Chelsea made a statement on Sunday, crushing Manchester United, 4-0, at Stamford Bridge to climb into the top four of the Premier League for the first time since May, 2015. It is one point off the lead. Just a couple of weeks after British bookies stopped taking bets on coached Antonio Conte being axed, Chelsea is suddenly a contender.
Yet for the British headline writers and for the Chelsea fans and players, Sunday’s match was all about the visitors.
The home crowd enjoyed taunting Paul Pogba with chants of “what a waste of money.” Yet again, Pogba was not bad, there were worse players in red, but if you are the most expensive player in the world, OK is not good enough.
Most of all though, this was about José Mourinho, which is normally how the Special One likes it. But this was his worst ever defeat at Stamford Bridge.
Long before the end, Eidur Gudjohnsen, who played for Mourinho at Chelsea, tweeted: “Jose still knows how to get the best out of @ChelseaFC”. The home fans dusted off one their golden oldies and crooned “José Mourinho.”
On Monday at Anfield, Manchester United had stifled the rampant Liverpool attack to earn a goalless draw. If that was the plan on Sunday, it collapsed before a United player had touched the ball as Pedro reacted while the United defense hesitated to score after 30 seconds. Suddenly a clean sheet was not an option.
“You cannot concede a goal in the first minute,” Mourinho told Sky TV. “That changed completely the game.”
It took United more than 20 minutes to unwind from its defensive crouch. By then Chelsea was two up after Gary Cahill thrashed the ball off a cowering Daley Blind following shambolic United defending at a corner. Cahill does not score often, but even so, his celebration seemed unusually energetic and angry.
For the next 40 minutes, United looked dangerous. It could have scored. Chelsea’s David Luiz could have been sent off. The game might have changed Yet, forced to attack, United was living on the edge.
Eden Hazard scored after an hour, seemingly freezing time as set himself in a crowded penalty area, sending Chris Smalling the wrong way simply by standing still. Then, with a balletic skip and crisp shot, Hazard made beating David de Gea look easy. Indeed, Hazard seems to be finding scoring easy again. That was his fourth goal this season, matching his total from last season which he began shackled in a wide midfield role by Mourinho.
Kanté treated a dazed United defense like pylons as he skipped through to score. Maybe the midweek Europa League game had left the United players drained, although several of those standing around watching had not played on Thursday.
It was left to Mourinho to give an evidently perplexed Conte a flea in his ear at the final whistle. Doubtless the United players will hear worse in the coming days.
“We made incredible defensive mistakes,” Mourinho said. Can he motivate them over the next few weeks in the way he motivated the opponents on Sunday, or does the way he lost his job at Chelsea last season make him vulnerable if he confronts the locker room?
THE HANGOVER For Manchester City, this season is beginning to look a lot like last season. After an imperious start, comes a slump, which coincides with the return of the Champions League.
Last year, City opened with five straight league victories. Then it went to Turin, lost its opening European game to Juventus and four days later lost at home to West Ham in the Premier League.
This season, City again reeled off five league victories to start the season. It also won a League Cup game and opened the Champions League with a home victory against Borussia Mönchengladbach. Then it went to Glasgow and drew with Celtic in Europe. Four days later, it lost in the league at Spurs. Its 1-1 home draw with Southampton on Sunday, means City has not won in five games, and that includes a 4-0 humiliation in Barcelona last Wednesday.
The eye test suggests this year’s City is not the same as last year’s City. Once again on Sunday, City looked good. The problem does not seem to be physical. City started strongly and finished the game battering away at a brave, disciplined and determined Southampton defense. Although Southampton played in Milan on Thursday, so maybe their exhaustion made City appear more energetic.
There might be a psychological issue. City has been the best team in England over the last five years, yet in that time it has only once got past the round of 16 in the Champions League—losing the semifinal last season to Real Madrid, by which time Pep Guardiola was already on his way to provide an upgrade.
City’s increased slickness in attack seems to be an early Guardiola effect. But the team has also become even more accident-prone at the back, and that too might be down to the new coach. Aleksandar Kolarov’s own goal against Tottenham was an ugly individual error. Claudio Barvo’s red card at Barcelona, after his pass was intercepted and he handled the resulting lob, and the suicidal backpass from John Stones on Sunday that set up Nathan Redmond to give Southampton the lead, are clearly products of Guardiola’s obsession with passing the ball from the back.
Guardiola will stick to his tactics, in the belief that, with time, his players will master the highwire act of rolling the ball around near their own goal. Yet, he will also know that this is exactly what English opponents, who enjoy nothing more than charging at a goalie, and the best Continental pressing teams, such as Barça, want him to do.
On a weekend when other contenders also stuttered, the draw kept City in first place. But even with a Manchester derby in the League Cup on Wednesday and a trip to awkward West Brom next weekend, Guardiola should already be worrying what the visit of Barcelona on November 1 will do to his team’s confidence.
THE HANGOVER, PART II After their teams followed their midweek Champions League matches with goalless draws against opponents in the bottom half the standings on Saturday, Mauricio Pochettino of Tottenham and Arsène Wenger of Arsenal, complained their teams were jaded. They should watch a replay of Leicester’s insane, 3-1, victory over Crystal Palace.
After Arsenal was held 0-0 at home by struggling Middlesbrough, Wenger complained of “tired legs” after the 6-0 home romp over Ludogorets on Wednesday. One consolation for Wenger was that center-back Laurent Koscielny and goalie Petr Cech an unexpected chance to demonstrate, again, that they are among the best in the division. If the Arsenal defense did not have tired legs before the game, they would have done by the end as they chased the speedy and relentless Adama Traoré. Another consolation was that the point took Arsenal to the top of the league. The late Gareth McAuley goal, which meant West Brom lost only lost, 2-1, at Liverpool in the evening, meant Arsenal stayed top, on goal difference, at the end of Wenger’s birthday.
Tottenham, which drew in Leverkusen on Tuesday, is developing a bad habit of only playing well for 45 minutes in each game. It spent the first half of an entertaining 0-0 draw at Bournemouth on the back foot.
Pochettino told the BBC: "We missed a bit of freshness that you need in the first 15 minutes." He added that his squad needed "more depth."
Tottenham has plenty of depth everywhere except in the center of attack where Pochettino, deprived of Harry Kane, again opted not to start his only other proper striker, Vincent Janssen. It’s a problem that could have been solved if Spurs had pulled the trigger when it had the chance on a deal to buy MichyBatshuayi at the start of the summer. Presumably Pochettino is lobbying for the club to write a $50M check for someone in the winter window.
There might also be a psychological issue. Once again, Tottenham blew a chance to move into first place. Pochettino needs to persuade his players that they can seize such moments.
Leicester started Saturday’s game against Crystal Palace with more victories in the Champions League than the Premier League. It showed little hangover from the narrow home victory over København on Tuesday that left it needing, at most, two points from its last three games to advance.
The champions were at home again on Saturday and rediscovered last season’s attacking mojo with a 3-1 victory. Yet the match also suggested Leicester is still missing N’Golo Kanté. Leicester managed 17 shots, an impressive number. It allowed Crystal Palace to take 23, the most in the division on Saturday. If Christian Benteke had shown more composure, the game would have finished 3-3.
Claudio Ranieri, also celebrating a birthday, professed himself happy. "I feel good,” he told the BBC.
Even the losing boss, Alan Pardew, didn’t seem too upset. “They are champions for a reason," he said. But then the end-to-end match was a joyous spectacle. No one looked tired.
MAKING A POINT For Bob Bradley, almost every game brings a new landmark. On Saturday, as Swansea drew, 0-0, at home against Watford, he became the first American manager to win a point in the Premier League.
Bradley made five changes to the starting 11 that lost in his first game in charge at Arsenal. That included both center backs, with Alfie Mawson, a 22-year-old summer signing making his debut.
After the game, Bradley told the BBC: "It was important to get a clean sheet.” That might smack of trying to put a gloss on a home game against a mid-table foe Swansea might expect to win. Indeed, with his team still 19th in the standings, it was a game the Swans needed to win. They could have won if Gylfi Sigurdsson had not hit a post and also wasted a couple of other good chances. But, as Bradley pointed out, Swansea had not kept an opponent out since the opening game of the season and a sloppy defense is easier for a new coach to fix, given the personnel, than a misfiring attack.
If Bradley can build a reliable platform, Swansea will start to eke out victories. On Saturday, he made a point.
MERSEYLESS It’s only 40 miles from Liverpool to Burnley, making it one of the shorter road trips the two Merseyside clubs have to make this season. Neither will want to take it again any time soon.
On Saturday, Everton took 20 shots, enjoyed 66 percent of possession and lost, 2-1, to a last minute goal at Turf Moor by Scott Arfield, the Canadian international. That was only Burnley’s third shot on target, and its first in the second half, although Berg Gudmundsson had hit the Everton bar seconds earlier. Tom Heaton had another dazzling game in the Burnley goal.
Back in August, Liverpool enjoyed 80 percent possession, took 26 shots and lost, 2-0, as Burnley scored with both its shots on target. On both occasions, Sam Vokes scored the first goal. Those are the only two goals he has scored in two Premier League seasons.
“Sometimes football can be so unfair,” Ronald Koeman, the Everton manager told the BBC on Saturday.
Burnley doesn’t care. If it were not for the two Liverpool clubs, it would be anchored in the bottom two. Instead, the Burnley players, and particularly Vokes and Heaton, can contemplate the standings and begin to believe they belong.