Last season, Jose Mourinho was able to lower Manchester United’s Premier League ambitions successfully through excellence in the cup competitions, thus allowing a sixth-placed league finish to be excused.
This season, Mourinho has attempted the same trick. In July and August he talked about competing for the title, but Man City have a chance on Wednesday to move 15 points clear after 20 matches played.
More intriguing is Mourinho’s assessment of United’s squad. “In so many ways, this is now my team,” Mourinho said in August. “In terms of the squad, this is my second summer transfer window and, in this complicated world of the football market, I was thinking it would take three windows. But I now have a good group, a club much better equipped and much better organised in the areas that support the first-team squad.” Four months later — and after the draw with Burnley — Mourinho was at pains to detail the financial power of Manchester City and gripe about them “buying full-backs for the price of strikers”. This after consecutive summers during which United have paid £35m and £20m more on a player than City ever have.
Of all Mourinho’s excuses, this provides the thinnest veil over his own guilt. Even United fans must be wincing.
Personally, talk of calendar year records leave me cold. Football is measured in seasons rather than months or years, and so beating another player over the course of a constructed time period makes little sense.
Yet Kane’s three goals against Southampton were notable for a few reasons. He became the first player in Premier League history to score consecutive hat-tricks on more than occasion, and also registered his sixth Premier League hat-trick of 2017. Only five other players have even beaten that total across the entirety of their Premier League careers.
Most significant was that Kane passed Lionel Messi’s 2017 goal total. We have become used to placing Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo in classes of their ethereal own, so anyone who does manage to compare deserves lavish praise. Even if it is only temporary, Kane is walking where only the angels tread.
We have already experienced one high foot controversy this season after Sadio Mane’s tackle on City’s Ederson, but Bournemouth’s Simon Francis should have been sent off when his foot connected with Cheikhou Kouyate’s throat.
The argument against a red card for this type of offence is that Francis made a genuine attempt to play the ball, but there must come a stage when negligence is punished. If you raise your foot to that height, you should be responsible for what occurs. If you play the ball and not the man, you are fortunate. If you connect with an opponent’s face, you should be sent off. The same principle applies in the real world, when someone caught driving over the legal alcohol limit gets a different punishment to one who does the same but causes a serious crash. By committing the act, you put yourself in danger of receiving a range of punishments according to the result of that act.
Cynics may suggest that Riyad Mahrez’s return to form has arrived at a handy time ahead of the January transfer window. The Algerian hardly made any secret of his desire to leave Leicester over the summer, and his form was miserable until November.
Claude Puel might suggest different. The Frenchman revealed his plan to “seduce” Mahrez upon his appointment as Leicester manager: “It is down to me to create that environment where these players want to thrive and stay and be happy and to enjoy themselves, their football and the plans that we have.” The change is remarkable.
Crucially, pouring love on his most talented player was not Puel’s only strategy. Mahrez reacted badly to being substituted against West Ham in November, but Puel was in no mood to kowtow: “Riyad, like all the other players, have to find good consistency in their game — game after game. It’s the most important thing.” That blend of good and bad cop, combined with an increased licence to roam from his starting positions, has transformed Mahrez. Now to hold on to him in January...
“I think I’m capable of doing the job at any club in the world so I’m sure I can do it at West Ham,” said Moyes on December 19. “I have to come here and show I can do it.” Moyes has now won two of his 10 matches in charge of West Ham. Having taken over the club in 18th after Slaven Bilic was sacked, West Ham have moved up one position. Despite victory over Chelsea and a promising point against Arsenal, outside of those matches defensive problems have continued. Three conceded to Bournemouth, three to Newcastle, four to Everton.
Perhaps rather than boasting about his ability to succeed away from London Stadium, Moyes might be better advised on getting West Ham out of trouble. Running before you have proved that you can walk can easily lead to you tripping up and falling over.