Manuel Pellegrini and West Ham’s midfield
The international break came at the perfect time. Having lost his first four league games in charge to provoke talk of an autumn sacking, Pellegrini gave his West Ham squad three extra days to recuperate but instructed them to come back to training ready to work on a season-saving plan.
Pellegrini’s plan involved changing West Ham’s midfield shape, because a strategy created in the summer had proven to be calamitous. The two central midfielders in the 4-2-3-1 that Pellegrini used in those four defeats: Mark Noble and Declan Rice, Noble and Jack Wilshere, Carlos Sanchez and Wilshere, Sanchez and Wilshere. With four attacking players ahead of them, the midfield was overrun. While Wilshere wondered what on earth he had let himself in for, Noble had the air of a man stood helplessly at his front door as a large swell of water flooded his house.
Playing with three central midfielders (you could call West Ham’s new formation a 4-1-2-2-1 or a 4-3-2-1) allows Rice to be a defensive screen, and the academy graduate has been magnificent in the role – you can see why Gareth Southgate is keen to ‘recruit’ him for England. Pedro Obiang is the roaming tackler, allowed to push up the field to force the turnovers in possession that can lead to clear-cut chances being created.
Noble is Pellegrini’s ‘Pirlo’ in this system – as the manager himself labelled him – absolved of tackling and chasing responsibilities and instead tasked with probing passes into the final third to set Marko Arnautovic, Felipe Anderson and Andriy Yarmolenko free. Noble has always been a better passer than tackler, whatever his harum-scarum demeanour might suggest.
This midfield shape has transformed West Ham’s fortunes. Pellegrini has learned that aesthetically pleasing football – the ‘West Ham way’ trope that every manager is coerced into referencing – is only possible at a non-elite club if your team has the appetite to win the midfield battle. Against Manchester United on Saturday, West Ham humbled their high-profile opponents in the centre of the pitch.
The manner in which Hazard can slalom past opponents with guile and hold them off with strength has never been in doubt, but Maurizio Sarri has made it his mission to get the best out of Hazard. The Belgian is allowed to stay in the final third and play facing the opposition goal rather than chasing back and tracking opponents. Sarri may well release the best of Chelsea too.
Hazard currently ranks first in the Premier League for goals, second for dribbles and fifth for chances created, and he’s only started five of Chelsea’s seven matches. He is the best NLM (non-Lionel Messi) player in the world on current form.
Now go read 16 Conclusions for far more from Stamford Bridge.
In February, Sturridge played for four minutes at Stamford Bridge. He was substituted with an injury when playing for the club bottom of the Premier League, would not start another game for West Brom and promptly returned to Liverpool when the Baggies were relegated. The expectation was that Sturridge would either be sold or left on the shelf at Anfield.
In September, Sturridge again played for four minutes at Stamford Bridge. He was substituted on while playing for the club top of the Premier League, and scored the wonderful equaliser that kept Liverpool’s unbeaten record intact. At the final whistle, Sturridge was mobbed by teammates and manager.
This is not a complete redemption, because he cannot reasonably hope to lead the line as Liverpool’s first-choice striker. But after umpteen injuries and two-and-a-half years without scoring goals regularly, Sturridge has scored in three consecutive matches against Chelsea and Paris Saint-Germain. Given his rotten luck, you’d have to have a heart of stone not to be chuffed for him.
In their last five league matches, Wolves have won three without conceding and drawn with both Manchester clubs. That’s the form of a team with reasonable claims of European qualification. After a tricky beginning, this Wolves Premier League project is purring along.
Under significant pressure following three league games without a win, Silva cannot expect anything else having been pursued so aggressively by his club. What Everton’s new manager needed was a comfortable, swaggering victory over a team of young upstarts that has designs on challenging them. Job done; now the consistency must come.
In his last 39 Premier League matches, Sterling has scored or assisted 35 goals. Statistics aren’t everything, but it would be remiss to point out that – over the same time period – Sterling’s total is 11 higher than Eden Hazard, 19 higher than Alexis Sanchez and 21 higher than Mesut Ozil. He’s good, you know.
Scoring two goals will further allay fears of a goal drought that had lasted a whole five Tottenham and England matches. But the most instructive statistic that Kane may be getting his mojo back is that he has taken eight shots in his last two Premier League matches. Kane had managed more than two shots in only one of his previous five. When he gets on the ball, the shots total goes up. When the shots total goes up, the goals come. When the goals come. Tottenham win.
When Leicester lost their first game of the season at Manchester United, the Daily Mirror ran a well-sourced story that Puel had three games to save his job. Leicester promptly won three games on the bounce.
When Leicester then lost to Liverpool and Bournemouth, conceding six times in the process, various reports suggested that Puel could again be in serious trouble if he didn’t arrest Leicester’s defensive problems. Leicester have promptly won two league games on the bounce and progressed in the EFL Cup, all the while conceding just a single goal.
That sums up Puel’s entire spell at Leicester, never more than three games from trouble and yet only three points behind Tottenham in fourth having played two of the pre-season title favourites. For the time being, all is calm and all is bright.
Six weeks without being top of the Premier League. We were getting worried for a minute there, but they’re still the team to beat.
Nuno Espirito Santo
The highest-ranked Portuguese Premier League manager. That piece of trivia might not initially seem meaningful, but Marco Silva is the new kid on the block and Jose Mourinho the apparently fallen – or falling – icon. Whisper it in Wolverhampton, but wouldn’t Nuno consider himself a fine replacement for Mourinho?
They’ve won seven matches in a row, and it hasn’t become a national story about Arsene Wenger’s potential redemption that ends up in just another false dawn. Praise be!
Manchester United, Ed Woodward and Jose Mourinho
First of all, this is on Manchester United. The club with the highest revenue in world football has failed to compete for the highest honours ever since Alex Ferguson left in 2013, a half-decade of comparative misery fuelled by seismic debt repayments. The richest club has been leveraged by the Glazer family, parasites who are doing more than most to slowly suck the lifeblood from Manchester United.
The club needs an effective structure in place, but everybody appointed in a position of authority is fighting the Glazer tide. A club underperforming so drastically on the pitch can only continue to lead the way off it for so long. In the world of commercial deals and revenue maximisation, Manchester United forgot what made them great. Or the owners didn’t care enough because they were happy to cream the proceeds.
Next, this is on Woodward. He is a businessman who has been remarkably successful at generating revenue through sponsorship deals, but the noodle, tractor and red wine partners have blinded him to what really matters. In the absence of a sporting director – a problem in itself – Woodward is responsible for ensuring Manchester United are in the best possible position to maximise their potential. In terms of on-pitch matters, he is guilty of dereliction of duty.
Woodward is not a football man – that phrase can be used without negative connotation – nor even a sporting one. But it does not take 30 years of experience in the game to understand how this season’s problems have arisen. Having campaigned for Jose Mourinho to get a new contract and thus trusting the manager implicitly, why didn’t Woodward go all out on the club’s transfer targets? When the clear issues between Mourinho and Paul Pogba threatened to spill over, why did Woodward not play mediator? For a man with so much business acumen, his crisis management has been wretched. A club is only as good as its leaders, and Manchester United are the ship without a captain.
Finally, this is on Mourinho. This squad may indeed not be as accomplished as Manchester City’s or possess the depth of Liverpool’s, but Mourinho is playing a difficult hand particularly poorly. And if the argument that Manchester United’s team cannot cope in a one-off situation with City or Liverpool carries some weight, how does Mourinho explain beating both last season and yet still finishing so far behind the leaders?
Since the beginning of last season, Manchester United have dropped 30 Premier League points against Huddersfield, Stoke, Leicester, Burnley, Southampton, Newcastle, West Brom, Brighton, West Ham and Wolves alone. If this were David Moyes, we would be lambasting the Scotsman for his inability to move United beyond mediocre. That list of clubs should be deeply embarrassing for Mourinho, and might well become his undoing.
The only reason to keep faith in Mourinho turning this situation around is if you consider this to be a blip, an exception to the norm. But what if this is Mourinho’s new norm? Everything that once made him great – defensive solidity, inspiring players, attacking efficiency, siege mentality – now looks lost, and we saw evidence of that three years ago at Chelsea. It is four seasons since he made a team greater than the sum of its parts. While Pep Guardiola and Jurgen Klopp are achieving success by making their players feel special, Mourinho’s sergeant major act only makes him look tired and bitter. The last six months have been an exercise in blame deflection, but it just doesn’t wash anymore. A manager who was once so fresh and invigorating has become yesterday’s news.
Saturday’s defeat to West Ham was monumental because Mourinho did ring changes. Back came Anthony Martial and out went Alexis Sanchez, while Scott McTominay was used as a central defender and £50m summer signing Fred was called off the bench and into a diamond midfield with two centre forwards. When a manager makes so many changes and the only difference is for his team to play with even less cohesion, the whole strategy looks like deckchair rearrangement on the Titanic. As the team selections get more bizarre and Manchester United fall further away from their reasonable expectations, the case for keeping the manager dissipates.
There are senior players underperforming, of that there is no doubt. Some should be admonished for their individual and collective failures. But a list of Manchester United players who play better for country than club includes Pogba, Jesse Lingard, Marcus Rashford, Victor Lindelof, Romelu Lukaku and Nemanja Matic. When so many players are failing, it suggests a flaw in the system and the manager. Those who accuse those players of downing tools might wonder how they would perform at work if they and their colleagues were regularly called out in public by a boss who seems more occupied with self-preservation and political point-scoring than the morale of his squad. Mourinho has made himself the master of demotivation.
Changes must come at Manchester United, if they are to climb back on their “f**king perch” without the use of ladders and ropes. But while alterations to the structure of the club and the sword of Glazercles require long-term fixes, the shorter-term buck perennially ends at the feet of the manager. If this is not a situation all of Mourinho’s own making, he has done nothing but throw his goodwill into the sea. The only thing that might save him is Woodward’s own lack of succession planning. How very Manchester United in 2018.
The headline is this: Mourinho has overseen Manchester United’s worst start to a Premier League season. We were all warned about the Portuguese’s third-season syndrome. But at least it is usually preceded by significant success.
Newcastle United is rotten on the inside. A club left out in the rain and wind by an errant owner has worn and torn in the stormy weather. If Rafael Benitez somehow managed to conjure a top-half finish last season, that feat will not be repeated.
So well done, Mike Ashley; well done indeed. You have managed to suffocate a social institution and leave it lying limp on the floor. When – and it is surely ‘when’ not ‘if’ – Benitez leaves, an army of supporters is prepared to vote with their feet. It is the least Ashley deserves.
Part way through their game against Burnley, Sky Sports put up a graphic to emphasise just how difficult Cardiff are finding Premier League life. After six games, they ranked 20th for passes, 20th for passes completed and 20th for passing accuracy. That in itself is no problem: Burnley ranked in similar positions last season. But Cardiff also ranked 20th for goals scored, 20th for goals conceded, and 20th for shots on target too.
Scoring against Burnley means that Neil Warnock is only in charge of the second-worst Premier League attack, but it’s a paper-thin silver lining surrounding growing storm clouds. Losing to Arsenal, Chelsea and Manchester City – and conceding 12 times in the process – was no disaster, but Cardiff have now faced three of the Premier League’s bottom five going into this weekend, two of them at home. They have taken two points and scored only one goal.
For Warnock, little surprise after the summer became an exercise in expectation management after failing to land many of his desired transfer targets. We have become accustomed to overachievement from unfancied clubs in recent seasons (Burnley, Bournemouth, Huddersfield), but the suspicion was that consolidation would be a bridge too far for Cardiff. Six weeks into the season, those predictions look spot on.
Huddersfield Town’s shooting
Last season, Huddersfield Town scored the joint-fewest goals of any Premier League team, six fewer than any other team that survived relegation. At 7.7%, their chance conversion was comfortably the worst in the division.
This season, the problem has got worse. On Saturday they were the better team against Tottenham in the first half but went in at half-time two goals behind. In their nine home games since the beginning of March, Huddersfield have scored one goal from 108 shots. Simply not good enough.
Are you in desperate need of a new job? Have you managed to secure an interview after months of applications? Well then get hold of Mark Hughes’ number, and let him talk you through his magic process. Boy must he come across well.
This is a manager who has now taken 22 points from his last 27 Premier League matches, and somehow secured a promotion in the process. Having taken Stoke City into the bottom three, Hughes took eight points from eight matches at Southampton and managed to sell it as a Great Escape. Nothing we have seen so far this season suggests that he has learnt enough lessons from Stoke.
The football is dull, the defensive organisation is poor and the results aren’t much better. Wolves are a club that has invested heavily in its present and future over the last 18 months, but they are also one moving in the right direction. Can the same be said of Southampton under Hughes?
In January, Manchester United made Sanchez the highest-paid player in the country. That was reflective of Sanchez’s expiring contract, but also because the Chilean was a short-term signing. At the age of 29 and with extensive Premier League experience, Sanchez was expected to hit the ground running.
Eight months later, Sanchez is still stuck in the starting blocks. Since his debut on January 31, he has scored half as many Premier League goals as Chris Smalling. The player bought to relieve the pressure on Romelu Lukaku has done the opposite. Sanchez’s party tricks are dribbling down a blind alley, misplacing a simple pass or straining his face into a contorted grimace as another promising opening passes by.
On Saturday, Sanchez was dropped from the Manchester United matchday squad entirely. Amongst the myriad bad news stories at Old Trafford, that deserves to stand tall. A player who has been paid £14.4m in wages alone since joining the club is now considered unfit for purpose for a must-win match against a bottom-half team. This has been a total disaster.
I know there will be a rush of Liverpool supporters telling me not to worry because Jurgen Klopp did the same thing with Andrew Robertson, but we are seven games into the league season and Liverpool’s new £50m midfielder has still not played a single minute.
The Robertson defence rings true, but he spoke this week about the ‘misery’ of his first three months at Anfield. If Klopp did indeed blood the left-back in gently, Mohamed Salah, Sadio Mane, Georginio Wijnaldum, Virgil van Dijk and many others at Liverpool didn’t go through the same process.
If Fabinho is fully on board with not playing in the competition for which he was signed, there is no problem. But I’m struggling to believe that is true. With Jordan Henderson starting ahead of the Brazilian and Naby Keita in such a big game, surely neither can be content with that status quo.
There is a certain irony in Cech injuring himself passing the ball to a central defender, given the demands on him in Unai Emery’s new system. But this was not a good time to let Bernd Leno make his overdue debut.
Leno made an excellent save from Troy Deeney at 0-0, and enters the team with the goodwill of many Arsenal supporters. Cech’s only option is to focus on his short-term recovery, and hope that Leno doesn’t do enough in his absence to usurp him.
No Premier League team has been involved in games including more goals than Fulham, but being labelled as ‘entertainers’ is less of a compliment when you’ve taken only five points from seven games and sit precariously close to the relegation zone.
Fulham bought an array of names over the summer, including a £27m midfielder, an £18m striker and two forwards signed on loan from Champions League clubs. They did sign defenders – how can you not when you recruit 12 first-team players – but did Slavisa Jokanovic focus too much on the attacking third?
Fulham have now conceded two or more goals in six of their seven matches, and no team in the league has allowed their opponents to register more shots on target. On Saturday, Fulham started with two central defenders that made 88 appearances for the second-worst defence in the Championship’s top eight last season. It showed.