Mourinho will be fortunate to keep his job
There are partial defences for Jose Mourinho’s abject underperformance. Manchester United did not answer all of his transfer needs this summer, and Ed Woodward has overseen a period of almost total incompetence for which the buck deserves to stop with him. Mourinho’s squad is not as good as Manchester City’s; that is undeniable.
But Mourinho cannot escape censure, and will be fortunate to escape the sack. A manager who used to revel in getting the better of his peers is now being embarrassed by them. A man who used the strength of his own personality to inspire players is now renowned for alienating them. Every trick in Mourinho’s act is failing.
Since the start of last season, Manchester United have dropped 30 Premier League points against Huddersfield, Stoke, Leicester, Burnley, Southampton, Newcastle, West Brom, Brighton, West Ham and Wolves alone. If Mourinho can reasonably plead that his squad is not good enough to win the title, it is through his own incapacity that United are not even close. Put these tools in the hands of a different craftsman, and a meaningful title challenge could be sculpted. Whatever the failings of those above him.
Sturridge revelling in super sub role
In February, Daniel Sturridge played for four minutes at Stamford Bridge, and was taken off with an injury when starting for the bottom club in the Premier League. Sturridge would not start another game for the Baggies, who were subsequently relegated. The on-loan forward returned to Liverpool, and waited to be told that he was no longer wanted.
Seven months later, a remarkable turnaround. Sturridge scored three goals in all competitions last season, but has already surpassed that total in 2018/19. He cannot reasonably hope to be a regular Premier League starter at Liverpool, but may well be Jurgen Klopp’s perfect plan B.
Had Liverpool lost at Stamford Bridge, Klopp would have faced a week of questioning about his side’s appetite for a title challenge. Such is Liverpool’s spending in 2018, added scrutiny is inevitable and so too are smaller margins for error.
But again given four minutes against Chelsea, Sturridge changed the game and the mood with his sensational opportunistic strike. It was evidence of a player high on confidence and with the determination to impress, however and whenever the chances arise.
Pellegrini finds solution to midfield problem
It wasn’t hard to spot West Ham’s biggest problem.
In Manuel Pellegrini’s first four league games in charge, all defeats, the Chilean played a 4-2-3-1 formation. The two central midfielders in each of those four games: Mark Noble and Declan Rice, Noble and Jack Wilshere, Carlos Sanchez and Wilshere, Sanchez and Wilshere.
Three combinations, but no solidity. With a trio of attacking midfielders in front of them, the central midfielders were left exposed to the counter-attack. Wilshere can do many things, but protecting a defence is not one. The same applies to Noble, while Sanchez floundered during his early appearances.
Since then — and a welcome international break — Pellegrini has transformed West Ham’s midfield. By playing three players centrally (Rice, Noble and Pedro Obiang all started against Manchester United), West Ham had a defensive screen in Rice, a tackler in Obiang and left Noble free to receive possession and pick a pass forward. Despite his reputation as a heart-on-the-sleeve leader, Noble has always been a more accomplished passer than tackler and better when allowed to concentrate on one task.
This must now be West Ham’s blueprint. Pretty, attacking football may be the ultimate aim, but a bottom-half team cannot take shortcuts towards progression. The midfield battle has to be won before you worry about aesthetics.
Will Fulham pray the price for their defence?
This summer, Fulham signed two midfielders for £49m. They signed a striker for £18m, while also loaning two forwards in Andre Schurrle and Luciano Vietto from Champions League clubs. The defenders they signed included two from Championship clubs and a centre-back from Nice who had played two seasons of top-flight football by the age of 28.
Fulham did not ignore their defence — they made far too many transfers to do that — but the figures do not make for good reading. Having had the second-worst defence in the Championship’s top eight, Slavisa Jokanovic must have known that his backline required some serious surgery. There are now doubts about whether he focused on big names in the wrong half of the pitch.
Fulham have the joint-worst defence in the league, and have conceded two or more times in six of their seven matches. That’s simply not sustainable for a team that is eyeing top-flight consolidation. Being labelled as ‘the entertainers’ shouldn’t necessarily be taken as a compliment when you’ve only taken five points from seven matches.
Huddersfield’s shooting will cause their downfall
Last season, Huddersfield Town scored the joint-fewest goals of any Premier League team, six fewer than any other team that survived relegation. That stemmed from their chance conversion, at 7.7% comfortably the worst in the division. To address that issue, the only striker Huddersfield signed was Adama Diakhaby, a 22-year-old from Monaco. Diakhaby has only played 231 league minutes so far, starting twice.
The problem has got worse, not better. Huddersfield are again the team with the worst chance conversion rate and also the lowest scorers. In their nine home games since the beginning of March, David Wagner’s side have scored one goal from 108 shots. That’s the sort of statistic that helps a side get relegated.