outspent 12 Premier League clubs in the summer, Middlesbrough fans could perhaps have expected a little more. An outlay of just under £50m on new signings represented a bigger investment than Arsenal on new players, while the most valuable asset, Ben Gibson, was retained.

Garry Monk was appointed manager of one of the Championship’s most expensive squads in the summer, but the Teessiders are down in 13th, and have now not won in their last six games. Across the end of his spell with Leeds and beginning of his reign at the Riverside, Monk has won just five of his last 21 Championship matches.

It is safe to say that a 650-mile round trip to Bournemouth would have been lodged comfortably at the bottom of Monk’s wishlist, but a 3-1 defeat poses yet more questions when the 38-year-old really has to provide some answers. George Friend, Daniel Ayala, Dael Fry and Connor Roberts lined up in a back four as Middlesbrough fielded their ninth different defence of the season in their 16th game; eight different individuals have featured in either a back three or four under Monk.

Aitor Karanka was deemed not good enough to take Middlesbrough forward last season, but the Spaniard at least ensured defensive certainty and solidity. Despite their relative embarrassment of striking riches, Monk’s side do not score enough goals to neglect that side of the game.

 

* When Leeds were knocked out of both domestic cup competitions last season, they were seven points behind an automatic promotion spot, having played an extra game.

When Leeds were knocked out of both domestic cup competitions in 2015/16, they were 22 points behind an automatic promotion spot, with a game in hand.

When Leeds were knocked out of both domestic cup competitions in 2014/15, they were 23 points behind an automatic promotion spot.

When Leeds were knocked out of both domestic cup competitions in 2013/14, they were 12 points behind an automatic promotion spot.

Leeds have exited the Carabao Cup at the fourth-round stage this campaign but, unlike in previous seasons, they have far bigger fish to fry. The gap to second-placed Cardiff is just four points, and they are undoubtedly on the up.

 

* “Togetherness” and “attitude” were the two words Norwich manager Daniel Farke emphasised after a gut-wrenching defeat to Arsenal. The Canaries led Premier League opposition for over 50 minutes away from home, but were devastated by Nketiah’s late double.

Farke’s ache was understandable: the standard of refereeing had been lacklustre, Norwich aggrieved at not being awarded a second-half penalty. But this was yet another positive step for the Championship side. A 4-0 defeat to Millwall in late August left them two places and two points off the bottom of the Championship table heading into an international break. Ten games later, they are in the play-offs, have kept six clean sheets and have not lost in 90 minutes.

The Canaries are singing.

 

Matt Stead

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