One of the pillars of Mourinho’s management style is that any victory or defeat, success or failure, is viewed through the prism of him as an individual as well as the club he manages. Mourinho places himself both in centre stage and in the firing line, something that requires strength of character as well as rampant egotism. Manchester United’s manager has strong hands in both.
On Sunday against Chelsea, Mourinho put his head above the parapet once more. Having talked of being “killed” should he rest players against his former club, he left his top scorer and best creative player on the bench. Having guffawed at Marouane Fellaini being Manchester United captain one week, we scoffed at Ashley Young taking his turn.
Mourinho nailed it. He instructed Ander Herrera to stick to Eden Hazard like glue, and the Spaniard produced a superb midfield performance to shackle Chelsea’s best player. He surprised Chelsea with the selection of Marcus Rashford in a central role and unnerved Gary Cahill and David Luiz, who were expecting a physical battle against Zlatan Ibrahimovic. He asked Matteo Darmian to stop Pedro from being a counter-attacking threat and thus hamper Chelsea’s progress, and the Italian was magnificent. He asked Eric Bailly and Marcos Rojo to frustrate and annoy Diego Costa, and they shared that workload between them.
“I think it was a special performance because it was a special opponent, the leaders, the way they play. I think we played really well, a very solid performance,” said Mourinho, pouring praise on his team. The compliment for himself was not far behind: “Maybe it is difficult for some managers to find Ander Herrera to do the job he did today.”
And so there Mourinho was, decked out head to toe in Manchester United-branded clothing for the first time this season, as if he had run through the club megastore wearing nothing but a thin layer of superglue. Think that was a coincidence after Chelsea supporters had called him ‘Judas’ at Stamford Bridge? Think on. As he walked from the pitch after full-time, Mourinho pointed at his badge as if to indicate his loyalty to Manchester United. This is Jose Mourinho, a man for whom everything is calculated in order to score the maximum number of personal points. He could survive in the wild for weeks on a diet of perfectly prepared revenge. Best served cold, naturally.
This result must be taken in the context of Mourinho’s season and the race for the top four. Liverpool and Manchester City both also won, and both did so away from home without conceding against potentially tricky opponents. One stellar performance does not atone for a season of stagnation in home performances.
Yet in Big Weekend we insisted that Mourinho needed to put down a marker for next season and offer evidence that he is taking Manchester United forward, not sideways. Beating the likely champions without them even registering a shot on target ensured all that and more. Now for Tottenham, Arsenal and Manchester City in the next month.
Tottenham and the title race
Seven straight league victories for the first time in 50 years, and title race blown open. Mauricio Pochettino spoke of piling pressure on Chelsea with this superb run of victories, and on Sunday it finally showed. Tottenham will have to beat Manchester United and Arsenal at home to have any chance of achieving the unthinkable, but second should not be viewed as first loser. This has been another extraordinary season for the youngest squad in the Premier League.
Tottenham’s home form
Tottenham have played 21 games at White Hart Lane this season. They have won 19 of those matches, and drawn two. Forget Old Trafford, Etihad, Stamford Bridge and the cliched ‘difficult places to go’: This is the Premier League’s home fortress.
Since drawing at home to Leicester in October, Pochettino’s team have now won 12 straight home league games. Spurs have scored three or more times in eight of those matches, and scored 37 times in total. Such has been their dominance in those 12 fixtures that they would still have taken 21 points from a possible 36 if every shot on target they have faced had ended in a goal.
Kane has now scored 46 goals in his last 62 league starts for Tottenham. The rest of the country might still be waiting for him to truly click for England, but that should not detract from his majestic domestic form over the last three seasons.
The list of players in Europe’s top five leagues with 20 or more goals in each of the last three seasons, including 2016/17: Lionel Messi, Alexandre Lacazette, Harry Kane. That’s some stellar company to be keeping.
Our early winner. Not only has he conceded just 16 fouls in 5,500 Premier League minutes, he’s conceded only 14 goals in his last 24 league matches. Solid as a rock.
West Brom might be coasting after hitting 40 points, but this was still a significant victory for Liverpool, particularly with what followed at Old Trafford. Injuries to Adam Lallana, Jordan Henderson and Sadio Mane may threaten Liverpool’s chances of keeping their top four place, but a patched-up team produced a performance of great resilience and resolve to register a first away clean sheet in the league for almost four months. It wasn’t pretty, but you see if Jurgen Klopp cares.
If Mourinho deserves praise for the boldness of a plan that included dropping his top goalscorer, Rashford deserves just as much for making that plan work. This season has brought doubts about Rashford’s confidence amid infrequent league starts and even more infrequent goals, but on Sunday he was the best player on the pitch in the biggest game of the weekend.
At 19 years old, that’s quite something. This is the Rashford Manchester United fans have such high hopes for. This is the good news story of United’s last two years, the 11-year-old boy with dreams of playing for his beloved club scoring the opening goal against the league leaders.
Rashford unsettled Cahill and Luiz, dragging them out of position and running at them with the type of abandon that you only see in a young player desperate to impress. There was a moment in the second half where he out-muscled Luiz in the penalty area and also battled past N’Golo Kante before sending a shot on goal. The lasting hope is that Mourinho continues to keep faith, and thus allows such promise to thrive.
He might be a bastard, but he’s Manchester United’s bastard. The pass for Rashford’s goal was proof – should it be needed – that becoming Mourinho’s destroyer has not eroded away Herrera’s attacking instincts.
The last time Crystal Palace came from two goals down at home was in that ludicrous 3-3 draw against a Liverpool team piling forward to try and pip Manchester City’s goal difference and give themselves a chance of the title. Just as it looked like Palace had caught their old disease of defensive incompetence, back roared our gravied hero.
Appropriate that Stoke’s wretched run would end at home to a Premier League struggler. Now Hughes must convince fans that his team has an identity worth getting behind.
Not only have they won every home game they’ve played in 2017, Ronald Koeman’s side have scored 29 times in their last eight matches at Goodison. That free-scoring optimist Roberto Martinez was in charge of an Everton team that scored 35 home goals during the whole of last season.
Pep Guardiola and Manchester City
A necessary victory given the results around them, but also one achieved through style and comfort. Those two have rarely been in combination for Manchester City this season, and even more scarcely away from home. Claudio Bravo even made a save.
When asked whether Tottenham’s seventh consecutive league victory would put pressure on Chelsea, Cahill did not miss a beat. “Sometimes that’s good for our boys, that little bit of pressure. It would be huge to win today.”
And sometimes it isn’t. Perhaps this was just a bad day at the office for a team that are still heavy favourites to lift the Premier League title, but until Chelsea redress this performance talk of choking will remain. They failed to have a single shot on target in a Premier League game for the first time since September 2007.
The worry for Antonio Conte is that Chelsea looked so leggy despite a comparatively light schedule this season. Nemanja Matic struggled to get a foothold in midfield, Luiz and Cahill struggled with the exceptional movement of Rashford and Eden Hazard is still trying to fight his way out of Herrera’s pocket.
Manchester United – and their manager – deserve great credit for shackling Chelsea, but Conte will be aware of his team’s worrying propensity to turn in abject performances in the odd away game this season: 2-0 at Tottenham, 3-0 at Arsenal, 2-0 at Manchester United. Even if they are crowned champions, the manager will be keen to work on eliminating those slumps.
For now, Conte will urge calm. Win their four home games against Southampton, Middlesbrough, Watford and Sunderland and Chelsea can guarantee winning the title with one win in their two away games against West Brom and Everton. Their run in is favourable in comparison with Tottenham, and this was just one defeat.
Yet defeat in next weekend’s FA Cup semi-final to their direct challengers for the title really would set cat amongst Stamford Bridge pigeons, and cast doubt on Chelsea’s energy during the final straight. For the first time in six months, tiny cracks are visible to the naked eye.
As Matt Stead wrote in 16 Conclusions, when Costa is at his best there is no manager in the world who would not want him in their team. Yet one of the features of Costa’s game is the broad range between his best and worst performances. When he gets shackled and frustrated, as on Sunday, the histrionics become far more apparent that his talent.
Costa has still only scored three Premier League goals in 2017, 11 fewer than Romelu Lukaku. You can see why Chelsea are reportedly so keen to bring the latter back.
As Swansea lost at Watford, Hull eventually folded at Stoke, Burnley were beaten away from home for the 13th time in 17 away games and Bournemouth shellacked at Tottenham, it is an opportune time to pass comment on the Premier League, the division where away records went to die.
Last season, five teams in the Premier League averaged less than one point per away game. That was a slight anomaly on the low side, but the intimation was that Premier League away teams had become more competitive, with teams prone to being caught on the counter attack by perennially weaker opposition who now had larger transfer budgets than ever.
Not only has that pattern ceased, it has been entirely reversed. So far this season, 11 teams have averaged less than one point per away game. Crystal Palace are the only exception in the bottom half.
In 2015/16, 16 of the 20 Premier League teams managed at least four away wins. With a month of this season remaining, four teams are still looking for their second, and only ten have reached that same mark of four.
Away wins in total have dropped, but only from 31% to 27%. That is reflective of an increased strength of the top four away from home, but covers up a significant drop in performances from the bottom-half clubs on the road. In 2015/16, those clubs took an average of 0.87 points per away game. This season that has dropped substantially to 0.59.
Some clubs have almost reached parodic status. Burnley have taken 89% of their league points at home. Hull have taken one point away from home since September 10. Swansea embarked on a run of conceding three or more times in an away game five times between October and December. Sunderland scored 40% of their away goals in 36 minutes against Crystal Palace.
Now, attempts to survive relegation are funded almost exclusively on home form. Hull supporters chanted constantly through defeat at Stoke on Saturday, barely stopping after each Stoke goal, because Marco Silva has engineered a run of five wins in six home games. Burnley will survive relegation with the worst away record since Derby County’s record-breaking 2007/08 season.
There is nothing wrong with this, per se; it is closer to trivia rather than staunch criticism. Yet the recent trend of pathetic away displays certainly increases the pressure on home form, particularly for those in a relegation battle. It also renders spending hundreds of pounds, hours and miles following those teams an exercise in masochism.
Those Swansea, Hull, Burnley, Leicester, Sunderland and Middlesbrough fans who travel the country have seen their teams score a combined 43 points from 98 league matches this season, and have seen them score goals at a rate of one every 128 minutes. You each deserve a medal.
Sunderland might have rescued a late draw against West Ham, but supporters were in no mood to cheer what is a useless point. It is not whether Sunderland will be relegated to the second tier for the first time since 2006/07, but when.
Having seen several different managers with different styles keep the wolf from the door, Sunderland fans have witnessed Moyes invite his lupine friend in for dinner. The defending has been abysmal;the goalscoring has been abysmal; the signings have been abysmal. It is hard to believe this is a manager who enjoyed the peak of his career less than six years ago.
Those supporters lay plenty of the blame at the feet of a club that *puts on Barry Davies voice* just will not learn, but Moyes is complicit in that guilt. Right now, they just want him out of their club. Manchester United and Real Sociedad supporters will remember the feeling.
A top four bid that is now a forlorn hope for the first time in over two decades. Arsenal may not have played their weekend fixture at the time of writing, but the results of Saturday and Sunday could not have gone worse for Arsene Wenger. The closest Arsenal will be to the top four should they win all their games in hand is three points. Only a cocktail of blind optimism and naivety leaves Champions League football a possibility, and thus a summer rebuild anything other than an impossible patch-up job.
Our early loser. Even after a season in which Pulis threatened to take West Brom higher than ever before, he will end it with fans wondering about the futility of following a side managed by such an emphatic pragmatist. I’d doff my cap, but he’d only snatch it off me and insist on wearing it for ten years.