Man United’s biggest problem ignored amid Mourinho’s excuses

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MANCHESTER — Jose Mourinho refused to blame his players for a sub-par display in the Manchester Derby on Sunday, as his Manchester United team lost 3-1 at Manchester City and are now closer to the bottom three of the Premier League than the top.

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Instead, Mourinho rattled off excuse after excuse as United lost for the fourth team in 12 games this season after yet another slow start. In the aftermath of the defeat, instead of highlighting United’s issues, Mourinho delivered excuse after excuse. He took the easy option.

City are 12 points ahead of United and along with Liverpool, Chelsea and even Tottenham they look set for a title tussle. United are so far from that it is scary as they’ve had to rely on late comebacks to drag them up the table in recent weeks. The wins over Bournemouth and Everton, plus the miraculous late comeback at Juventus in the UEFA Champions League, have given United’s fans false hope that this season could still be a success.

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Despite their late shows, the Red Devils are seven points off the top four and currently sit in eighth place in the Premier League. They’ve now conceded 21 goals in their opening 12 games of the season and for the first time since 1977 they have a negative goal difference at this stage of a campaign. That porous defense is a stain on Mourinho’s proud record as a defensive mastermind, and the fact he is ignoring that issue is most concerning as United continue to struggle.

Once again United could not carry out Mourinho’s defensive plan as he set his team up in a 4-5-1 formation and had three scrappers in midfield (Matic, Herrera and Fellaini) and the pace of Marcus Rashford to unleash on the break. It didn’t work, at all, and United looked far better when they chucked players forward in the second half as they tried to get back in the game after going 2-0 down. In truth, it was Ederson who handed them the initiative with a poor challenge to give United a penalty kick.

After the game Mourinho was asked if the derby summed up why City are pushing for a second-straight title and United, who finished a distant second behind them last season, are now solely focused on trying to finish in the top four.

“If you focus on all of the game today. The game was open for 80 something minutes, I think nobody left the stadium before their third goal, for sure, because the game was open until then,” Mourinho told reporters. “In a week where Man City played at home three matches and we played three matches away, in a week where they enjoyed two 6-0 and 6-1 victories, relaxed, no pressure, no mental effort, everything nice and easy. We played two matches away, difficult ones and the second one was like a final for us against one of the best teams in Europe, a game that demanded from us everything we had to give physically and mentally.

“When I analyze the game today I think the difference was — you can go for stats, that is the way people that don’t understand football analyze football, is with stats — but I don’t go for stats. I go for what I felt and what I watch in the game. The game was there until minute 80 something. I consider the performance of my team as a performance with mistakes. That is different than a bad performance. We made mistakes, we were punished for these mistakes. The performances, the mentality, the togetherness, belief, the fight until the end is something we are building and we are not going to lose that because of a defeat.”

That excuse about suffering from fatigue surfaced again and although United’s four-game PL unbeaten run is over, Mourinho is adamant they’re moving in the right direction.

After being asked if their poor defensive record shows he should have been handed a new center back in the summer transfer window, Mourinho praised the displays of center back pairing Chris Smalling and Victor Lindelof and said he would not hammer Luke Shaw as he has played week in, week out this season.

“The game against Juventus was hard physically and mentally. I am with my players,” Mourinho said. “I am even with my players that today made the mistakes that led to Man City’s goals. We are together. We are not going to be effected by this. I am sorry we don’t play the next match soon and we have to wait 15 days for that but we are improving. We are improving and we go together until the end.”

What is at the end of this season remains to be seen, but United’s slim chances of winning the title are now over and a top four would now be a remarkable achievement.

Mourinho was asked about Paul Pogba being out injured for the derby and how that impacted his team. Another excuse soon arrived.

“I don’t like to lose a game and talk about this player who wasn’t here. But he is important for us in many aspects of the game. Because he didn’t play we had to play Fellaini who wasn’t ready to play for 90 minutes,” Mourinho said. “I can imagine when the result was 2-1, if we bring a fresh Fellaini on, I think they (Man City) would be in big, big trouble. When the result was 2-1 and it was the moment we had that final push, it was the moment Fellaini was doing an incredible effort to stay on the pitch. Not fit at all. Risking his injury and his condition and giving everything to the team. Clearly one thing is to have a fresh Fellaini and another to play him for 90 minutes in this match. Yes, we missed Paul but that doesn’t mean with Paul we win the game. That is not an excuse.”

The fact is, Mourinho delivered many excuses as to why United didn’t turn up for the derby and why they were dominated by Man City. The one thing he hasn’t delivered answers to are the same issues which have plagued United so far this season and leave them languishing outside the top four.

Hyndman, Hamid seal permanent MLS deals

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Two players who have featured for the U.S. Men’s National Team in the past signed permanent MLS deals on Monday, after spending the all or parts of the 2019 MLS season on loan in the league.

The question is, should we be disappointed? It’s two USMNT-eligible players in their prime who are leaving Europe for regular playing time? Will that playing time get them back in the USMNT picture? Or were their old club teams simply the problem before?

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It was a return for Bill Hamid, who was a D.C. United homegrown player and arguably the first player on the team sheet between 2009-2017. Hamid actually returned from Europe in 2018 and spent all of the last year and a half on loan from FC Midtjylland in Denmark.

Hyndman on the other hand signed a permanent deal with Atlanta United, after the former MLS Cup champions signed the 23-year-old midfielder on a loan deal from Bournemouth in the Premier League. It was Hyndman’s fourth club in four years – including three loan moves – and perhaps Atlanta is a place he can put down roots and stay for the long term.

Per both D.C. United and Atlanta United, both players signed multi-year deals. D.C. United reportedly even paid a transfer fee for Hamid.

Both players are solid to good players in MLS, and as Americans, they add quality and don’t cost a team an international spot. But for the U.S. Men’s National Team, it’s unclear how this could affect the pair.

On one hand, USMNT coach Gregg Berhalter has shown a preference to certain players he had in the 2019 January camp, including guys like Nick Lima, Paul Arriola and Christian Roldan, even if performances don’t necessarily merit them playing each match. On the other hand, as someone who has played in Germany, and England, Berhalter surely understands the benefits of challenging yourself every few years to play and train at a higher level. It doesn’t have to be Jurgen Klinsmann levels, where every single year they have to step it up, but finding a new way to freshen things up in a tough environment can have positive benefits for everyone, assuming there is playing time.

For Hyndman, who moved to Fulham’s academy in 2011 at the age of 15, it marks the end of seven years in Europe trying to break in. He had decent half-season spells with Hibernian and Rangers in the Scottish Premier Division, but one can argue that Atlanta United is itself on a higher level of play. That being said, Hyndman has clearly decided that regular gametime is best for his development as a player than relocating to the Netherlands, Italy or Germany to play. He wasn’t likely to get any at Bournemouth, even with their current Premier League struggles.

In Hamid’s case, he took a chance on Europe with FC Midtjylland. However, pretty quickly he realized that it wasn’t the right situation for him and within six months, he was back on D.C. United on loan for the next year and a half.

In both cases, there may have been options to continue their European adventures. Whether it was in the Championship or another “mid-major” European league, in the past, two players entering their primes might have tried to stay in Europe a little longer. But the lure of MLS, with a decent salary, less competition for places and the opportunity to play at home in front of family is a strong one, and the national team will have to adjust with it.

 

Would Saul make sense at Man United?

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As Manchester United prepares its roster construction for the future, one player that’s reportedly on the shortlist is Atletico Madrid central midfielder Saul Niguez.

Although originally from Elche, in southeast Spain, Saul has been on the books of Atletico Madrid since 2008 (other than a season on loan with Rayo Vallecano), making his first team debut in 2012 and growing from a scrawny midfielder into an international-calibre box-to-box star for both club and country. Per Diario AS, Man United has been interested in signing Saul before, and now it’s been revived. The report states, “The interest from Manchester is very real, and strong.”

[READ: Arsenal comes back to beat West Ham]

So, what kind of a player is Saul?

As mentioned before, he’s a sturdy, powerful box-to-box midfielder who can win headers defensively and knows how to play well in a Diego “Cholo” Simeone system. At the same time, he’s certainly not afraid to make a late run into the box. Last season he tied a career high with four goals in La Liga and also scored in the UEFA Champions League.

At 25-years old, he’s a hardened veteran player. But is he what Man United needs?

If you look at the current squad at Ole Gunnar Solskjaer‘s disposal, he’s got quite a few No. 8’s, right? There’s Paul Pogba, Andreas Pereira, and Fred. You can argue Scott McTominay has at times played like an 8, as has Jesse Lingard on occasion. One might argue that what Man United really needs is a better No. 6, someone who can be a destroyer and cover a lot of ground, freeing up that side of the game so Pogba could feel more comfortable attacking.

If Man United were to sign Saul in January – or next summer – we could potentially see him line up in a midfield three, though he’d be center right with Pogba to his left. Behind the pair would be McTominay to clean up the messes.

On paper, it’s a decent midfield for sure, but it’s just one step on Man United’s path towards becoming a team that can challenge for the Premier League and Champions League.

Of course, this is all theoretical. Saul carries a $166 million transfer release clause, and for the player he is, considering he doesn’t score many goals and affects the game in little ways, it’s a lot to spend for a guy who isn’t a guarantee to improve his team enough to make it back to the Champions League.

But if Man United was able to negotiate a better transfer fee for Niguez, they could do worse than a talented midfielder from Atletico Madrid. The question then will be – is Saul a system player (only successful under Simeone), or can he find success in the Premier League too?

USWNT’s Rapinoe named SI Sportswoman of the Year

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In 2019, Megan Rapinoe won a World Cup title, Golden Ball, Golden Boot, FIFA World Cup MVP, and the Ballon d’Or. Now, she can add her name to another distinguished list.

Sports Illustrated on Monday revealed that Rapinoe had been named SI’s 2019 Sportsperson of the Year. She’s the first individual soccer player from any gender to win the award, and she follows the 1999 U.S. Women’s National Team as the second USWNT-related athlete to garner the award.

[READ: Rapinoe wins 2019 Ballon d’Or]

Other notable winners of this award are Serena Williams, LeBron James, the Golden State Warriors, Michael Jordan, and Muhammad Ali.

“Even in a year with many great candidates, choosing Megan as the Sportsperson of the Year was an easy decision,” Steve Cannella, co-editor-in-chief of Sports Illustrated said in a statement released by the magazine. “She is a force of nature on and off the field, a trailblazing soccer player who also proves every day how large and loud a voice a socially conscious athlete can have in 2019.”

Rapinoe has had about as good of a year as a player can have, and she did it under enormous pressure. She withstood verbal and online taunts from the U.S. president for her noted opposition against his political decisions, as well as dealt with injuries during the tournament. Even if she wasn’t always at her best on the field, she found a way to score key goals at important moments.

Every Women’s World Cup seems to raise the profile of the USWNT and soccer in this country, but beyond her work on the field, Rapinoe’s hair, media savvy and ultimately, her performance won over any critic she could have. What she’s done for soccer in this country is immeasurable, and hopefully there are people that have a desire to keep watching the beautiful game after the World Cup, thanks in some part to Rapinoe.

Rapinoe will grace the cover of Sports Illustrated for the Dec. 16 issue.

Ljungberg on Pepe: He ‘showed his quality’

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Arsene Wenger used to say that players needed around six months once they came to the Premier League to get adjusted to both living in England and getting acclimated to the pace and physicality of the league.

For Nicolas Pepe, it was advice well heeded.

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Offensively, Pepe was outstanding as he scored a goal and an assist in Arsenal’s 3-1 win over West Ham. At the same time, Pepe worked hard on the defensive end, making life difficult for West Ham left back Aaron Cresswell and anyone down West Ham’s right flank.

On Monday, Pepe showed that he was worth his $87 million transfer fee, and he only needs a yard of space to create something magical.

“People always ask me about Nico and I try to explain,” Ljungberg after the game. “He comes from the French league, he comes to the Premier League – in my opinion the best league in the world – and it’s a lot faster and a lot harder. He needs to adapt. People put pressure on him but that’s not so easy, and I thought what he did today was he worked really hard offensively and defensively and showed his quality.

“I’m so pleased for him because at the same time he was a big, big buy for the club and then comes pressure with that as well. He will fall asleep with a smile tonight.”

In the 66th minute, Pepe found himself isolated on the wing with just Cresswell to beat. After cutting inside, Pepe curled home a beauty which ended up being the game-winning-goal. It was just his second Premier League goal of the season and his first from open play. Perhaps now after five months of bedding in at Arsenal, Pepe is ready to shine.

There’s no doubt that with Arsenal’s defensive issues, they need their attacking stars to score in bunches from here on out. If Pepe can finish the season with ten goals and ten assists, it will be a wild success, and set him up well for the next season.