Same coach, same coach and same coach again. Jose Mourinho at Tottenham has been a failure. But at least Leeds and Jesse Lingard are thriving.
Three years ago this weekend, Leeds United lost 3-1 at Preston to stay 14th in the Championship table. It continued a run of two wins in 18 league matches that had included Thomas Christiansen being replaced as manager by Paul Heckingbottom but with no obvious improvement. If you want an indication of how lucky Leeds consider themselves to have their current manager, Christiansen has since managed Union Saint-Gilloise and Panama.
Everything about Leeds has changed since. They have a defined style, an identity, an unshakeable spirit, a siege mentality and a manager who everyone believes in and who established each of those things. Marcelo Bielsa’s force of personality decrees that he becomes the personification of his clubs, for better and occasionally worse. But it works here because they so desperately lacked every characteristic he brought with him. Bielsa is Leeds and Leeds are him.
This hasn’t always been an easy season, even if it will end with mid-table comfort. Leeds spent handsomely last summer but Rodrigo and Diego Llorente have both suffered injury-blighted campaigns. Heavy defeats have pockmarked their season, with Bielsa regularly receiving criticism from pundits for his tactical naivety and loyalty to attacking football.
But those criticisms missed the point. If being thumped by Manchester United and Tottenham were indeed cause for scorn, Leeds are only in the privileged position to receive them because of Bielsa. Far less was spoken of Leeds losing fewer home games than Leicester and winning more away games than Liverpool and Tottenham. It isn’t as simple as choosing to play a different way from week to week, particularly in a congested season. Bielsa’s ethos, his way of playing, is the whole of the law.
But Saturday was an emphatic answer to those who believe Bielsa is guilty of tactical dogmatism. Not only did Leeds have their lowest possession, record their lowest number of shots and their lowest number of touches in the opposition penalty area in a match this season (some of those things were enforced by the sending off of Liam Cooper) they also beat a Big Six team for the first time. Of course they rode their luck and of course they were reliant on Manchester City’s generosity in the final third, but again that misses the point: Leeds defended marvellously and did not lack the endeavour to counter-attack when it became possible.
The cult of Bielsa, although immensely powerful when it becomes effective, can actually overshadow performance. To repeat the line: he is Leeds and they are him. The quirks of his persona and the intensity of his preferred style can become the story rather than the results of the team. He – and Leeds’ football – is the appointment television.
Add to that Leeds’ reputation. Because they are a traditional heavyweight of English football, a Premier League staple during the division’s formative years, we were probably predisposed to assume they would be more successful than was likely for a promoted club. As a reasonable comparison, Aston Villa spent considerably more the previous summer and only just survived relegation.
And that proves the real magic of Bielsa at Leeds: a dramatic, irreversible improvement in the players that until he arrived were Championship-level footballers. Go back to that Preston game in 2018 – three players the same. Of the 14 players used by Leeds on the first day of the Championship season in August 2019, eight were in the matchday squad on Saturday and it would have been nine but for the terms of Jack Harrison’s loan deal. It has been a stupendous season that might yet end in a top-half finish. Now move heaven and earth to sign him up for next year.
Jesse Lingard and West Ham
This is all getting a little silly. Since joining West Ham in the transfer window, Lingard leads the Premier League in goals and shots on target and the only player with more assists is Michail Antonio.
That’s generally been sold as unsurprising, and with some cause. It wasn’t that Lingard wasn’t a good footballer or even a very good one, but that he wasn’t good enough for Manchester United because they had Bruno Fernandes. Not being good enough for Manchester United is a compliment rather than an insult.
But even so, the rapidity of Lingard’s re-ascent and the fact that he’s now in better form than he ever was at Old Trafford really is shocking. I did believe he might well fit in at West Ham because he is a popular player and David Moyes had engineered an excellent team spirit. I can’t claim that I thought he would suddenly become the best goalscoring midfielder in the division.
But then nothing about this West Ham season is anything but remarkable. It began with us doubting Moyes and whether his club had sufficiently invested for anything sustainable to be created. It now has them on the cusp of a ludicrously high finish. And every time they lose a player to injury – Declan Rice and Antonio currently, with Aaron Cresswell also going off injured – their team spirit seems to apply concrete over the cracks.
I’m eternally wary of praising West Ham in this column because they quickly make you look foolish twice: once for not believing in them quickly enough and again for believing in them at all. But they have the form player in the division, have only lost to Liverpool, Manchester City, Manchester United and Chelsea since September and only play one of the current top seven in their remaining games. So why the hell not?
First we’ll do the numbers, because they are significant. Newcastle have played 13 matches this season in which both Saint-Maximin and Callum Wilson have played a part together; they have won 46.2 percent of those matches. They have played 18 league games when both were missing and have been victorious twice for a win percentage of 11.1%.
But you don’t need numbers to work out that Newcastle are better with Saint-Maximin in the team. Some sides might struggle to incorporate such extreme insouciance (and not even his teammates know exactly what he’s going to do next), but at Newcastle it is oxygen for the players around him. If the greatest compliment to Steve Bruce’s Newcastle is that they are workmanlike, that can quickly become predictable without such an individual talent.
But mostly it’s just wonderful fun to watch. There are times when Saint-Maximin can frustrate you to the point of exasperation, but it’s all worth it for those times he comes on and changes a game at the throw of a leg or a drop of the shoulder. Like Hatem Ben Arfa and Laurent Robert before him, Saint-Maximin is not the player Newcastle supporters want to watch because they’re anticipating consistent brilliance. He’s the player they yearn to watch time and time again because they know it will happen occasionally and would consider themselves cheap if they miss it.
Manchester United’s away form
This felt like a different type of away victory for Manchester United, not because they came from behind – because what’s new there? – but because they did so without Bruno Fernandes starring and they were unable to rely upon the counter-attack against a deep-lying, if not entirely passive, Tottenham. Fernandes created only one chance and had one shot.
Ole Gunnar Solskjaer has come in for some flak for his substitutions, but got this spot on after United struggled in the first half. Paul Pogba came more central (I really don’t get crowbarring him out on the left) and then the game skewed further in United’s favour after the introduction of Mason Greenwood.
I still can’t buy into the fact that Solskjaer is the best manager Manchester United could have, but a) that caveat is increasingly being followed by or follows effusive praise, and b) their away record this season is absolutely fantastic. With Leeds, Villa and Wolves to come, United can still reach 45 away points (and, it should be said, Manchester City can reach 48).
The most points ever by an away team in a Premier League season was City’s 50 in 2017/18. To get close to that, having trailed for almost as many minutes away from home as Aston Villa this season, is a superb effort.
Now go and read 16 Conclusions.
When Thomas Tuchel arrived at Chelsea, he instantly worked on improving their defensive record. That made total sense given Frank Lampard’s struggles and eventual sacking, and Tuchel got an instant response: Chelsea kept eight clean sheets in his first ten league matches.
The antidote to that improvement was a bluntness in the final third that was partly inevitable – if you choose to try not to concede goals you can’t also choose to keep scoring them at the same rate – but Tuchel’s ideal was clearly to skew things a little more towards Chelsea’s attack. Chelsea scored 11 goals in those first 10 league games; they had scored 30 in Lampard’s last 17.
And now there are signs of that balance, even if the shambolic defeat to West Brom was proof that they will be punished if they allow focus to shift from the defence for even a few minutes. Chelsea have scored 12 goals in their last five games in all competitions. The faith entrusted in Kai Havertz as a false nine looks justified if Tuchel can get Chelsea’s attacking midfielders close to him.
Tuchel might well insist that this attacking improvement has been coming. Chelsea rank second in the Premier League for shots, shots on target and expected goal difference (expected goals minus expected goals against) during his tenure to date. They have only created four fewer chances than Manchester City over that period, and 31 more than the team in third on that list.
It’s amazing how quickly Tuchel has made Chelsea the second best team in the country. They were on for 58 points if Lampard had stayed, but are now on course for 66 and a probable top-four finish. This midweek they will also surely reach a Champions League semi-final for the first time since 2014, and look far better placed to go further still in that competition having kept three consecutive clean sheets under Tuchel in Europe. We might just get the serious title challenge next season that every Chelsea supporter hoped might materialise under Lampard.
Won possession more than any other player on his team, had a better passing accuracy than any other player on his team, covered more ground than any other player on his team and still had the energy to burst through to score the winner when he really should have been half-knackered. Want to understand the Bielsa Effect? Just look at the improvement in Dallas.
The 20th Premier League team to win at home in 2021. They had to come from behind, left it late and battled themselves as much as they battled Aston Villa, but they also gained a hugely significant win. A fortnight ago, Champions League glory looked to be Liverpool’s only source of season salvation but that assumption has been turned on its head. Now they’re far more likely to finish in the top four than progress against Real Madrid.
Leicester City’s Covidiots
Although their identities have not fully been confirmed yet (and so we’ll refrain from naming the players individually), it’s clear that Leicester were without three, four, five or six players for their trip to West Ham due to a deliberate breach of Covid-19 guidelines.
“The Club has made its expectations around adherence to COVID-19 protocols abundantly clear to all its personnel,” a spokesperson said. “It is extremely disappointing, therefore, to learn of a breach.” That breach is thought to involve a house party, which is just about as dim as you can get. They knew the rules, they knew their club needed them to be available for selection and their indiscipline should have lasting consequences.
And they might well affect Leicester’s qualification for the Champions League, because it’s happening again. Brendan Rodger’s side collapsed at the end of last season to finish fifth. With the top-four race containing more candidates and potentially requiring a higher points total than last season, Leicester can ill-afford another slump. It’s now seven points from six league games following a comprehensive defeat in London.
Rodgers must be seething. Breaking lockdown rules at any time is dismal PR for Premier League footballers who constantly fight the usually misplaced accusation that they are closeted millionaires, but incidents like these allow that myth to snowball and that Leicester trio have shamed their club. Fail to beat both West Brom and Crystal Palace at home, with or without the Covidiots, and the suspicion only grows that history is being painfully repeated.
Jose Mourinho, again
Jose Mourinho has managed expectations down to the point that some supporters have alleviated him of some responsibility for making the mess, but no reasonable fan could be proud of that performance. Tottenham were so passive that there were signs of rigor mortis visible to the naked eye.
It is a message that needs repeating, because plenty disagree with it: this is not a bad group of players. It is not an ideal squad, of course, but then nor are others. Most of this squad have succeeded here or elsewhere. The squad was also good enough to initially keep pace with the leaders. They have not all suddenly and simultaneously lost their ability.
But all of those players succeeded outside a toxic environment and within a consistent system that helped them flourish. They are a group devoid of confidence, made miserable by their habitat. And the responsibility for that lies with the manager. If one or two key players were in abject form, it would be on them. If every member of the squad is, it suggests that the system itself is broken. Mourinho’s man-management has not worked. His constant tinkering personnel has not worked. His siege mentality has not worked. Nothing has.
Fun fact: I wrote those three paragraphs (slightly altered for the sexy reveal) in December 2018 when Mourinho was manager of Manchester United. And the fact that they are entirely relevant now and most of you won’t have realised just about makes the point for me.
Same coach, different players? More like same coach, same coach and same coach again. This is Mourinho now a man seemingly obsessed only with maintaining the thin facade that is slipping from his reputation with an avalanche of self-preservation.
It might yet work elsewhere (and international football makes sense), but it is not working at Tottenham. The whacking great pay-off is the only reason to keep him beyond the summer and even that might be cheap if he starts making public demands for new players having alienated many of the ones who he inherited and initially claimed he loved.
Manchester City’s sloppiness
I don’t really understand the criticism of Pep Guardiola’s team selection. I didn’t even understand it when Tuchel made changes and Chelsea lost at home to West Brom, and they still have a top-four finish to fight for. Manchester City earned the right to rest players and they have a Champions League quarter-final that remains in the balance. They will not be caught in the Premier League.
But Guardiola will be irked that City are again showing signs of sloppiness in the final third because that really does threaten to pour cold water on their pursuit of four trophies. Against Leeds they had 29 shots and scored once, but just as frustrating was the number of dangerous situations that did not even lead to a shot due to a lack of exactness with the final pass or picking the wrong option. That was also the issue against Dortmund last midweek.
And that lack of exactness has defined each of City’s recent exits in the Champions League. In their second leg against Liverpool in 2018, they had 20 shots and scored one. Against Tottenham in the first leg in 2019, they had ten shots, scored once and missed a penalty. Against Lyon last year, they had 18 shots, scored once and paid for missing their best chances. They cannot afford to be as generous this season if Guardiola is to win what he was ultimately appointed to win.
Fulham’s non-existent push for survival
Sinking without trace when it matters most after four defeats on the spin. Losing 3-0 at home to Manchester City is forgivable, but it should not have caused a funk in self-belief that stretched into Fulham’s subsequent matches. Most worrying is that Fulham have lost their last three in the league in different ways: they didn’t turn up against Leeds, scored before conceding three times to Villa and then missed chances before succumbing to a last-minute winner against Wolves.
Add in Newcastle’s victory over Burnley on Sunday and that final-day fixture looks less crucial than ever. If you can’t put pressure on a Newcastle side that has won three times in all competitions since December 12 and been without Wilson and Saint-Maximin for most of that time, you don’t deserve anything better.
The offside rule
Another great weekend for fans of grainy shots of armpits and calculating where the short sleeve should start on a long-sleeved shirt.
We’re regularly told that this is not a VAR problem but an offside law issue, but to me that slightly obfuscates the point. It’s right that offside is an objective decision that doesn’t easily allow for subjectivity, but it was the introduction of VAR that removed that subjectivity without providing a better solution. And that’s before you worry about the frame rate being accurate enough to produce watertight conclusions.
One indirect result of VAR is that it has caused a conversation of the offside laws that will surely lead to a significant change. But again, none are perfect. Arsene Wenger’s idea of measuring any part of the body as onside is a worse system than now, both skewing the ‘fairness’ debate and leading to the same microscopic calculations but in a slightly different way. The ‘subjective’ argument, judging it on a quick look rather than using the zoomed-in angles, is ripe for outrage because how on earth do you decide what is close enough to be considered acceptable? That only leads to more grey areas.
The most likely solution, requiring a gap between the coloured lines on the replays, creates two issues: how thick are the lines and why bother with technology at all if you’re not going to get a final, micro-calculated decision? Semi-automation might help, but whatever method is chosen we’re still talking about fractions of centimetres.
In fact, it’s a totally unsolvable problem because VAR for offsides was only introduced because people couldn’t accept – or got so angry about accepting that it became unworkable – that human error played a part in sport and so would lead to some wrong decisions and were mistakenly persuaded that technology would cure that anger. Now we have a half-solution that virtually nobody in the game likes and provides no easier answer than the original issue.
Like Ruben Loftus-Cheek at Fulham, this season offered a chance for Barkley to prove that the problem didn’t lie in the individual but in their circumstance. The competition for places in Chelsea’s midfield made regular league starts impossible. Temporarily moving away from Stamford Bridge would work for all parties: Barkley would prove his Premier League worth, Aston Villa would get a Big Six midfielder and Chelsea would see his value increase if they subsequently made him available for a permanent move.
But it hasn’t worked out that way. Life at Villa started well for Barkley, with goals in October wins over Liverpool and Leicester City, but he is now as much of a hindrance as well as a help. Barkley has started seven league games since the end of November and Villa are unlikely to make his deal permanent in the summer. What now for that great hope of England’s midfield?