TOO CLOSE TO CALL
Arsenal, Manchester City, Manchester United and Tottenham all dropped points this weekend. Chelsea and Liverpool won.
The six legit title contenders in the Premier League are all in the top seven. Three are joint-top on 20 points after nine games. A further two are one point behind on 19 points.
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Here’s a look at where the six “big boys” of the PL are at right now as we approach the quarter mark of the season with so little to separate the pack. In fact, it’s the tightest race ever, so far.
The top five in the Premier League have never been separated by such a small margin after the opening nine games in history. Even the stats are pointing towards an incredibly close battle.
Manchester City: Five games without a win in all competitions… Pep Guardiola‘s honeymoon period is finally over. City were humbled at Barcelona in the week and looked lackluster in attack against Southampton in a 1-1 draw. Add that to silly defensive mistakes from Claudio Bravo and John Stones and Pep has plenty to mull over and that’s probably why he kept his team in the dressing room for 40 minutes after the draw against Saints. City are still top and we all know this huge philosophical change under Guardiola was never going to happen overnight. Last month they looked head and shoulders above the rest. Now? Well, they just look like one of the contenders again. At least for now.
Arsenal: The fact that Arsenal’s annual general meeting on Monday wasn’t dominated by talk about Arsene Wenger tells you two things: one, his future remains as shrouded in mystery as ever. Two: sorting out the future’s of Alexis Sanchez and Mesut Ozil is crucial. The Gunners had won six Premier League games heading into last weekend but a disappointing 0-0 draw at home against Middlesbrough showcased that Wenger’s side can still dish up turgid displays where their offense fails to click and a more clinical team than Boro would’ve walked out of the Emirates with all three points.
Probably not a bad thing that the Gunners had this reminder early on in the season. Yes, they’ve been winning games, but against Burnley, Southampton and Swansea recently they’ve been a little lucky. Sooner or later, that luck will run out.
Liverpool: Okay, even if everyone else is bigging up Liverpool’s title, Jurgen Klopp is having none of it. His side beat West Brom 2-1 at the weekend to move joint-top of the table but Klopp knows it is early days. Defensive frailties still exist with Liverpool only keeping one clean sheet in their nine PL games this season. The German has manufactured and manipulated a fine offensive machine at Anfield and with Sadio Mane they have the man who can blast smaller opponents into oblivion. So far this season, Klopp’s team is much further along the line than most people thought they would be. With no European games to bloat their schedule, both Liverpool and Chelsea have a huge advantage this season in the title race.
Chelsea: Antonio Conte wanted Chelsea’s fans to appreciate just how good they were in their 4-0 demolition of fellow title hopefuls Manchester United on Sunday. That got him into a spot of bother with Jose Mourinho (much more on that shortly) but it showed just how hard Conte has worked to maneuver this team back into the batch of title hopefuls. Chelsea were embarrassed by Liverpool and Arsenal last month but since the 3-0 drubbing at the Emirates (where Conte was fuming over the incredibly abject defensive display) they changed to a 3-4-3 formation. That’s seen them keep three clean sheets and score nine goals in three consecutive wins. Conte is getting the best out of this team and his antics on the sidelines are creating a feeling of confidence, passion and commitment.
“After two defeats and conceding two or three goals in every game, it was important for us to change something and to find a new solution. I think this suit is very good for the team and our squad. Now we must continue,” Conte told ProSoccerTalk after the win against United. “I always thought that the system is not important. It is more important, the commitment to trust in the work and work very hard and also to follow the principles and my idea of football. That pleased me because when you see this in the game you go in your house and you are happy.”
Tottenham: Spurs are happy and remain the only unbeaten team in the Premier League but against Bournemouth on Saturday they lacked cutting edge in their 0-0 draw. I joked with a Spurs-supporting friend this weekend that they’d probably go the entire season unbeaten… but draw 24 games. Mauricio Pochettino‘s side have conceded just four goals this season but at the other end is where they have issues. Son Heung-Min has stepped up in Harry Kane‘s absence but Vincent Janssen continues to struggle and Spurs have only scored more than one goal in three of their nine PL games this season. This Spurs side has more depth and has a title challenge under its belt. That’s dangerous. Underestimate this young, hungry team at your peril.
Manchester United: There’s no doubting it has been a bad week for Jose Mourinho and United. First, he was lambasted for “parking the bus” at Anfield, even if some of us thought it was the smart thing to do and it once again provided an insight into his incredible preparation and tactical nous when setting up his team in a defensive formation away from home. None of that was evident on Sunday in an embarrassing 4-0 shellacking at his former club Chelsea. The situation surrounding Wayne Rooney is threatening to derail United’s title bid and we can expect Mourinho to now set up his team in a much more defensive system in the coming weeks to try and stop the bleeding and build this unit together from scratch. There’s a real lack of identity and a feeling he doesn’t know his best team. Mourinho had the look of a man not only rattled by defeat to his former club but one with the realization of the magnitude of the challenge ahead of him. Perhaps that’s why he felt the need to lecture Conte at the final whistle about some of his celebratory antics. Speaking of that…
MOURINHO CALLS OUT CONTE FOR SIDELINE ANTICS… REALLY!?
For most of the second half Jose Mourinho stood in the away dugout at Stamford Bridge with his hands in his pockets.
Watching on as his United side went through the motions during the final stages of a 4-0 thumping to Antonio Conte’s Chelsea, Mourinho’s return to his old stomping ground was a dismal, haunting occasion for the proud Portuguese coach who delivered three PL titles in five full seasons in charge of Chelsea over two spells. That didn’t stop home fans mocking him. “You’re not special anymore!” and “You’re getting sacked in the morning!” were the chants from those who once, and probably still do, adore him.
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There was nowhere for Mourinho to hide on Sunday as he suffered his worst-ever Premier League defeat at a place where he’s still largely revered for his past achievements.
To rub salt into the wounds, the man who replaced him, long-term, Conte, was running around and jumping up and down, celebrating like a madman as Chelsea went 4-0 up. Then, came the moment when Mourinho snapped, inside at least, until he let out a venomous barb at the full time whistle to his opposite number.
[ MORE: Conte the new Mourinho? ]
With Chelsea winning 4-0, Conte urged Chelsea’s fans to drown out the traveling United fans who were still singing loud and proud despite a horrendous display from their side.
At the final whistle Mourinho grabbed Conte in a close embrace. It was clear it wasn’t friendly. I was sat 20 yards behind the benches with Conte looking right at me. I could see the back of Mourinho’s head as the prolonged hug turned into a lecture. Conte’s nose turned up and he sported a scowl as Mourinho walked off.
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Later TV footage of the incident was played time and time again and Sky Italia claimed Mourinho had said the following: “You don’t wind up the crowd at 4-0. You do it at 1-0. It’s humiliating.”
Both managers failed to repeat what was said after the game, saying the conversation will remain private.
When asked if Mourinho had scolded him for riling up the crowd when Chelsea led 4-0, Conte smiled. Then laughed.
“I think that the private conversation must remain private. Then if someone discover something, okay. For me a private conversation remains private,” Conte said, smiling. “I think that today it was right to call our fans in a moment I was listening to only the supporters of Manchester United after 4-0. I called the fans to do a great clap to the players after this type of performance. I think that the players after a 4-0 win, they deserved it. It is very normal.”
During his heyday at Porto, Inter Milan, Real Madrid and Chelsea, Mourinho was so often he aggressor. He was the man who ran down the sidelines at Old Trafford when Porto knocked Manchester United out of the Champions League late on. He is the man who poked Tito Vilanova in the eye to spark a mass sideline brawl between Real Madrid and Barcelona. He was the man who would shake the hand of other managers long before the final whistle with his Chelsea team often 4-0 or 5-0 up. He is the man who ran 70 yards to celebrate with his players during a UEFA Champions League quarterfinal win against Paris Saint-Germain.
For him to lecture another coach about sideline etiquette just doesn’t seem correct. It’s hypocrisy of the highest level. Sure, Mourinho is one of the most decorated coaches the world has ever seen with titles four countries and two UCL crowns, but that doesn’t mean he can stop others from acting with the same panache he once had. The sparkle in Mourinho’s eyes seems to have left him. For now. Until his team starts winning on the pitch, if they ever do, then his comments to Conte and others will always seem bitter, twisted and ill-advised. When he wins he can say these things with a smile on his face and get away with it.
For Conte, did he regret his part in “whisper-gate” on the sideline at Stamford Bridge?
“Me? No. I think we live with emotion,” Conte said. “If we want to cut the emotion we can go home, stay at home and change my job.”
Conte was then asked if that was one of his biggest wins as a manager: “No. When you win a battle, I prefer to win a war. Not just a battle.”
That’s something a young Mourinho would’ve once said. Now, though, he looks like a man worn down by the size of a monumental challenge facing him to turnaround this Manchester United squad.
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He may well have to gut a lot more of this squad than he previously thought as such a poor defensive display with what he called “incredible” mistakes is not the sign of a Mourinho team. Away at Liverpool last Monday he got a 0-0 draw and was ridiculed for his defensive display. The fact of the matter is, that’s exactly what this United side must do. Focus on the basics. Focus on defending. Until they do that, their manager will be drawn into nightmare scenarios like the one he faced in the most embarrassing of circumstances at his former club.
That right there was why Mourinho blew up and felt the need to scold Conte at the final whistle.
EIGHT MAKE BALLON D’OR SHORTLIST
Six years ago Vardy was playing in the Northern Premier League for Stockbridge Park Steels. On Monday he was the only English player included in the list of 30 nominees who compromise the best 30 players on the planet. Vardy, 29, joined Lionel Messi, Gareth Bale and Cristiano Ronaldo, and he was also joined by Leicester City teammate Mahrez. It caps off a stunning 2016 for the duo who are both now iconic figures across the soccer world for their leading role in Leicester’s incredible story.
Manchester United’s Paul Pogba and Zlatan Ibrahimovic both make the list but mostly for their exploits with former clubs, while Manchester City’s duo of Kevin De Bruyne and Sergio Aguero are also among the elite names selected.
One intriguing note on this award to crown the best player on the planet: FIFA no longer runs the show and French outlet France Football does. That led to a rather drawn out, but exciting, process of naming the nominees on Monday with batches of player being released five at a time throughout the day. So, yeah, I guess this will be copycatted by plenty of awards to come.
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.