It was taking an all too familiar path - poor performances, dressing room leaks, ‘palpable discord’ between manager and players, the board failing to land the players we needed in the transfer window and rumours of the gaffer getting the sack before the Christmas decorations had even gone up, never mind come down.
The clash with United was a pretty pivotal game, coming as it did after an abject performance in Europe, Conte publicly questioning the players’ desire and an angry dressing room dressing down. Many feared the worst, but I had a sneaky suspicion we’d see a turnaround in our fortunes. Firstly, there was the Mourinho factor. There is no love lost between some of our players and our ex-manager and this was an ideal opportunity to hurt him, publicly.
Then there was the return of Kante; we knew we’d miss him, but I don’t think anyone guessed just how badly. With him back, the defence looked more relaxed, had more time, more protection. The attacking players could concentrate on what they were meant to be doing. His absence has really made me wonder whether Hazard is the most important player in our squad. Given the horrendous inconsistent performances without him, I’d argue that the diminutive Frenchman is a bigger miss.
We also all knew how Jose was going to approach the game. Even non-tacticians like myself knew he was going to keep it tight and defensive and try and hit us on the break. So we just ran at them and they struggled to contain us. United were fortunate not to be further humbled, despite what Jose said post-match.
Our former Special One cuts a sad figure these days. The twinkle in his eye has gone and his mischievous musings are now the ramblings of a bitter man who looks to have fallen out of love with the game. I maintain that we had the best of him and although he’ll always be a good manager he will struggle to achieve the greatness we were privileged to witness.
I still love Mourinho, but must admit I lost a little respect for him during this game, as his half-time team talk obviously invited his players to target Hazard. The Belgian was given little protection as the Reds kicked him from one end of the pitch to the other and then back again, a ‘tactic’ Jose is using more and more, a tactic which has driven my friend Jason Cundy to nickname him the ‘Portuguese Pulis’. It’s sad, he was so much better than that.
But let’s move on.
I don’t think the dressing room shenanigans have come to an end, given Conte’s post-match comments on David Luiz. It will be interesting to see how this one plays out, given the players’ supposed fury over the treatment of Costa. There is an alleged clique in the dressing room of Spanish/Brazilian players. So, if the rift between manager and defender is unbridgeable, as some suggest, how will the other players react? How will the board react?
It is understood that the board are sympathetic to Conte, given the poor showing by the club during the transfer window and the injuries, but will they be so understanding if he alienates a significant number of the players.
Conte could use this opportunity to demonstrate that he doesn’t hold grudges, like Mourinho. He has made his point. He should encourage Luiz to work his way into contention, show that he is a manager who can forgive and forget and move on. This would do wonders for dressing room harmony.
As for the here and now, we can only celebrate a convincing and satisfying win and hope it is the boost we need to get back to winning ways.