Mourinho happy to fight for his future
All is still not well at Manchester United. After nine Premier League matches they sit nine points behind the top two and seven points from a top-four place. Had a United supporter been told as much at the start of the season, they would have assumed that full-blown crisis reigned.
Yet reports that senior players within the squad were waiting for Jose Mourinho to be sacked now seem wide of the mark. Having come from two goals down to beat Newcastle United before the international break, they came within a whisker of becoming the first team to win at Stamford Bridge in any competition since April 1.
Crucially, United’s comeback was inspired by two of the players who have been excluded by Mourinho’s ‘bad cop’ persona. Anthony Martial made no secret of his desire to leave Old Trafford in the summer, fined for his lack of communication over his return to training following the birth of his child. Juan Mata has become United’s forgotten man. The only game he had started since August defeat at Brighton was the EFL Cup exit to Derby County.
United will face further stern tests in the mission to prove that they can overcome their early-season slump; Juventus (twice), Manchester City and Everton are all to come in the next three weeks. But Saturday was proof that at least some of the cogs in this machine are still capable of working together cohesively.
Morata now entering Torres territory
The biggest surprise in Chelsea’s team to face Manchester United was the inclusion of Alvaro Morata as the centre-forward. Olivier Giroud had played more football than the Spaniard over the international break, but Giroud’s game is hardly based on high-intensity pressing and sprinting.
In Giroud’s absence, Morata floundered again. His hold-up play is well below par, the partnership with Eden Hazard needs significant work and his shooting has become a running joke amongst Chelsea supporters. One first-half effort, hit from 25 yards and directed almost the same distance away from goal, epitomised his funk.
Morata now has the despondent look of Fernando Torres at Stamford Bridge, a rut so extended that it has become the norm. Maurizio Sarri will surely think long and hard before starting him in such a high-profile match again.
Jokanovic floundering on the big stage
Slavisa Jokanovic entered this Premier League season with plenty of goodwill in the bank. His last attempt ended before it had even begun, the inability to agree a new contract at Watford leading to his departure during the summer following promotion. Given Fulham’s expansive style of play achieved with young, exciting players, we rubbed our hands together in anticipation at what the Premier League might hold.
Less than three months later, Jokanovic’s time in the sun may already be over. Fulham are on course to concede 106 goals in the league this season, a total that would break the previous 38-game Premier League season record by 17. Jokanovic has a collection of excellent attacking players, but looks woefully short at the back. When faced with a tactical quandary, either pre-game or in-game, his answer is to attack more.
Unlike David Wagner, Neil Warnock and Rafael Benitez around him, Jokanovic was afforded a significant transfer budget this summer and was expected by his bosses to deliver comfortable consolidation in the top flight. Fulham are also an attractive prospect for a new manager.
All of this works against a coach quickly running out of goodwill.
Tottenham displaying steel to match their style
Four consecutive league wins over bottom-half teams by a combined margin of five goals. A critic might suggest that Tottenham are doing the bare minimum and failing to blow away weak opposition, but you see if Mauricio Pochettino cares.
This has been a difficult start to 2018/19 for Tottenham. No team in Europe had more representatives in the World Cup semi-finals, no team in Europe bought fewer players in the transfer window and no team in the Premier League have had more injuries since the beginning of August. Each of those factors in isolation might have derailed their campaign. In combination, things looked bleak.
Yet after nine matches, Pochettino’s team sit two points from the Premier League’s summit. If Harry Kane, Christian Eriksen and Dele Alli - their usual attacking weapons - have each failed to hit their typical heights for myriad reasons, that merits being given a positive spin. If they can keep pace with their peers without those three firing...
Benitez in a no-win situation
Until recently, Rafael Benitez had remained untarnished by Newcastle’s Mike Ashley-directed misery. Supporters, pundits and any other reasonable observer understood that Benitez was succeeding in spite of Ashley’s presence, not because of it. Even keeping the club’s head above water was an achievement worth celebrating.
Now even Benitez is drowning in the flood. Newcastle created a number of chances against Brighton, but lack a competent centre-forward to finish them. They have become only the fourth team in top-flight history to lose their first five home league games of the season. On Saturday, the first signs of mutiny appeared amongst supporters who have had hope and ambition crushed by wilful neglect.
Benitez would now do well to leave Newcastle, whatever the financial implications. He has been treated like a fool by Ashley for two-and-a-half years, and is proving himself incapable of repeating last season’s overachievement. Get out, before it really gets you down. Every supporter would forgive you.