As far as fortnights go, Jose Mourinho could hardly have planned this one any better. A victory from one goal down at home to Chelsea was followed by a win from two goals down away at Crystal Palace. There was no need for a spirited comeback against Liverpool, such was their control over 90 minutes.
You should read 16 Conclusions from the 2-1 win at Old Trafford, but suffice to say the consequences of defeat would have been far-reaching. United would have slipped below Liverpool in the Premier League table, and the gap to Tottenham would have eventually been just one point. Confidence would have been sapped and momentum lost before the crucial Champions League last-16 second-leg tie with Sevilla on Tuesday.
But these are the sort of fine margins with which Jose Mourinho has thrived, and most impressive is that this run of victories has been achieved because of him, not in spite of him. The Portuguese’s capacity to change the course of a game has been questioned, but this was just the latest example of his managerial expertise.
Against Chelsea, he brought Jesse Lingard on as a substitute; he scored the winner within nine minutes. Against Palace, he introduced Marcus Rashford at 2-0 down at half-time, Juan Mata and Luke Shaw later on, and changed United’s shape; they recovered to claim all three points. Against Liverpool, he identified a weak point in the opposition, a chink in their considerable armour, and ruthlessly exposed it.
“My intention was to give a direct opponent to Arnold,” Mourinho said after the game. “Lukaku was confident, from experience, he could be dominant over Lovren.” United targeted 55% of their attacks down Liverpool’s right-hand side, predicting that the combination of Trent Alexander-Arnold and Dejan Lovren would crumble under pressure. It was the perfect plan.
Mourinho’s style has been questioned in such matches, as he so often centres his game plans around the opposition and forgets that his expensively assembled squad can do damage themselves. At Old Trafford, he managed to accentuate United’s strengths while nullifying Liverpool’s. That is a difficult balancing act, and the difference between a hard-fought draw and a well-earned win.
Manchester City and Pep Guardiola cannot be caught this season, but United have finally established themselves as their closest challengers for the next campaign. To beat Antonio Conte and Jurgen Klopp – two of his supposed superiors and would-be exposers of his ‘archaic’ methods – in the space of 13 days is as big a personal victory as a team one.
“I just feel sorry when someone like Marcus Rashford is going to be thinking ‘this is another pathway blocked for me’. He might have to go in the end. It doesn’t help your confidence. Every time you are training you think ‘I’m not going to play on Saturday’.”
It would be foolish to pretend Jamie Redknapp was alone in his assessment of Marcus Rashford’s opportunities at United with the arrival of Alexis Sanchez. But the key is in how Rashford took his first-team chances, and he duly dispatched the two that presented themselves at Old Trafford. The 20-year-old has now scored more goals (3) in 237 minutes since Sanchez’s debut than the Chilean (1) in 753.
It was only the third time Mohamed Salah has had one shot in the Premier League this season, and on the other two occasions (v Man City in September and v Newcastle in October), he failed to complete the full 90 minutes. It was also the first time Salah hasn’t had a shot on target in the Premier League since December 13. And it was only the fifth time he has started a Premier League game this campaign without scoring or assisting a goal. Two of those have come against Manchester United.
All hail Ashley Young.
Our early winner. Aleksandar Mitrovic’s comments were used to question the approach of a manager trying to achieve survival with a broken compass, a couple of plasters and a half-eaten packet of crisps, but the response was emphatic. Newcastle were excellent on the counter-attack against Southampton, scoring three goals with 37% of the possession. They were the only club currently in a congested bottom half to win.
No wins in 12 becomes two wins in two, and a brilliant season threatening to go up in smoke has had its fire stoked once more. Burnley were eight points behind Arsenal and ten clear of the relegation zone on March 2. Ten days later, they are five off the pace of Arsenal and enjoy a 16-point cushion to the bottom three.
The Clarets were undoubtedly the benefactors of West Ham infighting, but they earned their victory at the London Stadium. They have now won as many Premier League away games this season (5) as in their previous three full campaigns combined.
It should not be forgotten that West Ham were in the ascendancy on Saturday. Sean Dyche admitted that the Hammers “were the better side in the first half” and Burnley “had to do the ugly stuff to stay in it”. Only after weathering the storm could they continue their journey towards victory.
Dyche introduced Chris Wood as a substitute in the 61st minute, and it changed the game entirely. He replaced Jeff Hendrick instead of Ashley Barnes, meaning Burnley reverted to a formation with two strikers. West Ham could not cope, and Wood thrived. He ended the game with two goals and one assist in less than half an hour.
Burnley’s highest-ever Premier League finish is 16th. In terms of points, they are closer to Arsenal in sixth than Everton in ninth. Their New Year slump has prevented this becoming a historic season, but not a brilliant one. That’s in the bag.
“There is a bit too much of a pressure on him at the minute,” said Sam Allardyce on Friday, hurriedly removing the shackles he himself had placed around Cenk Tosun’s ankles. The Everton boss was right in that the immediate expectation based on price can be a difficult burden for a player to shoulder, particularly when arriving in a new league in a new country. But while sympathy can be extended to the player, it was soon eroded for the manager.
“It might not work,” said Allardyce six days after spending £27m on Tosun. “There are more that struggle than actually succeed,” was the message in February, which became “we don’t have a finisher to put the ball in the back of the net” just two weeks later.
Allardyce might sell it as effective man-management, or proof of his ability to motivate a player. Tosun deserves the credit for scoring in consecutive starts.
Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang and Henrikh Mkhitaryan
If reports of ‘growing resentment’ in the Arsenal squad towards Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang and Henrikh Mkhitaryan really are true, this was a fine riposte. The claim was that the two January signings ‘have yet to justify salaries that dwarf those of their team-mates’, but teammates airing such complaints ought to look a little closer to home in an effort to explain the pay gap.
Arsenal took the lead early on against Watford through Shkodran Mustafi, but it was only when Aubameyang and Mkhitaryan combined to devastating effect that they looked assured. The latter assisted the former to make it 2-0; the former set up the latter for 3-0.
Neither Aubameyang nor Mkhitaryan will be truly content with their performances since joining, but the key is that the ceiling to their potential is considerably higher than the majority of their teammates. Arsenal have scored 15 goals in nine games since January transfer deadline day; Aubameyang and Mkhitaryan have scored or assisted eight of them.
After 11 games, the long wait is finally over. He might not be worth 15 points to Arsenal, but his 200th Premier League clean sheet is certainly one to savour.
Crystal Palace created six chances against Chelsea. Wilfried Zaha provided half of them, and only played half the match. He also did not misplace a single pass, and assisting Patrick van Aanholt’s late consolation. And this was his first game back from an injury that had kept him sidelined for over a month. His introduction at half-time might not have salvaged anything at Stamford Bridge, but it did serve as a reminder that Palace can call on the best player in the bottom half in their fight for survival.
An injury to Harry Kane would ordinarily be enough to send Tottenham into a panicked frenzy, yet in Son Heung-min they have a player in even better form. Kane has scored seven goals in his last 10 games; Son has taken just four matches to reach that same mark.
Amid tiresome accusations of ‘bottling it’ against Juventus in midweek, Tottenham provided a timely example of their character on Sunday. They went a goal down away at Bournemouth, lost their top goalscorer to injury, and felt the warm breath of Chelsea on their necks. Lesser teams, lesser players, would collapse under the pressure.
Not Son, who stepped up in Kane’s stead, had six shots and, if Mauricio Pochettino’s views are anything to go by, “is having his best season since he arrived”. He has more goals in all competitions (18) than Arsenal’s top two goalscorers combined (17).
Huddersfield had 30 shots on Saturday; 11 were blocked, and only four were on target. Since Carlos Carvalhal was appointed on December 28, only five Premier League clubs have conceded fewer goals (11). In the 20 games before, only five clubs had conceded more (31).
A quite brilliant goal from a player fuelled by a diet of Skittle vodka, Red Bull and winding up West Brom fans.
West Ham’s ‘leaders’
To those who described the situation at Arsenal as “toxic” after back-to-back defeats at Manchester City, West Ham are the true example of a club administered poison by their supposed guardians. Davids Gold and Sullivan and Karren Brady watched on as the Hammers imploded on and off the pitch at the London Stadium.
Rather than this being the house they built, it is the one they are threatening to inadvertently destroy. False promises and grandiose expectations are one thing, but standing by as supporters turn on each other as a result of their own mismanagement is another.
The pitch invasions were the sort of scenes we are contractually obliged to call ‘ugly’, yet Daniel Storey put it best:
‘Violence is unforgivable, but it is the result of rising anger. Anger that stems from thousands of loyal, passionate supporters being taken advantage of by their club. There is a direct correlation between the ineptitude of West Ham’s ownership, the performances on the pitch and the disillusionment from the stands. Football club management – and mismanagement – begins at the top and drips down. Everyone at West Ham is covered in the slurry.’
Those in charge at the club cannot say there were no warning signs. A planned protest march ahead of Saturday’s game was effectively neutered through intimidation from the former Real West Ham Fans Action Group, set up by founders of the infamous 1970s Inter-City Firm, a group who has held meetings with the West Ham board recently. Head of the West Ham United Independent Supporters’ Association, Mark Walker, has suggested he will never attend a game again after being the subject of intimidation and threat of violence.
“It would help relations massively if the club would issue some form of words and I especially expect that of Brady because she is in the House of Lords, so is held to a much higher degree than everyone else,” Walker told The Guardian. “For her to not condemn what’s happened is particularly disappointing for me.”
West Ham’s only response to the situation was to organise a Sir Bobby Moore memorial day, a two-pronged approach of quelling rebellion and appealing to supporters who feel increasingly disillusioned with a club shedding its identity. Yet this was more fan enragement than fan engagement. A day to celebrate the life of a legend morphed into a day to mourn the slow, painful strangling of a football club.
Southampton have still not been in the Premier League’s bottom two all season. Southampton are still in the FA Cup quarter-finals, and face a League One club in the last eight. Southampton are still sleepwalking towards relegation.
As Nick Harris noted, Newcastle are ‘a Championship squad who, thanks to their manager, could end mid-table Premier League’. Southampton, on the other hand, are ‘the opposite’. A squad containing Euro 2016-winner Cedric Soares, £15million signing Wesley Hoedt, Manchester City target Ryan Bertrand, £15.4m purchase Mario Lemina, Dusan Tadic, Nathan Redmond and £19m buy Guido Carrillo should not be battling relegation.
The common denominator is Mauricio Pellegrino. These under-performing players should not be absolved of blame, yet they are being sent into battle blindfolded and with no bullets. The irony of the manager’s safety-first mentality sending Southampton down could persuade Alanis Morissette into a re-write.
It took just 20 minutes for the away fans to make their displeasure known at St James’ Park. As Southampton broke forward, the ball was played to ordinary player Cedric Soares on the right-hand side. The right-back was in a fine position to cross to the waiting Carrillo, but instead turned and played the ball backwards to Pierre-Emile Højbjerg. The boos rang out and the sting was taken out of a promising attack, and yet it felt as though this was a directive from a manager desperate not to take any risks.
Not doing so is a risk in itself. Newcastle were well-drilled on Saturday, acclimatising to the opponent and counter-attacking with devastating incisiveness. Southampton treat every game the exact same, with their plodding approach and negative tactics compounded with the continued use of a formation that is simply not working.
It sounds simple, but only because it is: it is a manager’s job to manage. Pellegrino is failing miserably on that front.
Few people expected Jurgen Klopp to say anything different after Liverpool’s defeat to Manchester United, but it was a disappointing response all the same. “I think it was a clear penalty between Fellaini on Mane,” he said. “At least one point would have been absolutely fair for us.”
The Liverpool’s manager’s rationale may be that his side had more possession, more shots and more corners, but that was the United plan coming to fruition. The Reds were held at arm’s length throughout.
If Klopp truly does believe that Liverpool deserved “at least one point”, he should consider that, had Juan Mata taken his time when picked out in the area completely unmarked, United would have been 3-0 up. The Spaniard’s decision to try and score a bicycle kick was an attempt to add insult to injury, but the hosts had already won the slanging match by then anyway.
Do read 16 Conclusions for more, won’t you? Come back here afterwards, mind.
It was not quite a repeat of the Wembley disaster in October, but Lovren had his lunch money taken, his shirt ripped and his head dunked in the toilet by Romelu Lukaku at Old Trafford. Joel Matip has a few questions.
“Before you even ask me the question, will I speak to those upstairs? Yes I will, of course I will because it’s getting difficult. For me, it’s about planning for next week and getting ready for a difficult game at Bournemouth and that’s what I will do.
“But I will still talk to them and get a feeling of what they think because they might think a change is a better thing for the club, I don’t know.”
West Brom have broken Alan Pardew. There is no bravado, no bluster. Defeat to Leicester was followed by what almost seemed like a plea for dismissal from a manager who has won seven of his last 54 Premier League matches.
Not only was he offered a lesson in how to play as a centre-forward from Olivier Giroud, Alvaro Morata continued his fine personal record of petulance. Since the start of October, he has now received more yellow cards (10) than he has scored or assisted (8) in all competitions.
Morata, on a yellow (which was earned in idiotic fashion), knocks the linesman's flag out of his hand. incredibly stupid move. lucky boy not to be off. pic.twitter.com/Bf9vT11iWQ
— amadí (@amadoit__) March 10, 2018
Thirty shots (to zero), 81.2% possession (to 18.8%), 12 corners (to zero), 26 chances created (to zero), 79 minutes with a one-man advantage, yet only one point to show for their efforts.
A lesson in sh*thousery: If you are going to criticise a team for their lack of “cojones”, don’t then let Petr Cech save his first Premier League penalty in seven years, and his first ever for Arsenal.
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