Jose Mourinho might just be back…
Jose Mourinho and that counter attack
As Mourinho woke on Sunday morning, he may have spent the first few seconds of semi-lucidity daydreaming about the perfect afternoon. Tottenham would soak up early Arsenal pressure before hitting their opponents on a lightning fast counter-attack. They would then do exactly the same again, this time the initial goalscorer setting up his creator.
From then on, Tottenham would allow Arsenal to rack up low-quality shots and dominate possession without ever feeling a sense of danger. The afternoon would be so comfortable that Mourinho might even allow himself to patronise Mikel Arteta post-match, praising him for his losing tactics.
That is the surest sign of Mourinho in his pomp: he knows the plan, we know the plan, his opponent knows his plan and yet the plan still plays out exactly as he’d wish. At his best, Mourinho sucks his foes into his path and then tramples all over them. The counter-attack becomes a latent weapon as well as a potent one. Watch Sunday’s game and you see why Chelsea didn’t over-commit last weekend to give Mourinho the point he came for.
I’m happy to admit that I thought this Mourinho had passed. After the rigours of his second unhappy ending at Chelsea and failure to re-establish Manchester United as serious title challengers, it felt like bitterness had overtaken brilliance. Rather than creating a unity within the squad, Mourinho seemed to skip straight to the third season at Tottenham.
Lockdown (albeit in tragic circumstances) came at the perfect time. When football was suspended, Tottenham had lost five of their previous six games, tumbled out of the Champions League and FA Cup and had Eric Dier fighting a supporter in the stands. But Mourinho used the time off as an extended pre-season, instilling the siege mentality that became the hallmark of his success at previous clubs. That framed his early struggles as a key to their improvement: ‘We’ve tried it your way, now we’re doing it mine’. Without that three-month hiatus, who knows how Tottenham’s season would have ended. Perhaps they would have slipped so far that the mood was irretrievable.
It is not the intention to paint Mourinho’s success as fortunate. Over the course of those three months and the subsequent mini pre-season, Tottenham have become a changed team with a changed mentality. Nothing is won in autumn and winter, and Mourinho will be keen to stress as much, but with a front two in supreme form and a midfield that has bite and brawn to match the beauty ahead of them, they mean business. Mourinho might just have stumbled on the perfect project to rejuvenate his reputation. Occasionally it feels good to be totally wrong.
Now go and read 16 Conclusions.
Manchester United’s individual magic
I’m aware that this might sound a little one-eyed. I came to the conclusion that Ole Gunnar Solskjaer was at the best club for him but wasn’t the best man for his job some time ago, and nothing so far this season has persuaded me to change my mind. Perhaps I’m being too stubborn: it’s far easier to make a conclusion than to change it.
There’s also no point pretending that winning nine away matches on the spin, a club record, is anything other than mightily impressive. The same applies to beating RB Leipzig and Paris Saint-Germain in the Champions League, although setbacks elsewhere in the group stage mean that qualification is not yet assured. Put them alongside United’s ability to haul themselves back into matches after conceding first (five away matches in a row and counting) and you fully understand why Solskjaer still has his job.
But then Manchester United have a group of exceptionally talented players who were bought for huge transfer fees and are paid accordingly. They won’t always be bad – how could they be? They were able to bring on Marcus Rashford and Bruno Fernandes as substitutes on Saturday evening, two brilliant attacking talents. The strength of their starting XI and depth of forward players should be enough to beat most other clubs in the division. And it has been.
Identifying whether this is the result of exceptional management or exceptional individual talent is difficult. Manchester United were all at sea in the first half and should have been buried by a profligate West Ham. Do we credit Solskjaer for addressing that at half-time, or is he merely fortunate that he was able to call upon such talented substitutes when the emergency – and their own dismal performance – demanded it?
The answer to that probably depends upon your own assessment of Solskjaer’s ability. He is not alone in that regard: Zinedine Zidane and Didier Deschamps’ qualities are still debated despite winning Champions Leagues and a World Cup between them. The quantity and quality of individually brilliant players has never been higher at the biggest clubs and best-stocked countries. Does that allow managers below the top echelon to achieve elite results?
Either way, we can surely agree that Solskjaer is fortunate to be blessed with some of these players. See Paul Pogba’s majestic curled finish for the equaliser, Mason Greenwood’s arrowed finish (he doesn’t care which foot the chance falls to) and Rashford’s dink over Lukasz Fabianski. There is supreme ability in this squad that flashes often enough to mask the clear flaws. How far it can take them depends on the manager. And so the argument begins again…
Chelsea and Thiago Silva
The key to beating Leeds is to get past their man-marking press. Marcelo Bielsa assigns an opposition player to each of his starting outfielders: Mateusz Klich on N’Golo Kante, Kalvin Phillips on Kai Havertz, Stuart Dallas on Mason Mount, Luke Ayling on Timo Werner. If any of those force turnovers high up the pitch, Bielsa will be confident of creating enough chances to win matches.
But there will always be one player free. With Patrick Bamford a lone striker, Frank Lampard gave Kurt Zouma the responsibility of going one vs one against him and giving Thiago Silva less defensive responsibility. Instead he asked Silva to step out of defence in possession and play as a deep-lying playmaker. It’s a credit to Lampard that he continued that plan after Bamford had got behind Zouma to score the opening goal.
While Zouma stayed deeper, having just 15 percent of his touches in Leeds’ half, Silva had 25 percent of his touches beyond the halfway line. He was expected to pass the ball forwards rather than backwards or sideways. Nine passes found Mount, four reached Havertz, two each went to Oivier Giroud and Werner and Hakim Ziyech and Christian Pulisic received seven combined. Silva completed 51 of his 55 passes and no Chelsea player completed more that ended in the final third.
This is why Chelsea were so keen to sign Silva. He’s not just comfortable when holding the line and giving his goalkeeper and central defensive colleague a jolt of confidence; he has the passing range and positional awareness to control the tempo of a match and dismantle the opposition’s press by picking the right option at the right time and playing it with the right accuracy and weight. For all the attacking arrivals at Stamford Bridge, it is Silva’s performances since he joined that have raised the bar of Chelsea’s ambitions this season.
Liverpool in their groove
For a couple of weeks now I’ve just had this nagging feeling that however many injuries you throw at Liverpool, and however flimsy Manchester City look when falling behind, these will still be the top two come May. We’ll all wonder what on earth we got so excited about when Chelsea and Tottenham promised serious title challenges.
That suspicion is buoyed by watching Liverpool swat aside teams like Wolves with various defensive players absent, as if such top-half opposition is beneath them. It was all so very easy indeed.
Also, I’m not sure we talk about Liverpool’s home league record often enough. They have dropped four points in their last 40 games at Anfield – 116 from 120 available – a run stretching back to January 2019. It’s absolutely ridiculous.
Crystal Palace with Wilfried Zaha
A list of Crystal Palace’s last seven matches without Zaha starting:
0-2 vs Newcastle United (h)
0-1 vs Burnley (a)
0-0 vs Bournemouth (a)
0-1 vs Derby County (h)
0-0 vs Colchester United (h)
0-0 vs Everton (h)
1-2 vs Watford (a)
A list of Crystal Palace’s last eight matches with Zaha starting:
5-1 vs West Brom (a)
4-1 vs Leeds (h)
0-2 vs Wolves (a)
2-1 vs Fulham (a)
1-1 vs Brighton (h)
0-4 vs Chelsea (a)
1-2 vs Everton (h)
3-1 vs Manchester United (a)
Palace have scored more goals in their last two league matches with Zaha starting than in their last 19 league games without him. That’s just maths.
From last week’s Winners and Losers column:
‘Crystal Palace are in one of those ruts that Hodgson has repeatedly proven himself capable of ending with a run of two or three league wins in a row, often away from home…’
Told you. The 5-1 victory at the Hawthorns, aided by a questionable red card decision and a pathetic response from West Brom’s ten men, was Palace’s biggest ever top-flight away win. And back into the comparative comfort of mid-table they go.
He’s now scored 14 club goals since football restarted, almost as many as he scored in the two preceding years. The best non-goalscoring striker in world football has suddenly started scoring goals in the twilight of his career and I’m 100 percent emotionally invested in it.
Kevin de Bruyne’s assists
Yes it was only Fulham, a tap-in victory during which Manchester City could play at half-pace and still breeze through. But De Bruyne’s assist for Raheem Sterling’s opening goal took him to 62 Premier League assists since the start of 2016/17. No other player has reached 40 and De Bruyne has only started 75 percent of City’s games over that period.
Eleven goals in 11 games and the only Premier League player with a better minutes per goal ratio than one every 90 minutes. Calvert-Lewin’s place in Gareth Southgate’s European Championship squad looks assured.
A last-minute winner at the home of his most hated team, followed by a yellow card awarded for two-footing a corner flag. And there’s Vardy’s last five years distilled into a few seconds.
The great derby game cliche is that the form book can be tossed out of the window as two rivals produce a piece of theatre that sits outside the confines of our usual expectations. Or that can be proven to be melodramatic nonsense, and the team in form punishes the team desperately reaching for it.
If Mourinho will delight in his pre-match strategy working to perfection, that reflects incredibly badly on Arteta. For all Tottenham’s counter-attacking brilliance, any Arsenal supporter nervously watching from behind the sofa could have identified how Mourinho would set his team up to frustrate and ultimately catch out Arsenal. For a coach whose meticulous preparation has been well-documented, Arsenal played as if intent on falling into every Tottenham trap.
When faced with a deep-lying defence that requires quick passing and movement to unlock it, Arsenal passed the ball slowly 40 yards from goal and barely touched the ball in the penalty area. In midweek, Arteta defended his team putting 33 crosses into the box without scoring on the basis of “pure maths”, but they tried 32 on Sunday and created only one clear chance from which Aubameyang should have headed them back into the match.
The one golden rule of playing against a counter-attacking team is that you cannot allow frustration to cause attacking overloads that leave you vulnerable. Cut to the final action of the first half, four red-and-white shirts in the same ten square yards on the edge of the Tottenham penalty area. One simple pass from Serge Aurier and Spurs were four on two in Arsenal’s half.
These are basics, and Arteta is getting them wrong.
That’s particularly frustrating for Arsenal supporters because Arteta seemed to have got to grips with his big-game tactics during his first months in the job. Without those late-season victories over Liverpool, Manchester City and Chelsea, he would surely no longer be in a job. Even the greatest strength of his management now appears to have dissipated.
In terms of Arteta’s chances of turning this around, I see three major stumbling blocks. The first is the form of Aubameyang. It is as if Arsenal focused so much on getting their star striker to sign his new contract that they paid no attention to how they could build a team that got the best out of him. That would be forgivable if this was the first time it had happened, but unofficial live tweeter Mesut Ozil can tell you differently.
The second issue is Willian, and not just because he is in woeful form. We are led to believe that Arteta pushed for the signing, a two-year deal on significant wages. But it’s equally clear that super agent Kia Joorabchian enjoys influence at Arsenal so long as Edu (another of his clients) is technical director.
Leaning on a super agent for transfers is not necessarily a bad thing, but it adds a layer of opaqueness to Arsenal’s transfer dealings at a time when supporters crave transparency. Arteta returned to the club to restore harmony on and off the pitch, but that’s a hard sell when supporters believe that players are being signed because of who their representation is as much as what they will offer on the pitch. It entirely undermines the holistic vision that we are told Arteta aimed to implement.
Finally, and more pertinently to Sunday, Arsenal look under-coached. It wasn’t just that they played so clearly into Tottenham’s hands, but how even the basics were wrong. Hector Bellerin has taken five of the 16 foul throws in the Premier League this season – can someone please shout at him? Every free-kick and throw-in seemed to lack preparation, either taken short and wasted when defenders were up or launched into the box when they stayed back. There was a first-half scenario in which Kieran Tierney seemed to surprise everyone with a long throw, not least because Arsenal were outnumbered five to two in the penalty area.
That hardly smacks of meticulous planning and, to repeat, that is exactly what we were told to expect of Arteta. Make no mistake, he should be under pressure. Arsenal’s defending has got worse. Arsenal’s attacking has got worse. Arsenal’s midfield lacks balance and creativity. Arsenal’s signings haven’t really worked out yet. Too few of the players he inherited have kicked on. These are not the obvious ingredients of an imminent surge in the right direction.
Again, do read 16 Conclusions.
The Premier League’s unpredictability
Do you remember when the Premier League was wonderfully unpredictable? Liverpool conceded seven goals to Aston Villa, Crystal Palace won 3-1 at Old Trafford, Tottenham ceded a three-goal lead against West Ham and West Brom scored three times against Chelsea. Fun days.
Since that Spurs draw with West Ham, Big Six clubs have played 23 matches against non-Big Six clubs. They have won 18, drawn two and lost three of those matches. All three defeats were by Arsenal, whose hold on the Big Six description hangs by a thread anyway.
At the end of this weekend, the top six in the Premier League is comprised of Tottenham, Chelsea, Liverpool, Manchester United, Manchester City and Leicester. They are the same six clubs that finished in the top six places last season; five of them have finished in the top six in each of the last four seasons. The more things change, the more they stay the same.
They were somehow still odds against to be relegated before this weekend, but that price certainly hasn’t lasted into Monday after Chris Wilder’s team found yet another new way to lose. With almost 30 percent of their league season done, Sheffield United have a single point. We spent so long wondering whether Fulham or West Brom would break Derby County’s points record that we never stopped to consider that Sheffield United might.
First-half Manchester United
Make no mistake: Manchester United were humped by West Ham in the first half on Saturday. Gary Neville described it as the worst half he’d seen from a United team and that barely felt hyperbolic. The passing through midfield was only beaten for its shoddiness by their defensive organisation after losing possession. Had they been losing 3-0 at half-time, it would have been fully deserved.
This is a theme of Manchester United’s season (as, we must say, is their response to it). In a Premier League table of first halves, Solskjaer’s side sit second bottom, two points ahead of Sheffield United. Someone might instruct Harry Maguire to hoof the ball into his own net in the first minute in Leipzig on Tuesday evening. At least then United will begin to play.
Joking aside, this does matter. There is nothing wrong with having a habit of hauling themselves back into matches and it’s always been more important to finish matches well than start them as such, but Manchester United’s luck will run out at some point. Away from home they have allowed more shots per game than West Ham, Brighton, Everton and Aston Villa, amongst others. Against two of those sides they were lucky to still be in the match before fighting back.
The pertinent question is why this is happening, and it’s interesting because in this regard United reflect their manager. Every time Solskjaer has been under the most pressure, United have found the form to ease the pressure upon him. Every time Manchester United have conceded first away from home in the league, they have done the same.
Perhaps that suggests that Solskjaer is a better reactive manager than a proactive one. Or maybe it offers evidence that he is less of a tactician than a man manager. When United are behind they have little choice but to play whirlwind football, playing at an emergency tempo and overloading the final third to pull themselves back into matches. And yet even that strikes against Solskjaer’s general record: He has done well against the most high-profile opponents who would surely be better placed to take advantage of that chaos football.
The only logical conclusion (and see the Winners section on United for more of the same argument) is that they are an unpredictable pinata of a football team. You hang them up before every game, hit them a few times and see what falls out. Sometimes they’re bad against poor teams, sometimes they’re excellent against high-quality teams. You’d think a financial super club might want a little more predictability, but it’s piping hot fun for the rest of us. And so the argument begins again…
West Brom with ten men
West Brom have conceded 23 league goals this season. Thirty percent of those came in the 101 minutes they have played over two matches (against Everton and Crystal Palace) with ten men.
There’s two ways of looking at that statistic. The optimistic spin is that West Brom have coped pretty well so far when playing with 11 vs 11. Outside of those two games, the only time that they have been outplayed was on the opening weekend against Leicester.
The negative – perhaps we should say realistic – spin is that against both Palace and Everton, West Brom’s players have abdicated their responsibility to sit deep, dig in and frustrate the opposition and in doing so passed up their chance of a point in either game. That doesn’t reflect well on Slaven Bilic.