Jose Goes. So what’s next?

When Jose Mourinho was appointed by my beloved United in the Summer of 2016, it was impossible that it could end acrimoniously. He was the Special One, winning a league title in every spell with any club since Porto. His ego and winning mentality coupled with United’s history and stature were the stereotype of a perfect fit.

Today, he’s gone, taking no Premier League winners’ medal with him. A Capital One Cup and a Europa League is all he has to show for his two-and-a-half years. After all nobody remembers a runner-up.

Critics pointed to his string of short-term stays with his employers. However, a quick fix was what United needed after the spiralling results and charismaless football of David Moyes and Louis Van Gaal. Yet this description remains all too familiar. The 3-1 defeat against Liverpool was arguably the nadir of the entire post-Ferguson era.

It is possible that we will look back and realise Jose did an incredible job. Two trophies in his first season followed by a second placed finish to the greatest team in Premier League history constitutes some amount of success especially with the players at his disposal.

But the football, oh the football, was tedious even last season and since August its been a complete shambles. I’m not pretending the club isn’t rotting from within but Mourinho had to leave. Wholesale changes are needed.

Paul Pogba is first. He has downed tools and his influence in the dressing room has soured the atmosphere, impacting the levels of others. It is an intolerable influence and though he will undoubtedly be a roaring success wherever he journeys next, he cannot remain at our football club after his behaviour.

Romelu Lukaku is another readily disposable asset. Allowed to bulk by nutritionists and fitness coaches, who must also be fearing the dreaded p45, his touch is no longer poor but comical. If he didn’t play for United he’d be a healthy source of entertainment.

There are many others. Dead wood is obstructing a host of promising youth players such as Mason Greenwood, Tahith Chong, Angel Gomes etc. who all deserve a chance. For the next six months there is no excuse for keeping them on the sidelines. Personally, I’d give Nicky Butt the caretaker’s job. He knows the quality of our academy prospects, loves the club as a Class of 92 member and there is nothing to lose. Insiders seem to suggest that United will appoint externally and so Butt is unlikely. Perhaps Zidane? Perhaps Wenger!?

A chance may as well be taken. We will not get relegated. We will not finish in the top four. The Premier League should become a playground to blood youngsters. A bottom half finish is not a disaster from this point onwards. The only trophy we can realistically win is the FA Cup on which we must focus. Whatever our best team is (and I have sympathy with whoever takes charge regards this as I have no idea what it is) should be fielded against Reading as a statement of intent.

It is a situation we must make the most out of. We are already the laughing stock but we’re in danger of becoming the new Liverpool post 1990. Imagine that.

Farewell then Jose. I’m as sorry as anyone that this didn’t work out.

Here’s a thought: Arsenal – Premier League Champions 2018/19

Bear with me.

Liverpool and Manchester City may appear streets ahead of everyone else in the Premier League but in their 0-0 draw at Anfield yesterday there was a lack of cutting edge and verve. They cancelled each other out, Liverpool with a much sterner defensive line than last season and City with mistakes having been learned from the defeats suffered at the hands of the Reds in the first half of this year.

The same could not be said of Arsenal and maybe, whisper it quietly, they may have found a system to genuinely compete not just for the top four but the title itself.

It is early days and two months ago they’d suffered back-to-back defeats to start the season, against City first and Chelsea second. In both they were second best but at that time, Unai Emery was still finding his feet and the team sheets were experimental. Not so now.

Against Fulham and particularly after Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang was introduced for Danny Welbeck and Aaron Ramsey for Alex Iwobi, they were irresistible, scoring the team goal of the season so far, finisded off by Ramsey. Two more followed for Aubameyang as they drubbed the Cottagers 5-1.

Fulham have the worst defensive record in the league to date and getting too carried away would be fruitless. They’ve won nine on the bounce, a fine run, but their toughest assignment in that period was a home game against Watford, who have since slipped to mid-table.

There is no reason that run may not continue until November. League games against Leicester and Crystal Palace precede a home tie with Liverpool, by which time they may be the ones with greater momentum.

The biggest worry remains their defence. Mustafi and Holding will not be a championship-winning pairing but get a marquee signing in January as a statement of intent, and keep Lacazette and Aubameyang firing, and there could be something formidable rising from the North Londoners’ ashes.

Outside of teams in the top six of the Premier League and Arsenal have win every game this season. That will be Unai Emery’s acid test, points against the big sides. It is where Arsenal, in the second half of Arsene Wenger’s tenure, so often came up short.

Unlike at Tottenham and even Manchester United to an extent, trophies will not be the measure of Emery. Arsenal have won a few of those in recent years but have not sustained an assault on the summit for thirty-eight games since the Invincibles stunned the world in 2004. That’s fourteen years, fifteen if they have four points to make up come the second week in May.

Based on this weekend’s performances, there is actually a chance it may happen. City cannot possibly be as good as last year and Liverpool are not as ruthless up front, if better defensively.

Based on recent history, the Gunners will lose at home to Leicester next time out. Yet, it cannot be denied that Arsenal were more impressive than any Premier League side yesterday. Maybe now is the time. Far stranger things have happened.

 

Sarriball, Montpellier and Chelsea’s rule of two: The enigma of Stamford Bridge

I had the misfortune of watching West Ham and Chelsea draw in the least memorable stalemate so far this season. It was, however, thought provoking and led me to question Chelsea as a concept as much as a club.

Why is it, that they cannot settle on a long-term manager despite sustained success? How can they go from runaway champions one season to missing out on the Champions League the year after? Perhaps, more pressingly, how do they expect to win a league title with Olivier Giroud leading the line?

Alvaro Morata has not fired on all cylinders since his arrival from Juventus and Giroud does have a moment of brilliance in him every twenty games or so. However, barring Montpellier’s astonishing title victory in France in 2012, a club side featuring the big Frenchman has not mounted a damaging assault on the top.

His way of playing as a centre-forward is not conducive to thirty-eight game football. It can work wonders in the odd game and he links up play significantly better than many players of his type. It even suits Chelsea’s new obsession with Sarriball and passmaster Jorginho. Yet, ultimately, he relies on consistent service, an old fashioned striking bully who silently demands more goals than his teammates.

France managed to avoid this problem by fielding so many alternatives that they virtually bypassed Giroud entirely. I must make it clear that I do not dislike Giroud this fervently as a footballer. It does strike me though, that Chelsea have enough options either side to replicate France if they were bold enough.

Against West Ham, Chelsea played so centrally, trying to intricately work their way through the lines before inevitably losing out to a bruising Hammers tackle on the edge of the box. Only in the last ten minutes did Willian receive some amount of freedom to express down the wings and this was when Chelsea were at their most effective all game. In the first half, when Giroud was on, any time the ball went wide it either went immediately back whence it came or aimlessly into the middle hoping that Giroud would outmuscle his man without support.

He succeeded on some occasions but not regularly enough nor effectively enough and West Ham quickly came up with a plan to shield goalkeeper Lukasz Fabianski without too much alteration to their strategy . This, in turn, highlights a problem with the fabled “Sarriball.”

It is almost too similar to tiki-taka to be distinguished. There is a midfield fulcrum, Jorginho, who is allowed as many touches as the opposition combined and can play a ten yard pass with his eyes closed. There are wingers who can carry the ball at will and full-backs and other assorted playmakers who can be called upon when required. Even N’Golo Kante now darts into the box without restraint.

It sounds a lot like Manchester City, right? The difference? Every City player looks like they want to score, all the time. Chelsea’s XI still seem a little tentative or would prefer to simply create than to poach. They don’t possess the intensity of thirst that the likes of Sterling, Sane and the Silvas perform upon. Theirs is quenched merely by helping and playing a part. There is no I in team but every team relies on selfish individuals now and again.

Against West Ham, Chelsea toiled tirelessly but lacked the willingness to sacrifice positional organisation for greater chances to score. Indeed, Sunday’s game at the Olympic Stadium was not the only one in which Chelsea failed to switch through the gears. It took them until the final twenty minutes to break down Bournemouth and they were 1-0 down at home to Cardiff with just ten minutes left of the first period.

Their lack of raw, uninhibited ruthlessness is likely why Chelsea have become the top 6’s yoyo club. One season, they’re brilliant, a new manager able to unleash the best out of his players once the confidence starts to roll. As soon as the honeymoon period finishes, however, it seems the playing staff lose the will to extend the success, content in the knowledge that a league title delivered is job done. That false sense of accomplishment led to Chelsea finishing a combined 14 places off the top in the two seasons following their Premier League titles.

Like Mourinho and Conte before him, Sarri has taken the reins, admittedly with fewer days in which to get things organised, and got Chelsea’s mojo back. But it isn’t as simple as replenishing the evaporated swagger of old. Sarriball, while flowery and easy on the eye, is not a system of itself, certainly not something to be relied on to deliver a consistent stream of trophies. He needs to create another Stamford Bridge identity, like Mourinho’s punishing counter attacks or Conte’s three-at-the-back.

The Blues’ blues have been replaced by a spot of Sarri sunshine for now though caution is best heeded. Even if Chelsea go on to win their third consecutive alternate-year, odd-numbered title, that would be just the beginning for the chainsmoking Italian and his staff. To quote Alex Turner, “Don’t believe the hype.”

Believe in success, sustainability and Sarri.