Ole Gunnar Solskjaer
The best week of his tenure, and that includes the period in temporary charge that led to his hasty appointment. In winning at the Etihad on Saturday, Solskjaer became the first manager to beat both Jose Mourinho and Pep Guardiola in the same week. He also pushed Manchester United closer to the top four.
This was a similar Manchester United strategy to their other Big Six successes. In five games against those teams this season, United have 11 points and are unbeaten. They sacrifice possession (28% against City on Saturday) and look to exploit the opposition on the counter. That fits the profile of their attack perfectly. Against both City and Tottenham, Solskjaer’s United took advantage of their opponent’s flaws; Mourinho picked an odd central midfield and Guardiola is struggling to organise his defence.
Solskjaer deserves plenty of credit for sticking with that plan at the Etihad. By leaving Marcus Rashford and Daniel James high up the pitch, Solskjaer risked his team being swamped by City but gambled on Rashford making the most of the space behind Kyle Walker. It worked a treat as United were a constant threat on the break and played with an intensity that matched the first-half performance against Liverpool.
The flipside is that United look badly short of creativity when playing lesser opponents. They have taken 13 points from 11 matches against non-Big Six teams this season. The frustration at struggling to create clear-cut chances when not allowed to play on the counter causes midfielders to push forward and leave United themselves exposed.
But let’s focus on this weekend, because Solskjaer merits only praise. This column has been quick to criticise when he has got it wrong (and readers have enjoyed pointing that out) and couldn’t quite fathom why he was in charge for this week, but Solskjaer’s answer was emphatic. The applause from Sir Alex Ferguson in the stands at full-time suggests that the public vote of confidence in Solskjaer was more than a PR exercise.
Now read 16 Conclusions.
Another regulation win, and another step closer to the title. The speed at which Liverpool’s relentlessness has become normalised is extraordinary. They haven’t lost a league game since January. They haven’t dropped a league point at home since the same month.
Having rested Mohamed Salah and Roberto Firmino against Everton and won by three goals, this time Jurgen Klopp rested Sadio Mane and saw exactly the same thing happen. The variation in Liverpool’s goalscorers will please Klopp. Since the beginning of November alone, 12 different players have scored for him.
There is a misnomer that passion has been pushed to the fringes of the game by modern methods. It’s all bloody tactics and nutrition now isn’t it, Jeff? You’re not allowed to shout at players.
But speak to anyone in the Premier League, and they know it still matters. At the top level, every player is capable of producing brilliance. Sometimes, they just need to be made to believe and be reminded how much this all means to those who follow them. Making players care as much as supporters is an impossible task, but inspiration and motivation is a sliding scale.
Nobody cares as much about Everton as Ferguson. He has a version of the club’s crest tattooed on his left arm, and would have stood in the Gwladys Street end screaming his heart out on Saturday had he not been doing exactly the same thing from the home dugout. His job was to pass on some of that love to a group of players who have been treading water for too long.
And Ferguson did make a difference. As Sky Sports’ Adam Bate tweeted, Everton made more tackles than any other team in a Premier League game this season and more than they had made in a league match all decade. That is not a coincidence. Ferguson used his programme notes to detail his pride at managing Everton, and we can safely assume that his pre-match team talk contained a similar message. Everton’s players were given a jolt at precisely the time they needed it most.
Ferguson may not stay as manager for a long time. It is fair to reason that his motivational techniques lend themselves best to short-term improvement than long-term progression. But that’s not the point. For as long as Big Dunc lives, he will look back on December 7, 2019 with fondness as he remembers dancing down the touchline and roaring in celebration of a victory that he inspired. What could feel better than making a positive difference to something or someone you love?
The best player in the Premier League this weekend. The recent focus has been on what Wan-Bissaka can’t do rather than what he can. He is not a surging, attacking full-back and his final ball is regularly poor. When you pay big money for a full-back in 2019, you do expect some attacking credentials.
But then Wan-Bissaka is a damn fine defender, and is therefore perfect for games such as these. He shackled Raheem Sterling majestically, and United playing with wide forwards on the counter reduces the onus on Wan-Bissaka to push forward and join in with their attacks. Bloody hell England have so many right-backs.
Those supporters who got on his back should feel bloody stupid. Rashford has gone from a forward low on confidence to the leader of Manchester United’s attack at the age of just 22. Since the 1-0 defeat Newcastle United, he has scored 13 goals in 13 starts for club and country. And he can take penalties now. He is one of the best in Europe.
Newcastle 2019/20 are a baffling team. Watching them is not a pleasant experience. They sacrifice possession and try and play on the counter, but if that doesn’t work they go long to a central striker. They have spent money on three attackers in 2019, and yet their defenders score the majority of their goals. They rarely play well for long periods in games and are bottom of the expected goals table, yet keep winning matches. Nobody can quite work them out, least of all the supporters that aren’t sure whether to cheer or be worried.
But Bruce has every right to be delighted. If Newcastle are not finding that victories come easy, they are at least finding victories. The key to success in the Premier League’s bottom half is to make the most of the rub of the green and defend doggedly during times of adversity. Right now, that’s exactly what Bruce’s Newcastle are doing.
Jamie Vardy and Coleen Rooney
I’m not saying it’s all a conspiracy that goes to the very top, but since Coleen outed Rebekah Vardy on Twitter her husband has scored in eight Premier League matches in a row. A grand plan masterminded by boyhood Everton supporter Wayne Rooney to motivate Vardy and stop Liverpool winning the league? Not for me to say.
Sheffield United’s away record
We’re in December and the Premier League has two teams still unbeaten away from home. One of them are the runaway leaders, and the other is a promoted club who were second favourites to be relegated at the start of the season.
What’s more impressive than Sheffield United being unbeaten away from home in all competitions since January is that they have come from behind seven times in that period. The resilience is real.
Son Heung-Min and Jose Mourinho
“I want to congratulate Son. It’s the third time in a row he’s Asian player of the year. I am in love with that guy, so I imagine the people that are here with him four or five years. Fantastic boy” – Mourinho, December 2.
“He’s very kind. He’s smiling, making jokes with the players. I like it, of course. I think the results changed a lot, the positive vibe. Everyone is positive before games. The gaffer is doing a great job and we are really happy with him. The atmosphere changed a lot with the positive vibes” – Son, December 3.
“Even before this goal my son calls him Sonaldo, and today he was Sonaldo Nazario. The only thing that came to my mind was a goal where I had the honour to be sat next to Sir Bobby Robson, in 1996, and Ronaldo Nazario scored a goal against Compostela from behind the halfway line and scored a very similar goal” – Mourinho, December 7.
A match made in heaven, and a blossoming bromance. If it means more goals like the one on Saturday, we should all be delighted.
Judge a world-class footballer not by his best seasons, but his worst. Ever since August people have been clicking and clucking about Kane suffering a drop in form. His two goals on Saturday made it 25 in 26 matches this season for club and country. Some disaster.
That/those racist twat(s)
A losers section that opens with the focus off the pitch rather than on it, to make the ‘stick to football’ brigade clear their throats and begin their whining. They can stick their fingers in their ears and insist that football must exist on a tranquil island far away from the travails of everyday life if they wish, but the rest of us are a little more realistic.
Football is a reflection of society. It cannot escape that, and never will. Everyone that voted for Brexit is not a racist, and to suggest as much is to be deeply ignorant. But it is certainly true that those with racist beliefs and dogmas have felt more empowered since the result of that referendum. Proof lies in the increase in the number of hate crimes since. We have become a divided country that mistrusts difference.
Gary Neville was spot on on Sky Sports, and all power to him for using his position. We have a Prime Minister that called black people “piccaninnies”, said they had “watermelon smiles” and said Muslim women looked like “letter boxes” and barely apologised for his words. His punishment was to become the leader of the country and likely continue in that position after this week.
If the most powerful person in the land can use such language and remain untouchable, it’s hardly a leap to see how that might make others with racist views feel more legitimised to display them at a football match. It’s not as simple as one twat copying the behaviour of the Prime Minister, because that’s not how this ever works. It’s about the creeping normalisation of hatred that festers and grows as it remains unchecked or unaddressed, and becomes rampant when it is weaponised through use as a political instrument.
But this is also about an increased tribalism. Even if that dickhead – or dickheads – at Manchester City on Saturday had racist views before (and we can safely assume he did), the reason he made those gestures at Fred and Aaron Wan-Bissaka was because they play for a rival club. There is a growing anger in football that brings out the worst in football supporters – in this case an abhorrent racist supporter. But to repeat: if you’re racist when you’re angry, you’re still racist.
That tribalism extended after the incident, when Liverpool supporters on social media accused Raheem Sterling of a dereliction of duty for not identifying the supporter to nearby stewards. Sterling, who has already suffered a verbal racist attack at Stamford Bridge and a physical racist attack outside Manchester City’s training ground. How dare they make this about him? How dare they frame this incident through the prism of their own support? Can we all grow the f*ck up?
If we are to (rightly) cry foul about the racist abuse against English footballers in Montenegro and Bulgaria, and pour scorn on Serie A’s ineffectiveness in dealing with their problems, we must do everything within our own power to stamp it out in our own backyard. Let’s not pretend we have a society that isn’t weighted against people of colour. Let’s not pretend that the Etihad incident was a grim one-off. Two hours earlier, Forest Green vs Scunthorpe in League Two was suspended after supporter racism.
City responded appropriately and swiftly, and will presumably ban the fan for life. He will face criminal charges. It’s a positive thing that the reaction in damning the supporter was so universal. But it is miserable that it is happening at all, and that merits being the headline.
Again, football is a reflection of society. But that doesn’t mean it should hide behind that as a defence, holding up its hands as if to say “this sh*t is bigger than us”. Rather than accepting its place, football can lead the fight against racism. We all have a responsibility. If you hear anything racist at a football match, call it out. Don’t let your club loyalty determine your reaction to abhorrent behaviour. It doesn’t make you a grass or disloyal. It makes you a decent human being.
Manchester City’s disorganisation
It is extraordinary how quickly and easily Manchester City have fallen into disarray. One injury really has broken their season, because their title challenge is now over. Even if City win every game, they would need Liverpool to drop more points in their next 22 league games than they have in their last 43. And that’s ignoring Leicester City, who now have an attack, midfield and defence that are in better form than City’s.
Pep Guardiola has played his part in this decline. When Aymeric Laporte sustained his injury, Guardiola’s first reaction was to move Fernandinho back into central defence. That did two things: 1) it unbalanced City’s central midfield which lost Fernandinho’s tracking and tackling, and 2) it made it perfectly clear to the other central defenders in the squad that Guardiola didn’t really fancy them. It would have been a logical plan if Rodri had been able to hold the fort in midfield and Fernandinho had covered adequately for Laporte’s absence, but neither are true.
To exacerbate that problem, Guardiola is unconvinced by any of his full-back options. He has long doubted Benjamin Mendy’s suitability, but Angelino is nowhere near the standard required yet to replace him. Kyle Walker’s form has tailed off over the past 18 months but Joao Cancelo has hardly snatched the right-back spot off him. The result is an uncertain defensive structure with regular changes in personnel and a midfield that looks constantly vulnerable to a counter-attack.
Perhaps Manchester City were affected more than we thought by the defeat at Carrow Road. Last season, they won games before they started because they had established the psychological advantage that only comes with supreme form. They coasted through late season because opposition managers were happy to lose 2-0 and save themselves for more realistic chances to take points.
That Norwich loss signified the bursting of a balloon. No longer did teams need to be afraid of Manchester City. If they attacked them, they could expose flaws. And they have.
Until now, the headline of Chelsea’s season has been the blossoming of their young attacking players under a new manager appointed with a mandate to play them. Mason Mount, Tammy Abraham, Christian Pulisic and Callum Hudson-Odoi have all taken turns to flourish.
But as Chelsea wobble – and it’s one win and three defeats in their last five games in all competitions – the more dominant theme is a defensive unease that is threatening to hamper their progress. In 24 matches in a competitions under Lampard, they have kept four clean sheets. After the same number of games last season, Chelsea had 12.
For all the improvement of the attacking players, Chelsea’s young defenders are struggling. Fikayo Tomori has now been dropped after several disappointing displays, but his replacement Andreas Christensen is not an improvement on recent evidence. Kurt Zouma is the virtual ever-present and the most experienced of the three, but he too is floundering. With January providing Chelsea with the opportunity to buy, an experienced old head would make sense. There’s a lad called Gary Cahill playing well at Crystal Palace.
The common wisdom is that Pearson is lucky to get another Premier League job, having left clubs in the Championship and Belgian second tier in each of his last jobs. But on the evidence of Saturday, maybe not. Pearson has a contract to keep Watford in the Premier League. It is a shot to nothing on the part of both manager and club.
It is not that Watford were dreadful against Crystal Palace, and they stopped the visitors having a single shot on target. But every time Watford tried to quicken the play and stretch their opponents, they made a mistake. Passes were misplaced, runs not spotted and chances snatched. The groans from the Vicarage Road crowd pushed the team back into their shell. Ismaila Sarr is the one exciting creative outlet, and his final ball is unreliable.
Watford are six points from safety, have the worst goal difference in the division and Pearson’s first two games in charge are against Liverpool and Manchester United. Someone in his family should make sure he gets some good Christmas presents.
Burnley’s long-term away form
The recent 3-0 away win at Watford was excellent, but it goes against Burnley’s general pattern. In their last 33 away games in all competitions, stretching back to April 2018, Burnley have only beaten Watford, Bournemouth, Brighton, Huddersfield and Cardiff away from home.
If Sean Dyche’s side were once defined by a reputation for making life unpleasant for the best teams, that has now entirely evaporated. So far this season, Burnley have taken two from a possible 30 points against the teams that sit above them in the table.