FA Cup quarter-finals: 16 Conclusions

Date published: Sunday 18th March 2018 7:08

* “To try to improve our offensive football and be more aggressive I had to change one of them and I decided Luke, because at least Antonio defensively was capable of good positionings,” said Mourinho after the victory over Brighton. “Luke, in the first half, every time they went in this corridor, the cross was coming, the situation was coming so I was not happy with the performance.”

Luke Shaw is not faultless, but nor too is anyone else and that certainly includes his manager. Shaw is a 22-year-old who is struggling at an elite club. Struggling with the pressure, struggling with the spotlight’s glare and struggling with the price tag. Shaw also suffered a career-threatening injury at that elite club, one which he admits caused him a great deal of mental anguish as he learned not just to play football again, but walk and trust his body again.

It is those mental difficulties that make comments such as “I feel that the strong ones will always be the strong ones” so hard to stomach. If Mourinho really does feel that Shaw is too weak for his style of management, sell him. But picking him only to call him out so obviously is to place him back under the spotlight’s glare, and also reduce his market value. Shaw is understood to be upset by the comments, and you can’t blame him. Perhaps Mourinho just doesn’t care.

This is not an argument that Shaw should be immune to criticism, because that would be foolish. But this is an argument that publicly lambasting a young player is only likely to make things harder for that player, and therefore your team too. How do Manchester United’s other younger players – and potential young signings at other clubs – feel about such harsh treatment?

Shaw would be forgiven for being thoroughly perplexed about his status within Manchester United’s squad. Three times this season, he has been talked up by Mourinho only to immediately be dropped from the starting XI. Now he has been crucified to the media by the man tasked to get the best out of him. I can’t pretend I don’t want him to move somewhere else and be brilliant.

 

* Not that Shaw was the only Manchester United player subjected to the Mourinho treatment, merely the one namechecked. Mourinho took the chance to call out the lack of “personality” and “class” within his team. The Mourinho man-management masterclass continues.

It’s hard to identify what Mourinho is trying to achieve with this public version of me vs the team. Perhaps there are personalities within the squad who will be inspired to prove their manager wrong, but surely not them all. It is a risky strategy to use such a scathing blanket approach.

Just as likely is that this is not a tactic of motivation, but self-preservation. After his astonishing rant of Friday, in calling out the quality of his players Mourinho is effectively holding out his hands to say “What more can I do?”. This is the same manager who deliberately ignored the improvement in Raheem Sterling and Nicolas Otamendi by Pep Guardiola one day earlier. It’s all about him.

Questioning the ability of his players doesn’t just deflect attention away from Mourinho’s own under-performance, it lays the foundations for him demanding more investment in the squad this summer. Mourinho’s argument will be that he has told his employers what he needs to succeed, and so if they don’t provide the tools then he will remain untarnished by any subsequent failure. That might only be true in his head.

 

* Romelu Lukaku has endured an odd relationship with Manchester United this season. When they were in form between October and December (winning seven out of nine games), he was in the middle of a goal drought. Just as he has regained his scoring touch (six goals in seven games), United are coming in for significant criticism.

Lukaku is certainly one player who deserves to avoid Mourinho’s sharp tongue. He suffered through Manchester United’s own lack of ambition in their biggest league games, left isolated and thus getting precious few chances. It is no coincidence that when United come more out of their shell, Lukaku is able to influence play more often.

Two months ago, Lukaku was fighting to make his debut season at Old Trafford a success, in danger of letting down his teammates. Now he has 28 goals and assists in all competitions, and it is him asking questions of those around and behind him.

 

* “I prefer to say that Matic and Lukaku are performing at a high level since day one until the last match. I cannot tell you the ones that are not performing,” Mourinho said as part of his “football heritage” missive. Against Brighton, both turned up. Maybe he should try praising the others too?

Nemanja Matic was Manchester United’s best player on Saturday, but it isn’t hard to see why he is Mourinho’s teacher’s pet on any given day. He called the Serbian his “island of personality” after the game, and by that he means that Matic demanded to be on the ball and demanded to take United forward when he got it. If you’re thinking of buying Mourinho flowers, don’t go for a bunch of shrinking violets.

Given that Mourinho was so bullish about his desire to sign Matic, stating his disbelief that Chelsea had sold the midfielder to him, it is in his interests to talk up his (and Lukaku’s) ability. But Matic also retains the characteristics that Mourinho holds dear, so his trust in him should come as no surprise.

Of all Mourinho’s signings at Old Trafford, it is the dependable Matic who represents the best value for money and thus the biggest success. When I needed a neighbour were you there, were you there? He’s always bloody there.

 

* If any Tottenham supporters were worried about scoring goals without Harry Kane, they need not have been. There is too much quality in Mauricio Pochettino’s side to be kept quiet.

What is true is that Tottenham are a completely different team without Kane involved. They have had 516 shots in the Premier League this season, and Kane has taken 162 of those (31.4%). By way of comparison, Mohamed Salah is the other dominant attacking force in the Premier League this season, but Salah has only had 22.2% of Liverpool’s shots. Romelu Lukaku has had 18.8% of Manchester United’s.

That domination works for Tottenham. Kane has a shoot-on-sight policy, converting shots at a far lower rate than other strikers in the league but scoring an exceptional number of goals due to the sheer number of attempts.

Without Kane, all that changes. There can be no replacement for him, because no other player at Tottenham would take as many shots. Instead, Pochettino picked Heung-Min Son as a nominal centre forward but gave him licence to roam right and (particularly) left. That dragged out a central defender and created the space for Christian Eriksen, Lucas Moura and Erik Lamela to delight. The workload is shared, not bestowed on one person.

There has been no Premier League game this season in which more than two Tottenham players have each had five or more shots. It comes as no coincidence that against Swansea, without Kane, Lucas Moura, Eriksen and Lamela all had five or more.

 

* Eriksen will rightly take the most plaudits after scoring more than once in a game for the first time since December 2016, but Pochettino will be just as pleased at the performance of Lucas Moura. The Brazilian has only been given 31 Premier League minutes since joining from Paris Saint-Germain, but Pochettino has used the FA Cup as the perfect environment for his acclimatisation.

In the past, Lucas Moura would have been thrown in at the deep end by a manager desperate to rest tiring players in the second half of the season. But Pochettino now has Lamela, Son, Fernando Llorente, Kane, Dele Alli, Moussa Sissoko, Eriksen and Lucas Moura for four positions. The latter does not need to sprint from a standing start.

Against Swansea, Lucas Moura stretched the game, and was prepared to go around the outside of Martin Olsson. That creates the space further infield that makes Eriksen so dangerous. His versatility (comfortable right, left or central) makes him a valuable squad option, while the relative pittance Spurs paid (£25m for a 25-year-old Brazilian with 36 caps and a huge amount of Champions League experience) made him a no-brainer. There will be more to come.

 

* Tottenham’s victory brought another VAR controversy in the FA Cup, and again it was Pochettino’s team at the centre of it. Son’s first-half goal was ruled out for offside, and after three minutes of video replays, it was decided that the decision should stand.

It was probably the correct call, but it is the delay that infuriates most. Waiting more than a second or two to know whether you can celebrate a goal kills the mood, but waiting three minutes is an outrage.

Pochettino said as much after the game:

“It’s a nightmare. I feel so sorry for the people trying to use that system. I think I prefer it when the ref and assistant make mistakes than to wait three or four minutes for things.”

Now that’s fine, but this is the same Pochettino who said in September after a 0-0 draw against the same club:

“It is so clear. What is not clear is why Mike Dean said in front of our players that it was handball but it was not handball. It was unlucky for us. We did not get the one penalty we deserved. In that situation the referee had a not good afternoon.”

Pochettino is far from alone, but managers can’t have it both ways. You don’t get to blame refereeing decisions for your results, and then when a process is introduced as a reaction to that blame game say you would rather have the mistakes.

 

* Tottenham were superb and merited their victory, but Swansea were weirdly passive. The crushing victory over West Ham and draw away at Huddersfield took them three points outside the bottom three and up into 14th place. The idea of ‘concentrating on the league’ was a non-argument with an international break to come.

Yet Carlos Carvalhal’s team played without any of the spirit so evident during the last three months. They were too often dispossessed by Tottenham’s press and passed the ball sloppily, but worse was the lack of intensity without the ball.

“I am not disappointed,” said Carvalhal after the game. “After the storm comes the good weather. I said before to achieve something, we must be at our best and they must be not so good. We know there is a gap and that they are better. They were full of energy and very good.”

That’s all true, and relegation survival is the obvious priority, but you can try and do both. Those of us watching expected a fight for superiority on Saturday lunchtime. What we witnessed was a procession.

 

* At what point do Chelsea just give up on Tiemoue Bakayoko and cut their losses? His confidence is so shot, visibly labouring over even making simple passes, that he is hampering Chelsea in both attack and defence. Antonio Conte is persevering, desperate to get him back in form, but it makes you wince to watch the gulf in class to Wilfred Ndidi.

Yet Conte can only have so much faith, particularly when the output is so low. Bakayoko was substituted at half-time even with Chelsea winning 1-0. It’s not often a manager makes a tactical change so early even when winning away from home, but that is indicative of Bakayoko’s poor form. Time for a spell away from the spotlight?

 

* It says plenty about Alvaro Morata’s dismal form that when a £57m striker went through on goal most of us watching assumed he would miss. Morata’s finish was in fact surprisingly composed, and ensured his first goal since Boxing Day.

Still, it will take more than that goal to be persuaded that Morata is out of his rut. For most of the match, the Spaniard was his usual sulky self, visibly angry at every decision that went against him and clumsy in possession. He was caught in possession as many times in the first hour of the match as every other player on the pitch combined.

Conte may argue that scoring the opening goal makes for a satisfactory return, but Morata’s general play has been lacking for a while. The contrast between Michy Batshuayi’s form for Borussia Dortmund will have been noted.

 

* I made the mistake of making this incredibly unpopular opinion on Twitter, so why not double up and reveal it here too: I think Jamie Vardy might be better starting over Harry Kane for England in some World Cup matches.

Kane is a better striker than Vardy, and will definitely be better than him in the group games against Panama and Tunisia, two teams that will probably sit deep. But against Belgium and in the knockout stages, Vardy could be brilliant against teams who are vulnerable to the counter attack with Raheem Sterling, Dele Alli and Adam Lallana or Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain as part of that counter attack.

He also has a phenomenal record against the best teams, and will be nuisance for elite opposition defenders. Speak to foreign footballers, and they will say that Vardy’s brand of football is a nightmare to play against.

The alternative is to play the 3-5-2 formation from Euro ‘96 and pick Kane and Vardy in tandem. Either that, or ignore everything I’ve just written.

 

* After Brighton beat Arsenal last month, it caused a raft of people to ask why Chris Hughton didn’t get more praise. They were in fact answering their own question. Until then, Brighton had not achieved a significant result against a top-six team. Beating one of the Premier League financial elite inevitably provokes greater attention; that’s just how it works.

The same is true of Pascal Gross, who has been exceptional since his arrival from Ingolstadt for £2.5m. No player outside the top six has created more chances in the Premier League this season, and no player outside the top six has more assists.

And yet because we have seen little of Gross flourishing against the best, he too has flown under the radar. Against Manchester United on Saturday evening, no player on the pitch created more chances than Gross and none had more shots on target either.

The German also had 29 more touches of the ball than any of his teammates, an extraordinary domination of possession for an attacking player. Fifteen percent of all Brighton’s touches of the ball were made by him.

 

* Southampton certainly rode their luck against League One Wigan. The home side had ten corners in the first half without Southampton earning one, and should have had at least a one-goal lead at half-time.

And yet Southampton were resilient, soaked up that pressure and were the better team in the second half. The jubilation from a massive travelling support at the full-time whistle contained more smiles than have been on the faces of Southampton fans in the last three months combined. This was their first away clean sheet since January and, incredibly, their second victory by more than a single goal in any competition since April 2017.

Mark Hughes may not have been at the club long enough to have changed the mood, but he will have been mightily pleased with what he saw. Hughes now has two weeks to prepare his team for the crucial league game at the London Stadium in a fortnight’s time.

 

* Still, Hughes isn’t a miracle worker. Not even Gandalf, Merlin and Harry Potter working together could get Southampton’s strikers scoring:

– Guido Carrillo was signed in January as Mauricio Pellegrino’s man, having worked under him at Estudiantes. Pellegrino has now been sacked before Carrillo has even scored a goal. Against Wigan, he looked thoroughly at home against a League One team. He cost £19.1m.

– Manolo Gabbiadini was dropped from the team by Pellegrino for Carrillo, which says plenty. He has scored three goals from open play in his last 37 matches for Southampton. He missed a penalty against Wigan.

– Shane Long was on the bench for a game that Carrillo and Gabbiadini both started, which says even more than plenty. Long has scored one goal in his last 38 matches for Southampton. To reiterate, he is a striker.

 

* “You wouldn’t expect a League One team to concede from a set-piece,” said Martin Keown on BBC Sport after Southampton had taken the lead.

I’ve tried, honest. I’ve tried to enter the mind of a man who believes that lower-league teams are brilliant defending set-pieces, but significantly worse at everything else to make up for being better than top-flight teams in that area. And I’ve come up with three explanations:

1) Keown believes that there are far more set-pieces in lower-league football, and so teams spend more time practising them.

2) Keown believes that lower-league teams can’t play open-play football properly, and so only focus on being good at set-pieces.

3) Keown is talking nonsense.

I’ll let you decide.

 

* Wigan may have exited the competition, but they are a club re-energised and ready to achieve promotion after a difficult few years. A club that punched above its weight in a rugby town, relegation to the Championship in 2013 was always likely to cause a pronounced slump.

Defeat in the play-offs to QPR in their first Championship season caused the same type of hangover that Reading are experiencing this season, but it was the spectacularly bad PR – and footballing – move to appoint Malky Mackay to replace Uwe Rosler that sealed their fate. Re-promotion was followed by stark financial reality, and Wigan were relegated back to League One at the first time of asking.

Wigan do not have the resources or fanbase to match top-half Championship sides, but in Paul Cook they have a manager who understands the importance of a tight-knit squad with high morale that can provoke positivity amongst even sparse crowds. Now out of the FA Cup, a promotion bid becomes priority but Wigan are well-placed to achieve it.

Even if the Premier League is a distant memory and even more distant dream, there are few who would bemoan seeing Cook and Wigan given another shot at second-tier consolidation. This is a decent, family club.

Daniel Storey


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