Another test passed, and further evidence for the argument that a serious title challenge has been created by Conte’s switch to a 3-4-3 formation. The mischievous among you might wonder if Jose Mourinho’s steadfast 4-2-3-1 (or the slight variation of 4-1-4-1) might have been altered by a more tactically fluid manager? I’m certainly not mischievous enough to suggest it.
In truth, Conte’s current performance deserves to be taken in glorious isolation rather than in comparison with others. Having been placed under serious pressure by a run of three games without a win in September, it’s now seven straight league victories. Win at Manchester City next weekend and they will be the new title favourites.
Conte has received plenty of praise for his mid-season formation switch, but all of it is deserved. To rip up pre-season plans a month into a new season takes gumption. In times of crisis, it is far easier to stick with what you know rather than make systematic changes and risk losing all control of the situation. For Conte to do that while also introducing new players into the team (Marcos Alonso, Victor Moses, Pedro) and altering the position of other players (Eden Hazard, Cesar Azpilicueta) demonstrates a bravery that has been suitably rewarded.
Saturday was not the final test to see if this new system works, for that’s not how these things work. Managers across the Premier League will be studying tapes of Chelsea to pin-point the strategy’s weakness, and no plan is without fault. At some point, Chelsea will fall short and have their resolve tested once more. That may start in Manchester next weekend.
Yet, for now, Conte merits looking down on the Premier League’s rest. He acknowledged, identified and solved a technical issue, and in doing so revitalised Chelsea’s season without waiting for the transfer window to open. Plenty of other coaches could learn that lesson.
Has scored more league goals for Chelsea under Antonio Conte than under Roberto Di Matteo, Rafa Benitez, Jose Mourinho and Guus Hiddink combined. Unwanted winger has become one of the Premier League’s best wing-backs in a period of weeks.
“I noticed his potential from the first days of the summer retreat,” said Conte this week. “Moses has important qualities: technique, physical strength, the ability to cover seventy metres of the pitch. I find it incredible that someone like him has been overlooked.”
You can put that one down as a dig…
Chelsea’s team effort
One interesting point on Chelsea’s victory over Tottenham: This was the first time they won a league game without Diego Costa or Eden Hazard scoring since April 2. If one doesn’t get you, the other will. If they don’t get you, there’s now a queue behind them.
Matt Stead wrote here about why winning through adversity after the loss of Philippe Coutinho was important for Liverpool, and he’s bang right. It may have only been Sunderland at Anfield, but overcoming initial frustration to eventually win the game comfortably is a regular necessity for title challengers, particularly in a league where every club can dig in stubbornly. It takes more than individual strength to move a double-decker bus, but Liverpool were up to task.
Avoiding slipping up in winnable home games is important for Jurgen Klopp too in that it separates him from his predecessor. Brendan Rodgers gained a reputation for sparkling attacking football during his tenure at Liverpool, but his final 13 months became defined by frustration at Anfield against mediocre opposition: 0-1 vs Aston Villa, 0-0 vs Hull, 0-0 vs Sunderland, 2-2 vs (2014/15) Leicester, 1-3 vs Crystal Palace, 0-3 vs West Ham, 1-1 vs Norwich.
Since the 2-0 loss at Burnley in August, Liverpool have won five consecutive games against teams in the bottom half. Keep that up and the top-four place isn’t going away soon.
Not quite the highest-placed British manager (Tony Pulis still possesses that tag), but a wonderful few weeks for Mark Hughes. Having been under significant pressure after a terrible start to the season, Hughes has answered his critics (of which I was one).
The home defeat to Bournemouth last week was a setback, but Stoke made immediate amends at Watford. That Hughes was without Jack Butland, Ryan Shawcross, Geoff Cameron, Joe Allen and Glenn Whelan from his first-choice XI will only improve his mood.
Since drawing at home to West Brom on September 24, only Liverpool, Arsenal and Chelsea have taken more points than Stoke in the Premier League. Crisis averted in style.
Our early winner, for again being a match-winner despite running on fumes. We’re in love.
Another victory accompanied by its fair share of angst, but a victory all the same. Eden Hazard is one of a number of people who can’t quite take Arsenal’s title bid seriously, but their form stands up to scrutiny. Arsene Wenger will hope that the run of draws is over.
Sigurdsson has scored or assisted a goal in eight of Swansea’s last 11 games. This week’s top ten will be on the best players in the bottom half and Sigurdsson will be high on that list. He’s my Gylfi pleasure.
“Sometimes you feel like you need something crazy and maybe this game can be that moment,” said Bob Bradley after the 5-4 win over Crystal Palace. “Having said that, we cannot take the good part without looking a little deeper. After all, you won’t win matches like that every day.”
Admirable honesty from Bradley, who could easily have got carried away by victory in one of the most incredible matches in Premier League history. The resilience displayed by Swansea’s players indicates their stomach for the fight and faith in their manager, but the defending must improve.
Between December 10 and January 14, Swansea face Sunderland, Middlesbrough, West Brom, West Ham, Bournemouth and Crystal Palace. That period may well decide their fate.
Another two goals to move level with Diego Costa at the top of the Premier League’s scoring charts. After a mini-drought in October, Aguero has five goals in four league games. It’s also now 18 in his last 17 league starts. Not bad.
They’ve lost one of their last five matches, despite playing Arsenal, Manchester City, Chelsea and Leicester. Now to take advantage against gentler opponents.
At 2.57pm on Saturday, as Divock Origi took his place on the Liverpool bench, the striker must have felt a little disillusioned. He was still waiting for his first league start of the season, two EFL Cup goals his only return from four months’ work.
By 4.52pm, Origi will have been buoyed. Not only had the news been confirmed that Daniel Sturridge had picked up another injury, but Philippe Coutinho had also suffered a significant setback. As his replacement, Origi scored his first league goal since April. Does he now start wide left in the absence of Coutinho and Lallana?
More shots on target against Crystal Palace than in his last eight games combined. More league goals in his last four minutes than in his previous eight months. As many shots on target as any other Premier League player this weekend, despite coming on as a sub in the 66th minute. This week Bob Bradley demanded more from Llorente. Wait until everyone else finds out it’s as easy as just asking nicely.
I’ve nicked this from the F365 inbox (who probably saw it elsewhere), but Henderson completed 118 passes against Sunderland. The entire Sunderland team completed 125.
Only a point gained and in slightly fortunate circumstances, but there is no doubt that West Ham and Slaven Bilic belong in the winners list. For anyone who disagrees, just imagine the psychological impact of another late defeat having led.
“Sometimes you can play well and sometimes not so well. Like at Manchester United, the first half at Chelsea was no good but in the second half we played very well. I am very confident with my team. I think we can fight in every match. Now our training sessions are Premier League and Champions League. We are getting better and have to be solid and strong and don’t make any pressure about relegation”- Claudio Ranieri, October 17.
“Now we could be tired but fortunately the character and spirit of the group is good. We knew it was a tough match, twice fighting back is not easy. I think the draw for us is very good. It was important not have to have three Premier League defeats. I feel we have to fight until the end of season. We are fighting for a relegation battle” – Claudio Ranieri, November 26.
Ranieri is right to be worried. In October he spoke of there being no shame in losing to the Premier League’s best teams, but that hasn’t been Leicester’s biggest problem. Their last three matches (West Brom (h), Watford (a), Middlesbrough (h)) have returned one point. Like it or not, that’s relegation form.
Just like Leicester’s surge to the title felt unstoppable, so does their return to the Premier League’s lower reaches. Lose at Sunderland next week and the odds on relegation would come in sharply.
Jose Mourinho’s self-fulfilling prophecy
It isn’t hard to see why Jose Mourinho might underplay the strength of his Manchester United players. Leaking stories to his media friends about needing two more transfer windows to improve a broken squad both reduces the pressure upon his own performance, and improves the chances of a high transfer budget heading into each of the next two transfer windows. Should United not invest significantly in January and next summer, Mourinho can plead that the club have broken promises or failed to match his own ambition. The focus is therefore on what Mourinho hasn’t spent, not what he has.
People buy it, too. “Jose Mourinho is not the root cause of Manchester United’s problems – the players just aren’t good enough. Everybody gets carried away with what a manager does but if you haven’t got the players, the job is very difficult,” said Harry Redknapp earlier this month.
“After breaking the world record transfer fee for Paul Pogba, only winning the title will be good enough for Jose Mourinho at Manchester United this season,” wrote that same Redknapp in August. “The race for the top four will be tougher than ever due to the presence of six great managers at Premier League clubs with big squads but Mourinho knows he wasn’t brought to Old Trafford to get second place.”
Sarah Winterburn gave Mourinho at least one barrel in our early loser feature, but the manner in which Manchester United’s manager has absolved himself of any blame really is incredible. Not everyone will buy the spiel, but plenty have. A reminder, therefore: Mourinho has now taken fewer points in his first 13 league fixtures than both Louis van Gaal and David Moyes. United are eight points from the top four after 13 matches, losing 0.6 points per match on fourth place. I don’t buy the line that Mourinho is finished, but let’s not pretend that this is anything but massive under-performance, whatever happens next.
Blaming the quality of the squad through media leak is a bit of a d*ck move at the best of times, but doing so after spending £150m on four first-team players is quite another. Comparing anything to Leicester 2015/16 is folly, but Claudio Ranieri achieved success by making his squad far greater than the sum of its parts. Mourinho’s calls for further investment are predictable, but what happened to a manager improving what he has? Wasn’t one of the reasons for appointing Mourinho his record in getting the best out of a group failing to meet its potential under Van Gaal? Has that now been lost from his repertoire? Questions, questions.
The million dollar issue is what effect Mourinho’s disparaging leaks have on United’s current players. Luke Shaw, Anthony Martial, Bastian Schweinsteiger and Morgan Schneiderlin are four players who must feel royally p*ssed off at their current situations, but what of the rest? Having the media report that you are not as talented as your manager first thought is a risky motivational tool, that’s for sure.
Mourinho’s siege mentality used to incorporate every individual in his club, but no longer. He’s increasingly the paranoid dictator, locked in his bunker and distrustful of all but his closest circle of confidants.
Fewer points in their last ten Premier League games than Liverpool, Arsenal, Manchester City, Chelsea, Tottenham, Watford, Stoke, Everton, Southampton, Bournemouth and West Brom. The squad is not perfect, but it’s nowhere this bad.
Two weeks before losing 5-4 at Swansea City, Alan Pardew spoke of his managerial style, which he insisted wouldn’t change: “Anyone who knows the way I manage, I like my teams to be on the front foot and score goals, so clean sheets have never been the top of my priority.”
Pardew went on to say that he would like his Palace team to keep more clean sheets, but the damage had been done. If you tell players that clean sheets aren’t a priority, don’t be surprised when they struggle to keep them. At the Liberty Stadium, five chickens came home to roost.
In his pre-match press conference before Saturday’s game, Pardew delved once again into his bumper bag of excuses. At Newcastle and Palace, a non-exhaustive blame list includes referees, injuries, referees for injuries, atmosphere, the Olympics, the Notting Hill carnival, the Europa League, finances, grass, science, intelligence of the local population, singing, the local press, the World Cup and the fixture list. On Thursday, it was Crystal Palace’s players who bore the brunt.
“Sometimes you have to look at the level I am working at,” Pardew said. “We are not a dominant club, so results are going to have ups and downs. The inconsistencies are why some players don’t play at top clubs. Top clubs have players who consistently give you seven, eight out of 10.”
So, in short, Palace’s run of form is not Pardew’s fault because the players are no better than their current performance. Sure.
Supporters may accept that excuse if Palace didn’t have the worst form in the country. They may accept it if Pardew’s team had taken more than 22 points from their last 32 league fixtures. They may accept it if Pardew had not talked recently of getting the club into the top eight, or spent £50m on new players this summer.
Unfairly or otherwise, and the majority would argue otherwise, this is Pardew’s reputation; this is Alan Pardew. He is a manager who enjoys taking the credit for the good times, but is only too happy to shift blame when performances and results go awry.
It’s easy to make the short leap that this behaviour has become Pardew’s Achilles’ heel. Each of his troughs as a manager, and there have been many, have at least partly been caused by defensive shambles. When a manager refuses to take responsibility, is it any surprise when his players fail to do the same?
Crystal Palace’s defending
After conceding five at Swansea, Pardew was vehemently defended by Phil Neville on BBC Sport.
“They are on a bad run, obviously, but I don’t think it is Pardew’s fault,” Neville said. “I actually feel sorry for him, because Palace’s players are letting him down big-time at the moment.
“Sometimes you can see a manager has picked the wrong team, is using the wrong tactics or has signed the wrong players. But those are not the reasons why Crystal Palace lost at Swansea, or why they are struggling right now. They are in this situation because their players’ application when they are defending set-pieces is nothing short of a disgrace.”
Neville has wilfully ignored that it is a manager’s role to get players performing well, motivate them and organise them at set-pieces, but there is the semblance of a point in there. Palace have now conceded 13 times from set-pieces this season. Not only is that the highest in the Premier League, it accounts for half of Palace’s goals conceded.
The question over how blame should be apportioned is an impossible one to answer, but neither party is wholly culpable and neither is blameless. Even if you feel demotivated by your current manager, professional pride must surely take over?
Manchester United’s class of 2015/16
Of the five players bought by Manchester United under Louis van Gaal’s management last summer, only one (Matteo Darmian) started against West Ham. Another (Bastian Schweinsteiger) was surprisingly named on the bench, but has been frozen out of the first team. The other three (Anthony Martial, Memphis Depay and Morgan Schneiderlin) were all left out of the squad entirely. The message is clear: It’s easier if Jose Mourinho buys you rather than inherits you.
Of those three, Depay’s chances already looked bleak while Schneiderlin has seen this coming for a while. For Martial, warned to take his chances by Mourinho in midweek, it’s a worrying fall from grace. From the golden boy to persona non grata in six months. He’s now firmly behind Jesse Lingard in the queue.
Not just left out of the starting line-up in favour of Mathieu Debuchy’s first start in over a year, but omitted from the squad completely, meaning no introduction when Debuchy was injured. It’s as subtle as the note I got from an ex-girlfriend telling me she thought six months of travelling would do me good.
Proof that he still exists as an Arsenal player, before more evidence for why he shouldn’t be. In the last year he’s been paid £3.6m and played 15 minutes for Arsenal.
One win in nine games in all competitions, and a defeat at Southampton that would have been worse for it not for Maarten Stekelenburg. Manchester United are at Goodison next week, and whichever manager loses will face some probing questions.
You can go here to read plenty of lovely words on Tottenham’s first league loss of the season. This column has previously accused their unbeaten run of masking deficiencies in performance levls. Now comes a huge test of the resolve in Mauricio Pochettino’s squad.
“Football is not about money,” said Pochettino on Saturday, asked why Sissoko was not in Tottenham’s squad for the defeat to Chelsea. “It is about players being better, and that they show on the training ground that they are better than another team-mate and that they deserve to be involved or not. In my opinion, I need to take the decisions and I believe that the players that started in the game and the players on the bench deserved to be involved in the game.
“You sign a player and then you expect something, and you don’t find what you expected … If another deserved to be involved, then why not? Just because we pay money, do they deserve to play? Sissoko needs to work hard and to show in future that he deserves to be on the team.”
Even by our gloomy predictions, this has gone very badly indeed. Between Alan Pardew’s Crystal Palace decline and Moussa Sissoko’s terrible form, Newcastle supporters are feeling smug.
The initial fears are that Coutinho has suffered ankle ligament damage and will be out until the new year. If Liverpool’s title challenge relied on the perfect storm once again, then that could be that.
Caught playing it short when he could have knocked it long. And you reckon he’s not ready for the national team?
In 65 minutes, Vardy didn’t have a shot and completed only one pass. He’s not even on kick-offs to try and bump up the numbers.
He’s scoring penalties. That’s just about the only positive thing you can say about Mahrez’s league form.
Riyad Mahrez and Jamie Vardy
Losers individually and as a combination. The best attacking Premier League pair of 2015/16 are no longer a double act. Mahrez has now found Vardy with one pass in the league since September 17. That’s ludicrous.
Huge fan of any foul to give away a penalty that you can see coming three seconds before it happens. Ndong’s sprint just to trip up Sadio Mane was a thing of beauty.