This was far from the perfect Tottenham performance, and far from the perfect performance from a Jose Mourinho team. But if there was ever a manager for whom the result mattered more than the display, it is Mourinho. Tottenham won their first away league game since January; it allowed Tottenham’s new manager to talk post-match about lifting the mood suffered under his predecessor. That is straight out of the Mourinho playbook.
Mourinho will be irked by his team’s sloppiness in allowing West Ham back into the match, but if they were thankful for Lukasz Fabianski’s absence, Tottenham never looked likely to collect anything less than three points from the moment Son Heung-Min gave them a first-half lead. Tottenham have been short of belief when playing outside of north London, but it did not show here.
There were also early signs of where Mourinho might look to get quick wins. Dele Alli has improved in recent weeks but still produced his best performance in months and offered evidence that he can adapt to the No. 10 role that Mourinho loves. Ben Davies deputised effectively at left-back and looks a more reliable option than Danny Rose under this manager. Harry Kane started in the manner of a centre-forward who has been told to reserve his energy for penalty-box duties, but by the time Tottenham took the lead was dropping deep to link play as we know he can. Both of the wide players picked by Mourinho scored, although Lucas Moura will need to learn to track back more dutifully.
Just as telling were the players Mourinho omitted. Moussa Sissoko was left out of the league starting XI for the first time this season, while none of Tottenham’s summer signings made the team and Ryan Sessegnon did not even make the match-day squad. Rose was also left on the bench after his very public mutiny. If anyone is going to call out his club to the media, it is Mourinho and not his senior players.
This is not the time to draw any far-reaching conclusions on Mourinho’s Tottenham, but he still tops the winners list simply because he is back. Having spoken about his desperation to get back into his “natural habitat”, Mourinho has landed on his feet with a project that gives him a shot at redeeming his reputation post-Manchester United. If many Tottenham supporters remain uneasy or unconvinced, an initial surge of form will get plenty back on side.
Manchester City, coming from behind
Pep Guardiola would never choose to fall behind in a match, but he must have been particularly pleased with the manner of Manchester City’s comeback against a team that started Saturday’s match above them. The mini-crisis is over.
There have been two ongoing themes of City’s defeats this season. The first is their tendency to concede goals in clusters (two in ten minutes against Wolves and Norwich, two in seven minutes against Liverpool), but against Chelsea they regrouped after early setback and did not double down on calamity.
The second theme – linked to the first – is City’s inability to come from behind to take points. Before Saturday, Liverpool had taken ten points from matches in which they had conceded the opening goal, with Leicester second in that table on seven. City had taken only three, fewer than Arsenal, Tottenham, Wolves, Newcastle, Sheffield United and Crystal Palace. The accusation is that Guardiola’s philosophy is so set in stone that his teams can struggle to cope when something knock them from the path. Against Chelsea, they overcame that knock.
City end the weekend as they started it thanks to Liverpool’s late goal at Selhurst Park, but they will head into this week’s Champions League fixture with added belief that defeat to Liverpool has not caused the long-lasting psychological effects that would surely have ended their title challenge. With their league season on the line at 1-0, City found a way.
Now read 16 Conclusions.
Liverpool’s late goals
Playing well but without the vigour and vim of early 2019 and getting the job done regardless. This is the new Liverpool, and it’s a damn handy ability to have.
So too is their habit of scoring late goals. Whether you call it Kloppage time or Jurgie time – I’ll let you decide which is the least laboured pun – Liverpool are scoring more crucial late goals than any other team in Europe. So far this season they have won seven points in the last five minutes of their league matches. That’s the difference between healthy lead and Leicester City dreaming of another miracle.
The perfect Jurgen Klopp player? Perhaps. Mane is not a leader through force of personality, but by example. He is sensational but without an ounce of selfishness. He’s efficient, too: since the start of last season, Mane has scored 30 league goals from just 57 shots on target. By way of comparison, Mohamed Salah has two fewer goals from 26 more shots on target.
Just as important is when Mane scores his goals. So far this season, he has been Liverpool’s first scorer of the match seven times. If Salah is still struggling with the limitations of a niggling injury, Mane has taken on his responsibilities to carry this team forward. He should be a Ballon D’Or contender.
Featured way down the winners list after a 2-0 away win, which demonstrates just how relentless Leicester have become under Brendan Rodgers. It’s now six straight wins in all competitions, for those keeping count. The only away games Leicester have failed to win this season were against Liverpool, Chelsea and Manchester United. They are a thing of counter-attacking beauty.
Liverpool’s remarkable form makes a serious title challenge difficult, but that hardly needs to be the cause of any disappointment. Leicester have scored the second most goals and have the best defence, giving them the joint-best goal difference in the division. They lost their flagship central defender in the summer for an eye-watering fee and have responded by keeping the most clean sheets in the division while taking nothing away from their attacking prowess. They have conceded more than once in a game only once, the late, late penalty that consigned them to defeat at Anfield.
But none of that counts as the most remarkable Leicester City statistic. That honour goes to the fact that Rodgers’ team have more points at the same stage of the season as the title winners in 2015/16. Woof.
The team that best epitomises this bizarre Premier League season where reputation counts for nothing and teams seem intent on flitting between runs of good and poor form seamlessly. Seven matches ago, Wolves were 19th in the table and winless, amid growing pressure on Nuno to cope with the combined workload of Europa League and Premier League with a smallish squad. Now they’re fifth in the table and only Liverpool have lost fewer league games this season.
Two successive 3-0 wins to alleviate fears of a relegation scrap. The romp at Watford was Burnley’s joint-biggest margin of top-flight away win since 1965. The chasm between the two clubs proves the worth of an organised, intelligent and savvy manager. How Watford must wish they could have Sean Dyche back.
Just when you think that Norwich are sinking without trace, they suck you back in with an extraordinary victory in the Mike Walker derby that puts Daniel Farke’s side three points behind West Ham and four behind Everton. Would you really back against them humbling Arsenal if Unai Emery is still in charge?
Everton really wanted this to work out. They pursued Silva twice, once when he was employed by Watford and once after he had been sacked. They allowed him to spend freely on his squad, albeit under the guidance of Marcel Brands. They made him their future. And this week they may make him their past.
To an extent, Silva can claim slight misfortune. Everton are sixth in the Premier League for chances created and – remarkably – only Manchester City have faced fewer shots this season. Silva and his team are poor at taking their chances and are being punished fully for their defensive errors. They are transpiring to lose matches that they should win.
But it’s hardly a watertight defence for keeping a manager who has failed to meet expectations ever since his appointment. Everton have lost four times to teams currently in the bottom half, and they have lost to Burnley and Sheffield United without scoring on top of that. Being four points above the bottom three in late November is embarrassing for Silva, but being there having played only three matches against the top seven is far worse.
Everton now have a huge decision to make. Reports suggesting that they may turn back to David Moyes or opt for Mark Hughes’ pragmatism are uninspiring, but you can see why they might take the short-term option to ward off further crisis. Keep Silva in charge for much longer, and it really could get worse. Their next six opponents: Leicester, Liverpool, Chelsea, Manchester United, Leicester, Arsenal.
Unai Emery and Arsenal’s ‘leaders’
Somehow still in a job at the time of writing. It’s never great news when supporters are cursing a late equaliser because it makes the manager more likely to keep his job, but this was as bad as it has been at the Emirates. Southampton had 21 shots and managed more shots on target than Arsenal. They fully merited the victory that would surely have caused the Saturday night Arsenal ‘corner flag image’ tweet.
Since the beginning of April, Arsenal have now failed to beat Crystal Palace (twice), Brighton, Wolves and Southampton at the Emirates. That’s important because before that run Arsenal had won ten straight matches at home. Even the areas in which Emery impressed last season have now turned to dust. There are no good reasons to believe he is worthy of keeping his position.
On Saturday, the same old Arsenal. The attack is comprised of excellent parts but plays with too little cohesion and suffers from dismal service. The midfield is a creativity vacuum and yet still fails to protect the defensive adequately, and the defending is as scruffy as Martin Samuel on Sunday Supplement. Emery changes the players on a game-by-game basis but has still not found a team. That would be a permissible excuse for stuttering form if the manager was 18 days into his new job, but not 18 months.
But this is not just on Emery. It is true that he has wholly failed in his task to turn Arsenal back into top-four contenders, but it is also true that he is trying his best. If he deserves blame for a lack of competence, those above him deserve blame for prolonging the misery and wasting this season with each passing day they continue to put misguided faith in it working out.
There are two reasons to persist with an underperforming manager. The first is optimism, a belief that progress is being made and that improvements lie just around the corner. The second is a weakness on the part of the decision-makers, a fear of making the significant calls. That is the opposite of leadership.
Either the people in power at Arsenal have been hoodwinked into thinking success is near despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary, or they are scared of sacking Emery and admitting their own mistake. Either way, that makes them complicit in this mess.
Manuel Pellegrini and West Ham’s meek acceptance
A list of strong indicators that a P45 might be landing on your desk soon:
– Your players shirk tackles even when things are going wrong.
– The players you bring into the team with a point to prove are your worst performers.
– One of your substitutions is booed as the player comes onto the pitch.
– When away fans chant that you are about to be sacked, home fans applaud.
– You captain demands passion from his teammates before the game, before meek acceptance of a three-goal deficit.
– You keep picking a goalkeeper whose hands are made of polystyrene and clouds, who then makes a mistake.
– The stadium begins to empty on 50 minutes.
– Your team concede three goals for the third game in a row.
Eight out of eight for Pellegrini, who looks out of energy and out of ideas. He has been broken by the last two miserable months. They’re going to appoint Emery aren’t they?
Manchester United and Ole Gunnar Solskjaer
When Mauricio Pochettino was sacked by Tottenham last week, Manchester United leaked to the media that they were happy with Solskjaer because he had a vision for the club and they believed that results and performances were improving. That was after United had suffered their worst start to a league season in over 30 years. That makes this an extraordinary case of diminished expectations.
Are we allowed to ask what that vision is? So far all we have heard from Solskjaer are references to a glorious past that bears no relevance to Manchester United in 2019. That isn’t vision, quite the opposite; it’s misplaced nostalgia. And all the time United are moving further away from the top. They’re closer to the bottom three than top four.
Manchester United are a mess, and Solskjaer’s hands are dirty. He chose to try and match Sheffield United’s defensive shape but succeeded only in leaving Andreas Pereira and Fred against three hard-working and well-drilled central midfielders and saw his team dominated. Having changed the system and personnel to get back into the match, Solskjaer promptly to the original flawed plan and saw his side concede again. A team that spent £135m on two defenders in the summer have somehow got worse at defending.
It has been said repeatedly in this column, but we have seen nothing during his permanent tenure to suggest that Solskjaer is the right man for this job. No other Premier League supporter would welcome him at their club. You can believe that this is not all on the manager, and that Manchester United need significant structural change to compete again for the league title, but still consider Solskjaer entirely unfit for purpose. These are not mutual exclusives.
But this now comes to head with Pochettino out of work. One of the barriers to appointing him was the difficulty of pulling him out of the Tottenham project and the cost of buying out his contract, but neither of those issues now apply. It would be a move based on logic rather than sentimentality, but since when did sentimentality make sense?
If Manchester United get any whisper that Pochettino might take this job rather than go to Bayern Munich, they have to do everything within their power to move Solskjaer on and get their man. Anything else would be an abdication of responsibility on the part of the club’s power brokers. Which is exactly why we should expect them to persevere with the Solskjaer vanity project.
Chelsea’s last problem
Chelsea have made great strides under Frank Lampard this season, but one obvious flaw remains. They have played three matches against Big Six sides this season, and lost all three. Their record against current bottom-half teams: Played 6, Won 6, Drawn 0, Lost 0. Their record against current top-half teams: Played 7, Won 2, Drawn 2, Lost 3. Chelsea have conceded two goals a game against that second group. They have become flat-track bullies.
At the start of the season, Chelsea were being caught far too often on the counter attack. They conceded against Leicester, Sheffield United and Manchester United in that manner, the exuberance and enthusiasm for attacking football leaving them exposed defensively. The same was true of Lampard’s Derby County last season.
Mostly those issues have been ironed out against weaker opposition, although Chelsea have conceded against each of the bottom three sides in the league. But against the strongest opposition (Liverpool, Leicester, Manchester City, Wolves and Ajax) they are still leaving themselves open and that places a natural ceiling on their potential.
Lampard’s task – and he has plenty of time and goodwill to achieve it – is to find the right Chelsea balance in which they can be free-flowing and fluid without being vulnerable defensively. We are only three months into the season and Chelsea have had a 2-2, 3-2, 4-2, 5-2 and a 4-4. They are the Premier League great entertainers. But the entertainers usually aren’t the winners.
Quique Sanchez Flores
Watford chose to re-appoint Flores because he was a safe pair of hands and a defensive organiser. With a likely relegation battle to fight, they could not afford a new manager that required an extended acclimatisation period. Flores had improved Watford’s defending and made them tough to beat.
Nine games into his reign, that plan already looks misguided. Watford have kept three clean sheets under Flores’ watch, but the team as a whole is still performing lamentably too often and on Saturday they produced a performance as bad as anything under Javi Gracia. Lose at Southampton next weekend, and Watford might be prepared to admit their latest mistake. Anyone got Gracia’s number to see if he fancies another stab?
He was once the future, but the prediction that Phil Jones might be the modern Duncan Edwards is now a punchline as funny as Jones’ attempts to avoid calamity. He has been substituted at half-time in three of his last five Premier League starts, and against Sheffield United was the worst defender on the pitch by an embarrassing margin.
The good news is that Jones will probably follow Chris Smalling, Memphis Depay, Romelu Lukaku, Wilfried Zaha, Jonny Evans and Angel Di Maria by failing to flourish at Old Trafford but immediately doing so elsewhere. The bad news is that ‘elsewhere’ might be the Championship.
On a one-man mission to keep us all believing that we could still make it as a professional footballer. A cardboard cutout of Fabianski would have been no less effective at keeping out Tottenham’s three goals. Worth considering, Manuel.
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