As serene a title procession as could be in this increasingly competitive Premier League, despite the desperate need to manufacture pressure. Antonio Conte’s claim that defeat at Manchester United was down to the effects of a virus has been backed up by Chelsea’s subsequent performances.
‘The big question on Antonio Conte’s lips this week will be whether the ‘rats’ have the minerals for the run-in,’ wrote the Daily Mirror’s rent-an-opinion Stan Collymore after defeat at Old Trafford. ‘We all know how those three threw it in under Jose Mourinho last season. So if I was Conte I’d be wondering if I needed to be concerned that something similar was happening.’
Chelsea have made Collymore’s tepid take look as foolish as it merited. Every time Chelsea have lost a match on this fabulous run, they have followed defeat with two victories and scored at least five times in the process. For all the talk of Manchester United’s unbeaten run, Chelsea have taken 12 more points over the same period. Conte’s team have dropped just 13 points in the league since September 24, and they will be rightful champions.
Another yesterday. Only De Bruyne, Eriksen & Sigurdsson have more assists this season, despite CF playing the equivalent of 11.6 full games.
— Michael Cox (@Zonal_Marking) May 1, 2017
Fabregas is going to make a set of Serie A supporters incredibly happy next season. Being the man to take Milan back into the Champions League would be lovely.
The Conte effect, in full swing. Pedro was signed and suffered under Jose Mourinho, but has been revitalised under Chelsea’s new manager. Sixteen combined goals and assists in fewer than 2,000 league minutes is proof enough of that, and his finish against Everton was spectacular.
You really should go and read 16 Conclusions for lots of words on Tottenham being wonderful. Meet me back here.
Losers in midweek without playing, winners this weekend in a similar situation. Between Thursday and Sunday, the four teams directly below Liverpool played a combined six matches and failed to win a single one. Beat Watford on Monday evening, and Jurgen Klopp’s side will again be firmly in control of their top four destiny.
In eight games under Shakespeare, Leicester City have won more league games this season than in 25 under Claudio Ranieri. The interim manager’s task was to stave off the threat of relegation, but he might well end this season with Leicester in the top half. In the top five managers of the season in the Premier League?
Our early winner, for engineering a run of 15 points from nine games just as things were beginning to get a little sticky. Bournemouth have always scored goals freely, but Howe has also managed to tighten up his porous defence despite playing two strikers and sacrificing possession.
Vardy did score in Ranieri’s last game in charge of Leicester (the 2-1 defeat in Seville), but has blossomed under Shakespeare. If the simplistic assessment of the new manager’s approach is that Shakespeare has gone back to what worked last season, the proof is in the pudding. Vardy has nine goals in his last 13 games.
Since August 20, Hull have kept two away clean sheets in all competitions. The first came at Old Trafford in February, while the second was earned via Dusan Tadic’s late penalty miss at St Mary’s on Saturday. Those two matches also account for Hull’s only away points since September.
This latest point could be vital, given Swansea’s own surprise draw at Old Trafford. It keeps the gap to the Swans at two points, but Paul Clement’s side have a better goal difference. Beat Sunderland at home next Saturday, and Marco Silva really can begin to believe in the “miracle”.
If Swansea are relegated in the next three weeks, and they are still favourites to go despite their draw at Old Trafford, it should spark a race to land the most consistently excellent player in the Premier League’s bottom half. Everton, Newcastle, Southampton, West Ham; prepare your bids.
Two central midfielders, one who cost £12m and the other who cost three times as much. While Granit Xhaka barely even flattered to deceive, Wanyama was the north London derby’s best player.
One central midfielder was identified as the perfect fit, brought under his manager’s wing, slotted into a system and with teammates that complement his strengths and coached appropriately. The other plays for Arsenal.
As many points in the last five days as in the previous three-and-a-half months. Shame it’s too little, too late.
Manchester United and fatigue
“It’s not that we looked tired, we are tired. If some people want to analyse the performance itself, that’s one thing, but you cannot do that, you can’t analyse the performance out of context,” said Mourinho after the draw with Swansea. “The context is nine matches in April, this is the ninth match in April with a squad of 22 that has now been reduced. The players are very, very, very tired. We are in a very difficult situation but the boys gave absolutely everything, so I am more than happy and pleased with them.”
A few caveats to that excuse:
1) Real Madrid, Monaco and Bayern Munich have also played nine matches in April. It isn’t that unusual for teams in European competition to play lots of matches. Last season, Liverpool played 12 matches between the beginning of April and May 11, exactly the same number that United will face in the same time period.
Most instructively of all, in The Times, Bill Edgar calculated that in 15 of the last 20 seasons United have faced nine matches in fewer than 30 days. Just because Mourinho says something doesn’t make it true.
2) If players are tired, why not give some young players a run-out? One way of dealing with fatigue (and Mourinho can hardly say he didn’t see this run of matches coming) is to manage the squad effectively.
3) Manchester United were also failing to beat the Premier League’s lesser clubs at home way before fatigue kicked in. Mourinho blamed luck then and tiredness now, but the truth is that the best managers find a way. Can Mourinho honestly say that his team did not contain enough quality to beat Swansea, a club who had lost six straight away games before Sunday, and the last four of those against Hull, Bournemouth, West Ham and Watford?
4) If you could foresee United going deep into the Europa League, and that was always the aim, why did you sell three members of the first-team squad in January?
5) No Manchester United manager should declare himself “more than happy and pleased with them” after failing to beat a team in the relegation zone at home.
Manchester United have played 57 matches this season; Tottenham have played 49. United have dropped 23 points at home; Tottenham have dropped four. Can anyone really claim that the difference between the energy, performance level and results of the two clubs at home can be reasonably explained away by any excuse that exonerates the manager?
Jose Mourinho’s new siege mentality
“I have to say my six players – Valencia, Rojo, Bailly, Young, Carrick and Fellaini were phenomenal. The other four? They have to score a goal. We have consistency in those six guys, consistency in defensive organisation and consistency in the build-up. But when we go to the finishing moments – we have to score. how many times this season have we not passed the last man and not scored the winning goal?” – Mourinho, April 2.
“I don’t care. You give me everything you have, I thank you for that. You don’t give me everything you have, I ask you for more. Some guys don’t give everything they have, so that is the point – they have to. And when they do it, I am happy with them” – Mourinho, April 22.
“It’s not just about them (Chris Smalling and Phil Jones). It’s about the philosophy and mentality around them. It’s not just about them and you know we go with the players we have. Cautious. Cautious. Cautious. Just a cautious approach. It’s a profile. It’s the philosophy of work. Just that” – Mourinho, April 24.
“I think Luke Shaw’s must be a big injury, because to leave the pitch after nine minutes, I am expecting a very big injury” – Mourinho, April 30.
These are just a number of examples of Mourinho’s criticism of Manchester United’s players. Anthony Martial and Henrikh Mkhitaryan are another two who have been singled out for censure. It has been the running theme of United’s season.
Firstly, Manchester United’s performances over the course of this season are hardly a glowing endorsement of Mourinho’s tough love policy. For every player flourishing, there are others like Mkhitaryan, Martial and Shaw who are clearly hampered.
Yet the most interesting aspect of this season at Old Trafford and last season at Stamford Bridge is the sharp change in Mourinho’s managerial style since his success at Chelsea a decade ago. Back then, Mourinho’s siege mentality involved every member of staff at the club. He would defend even the indefensible in order to engineer a shared team spirit.
Last season at Chelsea, Mourinho ensured his own downfall when he hung the club’s medical staff out to dry. In that incident he lost the respect of senior members of the coaching staff and playing squad, and failed to get it back. The Portuguese had lashed out under pressure. He had lost his cool.
This season, Mourinho has closed his siege mentality circle even further, so it now only comprises of him and him alone. Whereas once Mourinho would deliberately shield his players from criticism, now he leaves them open and even invites it. He is prepared to do anything to defend his own reputation.
That is not to say that United’s players should be immune to criticism, nor that this new style will not ultimately prove successful. But it is still a marked change in Mourinho’s approach, and one that may ultimately shape his Manchester United tenure.
Arsene Wenger and Arsenal’s hierarchy
There are plenty of words in 16 Conclusions about Wenger, Arsenal and another sorry afternoon, but it is worth building on the points about Arsenal’s lack of identity under Wenger in comparison with Tottenham. The success of Spurs under Mauricio Pochettino is not only damning of Wenger’s underperformance, but eradicates all reasons for not replacing the Arsenal manager.
In May 2014, Tottenham appointed Mauricio Pochettino, replacing Tim Sherwood. They had just finished sixth in the Premier League, ten points behind fourth. They had sold their best player the year before, and had a squad littered with new signings who had not settled, underperforming fringe players and young players whose form had dipped after initial promise.
In the space of three years, Pochettino has transformed every aspect of Tottenham. The squad is now committed to the cause, the team now has an identity and playing style and the club is competing at the top of the Premier League table despite a negligible net spend. Pochettino has breathed new ideas into a club, changing the way coaches and players think and train.
That last paragraph could be describing Wenger’s early tenure at Arsenal, proof not only that the Frenchman has lost his spark and his USP, but that Arsenal could surely find a new manager who would have both. It doesn’t take a great leap of faith to believe that a new coach could get more out of Hector Bellerin, Granit Xhaka, Aaron Ramsey, Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, Mesut Ozil et al. It isn’t hard to envisage someone ‘doing a Pochettino’ at Arsenal. The basic ingredients are still there.
And yet Arsenal remain committed to their mistake, like the stubborn driver who would rather plough on for three miles turning left, left and left again when a simple U-turn would do. While supporters are perfectly prepared to celebrate Wenger’s achievements while simultaneously being pleased to see him go, Arsenal’s hierarchy seem incapable of making that distinction. This will only end one way.
Guardiola is at the centre of a practical joke. When he picks a balanced team, Manchester City struggle to score. When he loads up his attack, City immediately become defensively unsound.
It is Guardiola’s inability to solve this problem that has haunted his first season in England. His team are still as short as 1/16 to make the top four given that Manchester United must travel to Arsenal and Tottenham in their next two away league games, but this has been far from the ideal start to life in England.
There is a reason why Guardiola is being treated more kindly than Mourinho, of course. Manchester City bought for the future when signing Gabriel Jesus, John Stones and Leroy Sane, and their new central midfielder has been out for most of the season. So too has their captain and central defender. Guardiola also didn’t get sacked midway through last season.
Mourinho might want another central defender, but City’s full-back options are such an obvious weak link that it’s any wonder opposition teams bother trying to attack down the middle. Still, Nicolas Otamendi’s presence does also make that a viable option.
Yet Guardiola cannot hide from his own underperformance. We have seen flashes of his sky blueprint over the last six months, but no sustained run of consistent displays since the first month of the season. While Chelsea and Tottenham are ending the season with a flourish, City will limp over the line to Champions League qualification.
Nothing sums up the rise of football’s slow dance with the broadcasting devil like this weekend’s Saturday 3pm fixtures. Low on number, low on quality, low on goals. It was the first time that Match of the Day has started with a 0-0 draw in the Premier League era.
Of course we want to watch the biggest games live (and this is probably a demand to have my cake and eat it), but there is something magical about listening to 5Live on a Saturday afternoon and hearing the goals go in around the grounds, before those heady notes of Sports Report play out. Please don’t ruin that.
Our early loser. The assumption that relegation was a formality for Sunderland this season is a myth. Moyes is a manager who set about lowering expectations from the moment he arrived at the Stadium of Light and still fell comfortably short of them.
“I totally understand the supporters’ frustrations though,” Moyes said after defeat to Bournemouth. “I am agreeing with them. If it is the manager who they feel is the reason for the position, fine. I think there are some other reasons.”
There are indeed other reasons, David, but not enough for you to avoid taking your fair share of the guilt. On May 11, 2016, Sunderland beat Everton 3-0 to confirm their survival from relegation having lost one of their last ten league games. Thirteen of the 18 players in that squad are still at Sunderland, and the match-day squad on Saturday contained eight Moyes signings. They should have been better, not worse.
Moyes was cast as Sunderland’s stabiliser, the manager who finally got them on an even keel and would not leave after a year in charge. Now, ten months after joining the club, Sunderland supporters are begging their club to sack their manager. Roy Keane, Steve Bruce, Martin O’Neill, Paolo di Canio, Gus Poyet, Dick Advocaat and Sam Allardyce; Moyes has performed worse than them all.
Since hitting 40 points on February 25, West Brom have scored in one of their eight matches and now lost four on the spin without scoring to Watford, Southampton, Liverpool and Leicester. Pulis’ ability to make significant progress look mundane is quite something.