Premier League roundtable: The story so far

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With the Premier League heading into the international break after eight weeks of the season in the books, where do we stand?

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We have a three-team tie atop the Premier League table, some giants struggling and minnows over-performing.

Considering all of that, the staff at Pro Soccer Talk got together to have a little chat about the key storylines in the PL in the opening months of the 2018-19 campaign. Feel free to get involved and answer the questions in the comments section below.


Eight weeks in, three teams sit atop the Premier League table level on points. Who has impressed you most so far: Liverpool, Man City or Chelsea?

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JPW: At the moment I’m going with Chelsea. I still think Man City and Liverpool will be the top two, but the way Chelsea have settled under Maurizio Sarri (who only arrived in mid July) has been astonishing. Of course, it helps when Eden Hazard is in the form of his life, but Chelsea are close to being the most aesthetically pleasing team, just behind City, to watch in the Premier League. Fantastic start and they’ve played Arsenal and Liverpool, but big tests are coming up.

Dan Karell: I’m going to go with Chelsea as well. Sarri’s somewhat “late” arrival, just a few weeks before the start of the season, put the team behind the eight ball, but Eden Hazard has responded to the new manager and is truly living up to his potential as one of the world’s best players. Man City and Liverpool’s starts have been impressive, but in a way, it was expected. The scoreless draw on Sunday was that of two teams who respected each other too much to be too risky.

Nick Mendola: That’s a tricky one. Chelsea of course came out of the gates slowly with a new manager but has looked as consistent as Man City. I mention those two because when firing Liverpool has looked sensational and a cut above even last season’s champions. That said, that’s been a function and a flaw of the Reds under Jurgen Klopp, and Man City has to be considered the most impressive considering that, even with a tame schedule, they’ve done it without Kevin De Bruyne and with several players still finding their paths.

Kyle Bonn: Manchester City has still impressed me the most. As Nick said, Liverpool is the most fun, but they still have too many highs and lows. City remains consistent, and impressively so. Chelsea is there, but I’m still not convinced Sarri’s re-positioning of N’Golo Kante is the right move long term.


Should Jose Mourinho remain in charge at Manchester United? And here’s the key question: can he turn things around?

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JPW: I think he should stay in charge. At least until the January transfer window. If United can hang in and around the top four until early 2019, getting in key defensive reinforcements will be key to how successful this season will be. I think Mourinho has caused his own problems, for sure, but his players are clearly under-performing and there’s only so much you can do as a coach. Not being backed in the summer transfer window clearly upset Mourinho and changes are need at the top of the pyramid if United will get back to challenging for titles each season. Ed Woodward has a lot to answer for and will likely back Mourinho in the January transfer window. The key thing Mourinho needs to do is to let the shackles come off his team. They aren’t a very good defensive team but they can hurt opponents going forward. His style as a coach is often too pragmatic, which is okay away from home against top six opponents. But against lesser teams they need to take games by the scruff of the neck early on. Things change very quickly in this game.

Mendola: Pretty convinced that Mourinho’s job hinges on how he looks against Ronaldo/Juventus in the Champions League and the derby. The whole mess is not entirely his fault but it’s going to rest on his shoulders due to his disposition. In that sense it is of his doing. A side by side comparison of Mou at Man Utd and Klopp at Liverpool doesn’t separate the two by much, but Klopp gets the PR side. He put on Mane and Firmino on blast after losing to Napoli and few cared. Mourinho took a swipe at McTominay and Rashford after a win over Newcastle and took some abuse. Yes the latter two are from the island, but you get the idea.

Karell: I really think it’s only a matter of when, not if, Jose Mourinho is sacked at Man United. He’s lost the senior members of the dressing room and I heard a great point about him in the past, he always had senior or talented players willing to carry the team for him and push the teammates on to work harder. He had that at Chelsea with John Terry and Frank Lampard, had it at Porto with Carvalho and Deco, and at Inter with Eto’o, Zanetti and Wesley Sneijder. But things haven’t been the same for Mourinho since he had a falling out with Pepe and Sergio Ramos at Real Madrid, and then again at Chelsea he lost the dressing room. Man United can surely play better than they’ve been playing, and kind of like Arsene Wenger‘s last few years at Arsenal, there’s this air of uncertainty over Man United that keeps everyone wondering when the other shoe will drop. I would be shocked if Mourinho makes it to the end of the season.

Bonn: I’m firmly convinced Mourinho is tearing down Manchester United more than he is building them up. Even if they experience a temporary return to form, he is not the man to take this team forward. The locker room is a mess, and there is no cohesion at all. Paul Pogba’s a world class player, and just like I’m not convinced Kante is being used properly at Chelsea, a manager’s job is to get the most out of their best players, and moving them to uncomfortable positions doesn’t accomplish that. Mourinho needs to be replaced at Manchester United. I predicted before the season he’ll be the first PL manager fired, and I’m sticking to that.


And what about the teams in north London. Both are just two points off the top spot. Spurs have struggled, Arsenal is surging. Who finishes higher in the table this season?

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JPW: It is going to be very tight between these two. Spurs’ eventual move to a new stadium may give them a slight edge towards the end of the season, but there’s no doubt Arsenal is ahead of where we thought they’d be at this stage of the season. Unai Emery is on a long winning spree against teams they should be beating, but I think if Arsenal played Man City and Chelsea now, instead of in the first two games of the season, they would give a much better account of themselves and maybe nick a few points. Spurs’ squad has been stretched and they’ve yet to hit top form, but they’ve had their joint best-ever start to a season in terms of the points tally. Pochettino isn’t happy, but another top four finish would be a great season given the distractions of playing at Wembley again and not signing a single player in the summer. I think Spurs may just pip Arsenal, but I’m not sure if that will be to finish in the top four. Liverpool, Chelsea and Man City are guaranteed, then it’s Man United, Arsenal and Tottenham fighting for fourth. The top four race will be a really tight one this season and if Aubameyang and Lacazette can keep scoring plenty of goals, Arsenal could surprise everyone.

Bonn: I still believe Tottenham is most equipped to handle the full season and will finish higher, but Spurs’ defense has to be sorted out sooner rather than later. The most recent league results don’t tell us much, with clean sheets over Cardiff and Huddersfield Town. The injuries will subside and Eriksen will return, so I’m not terribly worried about the attack. Arsenal looks solid under Emery’s leadership, and the Aubameyang/Lacazette partnership is one the club will look back on fondly, but this season, Spurs will win out.

Karell: Regarding North London (is Watford not part of this convo!? Haha), I agree with Bonn. Tottenham has the talent and has proven it can finish high in the Premier League table, but the injuries to key starters have taken a toll. Meanwhile, Arsenal has taken care of business against less talented sides but is 0-2 against teams that finished in the top six last season (defeats to Chelsea and Manchester City to open the season). We won’t know until December, when Arsenal plays Liverpool, Tottenham and Manchester United in a 30-day span whether Arsenal is truly back in the top-four picture. 


Which players and/or team has surprised you the most so far this season?

JPW: I’m going with Bournemouth. I didn’t see this coming at all but the belief those players have in their manager and in each other will carry them a long way and young David Brooks looks like yet another bargain buy from Eddie Howe. King, Wilson, Fraser and Brooks are ripping teams apart and they’re sticking steadfast to their high-pressing philosophy. I seriously believe they can “do a Burnley” and finish in the European spot. And the player that has surprised me the most has to be Jorginho. I knew he was good, but I didn’t think he would be this good in the Premier League. He has totally reinvented the way this entire Chelsea team plays and I wonder if that would have been the case had he gone to Man City. Probably not. Smart move from him to stick with Sarri and lead Chelsea’s title charge.

Bonn: I’m with Joe in that Jorginho has impressed mightily this season. It’s so so difficult to come into this league and make an immediate impact like Jorginho has (just ask Naby Keita), and he has done so well, everyone has forgotten Sarri pushed the best defensive midfielder in the world to a new role to make room. It’s quite an achievement, and a big reason why Chelsea is where it is. As for impressive teams, mine has to be Wolverhampton. It was obvious during the Championship last season that they had staying power, but to come out and look this impressive has been a joy to watch. They not only look like they can fight for their lives, but they truly look like they belong, even in matches against the big dogs. Nuno is a manager with no fear and it trickles down to the rest of the group.

Mendola: I’m most surprised by Bournemouth, though I’m opt for Wolves and in particular Raul Jimenez. The 27-year-old is a hold-up man more than a finisher, but he does the job so well (El Tri’s answer to Olivier Giroud). Nuno Espírito Santo has marshaled his unit into a remarkably smooth transition into the Premier League, and I was wrong to doubt it.


Any teams, star players or new signings who have been totally disappointing so far?

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JPW: I’ve been disappointed with Mohamed Salah. I know, I know. It was always going to be tough to replicate his form from last season but he just seems to be getting very frustrated with himself when he misses chances. There is so much expectation on his shoulders and given the offensive struggles of Mane and Firmino, the pressure will only increase in the coming months. I’ve also been a little disappointed with Tottenham, as has their manager Mauricio Pochettino. Somehow they’re only two points off the top but they haven’t played well at all.

Bonn: I’ve been quite disappointed by Harry Kane to this point. Tottenham has been dealing with a number of key injuries, but the one that could hurt them the most is the one they insist isn’t an issue. It’s quite clear Kane’s ankle is not 100 percent, and he has failed to prove as dangerous as he has been in previous seasons. His shooting numbers are wildly lacking, and the goals have fallen off as well. Kane is a player Spurs need to have any kind of success not just this season but beyond as well, and his poor form has to turn around for Spurs’ season to be anything worthwhile.


And which teams are you worried about in terms of the relegation battle?

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JPW: Cardiff City and Huddersfield were the preseason favorites to go down and I haven’t seen much to change my view on that. Both teams struggle to score goals and that is always a recipe for disaster. Fulham and Newcastle also seem very susceptible to going on long runs without a win which can erode confidence quickly. Southampton will also be down there again after their failure to strengthen their team substantially over the summer. The main plus for teams in the relegation battle this season: both Cardiff and Huddersfield are quite bad and will likely occupy two of the three spots.

Mendola: The relegation battle will have a smaller tent this year. Cardiff and Huddersfield need massive reinforcements in January, and Newcastle has to hope its relenting fixture list leads to a number of wins before Boxing Day. Southampton and Burnley also represent concerns.

Bonn: I’m slightly worried about Fulham this year with regards to the drop. Slavisa Jokanovic has been praised for sticking to his guns even with the knowledge that his playing style might not translate to immediate success in the top flight, but it is bordering on stubbornness now. The team is not talented enough defensively to play that way sustainably, and a number of the reinforcements brought in this summer have been massive disappointments – I’ll mention Alfie Mawson and Calum Chambers by name, as the two have just been terrible. As there was last season in the Championship, there will be improvement as the season progresses for Jokanovic’s group, but will it be enough? With the poor matchups against better teams, Fulham has little room for error against sides they should be beating, and every slip against bottom-half teams leave them closer and closer to danger.

Championship wrap: Promotion race intensifies

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As always, things got weird and wild in England’s second-tier on Friday.

Leeds United lost at home to 10-man relegation battlers Wigan Athletic 2-1, despite taking the lead early and Wigan playing a man down for over 75 minutes.

Pablo Hernandez missed an early penalty kick for Marcelo Bielsa’s side who have now dropped out of the automatic promotion spots with three games of the season to go and no longer have their destiny in their own hands. This defeat marked the first time this season that Leeds have lost a game after taking the lead.

As for their main rivals for automatic promotion, Sheffield United rallied in the second half to beat Nottingham Forest on Friday and moved into second behind Norwich City as Blades boss Chris Wilder has done a magnificent job for the club he supports.

Norwich look certainties for promotion and their return to the PL after a three-year absence could be confirmed on Monday, while Sheffield United know they will be back in the Premier League for the first time since 2007 if they win their final three games of the season.

In the playoff race, West Brom, Aston Villa and Middlesbrough all won to sit in fourth, fifth and sixth respectively, while Bristol City and Derby are hanging around just outside the playoff spots with draws to set up a frantic final few weeks. There are some huge teams pushing to be in the playoffs and have a chance of playing in the richest game in soccer at Wembley on May 27, and Villa are the form team right now with nine-straight wins.

At the other end of the table, Bolton’s defeat at home to Villa means they were relegated to the third-tier and they will join Ipswich Town in League One for next season, while Rotherham and Millwall battle to stay out of the final relegation spot.

Below is a look at the standings and points in the promotion race, as the battle to get into the Premier League for the 2019-20 rages on.


As things stand – Championship table, promotion race

Automatic promotion
1st: Norwich City – Played 42, points 86
2nd: Sheffield United – Played 43, points 82

Playoff picture
3rd: Leeds United – Played 43, points 82
4th: West Brom – Played 43, points 76
5th: Aston Villa – Played 43, points 72
6th: Middlesbrough – Played 43, points 67

Pushing for playoffs
7th: Bristol City – Played 42, points 66
8th: Derby County – Played 42, points 64

Preview: Man City v. Tottenham

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“More of the same please, lads.”

That will be the message from neutrals everywhere as Manchester City host Tottenham on Saturday (Watch live, 7:30 a.m. ET on NBCSN and online via NBCSports.com), less than 72 hours after Spurs got past City at the Etihad Stadium in one of the most dramatic games in UEFA Champions League history.

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Pep Guardiola‘s Man City must pick themselves up and now focus on winning their final five games of the season to win the Premier League title, while Spurs and Mauricio Pochettino need to win to keep their hopes of finishing in the top four alive. That said, Spurs may rest several first team players with their injury-hit squad creaking and the north London side focused on being ready for their UCL semifinals against Ajax coming up.

In team news City could have Fernandinho back, while Zinchenko will be assessed. Spurs are without Harry Kane, Harry Winks and Serge Aurier and youngsters Juan Foyth, Oliver Skipp and Kyle Walker-Peters could all play with injuries hitting Pochettino’s side hard.

What they’re saying…

Guardiola philosophical on late winner denied by VAR v. Tottenham: “VAR appeared to help try and cut out mistakes. The referees can take time, seconds, minutes to see the images and different angles. If we make a lot of mistakes with VAR then I wouldn’t agree with it. We have to take one minute, two minutes, five minutes, until the right decision is made. But I support it, from the first time and well before. If the goal from Raheem in the last minute, which was offside, ends up being a goal and Tottenham go out because of one offside, is not right. It’s so tough on them and I don’t like that.”

Pochettino on Spurs making the UCL semifinals: “This is a massive example for us – how important it is never to give up, to always have faith and believe in yourself, your teammates, the club, the fans. All our decisions we take are to help the club and this amazing history we are writing today will be a massive example for us in the future.”

Prediction

City will be determined to put Wednesday right, and even though their dreams of a quadruple are over, they can still win the domestic treble. Spurs will be emotionally exhausted after the 4-3 defeat at City which sealed their path through to the Champions League semifinals on away goals, and City have a bigger squad which they can rotate. 3-1 win to Man City.

MLS expansion rankings: Who could be teams 28-30?

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Major League Soccer has announced it plans to expand to 30 teams, as commissioner Don Garber revealed the decision was made at the Board of Governors meeting in LA on Thursday.

Previously the limit to expansion was set at 28 teams, but with an expansion fee for teams 28 and 29 set at around $200 million, and team 30 probably beyond that figure, MLS owners and directors aren’t going to push away the dozen or so cities lining up to pay that kind of cash to get a franchise.

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Now, how big MLS should grow to is a debate for another day, and definitely one worth having when it comes to promotion and relegation by creating an MLS 1 and MLS 2, or how the realignment of conferences will impact things.

But below we focus solely on which cities are in line to get the next three expansion spots and rank them accordingly.


Teams 28 and 29 – Sacramento and St. Louis

I won’t go quite as far to say I’ll eat my hat if Sacramento and St. Louis aren’t teams 28 and 29, but I probably should… With both Sacramento and St. Louis steaming ahead with their MLS bids, it is no surprise that news from the governors meeting states that both cities will be invited to give formal presentations on their bids in the coming months. Both could be awarded expansion franchises by early August and begin play in 2021 or 2022.

Sacramento Republic FC has been ready for some time with their stadium plan sealed, and the final piece of the jigsaw is now in place as billionaire Ron Burkle (Pittsburgh Penguins owner) and his business partner Matt Alvarez will join the ownership group as and when they are awarded a franchise. St. Louis has always been a soccer hotbed, and with the Taylor Family who own the Enterprise group now leading the ownership group, STL has finally sorted its downtown stadium plan out. With no NFL team in town there is a gap in the market, and St. Louis would link up the Midwest franchises very nicely geographically.


Team 30

What about the 30th team? That race is a lot more complicated than Sacramento and St. Louis in pole position for teams 28 and 29.

Over the past few years we have ranked the wider expansion race many times, and the main thing to remember is this: things change very quickly as ownership groups get fed up, and MLS’ insistence that new expansion franchises must have soccer-specific stadiums (barring a few exceptions, ahem, New York City FC, Atlanta United…) creates problems for potential owners.

Here’s a look at the cities which submitted bids back in February 2017 to MLS (and one other) and how their chances stack up in the current climate:

Phoenix – They are looking like a very decent bet now, as crowds have been impressive in the past thee seasons, Didier Drogba has stuck around and they are financed by several wealthy investors, including Alex Zheng who owns Nice in Ligue 1. With a bit of a geographic gap between California and the Midwest for MLS teams, having a team in Phoenix links things up nicely too. If they arrive in MLS they will also build a soccer-specific stadium on the site of their current home. There’s more than a 50-50 chance they could be team 30. 

Detroit – This bid was gathering plenty of momentum in the league office and was one of the four finalists selected in the previous round of expansion with the other three including Cincinnati and Nashville both awarded teams, and Sacramento on the verge. But after plans for a downtown soccer-specific stadium stalled and the Ford Family got involved, things went south quickly. The plan to have a Detroit MLS team play in the NFL stadium of the Lions wouldn’t be dissimilar to what Atlanta United has done, but is this viable in Detroit? If MLS thinks it is possible to get large crowds for every home game, it would take very little from an organizational standpoint to award Detroit a team. There’s more than 50-50 chance they could be team 30. 

Raleigh/Durham – North Carolina FC are one of the most stable lower-league teams in North America and owner Steve Malik is an influential figure in American soccer circles. Given the freakishly strong college programs in the area and Raleigh/Durham a hugely popular city for young families to move to, there is plenty of potential here. Getting just 4-5,000 average crowds in the USL isn’t too impressive though, and unless that changes, it will put the league off. Possible, but a long shot.

Tampa Bay/St Petersburg – The Tampa Bay Rowdies have a loyal fanbase and the plans to redevelop Al Lang Stadium are impressive. With Orlando City already in MLS, there is a chance for a natural rivalry to grow, and with Miami arriving too, there’s a chance for Florida to become a real selling point for MLS. However, three MLS teams in FLA and Atlanta on the scene may be a little too much. If MLS decides it isn’t, Tampa could join pretty quickly, and despite some pointing to the Mutiny being shut down in 2000 as a warning sign, that hasn’t stopped MLS returning to Miami for a second go at things. Possible, but a long shot. 

Charlotte – No public financing or funding for a stadium plan sort of scuppered this bid early on, although the new ownership group of the NFL’s Carolina Panthers are said to be in talks with MLS about rejuvenating the bid as billionaire David Tepper has made it a priority. Having both Charlotte and Raleigh/Durham bid for teams was a bit of a nightmare, as it weakened both bids. These areas are huge soccer hotbeds, but as things stand it would be a bit of a shock if either got a franchise. An outsider.

San Diego – If they could ever agree on a stadium plan, San Diego would be a great place for an MLS franchise given its proximity to LA and a chance to build local rivalries. With the Chargers leaving town, like St. Louis there’s an opportunity to fill a sporting void. But with the Soccer City plan having plenty of big names but not passed by local government, this bid doesn’t seem to be happening any time soon. Things can change quickly though. An outsider.

Las Vegas – Garber has mentioned Vegas as a potential city a few times, even though they didn’t hand in a bid to MLS for an expansion franchise back in 2017. Seeing how well the NHL’s Golden Knights have done in Vegas will be intriguing, as MLS has long looked at the NHL as a shinning light in terms of how teams are added to the league. Like Phoenix, a team in Vegas will fill the void between the West Coast and Midwest, but there is a lot to sort out and the USL’s Las Vegas Lights complicate things a little. They have been a solid addition to the lower-tiers with very good crowds, but having a strong, dedicated ownership group is what’s needed to kick on the Vegas bid. An outsider

Indianapolis – A steady soccer market for years, Indianapolis have had the Indy Eleven and crowds are pretty decent. However, not having an ownership group with deep pockets is pretty much against what MLS wants for expansion teams and unless that changes, the chances of having a team in Indiana’s biggest city remain slim to none. Add to that the success of FC Cincinnati and the Columbus Crew sticking around, plus St. Louis looking like a favorite, and the Midwest market is a little congested right now. An outsider.

San Antonio – With Austin being awarded a franchise, many will ask if there’s a need for four MLS teams in Texas. Of course, San Antonio has seen some very impressive crowds in the lower tier and San Antonio FC’s Toyota Field could be expanded rather easily, but the fact San Antonio was far from happy with Anthony Precourt being able to relocate a franchise to Austin doesn’t help its chances. An outsider.

Solskjaer: Man United players need ‘reality check’

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The honeymoon period for Ole Gunnar Solskjaer is definitely over at Manchester United.

After losing five of their last seven games in all competitions, the Red Devils are out of Europe, the FA Cup and now facing a tough task to finish in the top four of the Premier League. And the two games they won over their last seven were far from impressive displays against Watford and West Ham at home.

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Speaking ahead of United’s game at Everton on Sunday (Watch live, 8:30 a.m. ET on NBCSN and online via NBCSports.com), Solskjaer believes some of his players need a reality check in order to save their season.

“I’ve learnt a lot about them over the months I’ve been here,” Solskjaer explained. “Most of them have really impressed me in their attitude. Of course there are some who need to get a reality check on where they’re at. But most of them know they can improve if they keep working as they do.”

Solskjaer was asked about which players in particular need to have a long hard look in the mirror, and although he didn’t name names, he did mention having a chat with Anthony Martial to try and help the Frenchman regain his best form.

Things were going so well for Solskjaer pretty much up until he was handed the United job on a permanent basis with 14 from his first 17 games in charge. You have to wonder if some of the players have taken their foot off the accelerator now the Norwegian coach has been handed the keys on a long-term basis.

Even if human nature kicked in and they relaxed a little, in reality they all know they can’t let their levels drop as it’s clear Solskjaer is planning yet another overhaul of this hodgepodge of a United squad in the offseason.

Asked about transfers this summer, Solskjaer wanted to calm everyone down and let them know he is in it for the long haul.

“We know there is a job to be done, there is no quick fix. It’s not like we can buy seven players and suddenly we are in the right shape. We are where we are and you have to take it step by step,” Solskjaer said. “Of course there will be signings made in the summer. I know there has been loads of criticism. I don’t know if all these critics know what is happening. We have got scouts scouring the planet for good footballers. We’ll sign players that we think are the right fit personality wise, quality wise, price wise, and can have longevity here at this club. I’m confident we are doing what we can to get the right players in.”

United need to strengthen at right back and central defense, while central midfield is also another area they need to beef up with plenty of outgoings expected.

In a strange way, this poor run to end the season will have focused Solskjaer and United’s board to try and reshape this squad rather than paper over the cracks. If they kept edging games and winning it would have brought false hope for the 2019-20 campaign. Now, everyone knows that big changes are needed, and a new direction in terms of player recruitment and a consistent playing style.

Can Solskjaer do what David Moyes, Louis Van Gaal and Jose Mourinho couldn’t?