Written by Ian Colgan (@Ian_Colgan):
“I know normally Mourinho is lucky at Stamford Bridge,” Jose Mourinho quipped prior to the last time he went to Chelsea’s ground to sit in the away team’s dugout. On that occasion, as manager of Inter Milan in the 2nd leg of a Champions tie in 2010, he came away with a 0-1 victory, which was enough to send Milan into the quarterfinals.
Up to about 14 months ago Mourinho would still have still been able to make a comment like that with total sincerity and not be mocked for it...but not now. Between ’04 and ’07, and from August ’13 to August ’15, he made Stamford Bridge an abattoir – a place where good men went to die. By his 99th league game at The Bridge – spanning over five seasons – he’d lost just one home game, a 1-2 defeat against bottom-of-the-league Sunderland in April ’14 as a result of a very late penalty. Then came August 29th 2015 (his 100th home game in charge) and another 1-2 loss, against Crystal Palace this time. By December 5th that year he’d lost four league games at Stamford Bridge since the start of the campaign, and less than two weeks later he was gone.
“Now I have lost a few matches at The Bridge, so I cannot use the same words,” Mourinho said last Friday when asked about that ‘lucky’ comment he made six years ago. “I knew that, working in England and staying in the Premier League, sooner or later, I had to play against Chelsea and I had to go to Stamford Bridge. The computer has decided that is to be now. And here we go.”
Indeed...United fans would have been more than happy with a mean 0-1 win on Sunday, but what had a lot of them worried was the idea that Mourinho would be satisfied with another scoreless draw akin to last week’s dull stalemate at Anfield, and what filled them with dread was the thought that he might actually try to play for it. The ensuing calamity that actually went down, the slaughter-slab reality of being on the receiving end of a 4-0 whipping, was a shock even to the most pessimistic of United’s travelling supporters who thought they were prepared for the worst.
Mourinho would deny that playing for a draw is ever his intention in any game, but most people have seen enough of him by now to know his tendencies and priorities. United’s performance last Monday at the home field of their main historical enemy was so ugly and cautious it made it clear that he was willing to put aside the significance of any occasion and look at things coldly...A good trait, but one that gets him a lot of criticism, and meant that it was entirely conceivable that he’d adopt a similar game plan for his heavily hyped return to his old stomping ground. Yes; avoid defeat, keep the unbeaten streak going, and emerge intact and buoyant for the Manchester derby in the League Cup on Wednesday.
A fine plan. United were wary at Anfield, but also resolute, and adept enough in executing Mourinho’s instructions to make it half-successful; not scoring themselves, but nullifying Liverpool effectively, and convincing Mourinho that he could ask the same of his players again in Stamford Bridge with reasonable expectations of emerging with at least a point again, or maybe even pinching all three.
Whatever United’s game plan was, the eventuality of going a goal down after thirty seconds was not factored into it. No manager, except maybe one as unlucky as David Moyes these days, would feel it necessary to weigh that into their thinking before a game.
It would not be hard to imagine the Sunderland team hunkered down in the Emirates away dressing room this coming weekend, listening to their manager’s pre-match team talk as he moves the magnetic discs frantically around the tactics board, ladling out the doomful instructions: “Right, boys, we’ve been terribly unlucky in the last few games, so we need to prepare ourselves for a little more bad luck coming our way. What’s that John? No, not last-minute goals, this time we need to be prepared for first-minute goals. It might not happen, but bloody hell do they have some good forward players. So, if Sanchez or Özil happen to score inside the first minute here’s what I want you to do...”
Chelsea’s opening goal on Sunday came so quickly, and jangled United’s nerves so badly, there was no time to get a sense of what United’s initial game plan actually was. From that point they were knocked off their axis and turned to jelly, abandoning whatever original strategy they might have had and conducting themselves like a herd of wildebeest run amok from a pack of hyenas.
It might have gone very differently if Ibrahimovic hadn’t botched a header in the 8th minute which would have leveled the score, or if David Luiz had been given a red card instead of a yellow one in the 41st minute for a horror-show lunge into Marouane Fellaini’s leg with six studs showing...But these were treated as incidental details in most of the match reports that followed – the main story had too much appeal to dwell on them; Mourinho had gone home, and had been stripped and pounded into wailing, gory hamburger meat.
Some United fans are starting to lose faith now. Which is understandable, because United are now 5 points worse off than they were at this stage last season, and going by the performances there has not been any clear progression at all since the end of the van Gaal era, despite spending £150 million in the summer transfer window.
A bad indictment...There are now a small number of United supporters walking around weeping openly, having absorbed the worrying signs and convinced themselves that the last three years support the viewpoint that their club is now the ‘New Liverpool’, in the infant years of its own sterile period that will stretch for two decades or more, and that no matter how much they spend, what players they spend it on, or what manager they appoint, there is no way to stop it.
No...Too soon for that kind of talk, but the comparison has already been made by some in a half-serious kind of way, and if after three years Mourinho has failed, run aground on the same rocks as Moyes and van Gaal, then it might be time to revisit that idea. He was to be the one guarantee; the one bitter but certain comfort that no matter how far the club drifted from its own ideals and style, they would still be dominant, or at least be competitive...And they still could be, but the prevailing wisdom now is that Mourinho will need another couple of transfer windows until he has a team he can call his own and feels he can work with.
“Maybe then he’ll finally start acting like himself,” they say, which raises a point about Mourinho many people have commented on; namely, that since landing the job that he’s thought to have coveted for his entire career, he’s looked listless and low, projecting himself in a sort of muted, self-censored way. An article on The Guardian’s website on Tuesday observed that “Mourinho appears to have lost some of his love for football”, while The Times on the same day reported on how the United players have been ‘stunned’ by Mourinho’s distant, hands-off approach to training.
The only relief for United at the weekend came in the results of other fixtures. City, Arsenal and Tottenham all being held to draws means that despite dropping 15 points so far this season, United are still only six points behind the leaders, going into two very ‘winnable’ games against Burnley and Swansea before a chance to gain some ground against Arsenal on November 19th.
The top seven clubs in the Premier League are now more tightly compressed than the top seven in the Championship – a league that’s long been notorious for having more parity than its higher-ranking counterpart. City, Arsenal and Liverpool are all level on 20 points, followed by Chelsea and Spurs on 19 points, and Everton on 15 points. They will all slice chunks off each other, which will give United hope of working their way back into the Title Race while at the same time presenting them with the obstacle of six clubs they have to climb over in order to get to the top.
United are still in contention, in other words, but only just, and even the more generous estimations are that their title bid is now only two or three defeats away from veering off the road completely. They will need to put together a very consistent run from now until the end of the season, with several victories and a few draws in what are regarded as their remaining ‘key clashes’; Arsenal (H), Everton (A), Spurs (H), Liverpool (H), City (A), Everton (H), Chelsea (H), Arsenal (A), and Spurs (A)...Which does not look achievable at this moment, because in their three encounters with top-six teams so far, United have taken just a single point.
Right, but before all that is the matter of the League Cup 4th Round – a Manchester derby that could not have loomed up at a more inconvenient time for either participant. United’s humiliation against Chelsea and City’s 1-1 draw with Southampton on Sunday means that a cup knockout would be enough to bring a very intense media pressure down on either club/manager now, with City winless in five games and United looking to ‘bounce back’ from a serious flaying.
But probably more intense in United’s case; being at home, having already lost to City once this season, and because City, despite their own problems, are still top of the league...Less to lose, but less likely to win, according to the bookmakers who deem United to be very slight favourites.
Written by Ian Colgan (@Ian_Colgan):
A losing start, then, to the Bob Bradley era at Swansea City; a 3-2 defeat at The Emirates, leaving The Swans second from bottom with just four points from eight games. Just how much significance should be given to the sluggish start is less clear. That there are at least three teams worse than Swansea in the league is an assumption very few people would dare to argue with. Regardless of how the table looks, Swansea’s odds of beating relegation remain healthier than Burnley’s and Hull’s, for instance, but the heinous start to their 2016/17 campaign has alarmed the club so badly that nobody will be able to breathe easy until there’s at least a six-to-ten point buffer between them and the Relegation Zone.
On the bright side, behind the scoreline last weekend there was probably enough for Bradley to take heart in. The fact they came back from 2-0 down to unnerve Arsenal and ensure a jittery finish; that they went to The Emirates and made more passes than the hosts and also had more possession; and that they got off 13 shots compared to Arsenal’s 16, but matched them for shots on target (6), giving them about 8 percent better shot accuracy. It should probably be kept in mind that Arsenal were playing with 10 men for the last 20 minutes, which might explain some of those passing/possession numbers, but all of the game’s goals had already been scored by the time Granit Xhaka was sent off. In other words, if the game had finished 3-3 Swansea would have been considered good value for the point, and after the initial uncertainty surrounding Bradley’s appointment at the start of the month, and the bad karma it generated, The Jack Army are a lot more comfortable with the idea of Bradley as their manager than they were two weeks ago, and the overall feeling among them about their prospects this season is shifting quickly towards optimism...Especially when the club released footage of Bradley’s first training session with the team and they saw him in action; barking instructions, getting heavily involved and ramping up intensity.
“We are trying hard to re-establish training that is going to bring that sharpness, fitness and quickness back to a really good level,” Bradley said. “But I am not a drill sergeant.”
The main grumble among the Swansea City Supporters’ Trust wasn’t anything personal to do with Bradley, but was centered on how they’d been left out of the decision-making process, offending them enough to prompt them to put out a statement voicing their resentment about how the whole thing was handled.
“The Supporters’ Trust is disappointed to say that this managerial change has happened without consultation with our Supporter Director who has been unable to report back to the Trust board on the matter,” they said. “We have been aware of the speculation thanks to the constant press reports but at no stage have we been involved in the decision to remove Francesco [Guidolin] from his position nor in the appointment of his successor. We are also frustrated and angry that the club have allowed the speculation over the manager’s future to be played out in public and want to thank Francesco and his team for their time at Swansea, in particular the professional way in which Francesco has dealt with the recent speculation. We wish them all the best for the future.”
Guidolin, whose reign at Swansea lasted just 25 league games, would have had a strong sense that his number was up immediately after the final whistle in Swansea’s 2-1 loss against Liverpool on October 1st. Before the game, when asked if defeat could mean his exit, he responded, “Maybe. Could be. It could happen.” Two days later, on his 61st birthday, he was gone, replaced with immediate effect by Bradley.
The announcement of Bradley’s appointment, in general, was not greeted warmly by the British media, the conservative mossback element in its psyche flaring up when they learned that an American they knew little or nothing about had been chosen over a young British coach like Ryan Giggs. On the whole, the press recognised that a change was necessary, but the thinking behind the hiring of Bradley, and the reasoning for why Giggs should be denied relief from his managerial blue balls, was beyond the grasp of a lot of pundits like Chris Sutton and those heard on phone-in shows lamenting “another sad day for British football”.
Which calls to mind Bradley’s first bout with the press corps four days after his appointment, when one of the first questions he had to deal with was, “What do you think you have that Ryan Giggs doesn’t?” Jesus...what a thing to lay on someone in their first press conference. Bradley deflected the question well: “Well, you can’t answer it that way,” he said, half-smiling and shaking his head, before going on to talk about himself without mentioning Giggs’ name once.
A smart move, and in general Bradley handled the whole press conference very skillfully, demonstrating a keen awareness of the fact he’s a relative unknown in Britain by seizing the chance to talk openly about himself, his values and heritage, even offering up personal details that nobody asked for about his upbringing, and striking a fine balance between confidence and humility. An impressive display that dispelled much of the concern and doubt that would have still been lingering among supporters after his dull in-house interview with Swans TV two days beforehand, where we learned absolutely nothing about him at all.
One of the few dissenting voices, criticising the media recoil following Bradley’s appointment, has been Jamie Carragher, who used his Daily Mail column to make the point that the re-appointment of Steve McClaren at Derby was indicative of the ‘real problem’ young British managers are struggling against. The ugly truth that a club would rather put their faith in a 55-year-old who they fired a year and a half ago than take a gamble on anyone young or unproven.
“If ever there looked to be a good role for Ryan to start out in it was at a club such as Derby,” Carragher wrote. “It is a big club with potential that needs lifting back to where it once was. But they have gone for McClaren, who has been sacked from his last two roles. Steve is a good coach who I have worked with, but he is in the later stages of his career. If clubs keep turning to men such as him that is the barrier facing young aspiring coaches.”
Bradley, the first American to manage in the Premier League, has come to prove he has what it takes to hold his own in the bear pit, which is an important distinction to make from proving Americans can handle Premier League management, as Bradley has made it known his trip is a personal one, and has rejected the notion that he’s a pioneer of some kind. “I’m not an American manager, I’m a football manager,” he’s stressed, which may be true, but hasn’t stopped some people from making an issue of Bradley’s nationality anyway, and subscribing to the thinking that the only reason he was even on the shortlist was because the club’s owners (Jason Levien and Steve Kaplan) are also American.
Bradley, 58 years old and with over 30 years of managerial experience, would probably like to think his opportunity to manage in the Premier League has been earned by now, and he would also probably think himself a more qualified coach than Giggs, and so would a lot of other people.
A native of New Jersey, Bradley spent most of the eighties and half the nineties learning the ropes as a young coach on the college soccer scene long before the sport was fashionable in America. From Ohio University’s ‘Bobcats’, to the Virginia Cavaliers and Princeton Tigers before his first proper ‘big-time’ gig when the newly created team Chicago Fire appointed him as their first head coach in ’98.
There he won the double (MLS Cup and U.S. Open Cup) in his first season and was named Coach of the Year. He won the Open Cup again two years later, and eventually resigned in 2002 to join the ‘MetroStars’ – now known as the New York Red Bulls – who he guided to the U.S. Open Cup final. He was sacked in ’05, after back-to-back defeats all but killed off their hopes of making the playoffs, but reaffirmed his credentials when he went to Los Angeles to manage a floundering Chivas USA and took them to a third-place finish in the Western Conference.
The second phase of Bradley’s career, when he started gaining recognition outside America, began when he became head coach of the United States National Team, which he managed from ’06 to 2011, winning the CONCACAF Gold Cup in ’07. His other notable high point with the national team was ending Spain’s 35-game unbeaten streak, and when he was replaced by Jurgen Klinsmann he was out of work for just two months before being made head coach of Egypt’s National Team. Admired for staying despite the violent revolution, he came close to qualifying for the 2014 World Cup before ultimately being sacked when the dream died on the vine.
He returned to club football in 2014, and fulfilled an ambition to manage in Europe when he took over at Norwegian side Stabæk Fotball. A year later he moved closer again to football’s epicenter when he was made manager of Le Havre AC in France’s Ligue 2, and came within a hair of getting them promoted, losing out on goal difference by just 1 goal.
Bradley has the appearance of a very intense bald Russian or a street cop, but comes across as understated and personable. Talking in a tone that’s casual on a surface level, he can’t disguise the forceful and measured undercurrent, like a serious staff sergeant trying to make light and casual small talk at a privates’ cocktail party. He talks about himself in a very humble way, yet there’s no denying his self-assurance. In his own mind he’s now exactly where he deserves to be.
“Maybe I’m stupid, but I think I’m a manager in and around the level of Pochettino, Klopp, Guardiola and Ancelotti,” Bradley said on American radio station SiriusXM earlier this year. “I’m not saying I’m better than these guys - I haven’t had those types of opportunities but I think that people who have played for me have always felt that the experience in the team was different, that training was different, that training was challenging, that there were a lot of things done to help them become better players and better people.”
Bradley is probably a better manager than most people give him credit for, and not quite as good as he thinks he is. If the target he’s been set this season is to secure Premier League status for 2017/18, there’s little doubt that he will achieve it. Just how much farther he can take them after that is anyone’s guess, but by then he will at least be on everyone’s radar, and if nothing else he’ll have had the opportunity.
“Both clubs, their supporters and football fans around the world are looking forward to this historic and passionate match between two of the sport’s biggest and oldest rivals. There is great rivalry between our fans and we ask all supporters to be respectful and help eradicate all forms of offensive and discriminatory behaviour from the game. If any supporters are found to be engaged in any form of offensive or discriminatory behaviour by stewards or via CCTV then they will be immediately removed from the stadium, risk arrest, prosecution and be reported in accordance with the club’s ground regulations. This is an unrivalled fixture in the Premier League calendar and we thank all fans for their continued support in this important area of the game.”
Written by Ian Colgan (@Ian_Colgan):
Liverpool and Manchester United felt the need to issue that joint statement above on Thursday; an appeal to the higher instincts and decent human judgement of their respective fans in advance of the clash on Monday night, asking their supporters to refrain from brutish behaviour, and laying out the consequences for anyone attending the game thinking of using the occasion as an excuse to kick out the jams and get violent.
A fine sense of a pending flashpoint ahead of Monday’s game, with the memory of the Europa League clash between them at Old Trafford in March is still raw. The ugly tone was set early on when a banner with the word ‘MURDERERS’ – a welcome sign for the travelling Liverpool fans – had to be removed by police from the motorway, and five supporters were taken into custody afterwards when small factions of supporters on both sides erupted into a hate-frenzy and started laying hands on each other, deteriorating into a savage and atavistic tribal brawl.
Nobody wants a repeat of those scenes, and nor would anyone on either side be entirely satisfied with the same 1-1 outcome. Especially not United, who go into one of their toughest and most high-pressured fixtures of the season knowing that defeat would leave them five points off fourth place, with Chelsea as their next opponents, at Stamford Bridge; A fixture that will get almost as much hype as this one and maybe more, being Mourinho’s first return to his old stomping ground since his sacking almost a year ago, and given how much could be riding on it by then.
But there’s not much use in getting into that here. The critical point to get across is that there’s a very real possibility for United of emerging from this game and the next with no points, or perhaps just one or two points, and if that were to happen their title chances would already look extremely bleak before they even reached the 10-game mark.
As it stands now, a loss against Liverpool would leave them only six points from the top, where City are still clinging on to 1st place on goal difference after a 1-1 draw with Everton on Saturday, opening up a potential scenario where the top three clubs could all be level on 19 points after Monday’s game, with Spurs just one point behind...A very tight squeeze that would mean some dark brooding on the preconceived ideas about the 2016/17 title race and where it might go from here, which might have been what Gianluca Vialli – a pundit on Sky Sports on Saturday – was thinking about when he talked about Monday’s game as a potential turning point in the season for both clubs.
Both Jurgen Klopp and Jose Mourinho appeared very relaxed and in good humour in their press conferences on Friday; calm, composed, and careful to avoid any kind of language that might rouse ill feelings or stoke the flames going into a fixture that some sections of the media have been referring to for the last several days as ‘Red Monday’. The main point Klopp seemed intent on getting across was his unhappiness with the Christmas fixture schedule, which has left Liverpool with less than 48 hours between a home game against Man City on December 31st and an away fixture in Sunderland on January 2nd, which is neither here nor there, for now. On the subject of the United game Klopp talked about wanting the fans to create a “special atmosphere”. “They have big quality in their team and we have to respect this,” he said, “but of course, it’s Anfield, and we have to show this.”
That was about as close as he got to ‘fighting words’, and despite his cool demeanour he insisted he was already in ‘game mode’, which a lot of people watching might have been surprised to hear, having seen enough of Klopp by now to have a very different notion in their own heads about what he’s like when he’s really in game mode; a raving beast at the mercy of his own emotions, his eyes bulging wide and fixed in an intense stare, teeth clenched, arms moving wildly in a blur of speed – punching the air, pounding his chest, and waving around maniacally, ready to embrace, strangle, or beat anything that gets too close.
Mourinho commented on Klopp’s touchline behaviour last season, at one point turning to the fourth official during Chelsea’s encounter with Liverpool and asking “what if that was me?”. In his pre-match press conference for the next game he raised it again: “I had a game a few days ago where I stood for 90 minutes in my own technical area,” he said. “The other manager was jumping like Michael Jordan and nothing happened.”
The context was important for those comments. At the time, Mourinho had just been given a stadium ban for an ugly confrontation with referee Jonathan Moss at half-time during Chelsea’s defeat against West Ham two weeks previously. His problem wasn’t really with Klopp, but with what he perceived as unfair treatment from the FA and officials – the idea that he (Mourinho) is somehow treated ‘differently’ to other managers, a fixed theory he’s never really been able to let go of.
There is no real personal rivalry to speak of between Mourinho and Klopp, just a normal professional one. Nothing on the same heated level as his rivalries with Guardiola or Wenger, but there’s enough of a contrast to make Monday’s managerial conflict interesting, with Klopp being regarded as a ‘rising force’ in management and part of a new wave of ‘super coaches’, and Mourinho, perhaps the first pioneering forerunner of that new wave, now considered by many people to be washed up, a man being left behind by a new era which he helped to create.
Mourinho’s head-to-head record against Klopp is perhaps one reason for that view. In five meetings between them, stretching back to 2012, Klopp has won three times and Mourinho just once. But that will not have much bearing on Monday night, and neither, many say, will current form or the odds which make Liverpool favourites, with this fixture considered to be one of a few where most of the usual factors for predicting the outcome are thought to be of no relevance.
Mourinho, in his own press conference on Friday, talked about the fixture as “a big match” comparable to Madrid vs. Barcelona or Inter vs. Milan – matches, he said, that he “likes the characteristics of”. Which had a lot of people nodding in agreement. Despite his mixed success in those games, he’s retained a reputation as being something of a specialist in these kinds of fixtures; a manager built for big occasions who will do whatever it takes to get a result, and often does.
This has been one of the main questions in the build-up to Monday; whether Mourinho will take his Man United team to Anfield with a game-plan based on the concept of ‘parking the bus’ and winning ugly. There would be no shame in it, but it would not do much to soften the headlines if he went with that approach and then lost anyway...though with two defeats already this season, another of any kind – even a 4-3 open battle that was decided with two unjust penalties in the final minutes – would mean hunkering down and bracing himself for the whirlwind.
There wasn’t much of interest in Mourinho’s press conference, but he did touch on one of the other main talking points – the appointment of Manchester native Anthony Taylor as the referee. “I think Mr. Taylor is a very good referee but because such pressure is being put on him I think it will be difficult for him to have a very good performance at Anfield,” he said. “I don’t really want to say too much more on the matter. I have my view but I have learned a lesson, if you want to call it that, by being punished so many times for my words about referees.”
Written by Ian Colgan (@Ian_Colgan):
After just seven games, the Title Race, declared by some experts to be a foregone conclusion as early as mid-September, has now been blown wide open by Tottenham’s forceful 2-0 victory over Manchester City on October 2nd. It was a fine spectacle – an early contender for ‘Game of the Season’, some said, squeezing City’s lead down to a single point and forcing those same experts to hastily abandon the theory that the season was shaping up to be a 1999/2000-style campaign, when Man United had the title wrapped up before the end of April and went on to win it by an 18-point margin.
Not many saw it coming. Even those who thought that Tottenham stood a decent chance were taken aback by the high-handed manner of the victory. The effect on City, who had been on a six-game winning streak in the league up to then, was like a sudden and violent jerk of the head causing severe whiplash. Watching closely, you could just about make out the unnatural hyperextension of their necks as they were traumatically rammed from behind repeatedly by Pochettino’s Spurs who came out of the tunnel like a pack of African Wild Dogs after meat, and instantly settled into a high-speed attack/pressing blitz. When City finally started to get to grips with the pace of the game, they had already been 1-0 down for about 20 minutes and it was because Spurs at that point were in between their first and second wind.
There had been enough signs in City’s previous outings to suggest that they were vulnerable defensively. Celtic had exposed those issues just three earlier in a chaotic, end-to-end 3-3 draw, and even in City’s six league wins they’d managed to keep just one clean sheet. Until recently it remained a minor issue, an observation made by pundits who usually had to have the question put them directly as to whether they could see any weakness at all in the Guardiola juggernaut. “Yeah,” they answered hesitantly, “I suppose you could say they can be a bit shaky at the back, but they’re scoring so many goals at the other end it doesn’t seem to be much of a problem.”
City’s last two matches; taken together, represent an undeniable shift from their defensive frailties being an inconsequential issue that could be shrugged off, to a critical flaw and a topic suddenly worthy of press coverage and discussion. A small difference, but a significant one Guardiola can’t afford to ignore. Previously conceding no more than one goal in a competitive game, they’ve now shipped five in the last two, morphing – at least in the public consciousness – from an unstoppable machine to a more human entity with an obvious defect, and inadvertently altering the mentality of every team City face from now on.
That ‘Invincible Aura’ that was built up over the first six weeks was lost against Tottenham, at least temporarily, and once it happened it didn’t take long for City fans to start talking amongst themselves in solemn tones about what happened last season when, after winning their first five games without conceding a goal, they lost their next two and never properly recovered from it – lurching through the rest of the season and not winning more than three consecutive league games again until April.
Not many City supporters seriously believe the same thing will happen again this time, but in the back of their minds a lot of them will quietly fear it. The brainwaves of Man City fans are innately predisposed towards pessimism; they’ve stared into the bottom of the well too many times over the years to be able to help themselves from thinking otherwise, especially on weekends like Match Week 7, when not only did City lose, but Liverpool and Arsenal both won, creating a very slim two-point margin between 1st and 4th place.
Which makes it entirely possible that City will be sitting in third or fourth by next Tuesday morning and the Title Race would then suddenly look a lot less predictable than it did a month ago. Those who have been watching the odds from week to week will already have noticed the significant swings. A look at the odds this week shows that City are still considered to be the frontrunners, but that’s about all that’s remained unchanged since the opening weekend when most people were predicting a season-long epic struggle between the two Manchester clubs with Chelsea leading the chasing pack.
Already that idea has had to be revised, with United and Chelsea falling so far behind they’re now 5th and 6th favourites respectively, while the teams that were meant to be fighting among themselves for that last top-four spot are now thought to be ‘in the mix’ for the title. And why not? Liverpool and Spurs have each won their last four games, and Arsenal, after a nightmarish start to the season that etched nine new worry lines into Wenger’s forehead, suddenly clicked and have won their last five...Nothing extraordinary, but an unsettling sign if you happen to be from Manchester, because all of a sudden Liverpool’s and Arsenal’s trademark inconsistency looks a lot less bankable.
If Arsenal beat Swansea this weekend they’ll have bettered their longest winning streak from last season, while Liverpool, with their 2-1 win over Swansea on October 1st, are now on their best league run since Klopp took over and are 2nd favourites for the title despite having the worst defensive record of any team in the top 10.
If last season proved anything it’s that odds are essentially meaningless, but it’s hard not to be jolted when confronted with those 9/2 odds Liverpool have for the Great Prize. The reasoning is mainly to do with their free-scoring ability, but if any team can push City all the way to the end it’s just as likely to be Tottenham. Despite averaging just 1.7 goals per game compared to Liverpool’s 2.6, Spurs are second in the table, and just one point behind City, due to having the most airtight defence in the league; a highly efficient, well-drilled rearguard who’ve yet to concede a goal from open play.
That’s worth thinking about, for a moment. Just three league goals conceded so far, two of which have been free-kicks along with a penalty. At this rate, they’ll finish the season having shipped somewhere between 15 and 20 goals, but even allowing for form dips, injuries, and blunders, it’s hard to see them leaking more than 30, which makes their candidacy something that should be taken very seriously.
It’s why many suspect the Lilywhites, the only team in the league still undefeated, have the edge over Liverpool and Arsenal in terms of being Main Challengers, but it shouldn’t be overlooked that Spurs have also scored three more goals than they had at this stage last season, despite their main striker Harry Kane – for reasons of form or injury – contributing just two goals so far. Actually, two goals and an assist in his five appearances prior to that ankle injury against Sunderland in mid-September was a reasonably decent contribution, but Kane was nevertheless forced to spend the first month of the season dismissing theories that he was either suffering from severe burnout or was traumatized from Euro 2016.
At any rate, it hasn’t really mattered. The goals have been coming from other sources, chiefly from Son Heung-Min (4 goals & 2 assists), and some time out of the team will probably do Kane some good. A much less talked about factor for Spurs’ winning streak, or at least their healthy goal return, has been Pochettino’s recent tactical switch from 4-2-3-1 to a more naked and aggressive 4-1-4-1. It’s essentially allowed him to deploy Dele Alli further forward where he can run amok, with Christian Eriksen in a slightly deeper playmaker-type role, and Victor Wanyama as the sole designated shield in front of the back four…which would be a much greater risk if it was a player other than Wanyama, a 6ft 2” tactically bright battering ram who averages 3 tackles per game and names Roy Keane as his main idol.
The more I think about it, the more credible Spurs’ title bid seems. They started ‘slow’ this season, it was said, with two draws in their first three games strengthening the consensus among the whizzes that last season was a fluke and they were destined for 5th or 6th this time. Maybe so…after seven games most eventualities are still possible, but right now it’s hard to get an even-money bet on Spurs finishing lower than 4th. Not much significance was given to the fact that those draws were against Everton and Liverpool, but in retrospect those results might come to be regarded as ‘decent points’ before the season is out, and probably sooner rather than later.