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.
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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.
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…
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.