Jose Mourinho’s home record
You can go here to read Sarah Winterburn’s excellent conclusions from Old Trafford, but an extra word for Mourinho’s home record. For all the due criticism of Manchester United away from home against their title-challenging peers, home remains where the heart is.
Manchester United are now unbeaten in 37 home games under Mourinho, winning 26 and drawing 11 in all competitions. They have scored four or more times in ten of those 37 games, and kept clean sheets in a whopping 21.
Whether remaining ultra-dependable at home and slightly flaky on the road is enough to sustain a serious title challenge this season remains to be seen, but Saturday was a day to reiterate the same compliments that we have long been giving to Mourinho. There are few better with their back against the wall.
Raheem Sterling the poacher?
The theory goes that Sterling is not a natural shooter of the ball, and it stands up to scrutiny. There is something in his style that sees him lean back slightly when he tries to hit the ball hard from distance, and thus sends it high. In his entire Premier League career, Sterling has scored only one of his 38 Premier League goals from outside the penalty area, against Norwich City for Liverpool in April 2014. A figure of 2.6% is remarkably low for a winger.
In addition, there is an oddity to Sterling’s play. As a winger coming through at Liverpool, he was magnificent with ball at feet, dribbling at full-backs. Yet as he has matured – and perhaps due to his stinging criticism with the England team – Sterling has become more adept at making runs without the ball than with it. He is excelling at finding space in the penalty area rather than on the wing, yet when faced with a full-back even on the counter, often stutters and stops.
So when Pep Guardiola said in August that he wanted Sterling to add more goals to his game, the manager knew he needed a plan. Sterling was going to have to get closer to the goal if he wanted to score.
With his full-backs pushing on, Sterling can tuck in and operate more centrally, serviced by magnificent crossing and passing from David Silva, Kyle Walker and Kevin de Bruyne. No player in the Premier League touches the ball in the box more often. No player in the Premier League has scored more goals from inside the penalty area. Four of Sterling’s seven goals have been from closer than ten yards from goal. Guardiola has turned Sterling into a fox in the box.
Sterling is still a work in progress; that much is clear. After the victory over West Brom, Guardiola reminded him and Sane of what he requires from his wonderful wide forwards: “If you have the ball, don’t lose the ball. I don’t ask you to dribble, I don’t ask for good crosses, I don’t ask for good shots, just simple things.”
Yet it also true to say that Sterling is learning. The number of dribbles are decreasing, and Sterling has attempted only 22% of his shots from outside the box this season, compared to 33% last season. Guardiola is slowly turning a rough diamond into an absolute gem of a player, and it makes me very happy indeed.
As our piece from the game says, anyone who watched Leicester City’s opening goal against Everton will not be worried about boring football just yet. Puel has attacking tools at Leicester that were not in his armoury at Southampton. The first task is taking Leicester away from trouble, but progress and pleasure need not be mutually exclusive.
A win to keep the wolf from the door, particularly important given our lupine friend was holding Hughes’ P45 in one front paw while knocking with the other. Incredibly, that was only Stoke’s third away win in all competitions since November 2016 and only their third away clean sheet too.
Our early winners, because they are brilliant. And because without hope, we have nothing.
A first clean sheet since… oh bloody hell, September 23. Antonio Conte is a not a coach likely to stay calm as his team concedes goals in six consecutive matches. When that team concedes ten goals in those six matches, Conte is liable to get apoplectic. He’d pull out that meticulous hair weave, had he not spent so much having it done.
A word of warning for Gary Cahill, replaced by Antonio Rudiger for the trip to Bournemouth and thus absent for this new defensive solidity. Of Chelsea’s four league clean sheets this season, Cahill has only started in one. Conte will notice these things, fella.
And while we’re talking of teams taking satisfaction from clean sheets no matter the opposition, to Liverpool. Jurgen Klopp took a chance on Lovren’s confidence after the early substitution at Wembley, and Klopp will have been mightily relieved to beat his old mate without any modicum of panic but with a modicum of Ragnar Klavan.
For all the obvious problems in Liverpool’s back line, Saturday was their eighth clean sheet in their last 15 league games. Only Manchester United have managed more. Statistics are a funny thing.
A goalscorer in consecutive Arsenal league games for the first time since December 2015, against Sunderland and Aston Villa. Ramsey’s goal against Swansea was also his first winning goal in the Premier League since April 2015 and his 50th for Arsenal. All of these are nice things.
New managers bring new opportunities. It has long been baffling to an outsider that Gray has not been given more chances to shine from the start at Leicester, instead used as a late substitute. Perhaps Puel’s arrival will signal a change in his career.
Against Everton, Gray was magnificent. Picked on the right to allow Riyad Mahrez to operate centrally, Gray did a perfectly passable impression of Mahrez’s 2015/16 form. His burst from midfield helped created the opening goal, and he was credited with the second in dubious circumstances. Gray will take the good fortune; it was his first home league goal for Leicester.
“He has the quality to become a great player,” Puel said after the game. “Today it was interesting to see his technical quality – but in the second half he also did good work for the team.”
Now 21 and named Man of the Match in the Premier League for the first time, Gray must use Sunday as a platform to kick on. He really does have all the tools to make it in the Premier League’s top half.
Crystal Palace’s fight
Their first second-half goals of the season, and the first time they have come from behind to take at least a point since victory at Anfield in April. If seasons can change with one cheer for one goal, Crystal Palace have hope again. Now to go to Wembley next weekend and have it evaporate all over again.
Only his second goal at Anfield in 2017. Jeez.
The very valid point is that Arsenal should not be in the position of having to come from behind in league matches, but let’s focus on the positives. Having gone 1-0 down against Everton, Norwich and Swansea, Arsenal have won each match to sustain their top-four challenge and ensure progress in the EFL Cup.
Arsenal have now come from behind to win three times in the league this season, with Leicester on the opening night added to Swansea and Everton. That’s the same number of times Arsene Wenger’s side managed the trick between September 2015 and the start of 2017/18.
Hart is quick to attract opprobrium when he under-performs, so it is only fair that he is praised when excellent. Crystal Palace may have equalised in the last seconds of the last minute, but they really should have collected all three points. Only Hart kept them at bay.
Hart’s seven saves was the highest total of any goalkeeper this weekend, and also the fifth highest of the season in the Premier League. After his shambolic performance against Brighton, Hart is not yet back in credit, but he can least hold his head higher on the training ground this week. Just save the chest-beating for now.
If only every Crystal Palace player, or even every Premier League player, had the determination and hunger of Zaha. He is the easiest type of footballer to love, one in whom you can see the cogs turning as he dashes about the pitch and tries to drag his beloved club forward.
It is not all David Unsworth’s fault, but last week he became the latest cause celebre for those who believe British managers should be given a leg up the ladder of football management.
First was Phil Neville, explaining how it “riles him” that people say Unsworth does not have experience of managing in the Premier League, as if that isn’t a perfectly reasonable concern about a man who has never managed in the Premier League. Then came Graeme Souness, who said that Unsworth deserved the job because he “knows Everton inside and out”. Finally we had former Everton player Trevor Steven, who said that there was “nobody better placed to take on the job” than Unsworth. I suppose the fact that he already works there makes that geographically true.
It was Neville that truly went above and beyond with his rallying call, and inadvertently revealed the true meaning behind his message: “From an English coach’s perspective, we are not getting opportunities. We are seen as second-class citizens at the moment, and that has got to change.”
That’s utter hogwash. The Premier League is a global league with global owners and global players, so why on earth wouldn’t they appoint the best they could? As Rafael Benitez said in his pre-match press conference, owners want the best coaches, not the British ones.
It’s incredible that it is needed, but to ask the question again: Why would any club deliberately avoid appointing a manager they considered to be the best for the job because of his nationality? Nobody has been able to give me the answer to that. Even if reverse xenophobia is a thing (and it isn’t), would club owners desperate to receive the financial rewards for Premier League participation really cut off their nose with spite to such an extent? Of course they wouldn’t.
Unsworth, therefore, has been used as a prop, a tool in a well-worn argument. Those putting forward his case may know and respect his excellent work with Everton’s Under-23 team, but is that enough?
On the evidence of Sunday, it is not. Unsworth’s team selection smacked of a caretaker manager trying too hard to show that he could make the difficult decisions, but Everton were appalling against Leicester. The defence played far higher than under Ronald Koeman and was easily exposed by Jamie Vardy’s runs. Tom Davies was tasked with tracking Riyad Mahrez and looked woefully out of his depth. Aaron Lennon and Kevin Mirallas started together in the league for the first time 18 months, and both were removed at half-time. This was as bad as anything under Koeman.
The Premier League is littered with former players working as reserve team managers who know their clubs inside out: Peter Beardsley at Newcastle, Ricky Sbragia at Manchester United, Steve Gatting at Arsenal, Joe Edwards at Chelsea, Gary Richards at Swansea City. Some you may not even have heard of. None would be mentioned seriously for the first-team manager’s job if it became available, and nor should Unsworth. That is not enough when success and failure matters so much.
Instead, Unsworth must follow the lead of Kevin Nolan, Chris Wilder, Jack Lester and Kevin Davies. The only thing that can prepare you adequately for Premier League management is time and success as a manager. That’s far more likely to come in the Football League or abroad than at a club with top-six ambitions.
Antonio might want a word with David Ginola after his decision not to keep the ball in the corner against Crystal Palace. It is a moment that should haunt him throughout this week and may ultimately earn his manager the sack.
West Ham supporters
Our early losers. Because their club *begins Barry Davies voice* just will not learn.
Competition vs the ‘big six’
We can delight in the moments of upset, such as Manchester United’s defeat against Huddersfield, Arsenal’s loss to Watford or Chelsea’s defeat against Crystal Palace, but the truth is that these are rarer occurrences than ever.
In the last 23 games played by the ‘big six’ against the Premier League rest, a run stretching back to mid-September, they have won 19 and lost only those aforementioned three. More instructive is the fact that the big six team has scored four or more goals in more than a third of those fixtures.
Extend the sample size, and the pattern is only further established. The last 60 league games between big six and non-big six teams home and away has produced a run of results of 46 wins, nine draws and five defeats, or 2.45 points per game. Cherish Burnley’s victory at Stamford Bridge, for it was the only example of a non-elite team winning away from home against a big six team since April.
After a weekend in which last season’s top six established themselves in the top six positions, the suspicion is that that might be that. The gap is getting bigger, not smaller.
Refusing to give the ball back after an injury and then grabbing your opponent by the face isn’t showing your “cojones”, it’s being a d*ck. Having just broken back into the Watford starting XI, Deeney may now be absent for a few more games after receiving an unwanted letter from the Football Association. Stupid boy.
They’ve scored more than once in two of their 11 games in all competitions this season. But it was definitely all Claude Puel’s fault.
Manchester City’s inefficiencies
Putting any aspect of a team in the losers section after winning is asking for howls of ABMYTEAM365, but Pep Guardiola will be irked by Manchester City’s inefficiencies at the Hawthorns.
Against West Brom, City recorded their lowest shot accuracy in a league game since April, and should have been out of sight by half-time. They compounded that profligacy by conceding twice for the second time in three league matches, having previously not done so in their last 14 games in all competitions.
Winning an away match by a single goal is hardly a problem, but Guardiola prides himself on perfection. This week’s task will be ironing out the sloppy mistakes. It is ludicrous that City were sweating on their result in the final few minutes at the Hawthorns.
We’ve talked about this before, Nicolas. Safety-first, big man.
Everton’s age problem
What age do you think a footballer peaks? Different ages for different positions, but somewhere between 24 and 29 sound reasonable?
Well, of Everton’s ten outfield starters against Leicester, only one was aged between 21 and 29. Babies to the left of Idrissa Gueye, pensioners to the right.
A single goal in 597 Bournemouth minutes, and suddenly Defoe looks every bit his 35 years. Having played more minutes than Benik Afobe and Callum Wilson this season, Defoe should be worried about competition for places. He is averaging a shot on target every other game.
Crystal Palace’s defence
The magnificent second-half comeback was appreciated, but Palace can’t keep needing snookers just to get a draw. They have played 900 league minutes this season and yet have led for only 52 minutes. The last clean sheet in the league came against now-Championship Hull City in May.
Christmas is coming up, so always good to get yourself in line for an appearance fee on Danny Baker’s latest Own Goals And Gaffes DVD. I’d still buy it in 2017.
Daniel Storey – Click here to buy Portrait of an Icon: The book. All proceeds go to charity.