Pep Guardiola and a changing guard
Should Manchester City miss out on the top four this season, Guardiola will have failed in his first season in charge. Should Manchester City miss out on the title, there will be some who decree that his glowing reputation is undeserved. The truth is that Guardiola too will be disappointed with that result. This is a manager for whom second place makes you the first loser.
Yet watching Manchester City’s one-touch passing and exceptional movement in the final third against West Ham, you can at least see what Guardiola is trying to achieve. West Ham’s own ineptitude assisted their guests, but that level of fluidity and pace in attack is incredibly difficult to stifle. It is a staple of Guardiola’s best teams.
It also indicates one reason why Guardiola has struggled. The average age of Manchester City’s starting line-ups this season is 28.8, ‘beaten’ only by Stoke, Watford and West Brom and a full three years older than Tottenham. Liverpool are ranked second, Manchester United sixth, Arsenal seventh and Chelsea 11th. The City team that beat Crystal Palace in November had an average age of 29.9.
If those figures demonstrate the patience we should have with Mauricio Pochettino and Jurgen Klopp’s projects, it also shows the task Guardiola faces. The manager has accepted his own culpability in trying to change too much too quickly at City, but overhauling this squad will take time.
Look at the key players: The two goalkeepers are 33 and 35; Pablo Zabaleta, Vincent Kompany, Aleksandar Kolarov, Bacary Sagna and Gael Clichy are all 30 or above; David Silva, Yaya Toure and Fernandinho the same; even Sergio Aguero turns 29 before the end of the season. Guardiola can and will only be judged on City’s performance as a whole this season, but in the club’s young players it is possible to get a glimpse of the club’s intended future.
For now, Guardiola will be happy enough that talk of a Manchester City crisis has at least quietened down for another few days. Those who suggested he did not ‘understand English football’ like Jose Mourinho might have struggled to keep down their cereal on Thursday morning.
Manchester City’s boys in blue
The consistency has been lacking in two of the three, but we permit the young to occasionally wander from the path. When Manchester City’s front three – aged 19, 21 and 22 – play with that kind of verve, you can forgive and forget everything else in favour of enjoying the moments. That’s why they were our early winners.
No player is perfect, and central midfield is the hardest place on the pitch to produce a faultless performance. There are too many passes to play, too many decisions to make about whether to press, tackle, back off and track back. You are reliant on too many variables. Perfection is not attainable in football; players just chase it and hope to achieve excellence.
Kante has not achieved perfection, but he has moved far beyond excellent. Hindsight proves that he was the most vital cog in Leicester’s title-winning machine, although we were always convinced. Chelsea’s resurgence is not solely down to the Frenchman, but he’s playing a starring role.
On Tuesday against Liverpool, Kante was at his destructive best. He accounted for 37% of all the tackles in the match and 61% of Chelsea’s, snuffing out danger like a psychic fireman.
Kante’s ability to be in the right place and the right time when danger appears became almost comical as he thwarted Liverpool counter-attacks. Then, as a game played at furious pace was drawing to a close, he surged forward to create a chance for Pedro that could have gained Chelsea two extra points.
As Adam Bate wrote for Sky Sports after the game, Kante has now made more tackles than anyone else in the Premier League over the past three seasons – he’s only been in the country for two of them. Chelsea’s strategy to invite Liverpool onto them only worked because the central defensive trio was so well protected. Conte could not have asked for a better protector.
Caballero might want to wander into Guardiola’s office this morning and place a piece of paper on the manager’s desk. On it will be written the scores: 3-1, 4-0, 2-1, 4-1, 3-1, 4-0.
“That’s what happens when I play in the league, boss.”
We are all Marco Silva, aren’t we? It might be unhelpfully divisive to deliberately put yourself in the opposite camp to the ‘What does he know about England? Can he even dig in?’ brigade, but it also feels necessary to put up a defence against the ignorance. We must make sure not to forgive Silva his flaws in a bid to champion what he represents, but also make no apology for praising him when he achieves.
Silva has not yet succeeded in his miracle of keeping Hull City in the Premier League, and may well failed, but he has already proved those who dismissed him due to his nationality wrong. Or would Gary Rowett have won 2-0 at Old Trafford and sold Abel Hernandez too?
He scored his 100th Premier League goal at the age of 35, and he did the robot. He is Peter Crouch, and he is everybody’s second-favourite footballer.
If Tuesday brought claims in The Sun that defeat for Liverpool would be ‘unforgivable’ and that Klopp admitted it could bring the sack (he said nothing of the sort), Wednesday welcomed a brighter dawn after positive performance and result.
For all the understandable angst over Liverpool’s recent form, they are still ahead of the two pre-season title favourites and have been forced to cope without several key players for the last few weeks. Take a step back and ask: Had you been told in August that Liverpool would begin February one point from second, would you expect Klopp to be under pressure?
For much more on Liverpool vs Chelsea, you should read Steven Chicken’s 16 Conclusions right here…
Missed a penalty, lost a lead, dropped points and yet still extended their lead at the top. Beat Arsenal on Saturday lunchtime and we can surely begin talking about Chelsea as Premier League champions elect.
Burnley’s home record
Burnley have taken 96.6% of their points at Turf Moor. Can somebody check for an ancient Indian burial ground underneath the away dressing room?
Watford, Walter Mazzarri and well… football
Exactly the type of result and performance that I love, because it only reiterates that nobody ever truly knows football. Anyone that predicted Mazzarri’s tactical masterclass and Younes Kaboul’s stewarding of Arsenal’s forward is a liar, a magician or a lying magician.
If a picture tells a thousand words, this short clip tells many hundreds more. This is the face of a man tasting his first league win in charge.
— Crystal Palace FC ? (@CpfcNews_) January 31, 2017
A superb four days for Clement, with Swansea now outside the relegation zone and five points above Sunderland. I asked whether Clement could successfully make the leap that few have achieved. So far it’s looking promising.
No team in the Premier League has taken more points in their last six matches.
Arsene Wenger and – yes, sorry – mental strength
There is a sensational graphic which charts Wenger’s use of the phrase “mental strength” between May 1999 and September 2015, and calculates that it was used 317 times over that period. In 71% of the occasions Wenger was using it after a win, and therefore praising Arsenal’s mental fortitude. In another 18%, it came after defeat.
We can presume that the total is now closing in on 400 in February 2017, as mental strength remains the Arsenal manager’s go-to phrase in times of crisis and in triumph. Tuesday evening’s shambolic defeat to Watford brought a slight variation on the theme, Wenger’s suggestion that Arsenal’s team were not “mentally ready”.
Forgive me for over-analysis, but that suggests three things:
1) That being mentally ready is a vital part of Arsenal’s preparation, if it is indeed the difference between them beating a Watford team in dreadful form or losing at home.
2) That Wenger was unable to identify and address this issue before the match, or we can presume that he would have done so.
3) That Wenger’s inability to identify and address the signs of mental weakness in his players is a long-term issue, given that we have seen exactly these types of results before, games when Arsenal produce a performance – or part of a performance – so shambolic that some players look as if they have been introduced to one another in the tunnel.
At some point, something must give. Arsenal are now effectively out of another title race, with another chance missed and another season spent making excuses for why they didn’t end up triumphant. After Leicester City’s title victory, Wenger was only too keen to point out that his side had finished above all their usual rivals. That would now appear to be an exception rather than the new rule.
The response from Wenger’s defenders is that Arsenal are ahead of Manchester City and Manchester United, thus alleviating the pressure on the manager. The flip-side to that is that those clubs have at least attempted different strategies to try achieve their ambitions: New managers employed to find the magic formula. All the while Arsenal bang their heads against a wall and then look shocked by the bruises. On this Groundhog Day, Wenger is a Champions League exit away from just another Groundhog season.
Jose Mourinho and the manager making a difference
‘This game is proof United need to spend big again in the summer,’ read the tweet from the Manchester Evening News with ten minutes remaining in Manchester United’s 0-0 draw against Hull City. It was a small, off-hand comment, but it struck a chord.
Is this what elite management is about? A manager who spent £150m on a squad that finished fifth cannot guide them to victories over Burnley, Hull or Stoke at home, and yet the only conclusion we draw is that the squad needs at least that same investment again? Manchester United’s squad is not packed with those past their peak (see the statistic in the Pep Guardiola section) – whatever happened to improving players?
Reports after the game suggested that United had agreed a deal to sign Antoine Griezmann in the summer, handily deflecting attention away from another disappointing result, but not all are prepared to swallow the PR spin.
United, lest we forget, were second favourites for the Premier League title at the start of the season. Mourinho’s team are not the only ones struggling to hold on to Chelsea’s coattails, but they are comfortably the worst of the chasing pack. United are as close in points to West Ham in 11th as Chelsea in first, and as close to Everton in seventh as Arsenal in third.
When Pep Guardiola struggled at Manchester City, a new manager tasked with overhauling a creaking squad, his mental state was questioned. ‘Genius or myth?’ asked the Daily Mirror’s John Cross, as if there is no middle ground. ‘Does he know what it takes to succeed in England?’, others asked.
Guardiola’s Manchester City are four points ahead of United. If he merits scrutiny, so too does Mourinho. United are now one point worse off than they were at the same stage of Louis van Gaal’s first season. If an improvement has come in style but not in results, the aesthetic difference will not account for the lack of Champions League football. That was the minimum expectation of Mourinho’s first year in charge.
Wednesday evening brought the classic post-match Mourinho deflection tactic, walking out of his interview with the BBC when asked a perfectly reasonable question. Yet the Portuguese’s hope that he can take the heat off his in-game management will fall on deaf ears; we’ve seen this schtick too many times before.
Furthermore, Mourinho’s “I am judged by different rules” feels less like creating a siege mentality around his squad and more like the paranoia that beset his final months at Chelsea. It’s almost as if repeated past behaviour plays a part in a reputation, Jose.
Mourinho has not failed yet; the football season runs from August until May, not February. But, in the fight for post-Chelsea redemption, Mourinho is behind on points. Blaming the players, blaming the strikers and blaming the individual mistakes is all well and good, as plenty of United supporters are choosing to do, but only if you judge other managers by the same standards. The reality is that the buck only stops when it reaches the desk of the man who picks the team, and picks the coaches who trains them.
The impact of Antonio Conte at Chelsea has made more managers than Mourinho look poor, but he is the one suffering most by comparison. Conte took the house that Mourinho almost knocked down and has renovated it in the space of one season. At Manchester United, Mourinho has spent millions on gold-plated fixtures but the roof still leaks and there’s a strange smell coming from beneath the floorboards.
Manchester United’s substitutions
The split in responsibility between players and manager for an individual result is an impossible question to answer. ‘Managers can’t kick the ball in the back of the net’ is the typical defence, ignoring such variables as confidence and form that a manager part-controls, but it contains a strand of truth. Most managers would play down the effect they can have in-game; successful management is 90% preparation and 10% touchline inspiration.
It’s easier to spot the 10% when it goes badly wrong. So when you bring on Wayne Rooney, push him into advanced positions and watch as he clogs up almost every attacking move, it’s on you. And when you bring on Juan Mata over Anthony Martial and he looks devoid of all attacking invention, it’s on you again.
The leaked PR stories can continue to claim that there is no issue between Martial and Mourinho, but actions speak far louder than words. Following the manager’s decision to again publicly criticise a 21-year-old who is clearly suffering from confidence issues, Martial stayed on the bench against Hull while United toiled.
The suspicion, as with Luke Shaw, Bastian Schweinsteiger and most other players signed by Van Gaal, is that Mourinho just doesn’t fancy Martial. Plenty of players can testify that it’s a long way back from there.
Our early loser. A fully-fit Arsenal midfield might never exist outside of computer game fantasy, but Ramsey would not be a part of a first-choice real-life version. He’s not even a young player anymore.
In my top ten predictions for 2017, I suggested that Ranieri might resign from Leicester City in this calendar year. Many more defeats – and an expected Champions League last-16 exit – and the Italian might be pushed before the end of February.
There aren’t many times in a season that each of the bottom four clubs pick up points. Burnley’s late winner sent Leicester even closer to the (next) unthinkable.
West Ham, and a strength becoming a weakness
Judging any team by their results against Manchester City is unfair, but West Ham’s defeat on Wednesday continued a bizarre shift in fortunes.
Last season, West Ham’s form against the ‘big six’ teams (Manchester United, Manchester City, Tottenham, Arsenal, Chelsea and Liverpool) was sensational:
Played 12, Won 7, Drew 4, Lost 1
Points per game: 2.08
Goals per game: 1.92
Goals conceded per game: 1.25
This season, West Ham’s form against those same teams has been abject:
Played 8, Won 0, Drew 2, Lost 6
Points per game: 0.25
Goals per game: 1.00
Goals conceded per game: 2.75
Whether that proves Slaven Bilic is unable to generate the team spirit of last season or proves the squad has regressed to the mean after pure over-achievement is open to debate, but one thing is obvious: West Ham’s main strength has become their weakness.
Clumsy challenge to concede a penalty and four goals conceded on debut. A touching tribute to Jonathan Woodgate.
Winners because they only lost points on Manchester City, losers for the lethargy displayed in failing to score against a Sunderland side whose only previous league clean sheets this season had come against Hull City and Watford.
For all the praise of Eddie Howe, his Bournemouth defence is getting worse, not better. They have now conceded two or more goals in seven of their last eight games in all competitions and in 14 of their 23 league games this season. Only Swansea City have done so more often.
Thrashed in the FA Cup and now – say it quietly – only eight points clear of the bottom three. ‘Surely they aren’t in real danger?’ you say. ‘They’ve lost five of their last six league games,’ I say. ‘You’re talking to yourself again,’ says Sarah Winterburn.