Premier League Playback: Five ways Mourinho can rescue Chelsea

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PIVOTAL JUNCTURE ARRIVES

Following their 3-1 defeat to Liverpool at Stamford Bridge on Saturday it is now six defeats in 11 Premier League games to open up the season for Jose Mourinho and Chelsea and a bad situation continues to get worse for the Portuguese coach.

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Mourinho, 52, has quite simply never experienced a period like this in his career. Everything seems to be going against him and his team. He reached new levels of greatness during his time at FC Porto, his first spell at Chelsea, then at Inter Milan and in flashes at Real Madrid, but now is where he really earns his salary and protects his reputation as one of the greatest managers in history. The reigning PL champs are in ruins as we enter a crucial period in their season but despite all the losses they only remain 10 points off the top four.

[ VIDEO: Premier League highlights

The pressure of it all is getting to him. His star players are under-performing. He has just been handed a one-game stadium ban, and fined again, for Chelsea’s next game against Stoke City on Saturday (Watch live, 12:30 p.m. ET on NBC and online via Live Extra) and the former team doctor who he demoted and publicly criticized, Eva Carneiro, has now launched legal action against him. Like I said, it has been a bad few weeks for Jose on and off the pitch.

How can he turn things around? Here’s five ways:

  • Stop talking – Deeming from the video footage below, he is getting the hang of this. With two FA charges heading his way this month which have resulted in his stadium ban this weekend and fines amassing over $150,000, Mourinho is being hammered by the authorities for claiming referees, the media and everybody in-between is against his team. It is all well and good creating a siege mentality within his group but at some point the endless complaints and finger-pointing becomes farcical. It’s time to let the results on the pitch speak for themselves and one of the big positives for Jose is that the players all seem to still be on his side. Cesc Fabregas has rubbished reports he’s leading a player revolt and John Terry says the players are 100 percent behind Mourinho.
  • Focus solely on the Premier League – This may be a tough pill to swallow for Mourinho, especially as the UEFA Champions League is the only trophy he has never won with Chelsea, but he has to simply forget about the UCL. If Chelsea get out of their group (not a forgone conclusion at this point) and go far then great, but he should focus all his energy on getting up to fourth, at least, in the PL. For a team of their quality, Chelsea can still make up the 10-point gap to the top four. Ahead of the UCL clash with Dynamo Kiev on Wednesday, Mourinho was seen laughing and joking with his players on the training ground. He needs to lighten things up and treat these European games as a bonus and a break from the PL.
  • Protect Hazard – The reigning PFA Player of the Year and the man Mourinho dubbed as being ready to join Ronaldo and Messi as the world’s elite players is having a torrid time this season. After being dropped and singled out for not doing his defensive work, Hazard slumped his shoulders and put his head to the ground as he was subbed out in the 58th minute of Chelsea’s defeat to Liverpool on Saturday. Pump this lad up. Play him centrally. Change something. Do all you can to get the best out of him because we’ve seen in flashes that the unbelievable ability he possesses is still there. He needs confidence from his manager. Now more than ever in a week where he missed a PK in a shootout and continues to have two or three players marking him every time he steps on the pitch.
  • Give youth a chance – This may seem like an odd time to chuck a few youngsters in, but if certain experienced pros aren’t doing it then why persist with them? Chelsea have invested huge sums in talented youngsters and have one of the best academy setups in Europe. Why not use some of the players they’ve cultivated? These youngsters will have no fear. Why shouldn’t Ruben Loftus-Cheek, Bertrand Traore and Kenedy be thrown in? What’s the worst that could happen?
  • Win dirty again – “Getting back to basics” is one of those terms in soccer which gets thrown around when teams are on a bad run. It is overused and not one that I like to say too often but it is exactly what Chelsea need to do. Look at how tough they were to beat in the second half of last season. They sat back, defended and then launched counter attacks. When you look at players like Hazard, Willian and Pedro in attack, plus Fabregas in midfield, it almost suits them to play on the counter and spring attack with long balls and using pace in-behind. So the Blues shouldn’t worry about entertaining their fans. At this point, only wins will do and as we know from the past, Mourinho has an incredible knack of grinding out results.

GARDE ARRIVES

Premier League Schedule – Week 11

Result Recap & Highlights
Chelsea 1-3 Liverpool Recap, watch here
C Palace 0-0 Man Utd Recap, watch here
Everton 6-2 S’land Recap, watch here
Man City 2-1 Norwich Recap, watch here
Newcastle 0-0 Stoke Recap, watch here
Saints 2-0 B’mouth Recap, watch here
Swansea 0-3 Arsenal Recap, watch here
Tottenham 3-1 Villa Recap, watch here
Watford 2-0 West Ham Recap, watch here
West Brom 2-3 Leicester Recap, watch here

Watching on from the stands on Monday night as Aston Villa lost 3-1 at Tottenham Hotspur, new manager Remi Garde was expressionless. The Frenchman, 49, signed a three-and-a-half-year deal on Monday to take charge of Villa but the former Lyon boss must have been pretty shocked with what he saw.

Villa were 2-0 down at half time thanks to some mediocre defneding and although they improved in the second half, Jordan Ayew‘s strike gave them hope of a comeback but Harry Kane rifled home in injury time to put those notions to bed.

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Garde will not be afford time to settle into this role. The former Arsenal midfielder is known for bringing an exciting brand of soccer to the pitch and worked wonders on a tight budget and with young players at Lyon from 2011-14. Villa is much of the same with American owner Randy Lerner eager to sell the club but given that all of their top class players have now been sold and a host of new players were brought in under Tim Sherwood, you get the sense that it will take a monumental effort to say Villa from relegation this season.

It does seem like a gamble to bring in Garde, a manager with no experience coaching in England and only three seasons as a player in the Premier League, but it has simply come to this point for Villa. They’ve tried the rigidness of Paul Lambert and it didn’t work. They tried the “up and at ’em” approach from Tim Sherwood and that had an initial impact to keep them up last season but failed miserably this season. Now, they have gone for a Gallic coach who seems to be cool, calm and sophisticated. With Villa going from one extreme to the next, you would expect to see a big difference in the results and performances one way or another. A man who knows exactly what to expect from Garde is his former teammate at Arsenal, NBC Sports’ very own Lee Dixon.

It was telling in Kevin MacDonald’s final game in charge on a caretaker basis on Monday that none of the summer signings made by Sherwood were in the starting XI. Perhaps it was a message as to how the new boys have failed to settle in to life in England. If there’s anybody who can get the best out of this plethora of new recruits then it is Garde. Villa signed four players from Ligue 1 with Idrissa Gueye, Jordan Ayew, Jordan Amavi and Jordan Veretout all arriving while another Frenchman Rudy Gestede joined from Blackburn. It is crucial Garde gets the best out of these players as Villa have made the worst start to a season in the club history with nine defeats from their opening 11 games. Sherwood’s Gung-ho approach didn’t work but Garde has to find a way of playing without such directness but still maintaining a threat going forward. Already four points off safety and rooted to the bottom of the table, Garde’s first six games in charge aren’t easy at all: Man City (H), Everton (A), Watford (H), Southampton (A), Arsenal (H), Newcastle United (A). Welcome to life in the Premier League, Monsieur Garde.

“DID THE REF JUST CELEBRATE SPURS’ GOAL!?”

Okay, so Mike Dean was just doing his job as he played advantage and Tottenham scored their first goal against Villa on Monday but it sure looked like the Premier League referee wheeled away in celebration among the players and punched the air with delight on several occasions. Take a look at the clip below after Spurs’ first goal and tell me I’m wrong. Go on.

As the Daily Mail points out, this is not the first time Dean has celebrated a goal as he previously looked to be willing Louis Saha’s shot over the line during a North London derby when Spurs played Arsenal at the Emirates Stadium. Hmmm…

UNITED’S DROUGHT

Louis Van Gaal‘s Manchester United are currently on a goal drought of 295 minutes and the Red Devils boss is irking supporters with his defensive setup. United sit fourth in the Premier League standings, four points off the top, so it’s not all doom and gloom, but the Dutch boss has certainly seen his side put in plenty of dreary displays lately and another arrived against Crystal Palace on Saturday in their third-straight 0-0 draw in all competitions. During that game United’s supporters chanted “attack, attack, attack” during the game as they want more excitement. On Monday Van Gaal called for the fans to stay behind the team and help get them out of this slump.

Captain and talisman Wayne Rooney has bore the brunt of criticism as he has scored just four times in 900 minutes for United this season. Rooney, 30, has zero goals in his last four games for the Red Devils and with Anthony Martial shunted out to the left wing, many are calling for the French teenager to play centrally and Rooney to play deeper behind him. United face CSKA Moscow in the UEFA Champions League at Old Trafford on Tuesday in a pivotal clash and van Gaal is standing by his skipper.

“It is always Wayne Rooney and that is because he is a fantastic player and the expectation is much higher than another player in another club, I can imagine,” van Gaal said. “You have to give players also time to come back in a certain shape. That is what we are doing and I have confidence in his players but he is also more than scoring goals. He is our captain but also an example for the whole team. He has more critics than any other player and I have explained that to the group already one-and-a-half year ago. I still have confidence in Wayne Rooney.”

Rooney’s talent and goalscoring ability is proven domestically and on the international stage but he’s in a slump and United are not getting the best out of him. There seems to be a rigidness about their attack and with the likes of Memphis sitting on the bench, you have to think van Gaal will change things up to spark his offense back into life. One thing is clear, he’s not blaming Rooney.

A BREWING RIVALRY

Over the weekend I popped down to the New Forest to take in what has equally become one of the most confusing and intriguing rivalries in the Premier League: Southampton vs. Bournemouth. These two teams have never clashed in the top-flight before and Bournemouth’s fans really want this to become the true South Coast Derby, while Saints fans really don’t seem to care and only want to grab bragging rights from their historic rivals Portsmouth. That much was evident during the exchanges between both sets of fans during Saints’ 2-0 win.

Here’s an excerpt from my piece on “deciphering the rivalry” as just 30 miles separates theses two clubs but over the years, the gulf in size and stature of the teams has been vast. Now, they’re on a level playing field and it was intriguing to travel to the game among fans of both teams, witness the match and see how it all panned out.

Jumping into a cab to the train station, the taxi driver was a Saints fan. “The thing is, it is not really a rivalry. There is no hatred,” Mike said as he drove past a few ponies and tapped his fingers on the steering wheel. Some have dubbed this rivalry “The New Forest derby” but it is so embryonic that the tag has yet to catch on between fans.

At the train station, fans of both teams mingled on the platform. Friendly banter was chucked back and forth. On the train, the 14-minute journey was packed with fans of both teams heading into Southampton, the banter was getting a little livelier. One Bournemouth fan opened up his can of beer and it started spraying everywhere. “You didn’t miss your mouth did you? Surely not…” said a Saints fans sat down with his son a few seats away. Laughter. Friendliness. Not one of the fiercest rivalries that soccer world has ever seen. Bournemouth fans were asking which pubs were best to go to in Southampton and soon enough, they were about to find out which was the best.

Bonus: Before the game I also wrote this longform piece for SportsWorld on the complexities of this rivalry. Give it a read.

Premier League Playback comes out every week as PST’s Lead Writer and Editor takes an alternative look at all the action from the weekend. Read the full archive, here. 

Report: Salah, Robertson out for Liverpool trip to Crystal Palace

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Liverpool has some significant injury concerns ahead of this weekend’s trip to Crystal Palace, with the international break not serving to give its top players the required rest.

Mohamed Salah and Andy Robertson both sat out key international games hoping to be healthy enough for Liverpool’s return to Premier League play, but that has not come to pass. Sky Sports has confirmed that both will miss the game against Crystal Palace on Saturday.

Salah re-aggrivated his persistent ankle injury near the end of Liverpool’s big win over Manchester City just before the break, and while he reported for international duty with the Egypt squad, he did not appear in either of the country’s Africa Cup of Nations qualifiers against Kenya or Comoros, both of which ended in draws. He has dealt with this ankle problem for over a month now, since it was injured against Leicester City in early October.

Robertson, meanwhile, has played every minute of the Premier League season to date, but withdrew from international duty with Scotland thanks to an ankle problem of his own. That leaves a gaping hole at left-back for Jurgen Klopp to fill, with backup full-back Nathaniel Clyne also out long-term thanks to an ACL tear. Candidates could include James Milner or even Xherdan Shaqiri, while he could also potentially move one of the center-backs in Joe Gomez or Dejan Lovren out wide. Joel Matip is not expected back until the end of the month.

Liverpool kicks off against Crystal Palace at 10:00 a.m. ET live online at NBCSports.com.

Jose Mourinho speaks: ‘I couldn’t be happier’ at Spurs

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Jose Mourinho, speaking to Tottenham Hotspur’s official club channel Spurs TV, gave his first interview as Tottenham manager and speaking for the first time on camera after taking the job earlier Wednesday morning.

The Portuguese boss, who shockingly took over for Mauricio Pochettino, said he “couldn’t be happier” to take charge of the club currently floundering in 14th place in the Premier League table.

“I couldn’t be happier, and if I was not as happy as I am, I wouldn’t be here,” Mourinho said, referring to Spurs emphatically as “my club.”

“In relation to the Premier League, I think we know where we are, and we know that we don’t belong there,” Mourinho said, promising improvement. “We should just play match after match, the next match we want to win, and that’s the same about the next and the next and the next until the last. [At the] end of [the] season, we will see where we are, but I know that we are going to be in a different position than we are now.”

“These are not words of the moment, these are not words of me being the Tottenham head coach,” Mourinho said. “These are words I’ve told and I’ve repeated in the last four or five years, even as an opponent: to play Tottenham at White Hart Lane was always hard but beautiful. It is a place I used to go with passion but also it was also with respect.”

“I really like this squad, and looking to the young players, there is not one manager in the world that doesn’t like to play young players and to help young players develop. There is not one. The problem is sometimes you get into clubs where the work that is below you is not good enough to produce these players, so I look to our history and you see that the academy’s always giving talents that the first team needs.”

Referring to Tottenham Hotspur Stadium, the new ground which Spurs have played in since April, Mourinho did not mince words. “When you say ‘beautiful stadium’ you are too humble. You have to say ‘the best stadium in the world.’ I think that is the reality.”

Mourinho continued to gush, talking about the amenities he has available to work with between matches. “The training ground is second to none. It probably can only be compared with some American football training grounds, you cannot compare with European football at any level, and I’ve been at the majority of the best places.”

He finished by saying, “I look forward for the challenge, for the responsibility to bring happiness to everyone that loves the club.”

Report: AC Milan begins talks for Zlatan return

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According to a report by Italian journalist Fabrizio Romano, AC Milan has begun preliminary talks with Zlatan Ibrahimovic via his longtime agent Mino Raiola.

Ibrahimovic played the last two seasons for the LA Galaxy in Major League Soccer, and lit the U.S. league on fire with 53 goals in 58 games. The Swedish international was his usual lightning rod self throughout his MLS tenure, claiming on multiple occasions that he was the best player to ever play in Major League Soccer.

Romano says that nothing is immediately imminent and that Zlatan will take his time deciding on his future, saying he could know in the “next weeks” where he will head.

While Zlatan did not release his intentions upon leaving the Galaxy, a return to Serie A has been heavily rumored for weeks. He played for AC Milan from 2010-2012, and prior to that spent three seasons with Inter Milan from 2006-2009 as well as two seasons with Juventus from 2004-2006. He won six Serie A titles between the three clubs, including the 2010/11 Scudetto with AC Milan.

There have also been significant reports linking Ibrahimovic to Serie A side Bologna where Zlatan is friends with manager Sinisa Mihajlovic. The Serbian boss has battled leukemia this season but has decided to coach through it, and Zlatan reportedly wishes to show his support by signing up to play for the squad.

Rating the USMNT’s complete 2019 season

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2019 was supposed to be the year that the USMNT put the disaster in Trinidad & Tobago officially behind them. Instead, they flopped and floundered their way to more questions than answers in a year of change and doubt.

The first game of the year was also the first game of the Gregg Berhalter era, and while there were plenty of positive signs early on, it began to fall apart midway through the summer, and by the end of yesterday’s comprehensive win over troubled Cuba, there is plenty of unknown moving forward.

Berhalter began his tenure with friendly wins over Panama and Costa Rica, outscoring those opponents 5-0 and seeing the emergence of fringe players like Djordje Mihailovic, Daniel Lovitz, and Christian Ramirez who had broken out under interim boss Dave Sarachen but were also afforded some time with the main man in charge. It quickly became clear, however, that those players were not the ones to take the U.S. forward as the regulars returned for the win over Ecuador.

Flaws began to slowly emerge in the Ecuador win and the ensuing Chile draw in March, and as Berhalter dug in for the long spring international layoff, he prepared the plan for the Gold Cup summer. Whatever the plan, it did not emerge as expected. Veterans Michael Bradley and Jozy Altidore returned for the summer slog, but they were powerless to stop the train from slowly screeching to a halt. The group stage went well against inferior opponents – including a 6-0 drubbing of Trinidad & Tobago to secure some minor revenge for two years prior – but a 1-0 win over lowly Curacao in the quarterfinals saw bubbles being to rise.

The US managed to get by Jamaica in the semis thanks to Christian Pulisic‘s textbook heroics, but the finals were a different story. A 1-0 loss to Mexico that saw the U.S. thoroughly dominated was the first real coin to drop, followed by a thorough 3-0 butt-whooping by Mexico’s B-side two months later in a friendly on home soil.

It all fell apart from there. They drew 1-1 with Uruguay’s backups a few days later, and then after skating by defection-laden Cuba, the worst result of the slate saw the U.S. stunned in Canada in Nations League play. The result not only proved a humbling reminder of the team’s work to do, but also put their Nations League standing in real jeopardy far earlier than any fan deemed acceptable.

The U.S. rescued its position and secured passage to the next round of the competition, but real problems remain. Berhalter’s coaching and tactical acumen have been questioned on multiple fronts, with many wondering whether his possessional style of play is too ambitious for a country still searching for top talent.

Still, the most pressing issue seems to be the suddenly paper-thin talent pool that currently troubles the nation. Injuries to players like John Brooks, Michael Bradley, and even Pulisic have left the United States forced to deploy players far below World Cup quality in their stead. Formerly promising critical young players such as DeAndre Yedlin and Weston McKennie have seemingly regressed, but with little behind them in terms of depth, Berhalter is forced to toil on hoping they recapture their form of not long ago.

Amid a toilsome year, the capture of Sergino Dest and the true emergence of Jordan Morris are individual success stories that deserve merit. Dest heavily considered his eligibility for the Netherlands but was ultimately swayed by Berhalter’s vision. Morris has returned from a serious knee injury by reinventing himself as an inverted winger, and his style switch has been an unmitigated triumph, transforming from a questionable developmental project to a near-lock in the squad.

In addition, Christian Pulisic’s rise to international stardom must also be considered. Unlike the development of Yedlin and McKennie which have been suddenly put in peril, Pulisic has continued to excel at the club level, moving to Chelsea and bursting onto the Premier League scene after a brief period of uncertainty. He continues to carry the U.S. side as well when given a chance, but as the Gold Cup disappointment shows, he clearly can’t do it on his own.

Still, in a year with few competitive matches against teams of the quality the United States aspires to equal, Berhalter failed the test. The overall body of work was simply not acceptable. He has the full support of U.S. Soccer for now – at least publicly – but there is much to be done as the U.S. moves further into the World Cup cycle and towards a potential return to the big dance. Berhalter must continue to establish his identity, but more importantly he must develop a talent pool that both excels at developing its most important players and finds those who can contribute in positions of its greatest need.

While the small success stories deserve to factor in, the simple fact is Berhalter does not deserve a passing grade, as questions of where the United States fit into the larger world picture suddenly loom large.

OVERALL GRADE: D+

Full 2019 USMNT results

Jan 28 – W 3-0 vs. Panama (friendly)
Feb 2 – W 2-0 vs. Costa Rica (friendly)
Mar 22 – W 1-0 vs. Ecuador (friendly)
Mar 27 – D 1-1 vs. Chile (friendly)
June 6 – L 1-0 vs. Jamaica (friendly)
June 9 – L 3-0 vs. Venezuela (friendly)
June 19 – W 4-0 vs. Guyana (Gold Cup)
June 23 – W 6-0 vs. Trinidad & Tobago (Gold Cup)
July 1 – W 1-0 vs. Curacao (Gold Cup QF)
July 4 – W 3-1 vs. Jamaica (Gold Cup SF)
July 8 – L 1-0 vs. Mexico (Gold Cup Finals)
Sept 7 – L 3-0 vs. Mexico (friendly)
Sept 11 – D 1-1 vs. Uruguay (friendly)
Oct 12 – W 7-0 vs. Cuba (CONCACAF Nations League)
Oct 16 – L 2-0 @ Canada (CONCACAF Nations League)
Nov 16 – W 4-1 vs. Canada (CONCACAF Nations League)
Nov 19 – W 4-0 @ Cuba (CONCACAF Nations League)