Graft and grit the keys to Manchester United improvement
Jose Mourinho will forever defend his preferred style of play, but right now he doesn’t need to, writes
This is a period in which only the result is king for Manchester United. Having had his employment called into serious question following the 3-0 home defeat to Tottenham, Mourinho demanded a response from his team. That response has been forthcoming.
At such times, grit and graft are the two most important ingredients. United dominated a previously unbeaten Watford side during the first half, stifling the buoyant mood that did for Tottenham a fortnight ago and meriting a comfortable lead. But after the break they were forced to dig deep and fight, again reliant on the magnificence of David de Gea in stoppage time.
Very happy with the points. Very happy with the spirit. Very happy with something that represents the spirit of the team – Romelu Lukaku’s sliding tackle after 50 metres running back to help the team,” said Mourinho after the game.
Points, spirit and lung-busting runs to make saving tackles. These might be the cliches of a manager fighting relegation rather than a potential title challenge, but Mourinho knows only too well the power of togetherness when everyone outside the club has doubts. This sure smells like team spirit.
Competition for places fuelling Liverpool’s title bid
This summer, two midfielders arrived at Anfield for combined fees of just under £100m. This season so far, Liverpool’s two highest-performing midfielders are James Milner and Georginio Wijnaldum.
Had you not seen the Premier League table after five matches, that might cause some concern. New signings failing to have an impact?
The old guard having to save their skins? Not a bit of it. Naby Keita has been excellent during his four appearances, but Liverpool have not needed Fabinho because his new teammates have been so consistently exceptional. Milner is in the best form of his career. Liverpool have now won five games at the start of a Premier League season for the first time.
This is the indirect result of summer transfer business. Not only has Liverpool’s squad been improved by the quality both Keita and Fabinho provide, but their arrival has provoked a hunger within the existing squad to up their game to keep their first-team places. In Keita, Fabinho, Milner, Wijnaldum, Jordan Henderson, Adam Lallana and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, Liverpool have seven players competing for three places.
If Tottenham’s players can afford to coast due to a lack of competition — even subconsciously — nobody at Liverpool has that luxury and we saw that played out at Wembley. Milner and Wijnaldum might have feared for their places in June, but Jurgen Klopp oversees a meritocracy. Impress him, and you have no reason to be afraid.
Claude Puel must find solution to defensive chaos
It would hardly have been shocking had Claude Puel lost his job in the summer. The former Southampton manager had arrested Leicester’s slide under Craig Shakespeare, but he has never felt like the natural fit for ambitious owners. The accusation against Puel at Southampton was that his team was tedious, lacking the entertainment value that is so crucial when you are perennially likely to finish between seventh and 17th.
At the King Power Stadium, the opposite might do for Puel. Leicester are defensively shambolic, keeping two clean sheets in their last 12 league games. They have conceded twice or more in eight of those 12, but the biggest concern is Leicester’s propensity to fall into total chaos. They conceded five against Crystal Palace in April, five against Tottenham in May and four against Bournemouth on Saturday.
On each occasion, defeat could have been significantly worse given the clear-cut chances afforded to their opponents.
Puel must quickly find an answer if he is to keep his job. The arrival of three new central defenders and a natural right wing-back in the summer suggested that a three-man central defence could be the solution, but Puel has so far resisted that shift.
Wes Morgan’s torrid Saturday should surely cause him to be moved from literal centre stage. Why is Morgan still starting games?
Leicester now have a run of ten league fixtures against teams who finished outside last season’s top five, the chance to improve and establish themselves in the top eight before an ominous December. But as Bournemouth proved on Saturday, any top-flight team will punish a defence that lacks communication and organisation.
Zaha’s next task is to rise above physical treatment
There is no player more crucial to his club than Wilfried Zaha, but on Saturday we saw the best and worst of one of the most prodigious Premier League talents. Zaha’s winning goal was superb, the only player on the pitch capable of such majesty, but it was accompanied by a yellow card for a wild challenge, further accusations of diving and post-match complaints about the physical treatment he receives.
Zaha is right that he is a target for roughhousing; since the start of last season only four Premier League players have been fouled more often. But Zaha must learn to take such treatment as a compliment, and rise above it. Exaggerating contact, which he was guilty of against Huddersfield, and lashing out are only likely to make him a greater target for opposition managers.
The tackle from Etienne Capoue before the international break was indeed unacceptable, but Zaha must learn to let his frustration dissipate. This is what they want.
Follow Eden Hazard’s example, beating his opponents with skill and proving that he can exist on a higher plane than such physicality. As the magical player in an otherwise perfunctory team, Zaha cannot expect his opponents to change. He stands out like a beacon in the night.
Howe is the standard bearer for English managers. Bournemouth are fifth in the Premier League, and on Saturday their 18-man matchday squad contained players who made 259 appearances for the club in the Championship in 2014/15.
If you needed any more proof that no English manager combines youth, experience and the ability to improve players quite as well as Eddie Howe, there it is. When does his big offer come?