Saturday September 24th, 2016

José Mourinho could sheath his sarcasm on Saturday after Manchester United crushed Leicester, 4–1.

The victory started United moving up the table again, though it did not gain ground on the leader, Manchester City, which won, 3–1, at Swansea to remain perfect after six rounds.

United’s six dropped points had brought a wave of criticism and second-guessing. During the week, Mourinho had denounced his critics as “Einsteins”. Ironically, one of the things for which he is being publicly criticized is criticizing his players in public.

There are many worse things for a pundit than being called an “Einstein” by Mourinho. Being called a “Mourinho” by Albert Einstein would be one of them.

Einstein’s brilliance was recognized by awards from, among others, the Nobel Prize Committee, the Royal Society, the Royal Astronomical Society, the Franklin Institute and the German Physical Society and with honorary degrees from Oxford, Harvard, Princeton and so on. José Mourinho was awarded the title of “the Special One” by José Mourinho, which, in his world, is all that matters.

On Saturday, Mourinho did look like a genius as United hit four first-half goals against the reigning champion. One reason for the change might be that he was prepared to make the changes many of his critics had urged.

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Out went Wayne Rooney and Marouane Fellaini. In came Ander Herrera, Juan Mata and Jesse Lingard, one of the little kids Mourinho has been picking on. Paul Pogba was free to move forward into the space that has been occupied by Rooney where he prodded and probed impressively. For 20 minutes, United’s talent finally meshed to produce the fast, flowing, inventive and ruthless attacking soccer its fans crave. In the buildup to the third goal, scored by Mata, every United outfield player touched the ball.

“I don’t know when was the last time they had such an impressive performance,” Mourinho told Sky TV—unable to resist another little jab at his predecessor, Louis van Gaal.

United took its foot off the gas in the second half, as Mourinho teams often do.

“Nobody was expecting to score four more goals and win 8–0.” Mourinho said. “It was more about control.”

Mourinho, so quick to name the guilty players after recent defeats, was coy about handing out praise. He mentioned Zlatan Ibrahimovic, who no doubt needed consoling after failing to score in a United rout. The manager also had to face questions about Rooney, who came on for the last seven minutes.

“He’s my man. He’s as happy as I am at the moment,” Mourinho said. “His United won.”

Other than that, Mourinho would not name names.

“I prefer to say that my team as a team played very well,” Mourinho said.

Mourinho also risked comparisons with Einstein as he explained how he was exploiting the strange mathematics of league play. United has attracted headlines as it has lost twice in six games but has not drawn any games.

“We are not drawing. We are winning,” he said “The fact that we have four victories is important.”

Yet United is still outside the top four. Other teams have more points. As Einstein could have told him, these things are all relative.

In A Corner

At the start of 2015, Leicester went to Old Trafford, played like underdogs, allowed Manchester United more than 70% of possession and lost, 3–1.

On Saturday, Leicester strode out as champion and went for United’s throat and lost, 4–1. After United scored first, the Foxes unraveled for the second time in five days.

On Tuesday, Leicester deservedly led Chelsea by two goals in the 45th minute in the EFL Cup but conceded just before half time and let in three more by the fourth minute of extra time. A red card for Marcin Wasilewski did not help, but it is symptomatic of a deeper problem. On Saturday, Leicester let in four goals in 20 minutes in the first half. The Foxes had conceded eight goals in less than two hours of soccer.

Leicester is missing N’Golo Kanté, there’s no doubt. His replacement, Daniel Amartey, lost Mata before United’s third goal. But two of the goals on Tuesday and three of the goals on Saturday came from corners. Whatever Kanté’s strengths, winning defensive headers is not one of them. Perhaps Leicester is missing its great big Dane, Kasper Schmeichel, in goal. But even so, in the last two games, Wes Morgan, Robert Huth—both of whom were so dominant last year—and Wasilewski have struggled to defend set pieces. Something is rotten in the heart of the Leicester defense.

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A Gift for the Boss

Arsène Wenger had his cake and ate it too as he celebrated the 20th anniversary of his arrival at Arsenal with a 3–0 victory over Chelsea at the Emirates on Saturday evening.

Chelsea has repeatedly humiliated Wenger over the second half of his reign. Arsenal had won just five of its previous 30 matches against Chelsea, and one of those victories was in the Community Shield, which does not really count. Arsenal had not beaten Chelsea in the league for five seasons. Two seasons ago, Wenger attacked Mourinho on the sideline during one defeat.

On Saturday, Wenger was the big winner. Chelsea’s sloppy defense helped, but every choice the manager made paid off.

Shkodran Mustafi and Laurent Koscielny dominated Diego Costa, who unhinged Arsenal last season. Wenger again left his traditional strikers, Olivier Giroud and Lucas Pérez, on the bench, but Alex Iwobi, Theo Walcott, Mesut Özil and Alexis Sánchez—the notional central striker—tore Chelsea apart in the first half with quick, smart and fluid attacks.

Before halftime, Özil was showing Chelsea up with no-look passes. It was the icing on Wenger’s cake.

Then There Were Five

Mourinho has blamed Van Gaal for United’s early season problems, which raises the question of who Antonio Conte should blame for Chelsea’s struggles.

Conte has refused to play that game, merely saying he needs time to change things. Saturday’s first-half disaster had a silver lining for Conte: It allowed him to switch to his preferred back five early in the second half.

It is possible that preparation for a back five explains why Gary Cahill suffered his third similar disaster in three matches. Last weekend against Swansea and on Tuesday at Leicester, Cahill was ambushed in the center of his own half with the ball at his feet and no one behind him but the goalie. Swansea scored from the turnover; so, after 11 minutes on Saturday, did Sánchez.

Cahill hasn’t suddenly become a bad defender, though he has had troughs in form in the past. He seemed to short circuit on each occasion, attempting to turn toward his own goal and shield the ball rather than simply hoof it up the field. He was trying to do something that goes against his instincts.

After Marcos Alonso replaced Cesc Fàbregas—to the joy of Arsenal fans—the Chelsea defense stiffened, though that is not usually a priority when trailing by three goals.

The attack also improved from non-existent to merely punchless. Chelsea managed its solitary shot on target in the 83rd minute.

It was the first time Conte had lost two consecutive league matches as a manager since December 2009 at Atalanta. He resigned from that job in early January of 2010, but Atalanta fans have even less patience that Roman Abramovich.

Tarnished Cameo

Tottenham climbed to second with a 2–1 victory at Middlesbrough. Spurs dominated in the first half but the game was transformed by an astonishing cameo from Middlesbrough’s Adama Traoré.

Son Heung-min scored two pretty first-half goals. Spurs could easily have led by three or four at the break.

At halftime, Boro brought on Traoré, a 20-year old Spaniard with blinding pace. He immediately started running at Tottenham, burning past challenges with flashing feet and a low-slung body swerve. Until the closing minutes, Spurs could not work out how to stop him. Tottenham’s serene control quickly turned into frayed panic. The fullbacks stopped overlapping. Middlesbrough took the initiative. Ben Gibson scored with a header from a free kick.

Yet Middlesbrough struggled to turn Traoré’s penetration into goals because he has a second eye-catching trait. Bizarrely for a player who grew up in the FC Barcelona youth system, he cannot pass.

In the end, Traoré completed seven of 11 passes, but that included the two he attempted in his own half. Of the five he tried in the attacking third only two found teammates, and those were short layoffs when he opted not to take on a defender.

Traoré repeatedly created danger and then defused it himself. He utterly transformed the shape of game and had no direct impact on the score.

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