It is an easy trap to read into performances too early in the season, however 1 thing has been crystal clear after the first 8 games of the 29th premier league season- it’s going to be a 3 legged race for the title. Due to their record breaking season last year City are still the team to beat. A truly ominous statement to the 19 inferiors, is that although they are not firing on all cylinders and are without Kevin De Bruyne, they are unbeaten with 21 out of a possible 24 points. Yet despite their ease and dominance so far they are not invincible. We saw how an inspired Lyon pounced on their mistakes, how they wasted golden opportunities against Wolves and nearly succumbed to an out of sorts Hoffenheim after an early lapse in concentration. It is becoming a widespread opinion that in those crunch matches, when the game is deadlocked, they have no Plan B; they have no Fellaini. Perfect Guardiola, the angel of the media, the godfather of Man City, is perhaps too regimented by his ethos. Disappointingly not only for die-hard city fans but also for the neutrals, is their half-hearted commitment to Europe. 40,000 fans turning up in a 55,000 seater stadium is hardly conducive to an electric atmosphere. Never mind the booing of the Champions League anthem before the game. Regardless, they are still firm favourites for any competition when Kompany, Mahrez, Jesus and Foden can only make the bench.
The Scousers aren’t doing too badly either. With their reinvigorated defence and nightmarish attacking trident (who admittedly are yet to find their form), Liverpool are back challenging for the Premier League and even Champions League. The cauldron, Anfield, is rapidly becoming the dreaded visit of the season. Momentum is a myth for the inferior away clubs. Teams no longer go there with the attitude “we can get a result out of these”, no , it is now “let’s not get humiliated”. This was never more evident than in the 0-0 damp squib 2 weekends ago with City. It was as cautious and cagey as we have seen Pep’s men in the best part in 2/3 years. Speed demons, Mendy and Walker seldom crossed the halfway line. Liverpool are feared. James Milner, the linchpin of Liverpool’s success so far, has been arguably the best player in the league this season. But is he also the achilles heel in Liverpool’s squad? While City desire Liverpool’s support, Liverpool crave City’s midfield creativity. Henderson, Milner and Wijnaldum have been fantastic , but they are not flair players by any stretch of the imagination. They are no Zidane, no David Silva, someone who can not only dictate the tempo of the game, but who has that caress and deftness in and around the penalty area. Adam Lallana arguably has that potential, but he is too injury prone. The failure to secure Nabil Fekir’s future at Anfield could prove costly.
Chelsea are without doubt a unique football club. The constant managerial rotation would appear to outsiders as draining and soulless- but fans and players have gradually accustomed , and after all, it’s not like they can complain when they have been the dominant force of the past 15 years. 5 titles in 14 years- the most in this period of time- is no mean feat. So regardless of the nonsense those idiots spout on The Debate, it was no surprise to see Chelsea adapt so quickly to life under Sarri. It’s like shooting fish in a barrel for them. The Italian chainsmoker has had a particularly liberating effect on his players after the exhaustingly regimented methods of Conte. Diets have been relaxed, players can stay with their family the night before a game as long as they arrive on time and training times are later. But most importantly, he has introduced Sarriball. Sarriball revolves around a 433 high press game, where the ball must be switched from defence to attack rapidly in order to punish opponents. It also removes the defensive responsibility shackles on attackers, especially the wingers who are free to express themselves in the final third. One man is flourishing particularly in this new system. Eden Hazard. A steadying captain on the rough Stamford Bridge sea. If he can stay fit and Chelsea tighten up a little at the back, Liverpool and City may find their noses out of joint.
Since I wrote my piece demanding Jose some respect, the day before United were trounced 3-0 by Spurs, much has changed but the toxic emotions linger. Their heroic comeback against strugglers Newcastle did little to dress up the mess that the club is at the moment. For any United team or manager, 8th in the league after 8 games is simply not good enough. And while I believe Jose Mourinho can be targeted and disrespected at times, he for certain should have shouldered the critical clamour, but instead he deflected it haphazardly. It’s a basic managerial responsibility to defend your players in front of the public, so why Mourinho opened up to the world about his view on Rashford’s “sadness”, and Mctominay’s “fear” remains a mystery to me. I am pro-Mourinho, but that was out of order. It was reminiscent of his degenerating man-management, spiralling out of control since his clash with Iker Casillas when he called friend Xavi after El Clasico. Since then, Hazard, Mata at Chelsea, and pretty much all of the United squad have all fallen prey to his antics. As I mentioned in my last piece on the Jose, one of Mourinho’s great strengths is his ability to galvanise individuals. Not in a charismatic Guardiola way, but in an almost snooty way, a light criticism and then “prove me wrong”. His record is not one whereby his techniques’ effectiveness should be questioned. But a sprinkle of extra negativity, a few drops of stress, a coating of desperation and his mixture uninspires and deflates.
Although it is not only his man-management that is corroding, but his tactics are also outdated. Jose’s victorious teams of Porto, Inter and Chelsea would pride themselves on their defensive solidity, error aversion, and organisation in all areas of the pitch. Yes, a useful attribute for defenders, but for attackers, not so much. To be successful in attacking, you have to be unpredictable. Spontaneous. Ronaldinho, Johan Cruyff- innovative. Especially these days with smarter, quicker defenders. United created their highest number of chances in a game this season in the second-half against Newcastle. Why? Because they had nothing to play for. They weren’t afraid to take risks, to try flicks and skills in an around the area, which is why we saw the likes of Martial, Pogba and Sanchez flourish. Mourinho must replicate this, he must begin to encourage risks and mistakes, much like his contemporary, Guardiola, whose keeper even often expresses himself. Dare to fail, United. We could point out other small faults in United’s performances like their lack of natural width and a link between midfield and attack. But the bottom line is : while United’s woes are not exactly his fault, Jose has to adapt. Quickly. Yes, he is a fantastic manager, but he can only be regarded as one of the greatest ever until he moves with the times, like Sir Alex did so fluently.
I don’t wish to over extend on United, but we have not covered the focal point of United’s failures this year- the players. In the modern age of fine margins and high standards, we often forget that these players are humans and not just an encryption to be decoded. Consequently, it is often the people in control that are blamed. The onus should always on the players, before anything or anyone.
I’ll leave Neville and Souness to rant about the lack of effort, but it would be unfair to point the finger at one player, as they have all been culprits. It is never a healthy sign when your own player is not only questioning the teams attitude, but also his own. Paul Pogba. The riddle wrapped in a mystery in an enigma. Wonderful at the World Cup, woeful at Wolves. You begin to doubt whether he ever will string some momentum together and begin to live up to his potential. His glorious summer should have given him the perfect backdrop to kickstart his club career. Yet while he certainly not been the worst, it has been a disappointing start. We have seen flashes, instrumental in the second half against Newcastle, 2 goals against Leicester, a beauty in Switzerland, but he is 25 now and it is becoming less and less likely that these flashes will ever materialise. The same could be said of 26 year old Neymar. Pro-Pogbas like Mino Raiola would argue that his feud with Mourinho has distracted him, and that he would be better off elsewhere. Realistically, though, who would pay the big bucks for Pogba? We are talking over £100 million for an unproven player. Yes, his CV would illustrate otherwise: 1 World Cup, a Europa league and 4 scudettos. But his troubled spell at United has shone the light on his bad habits. He publicly questions his own managers tactics, he publicly questions his future at United and he even publicly questions his attitude : Pogba can be childish and careless. Fact. However while many old crooks demonise Pogba for his social media antics and general PR, they forget the responsibility he has to build the Pogba brand. Fresh, modern, eccentric. A marketer’s dream. And as a result, a valuable asset to any football club. Perhaps sometimes , as a society, we can be instantly critical on people who maybe don’t have as high aspirations as expected. “I’m just living the dream life I worked so hard for,” says Pogba himself. He is right, the hardest work is over, but now it is time to put it into practice.
United’s current turmoil is not one person or one group of people’s fault. It’s not just Mourinho’s fault, it’s not just Ed Woodward’s fault for his poor recruitment and failure to back Mourinho, it’s not just the Glazer’s fault, it’s not just the players fault, or Sanchez and Martial’s fault, or Pogba’s for that matter. No, the problem is pointing the finger at others. Mourinho at Woodward, Pogba at Mourinho, Mourinho at Pogba, Fans at the Glazers. It is a complete mess. They must unite in the face of adversity, and rekindle the United spirit. Do they have the resolve?
A quiet revolution
With the Red Devils hogging the headlines, and spectators content with a fierce battle for the title, Arsenal have been free to kickstart life under Emery without the constant scrutiny that plagued them towards the end of Wenger’s reign. And after an excusable 2-0 loss to Man City and an excruciating 3-2 defeat at Stamford Bridge, the Gunners have responded with 9 wins a row. Okay, 3 of those wins came against Quarabag, Fc Vorslka and Brentford. But nevertheless, potential banana skins for Arsenal only a year ago. Perhaps the most satisfying thing for Unai Emery is that they have picked up victories after poor performances, where they really deserved to lose. Against Watford, Deeney, Hughes and Success all squandered golden chances but the Gunners managed to scrape through thanks to a Cathcart own goal and a tidy Özil finish. Their erratic defending almost also cost them points against Everton and West Ham, where the scorelines were once again flattering for the home team. Cardiff city, scoring 8 goals in their last 11 matches and with only 4 this season, even managed to put two past them and nearly got a result .It is still a very raw, faulty Arsenal side, Cech and the defenders are still accustoming to Emery’s style of playing out from the back- so there are bound to be mistakes. At least they are getting these errors out of the way early on, and thankfully not being punished for them. With their team spirit and talent in the likes of Lacazette, Aubamayeng and Ozil, there is potential. Arsenal fans are cautiously hopeful.
Aside from the obvious positives of a 9 game win streak, Emery will be most pleased with his team’s aggression and fight. Chelsea may have craved a calming, soothing manager, but Arsenal needed one who could give them a kick up the backside. They needed drastic change. And who is more opposite to Wenger than Unai Emery. Under Arsène, players complained that the training sessions were so unfulfilling that they felt they wanted to do it all again. With Emery, they need a sleep after. You can see his burning passion on the touchline, gesticulating wildly, barking orders. It is rubbing off on his players as well. Players have started to put the extra mile in for the manager, to make that sprint back, to jump that little bit higher, to die to get on the end of that cross. Arsenal’s much improved aggression was encapsulated most aptly with Özil against Watford. 2-0 up in injury time, Doucoré collects the ball for Watford. Özil races back, regardless of context, with all his heart, and makes a fine tackle to thwart Doucoré on the edge of the box. Bear in mind the fact that the German has been long questioned about his work-rate. Emery has supported Özil- who has suffered a torrid time recently with the national squad- and backed him in press conferences. You can see him slowly getting his confidence back. The German playmaker isn’t the only one thriving under Emery. Lacazette looks as sharp as ever, Torreira has provided some long craved midfield tenacity, Iwobi is becoming a fans favourite, Mustafi seems to be recovering his career alongside Sokratis and even Danny Welbeck is making a push for the starting 11. They are playing for the manager. These days you have a managerial scale of meticulous pragmatist like Allegri, or liberating aesthetes like Sarri or even Wenger in his time. Emery would find himself somewhere in the middle. He encourages attractive football-the highlight being Ramsey’s beautifully manipulated goal against Fulham- and playing out from the back, but also obsessively studies not just his own team, but also the opposition. It couldn’t be more different to Wenger, who would make a point of practically forgetting the opposition were even there. Every week brings an hour long video analysis of the game, every mistake pinpointed and mentally corrected. Players will also receive statistical breakdowns, and one-on-one briefings on their next opponent. “He put on so many videos I ran out of popcorn. He’s obsessed by football, it is practically an illness,” said Joaquin, a Spanish winger who played under Emery at Valencia.
“We’ve got our Arsenal back,” sang joyous Gunners at Craven Cottage. So much for cautious hope.