Louis Van Gaal has a possession obsession. After Manchester United had enjoyed 63% of the ball at home on Sunday he was not going to change his tune.
United managed one shot on target, and that was not until the 88th minute. But Manchester City, which Van Gaal had proclaimed the favorite before the game, did no better. A sterile match ended 0–0.
“We had 90 minutes control of the game against a side like Manchester City. I cannot complain,” Van Gaal told the BBC, before adding: “But you want to win and we did not.”
Manuel Pellegrini, the City manager who had been deprived by injury of David Silva and the United killer Sergio Agüero, was less happy with the stodgy fare.
“Unfortunately for the fans it was not a very attractive game,” Pellegrini told the BBC. “We are two creative teams but we could not do it today.”
“It was a very tactical game.”
United struggled in attack. Wayne Rooney, the center forward, completed only 17 of his 31 passes, or a horrible 55%. The numbers were worse where it mattered. In the attacking third, Rooney completed only three of 13 passes. Vincent Kompany, once again, owned Rooney.
United only began to look dangerous when Van Gaal reverted to an anti-possession tactic he adopted with success last season. With 15 minutes left, the United manager threw on Marouane Fellaini to act as an aerial target.
In the last few minutes, Jesse Lingard hit the bar after a high cross fell to him. Then Fellaini beat the City defenders to a long, high, free kick and headed down to Chris Smalling who shot low and hard. Joe Hart saved at full stretch.
“It didn’t feel like it was a dynamic derby, I think both of us didn’t want to lose the game,” Kompany told Sky TV. “For us a good draw, definitely.”
It was ugly, but Pellegrini also found a silver lining: “We are back at the top of the table.”
Leap of Faith
After Christian Benteke rose to rocket a header into the goal in the 77th minute at Anfield on Sunday, Jürgen Klopp leapt almost as high on the sideline. The new Liverpool boss might have broken the Premier League manager’s high jump record as he punched the air to celebrate the first goal since he took over.
Somewhere far from Anfield two out-of-work managers may have sunk deeper into their sofas.
Klopp was less happy 10 minutes later when Southampton also took to the air. Sadio Mané bundled in the equalizing goal after the Saints had won two headers in the penalty area. The game ended 1–1.
“We have to be more calm in these moments,” Klopp told Sky TV.
Klopp still has not won as Liverpool manager but he still hasn’t lost. Perhaps, after two weeks, it’s still a tad early to decide whether he is a success or a failure. At least he has a job.
“We are in the competition we are really in a good way,” Klopp said. “We have to do better immediately.”
The Benteke header, athletic, powerful and precise, was the highlight of a flowing, open game. It was the type of classic center forward’s goal that is Benteke’s trademark and which caused something of a spat when he left Aston Villa for Liverpool.
“There’s no point going to a club where they don’t cross the ball,” Tim Sherwood, who was still the Villa manager, told the British media. “We cross more balls into the box than any other club in the league and Christian has said that he feeds off crosses.”
The remarks were not only a criticism of Benteke but of Brendan Rodgers who was working on turning Liverpool into Pep Guardiola’s Barcelona or, maybe, Borussia Dortmund in the early days under Klopp.
“I don’t believe that and I told him,” said Benteke. “I said football has changed and the football now is modern and I can adapt. It is not just about crossing.”
"I can score normal goals, too,” Benteke said. “That is why I came here—to show I can play with my feet, too.”
Certainly Benteke can score with his feet. Of is 46 Premier League goals, only 15 have been headers—the most by any player over the last three seasons. But why settle for normal, when you can do something special.
But with Rodgers gone, Benteke can now expect his teammates to feed his head.
On Sunday, Liverpool struggled to turn possession into chances. Then Benteke came on at halftime. His aerial power can simplify soccer. James Milner simply hoicked the ball into the penalty area from somewhere near the halfway line. Benteke, surging and soaring as if he was wearing a cape and had a large “S” on his chest, did the rest.
The only problem is that Rodgers and Liverpool’s infamous transfer committee has filled the squad with creative midfielders. Jordan Ibe is just about the only player resembling the type of traditional winger who could supply crosses for Benteke.
On Sunday, in one leap, Benteke showed why he is worth the high price of his transfer. The Belgian cost Liverpool $50 million. Liverpool’s struggles in the early season despite that outlay cost Rodgers his job. Benteke’s move also cost Sherwood his job. Without Superman to save them, Villa is sinking. Sherwood was thrown overboard on Sunday.
Winning ugly, losing pretty
It was perhaps understandable that Sam Allardyce turned the first question he was asked after the game Sunday into a pat on his own back.
Sunderland had just beaten Newcastle, 3–0, making Allardyce the fourth straight Black Cats manager to gain his first victory at the club in the Tyne-Wear derby. It was also Sunderland’s sixth straight victory over its bitter local rival.
“An incredible stat when you think about it, not just making five wins on the trot for us over the last three managers in the game against Newcastle,” Allardyce told Sky News before turning to himself. “So I’m the fourth manager to do that.”
Allardyce’s steel-plated ego is one of the reasons why fans at his last three clubs, Newcastle, Blackburn and West Ham never warmed to him. Another problem is that Big Sam is happy to win ugly. Sunday was certainly ugly.
Sunderland was ghastly for the first 45 minutes, but survived thanks largely to goalkeeping that was ungainly but effective from Costel Pantilimon.
Just before half time, Lee Cattermole thwarted another Newcastle attack with what looked like a handball and a foul on Gino Wijnaldum. While Newcastle appealed for a penalty, Sunderland counter-attacked. As Steven Fletcher chased the ball into the box, Fabricio Coloccini flattened the striker with a sad parody of a shoulder barge. Referee Robert Madley gave Sunderland a penalty and showed Coloccini a red card. Adam Johnson converted.
“We’ve been a little fortunate I think in the first goal,” Allardyce said. “But you get these things for you in the game of football and you’ve got to take full advantage and we’ve managed to do that today.”
Sunderland did that. Even down to 10 men, Newcastle dominated. The Magpies could not score while Billy Jones and Fletcher capitalized on two of the few chances Sunderland created.
Beating Newcastle was ultimately not enough for any of Allardyce’s three predecessors. They all left because Sunderland was still awful against everyone else (except, weirdly, Manchester City).
On the other side, Steve McClaren was left to blame Madley who “got two wrong.”
Newcastle was, McClaren said, “absolutely magnificent throughout that first half. I’ve never sat and felt so comfortable.”
“We looked a very good team,” he said following the loss.
It was a revealing remark. If Allardyce specializes in winning ugly, McClaren’s teams have a bad habit, when the pressure is on, of losing pretty.
A goalie disintegrates
After Adam Federici, replacing the injured Artur Boruc, let in five goals on 11 shots last week, Eddie Howe, the Bournemouth manager, might have taken the view that Manchester City usually whacks five past promoted teams. Instead Howe rushed Boruc back to face Tottenham on Sunday. It turned out to be a mistake.
Bournemouth took a first-minute lead. Boruc rapidly handed the initiative back to Tottenham. In all he was to blame for three, perhaps four, goals as Spurs won, 5–1.
Boruc might still have been less than fully fit. But his ninth minute lunge at Harry Kane, who was wide and going wider, suggested the injury might be to Boruc’s brain rather than to a thigh. Kane scored from the penalty. After Mousa Dembélé put Tottenham ahead after 17 minutes, Boruc began to disintegrate.
The goalie dropped a cross at the feet of Erik Lamela, who scored from two yards. In the second half, Boruc was frozen to his line as Kane slid in to score from close range. Boruc then spilled the ball again to allow Kane to complete a hat trick from short range. Boruc’s hands seemed to have turned to cement. He was lucky not to concede a second penalty after again dropping the ball in from of Kane. As the striker prepared to shoot he tumbled over the flailing goalie.
Boruc almost repeated the gift he gave Watford earlier in the season. He dallied over a clearance and then drove his kick against the on-rushing Dembélé.
Boruc may have handed Kane his self-belief back, but as the goalie’s confidence crumbled so too did the Bournemouth defense, which had only conceded three goals in its four previous home Premier League games.
Mourinho on mute
After Chelsea lost 2–1 at West Ham on Saturday,José Mourinho on Saturday kept his promise and shut his mouth. It might be too late for the Chelsea manager and his team.
During the week, Mourinho had told the media: “You are not going to get any funny headlines out of me.”
When a teenager videoed Mourinho on the street, the Chelsea manager responded by shoving the kid. After the British media reported the incident, Mourinho complained that this intrusion on his “private life” showed a “lack of respect.”
Mourinho is right that the media adore his quotes, which are often smart and attention grabbing. Yet Mourinho never says anything just to earn the respect of the media. His remarks are usually calculated and manipulative. One of his main objectives is to cow and undermine match officials.
It is becoming increasingly clear that strategy isn’t working. The referees aren’t allowed to talk, so this is just a guess, but perhaps they don’t like Mourinho’s relentless attacks.
On Saturday, at West Ham, the match officials were not prepared to give Chelsea an inch or in one case, a quarter of an inch.
With Chelsea trailing 1–0 a header by Kurt Zouma was cleared off the line. The goal-line technology replayed showed that only the sponsor’s swoosh on the side of the ball had not crossed the line.
A few minutes later, Cesc Fàbregas fired into the West Ham net. The strike was ruled out. The Chelsea player’s knee was offside. Attackers on Mourinho’s team are not receiving the benefit of the doubt.
Immediately after that, Nemanja Matic was sent off for the second of two old man fouls. Looking like a player terrified that he has lost a step, Matic twice pulled down opponents who had beaten him for pace, even though there was defensive cover behind him.
At halftime, Mourinho reportedly confronted Jon Moss, the referee, and received a red card of his own. He will be investigated. Despite his silence, Mourinho seems to have let some British journalists know he will fight back.
Even if Mourinho remains mute in public, there are plenty more headlines to come in this story.