The big match of the Premier League weekend might not be until Monday night, when Manchester City and Arsenal tussle for the honor of occupying second place at Christmas, but the most interesting action this weekend was taking place off the field, in the stands and boardrooms.
This has been a revolutionary season. Leicester is top of the league. Over the weekend two members of English soccer’s downtrodden classes again dragged a pair of traditional Premier League aristocrats into the gutter and gave them a good kicking. Norwich won 2-1 against Manchester United on Saturday at Old Trafford, where it had lost 4-0 on each of its last three visits. On Sunday, newly-promoted Watford trounced Liverpool, 3-0.
With the plebes on the march, aristocratic heads will roll. José Mourinho was dismissed at Chelsea on Thursday. On Saturday, Louis van Gaal heard the masses at Old Trafford taking a break from singing the “Red Flag” and chanting Mourinho’s name. They should be careful what they ask for.
Mourinho would “love” to manage United according to at least one of his tame journalists, Rob Beasley of The Sun. On Saturday, Mourinho’s representatives released a statement saying he would “not be taking a sabbatical." He wants to manage. But Sunday brought bad news. Bayern Munich announced that Pep Guardiola would be leaving at the end of the season. Instantly, Mourinho became Plan B for the richest clubs.
United might be tempted to write off another season and hang on until the summer in the hope of signing Guardiola, the biggest name on the coaching market. That strategy carries a risk. Guardiola has reportedly been talking to Manchester City. United, which likes to sell itself as the biggest club in the world, could again suffer a humiliating public reminder that it is only number two in its own city.
The Special One always prefers to be in the camp of the very rich, yet he is, at the same time, a peoples’ champion. At Stamford Bridge, the Chelsea fans also chanted his name and booed the players they felt had let the coach down. United fans might find him more difficult to love. Chelsea supporters were happy to watch their team collect trophies with a defense-first counter-attacking approach. Even when United was winning earlier in the season, its fans made clear to Van Gaal that victory without attacking flair was not enough.
Bum Phillips once said of Bear Bryant, the legendary Alabama coach, “Bryant can take his'n and beat your'n, and then he can turn around and take your'n and beat his'n.” That is the mark of a great coach. There is no evidence that Mourinho can do that.
Unlike Claudio Ranieri, Mourinho’s never taken a club like Leicester to the top of the Premier League. Unlike Van Gaal, Mourinho’s never won the Dutch league with a club like AZ Alkmaar. Unlike Alex Ferguson, Mourinho’s never won a European trophy with a club like Aberdeen. The triumph that made his reputation, the 2004 Champions League, came in a tournament Porto had already won. Its last three opponents in the knock out rounds were Lyon, Deportivo La Coruña and Monaco, all teams Porto could expect to beat. Its only upset was a victory over United. Every manager who has been around long enough can claim one cup upset.
Mourinho has shown that, if his club is prepared to spend lots of money, he can deliver results. At Porto, Inter Milan, Real Madrid and in his first stint at Chelsea, Mourinho managed the club with the biggest or, occasionally, the second-biggest checkbook in its domestic league. Perhaps his problems this season stem from Roman Abramovic’s recent reluctant to compete financially with the two Manchester clubs, Arsenal or even Liverpool. Left with a squad he had allowed to grow old and which looked distinctly average, Mourinho could not win.
Perhaps that explains his outburst after Chelsea’s loss on December 14 at Leicester. Mourinho said he had been “betrayed” by his players. With Mourinho, every word can have a hidden agenda. It was a phrase guaranteed to irk the squad. In modern soccer, there is no greater coaching sin than “losing the dressing room”. It is cheaper to sack the coach, even one paid as much as Mourinho, than unloading and replacing all the players.
Three days after the remark, Mourinho was relieved of the responsibility for reviving and rebuilding Chelsea, work for which he has never shown an appetite. Mourinho signed a new contract in the summer. If Abramovic pays it in full, the coach will walk away with £30 million ($44.7 million), though reports suggests Mourinho might settle for just £22 million. That’s still not bad for just five months work.
Mourinho may hope one of the Manchester clubs will throw similar sums his way soon. Guardiola could block the route to the bank.
That worked — On Saturday, Mourinho went to watch Middlesbrough, managed by Aitor Karanka, his former assistant at Real, win at Brighton. He might have been forgiven an ironic smile when he heard what was going on at Stamford Bridge.
Before the game, fans booed the players they felt had betrayed Mourinho. Then one of them, Branko Ivanovic, scored his first goal since February. Pedro, Mourinho’s big summer signing, at a paltry £21 million, then scored his first goal at Stamford Bridge.
Mourinho spent much of this season whining about officials. In the first game after his departure, Chelsea ensured victory when it was awarded a penalty. Oscar converted, for his first goal since opening day.
Oscar, who had often seemed to be in Mourinho’s doghouse this season, was a player transformed. Oscar was inspired all afternoon. Was he able to perform so much better because of the departure of the demanding, doubting coach or simply because Sunderland was awful?
Chelsea beat a Sunderland team that did not turn up until the second half, 3-1. For now, sacking the manager seems to have yielded an upturn in results.
The defense rests — While United was eking out results earlier in the season, Van Gaal could at least argue that he had laid the foundations of success by sorting out the defense.
In part that was because of his strategy of massing holding midfielders in front of the back four. Yet it was also because Chris Smalling appeared to have grown into the best center back in England and David de Gea was the best goalie in the Premier League.
On Saturday, Cameron Jerome, a journeyman striker, embarrassed both Smalling and De Gea, for the first Norwich goal. Jerome beat Smalling for pace, shrugged off a weak challenge from Ashley Young and then, typically, shot straight at the goalie. De Gea could only wave the ball into the net. The Spaniard was then left bemused by the toe poke from Alex Tettey that put Norwich two up.
Suddenly United could not defend. Since it still could not convert possession into goals, it lost, 2-1.
The fans booed. They were right.
The result broke even Van Gaal’s ironclad certainty that his job was secure.
"Yes of course I am worried about that because I know that belief in a manager is very important," he told the BBC.
The myth of 40 points — On a day of penalties in the Premier League, Leicester scored from two as it won 3-2 at Everton. That should not disguise the quality of the victory. Leicester deserved both penalties. It also deserved to win. The Foxes looked unstoppable as they increased their lead to five points and ensured they will be top of the standings at Christmas.
Yet after the game, everyone at Leicester kept reciting the same mantra. They are only trying to ensure Premier League survival.
"Our target is 40 points,” Claudio Ranieri, the manager, told the BBC.
That means his team, which has 38 points, needs to collect just two points from its next 21 matches. Ranieri knows that this is ridiculous, a consideration that has never worried him, but he is serious. The team has played all season with the desperation that characterized its great escape last season. He needs to preserve that state of mind.
“If some players relax they go out the team. That is my philosophy and they know that,” Ranieri said.
Ranieri is such a good motivator that he is even inspiring other clubs.
After Watford beat Liverpool on Sunday to climb 28 points and seventh place, Troy Deeney, the captain. Told Sky Sports: “If Leicester still talk about 40 points then that’s what we have to talk about.”
Yet 40 points guarantees nothing. It only proves that soccer people have short memories. For the last 12 years, 40 has been enough, but this season the Premier League looks more like it did in its early years. The gap between the top clubs and the rest has shrunk again. Since the division reverted to 20 teams in 1995, two teams, Bolton and Sunderland, have been relegated with 40 points. In 2003, West Ham was relegated with 42. Back in 1990, when the top division was briefly reduced to 20 teams, Sheffield Wednesday went down with 43 points.
Aston Villa will be lucky to finish with 20 points, but the team in the third relegation spot, Swansea, is on course to finish in the high 30s, and its play on Sunday, as it drew, 0-0, with West Ham, and a week earlier as it lost unluckily at Manchester City, suggest it is capable of a surge.
Maybe Ranieri could modify his motivational approach and tell his players they need 44 points to be safe.
Goal rush — Christmas is coming, but managers across the Premier League know that Santa is not allowed to deliver their presents until January.
Guus Hiddink, who is taking over at Chelsea, has reportedly already told Abramovic that he wants a striker, though if the Russian’s millions succeed in prying Jamie Vardy away from Leicester and showing money can destroy any feel-good soccer story, all fans might as well give up on the game.
Chelsea is not alone. United needs more, and better, strikers. Tottenham needs an understudy to Harry Kane. With Danny Welbeck and Theo Walcott seemingly permanently hurt, Arsenal needs a backup to Olivier Giroud. Aston Villa bombarded the Newcastle goal in the second half on Saturday, but could only score once. It needs a scorer. United made Jerome look good on Saturday, but Norwich desperately needs someone better. West Ham’s only fit striker seems to be Nikica Jelavic, who is not even in Jerome’s class. Graziano Pelle has stopped scoring for Southampton. Stoke again played without a true striker on Saturday, and lost.
Every club always wants to upgrade its strikers. But more than half the division desperately needs more firepower. The fight for strikers in the January transfer window promises to be uglier and nastier than Black Friday in the electronic goods aisles at Walmarts.