It’s better to be lucky than good
Manchester United’s 5-3 capitulation to Leicester City in Week 5 marked their worst start to a season in the Premier League era. And yet, two unconvincing wins later, they find themselves fourth, occupying the final Champions League spot in the table. That they’re currently sitting so pretty says much more about the indifference of their main league rivals than it does about their own play: never in the last ten years has the combined points of the 2nd, 3rd and 4th placed teams after seven games been lower than this season’s total of 38. Last season, with only one point fewer, David Moyes’ United languished in 9th.
Angel Di Maria once again showed that his continuing fitness will be key to the success or otherwise of the Red Devils this season, scoring the first and setting up the second (albeit unwittingly). However, United’s win against Everton owed as much to the brilliance of David De Gea as it did to their record signing, saving a Leighton Baines penalty and pulling out endless feats of reflex and agility.
When one considers that United have yet to play any of the top four teams from last season (by contrast, Moyes had already faced Chelsea, Liverpool and City), combined with the gaping defensive cracks that their young Spanish goalkeeper is papering over, one wonders how sustainable United’s current league position is.
Only fight when you can win
Arsene Wenger strikes The18 as a man who’s read his Sun Tzu, which makes it all the more surprising that he chose to square up to Jose Mourinho during their weekend clash at Stamford Bridge. Now, throw the two men into a square ring and we dare say Arsene could best the Portuguese schemer (superior reach, technique and footwork, in our opinion) but picking a fight in the lion’s den, when the lion has handsomely consumed you in nearly all meetings to-date (11 matches, two draws, zero wins), was an error.
Chelsea showed all their street smarts against Arsenal this weekend, breaking up counter-attacks at source and disrupting the Gunners’ rhythm with myriad kicks and minor misdemeanours. There’s nothing revelatory about the approach – teams have been out-fouling Arsenal since the Wenger era began – but it was another reminder of Mourinho’s tactical flexibility: against the Premier League’s lesser lights, he allows Chelsea’s myriad attacking options to flourish; in tighter games against true rivals, he reverts to compact counter-attacking and cynicism. Nothing wrong with that.
It’s a good job this game was packed with fouls and iffy refereeing decisions – Koscielny, Welbeck and Cahill could all have easily been sent off – because otherwise it would have been yet another predictable Chelsea procession: for all their possession, Arsenal failed to record a single shot on target. A slim shred of optimism, however, for those teams trailing in the wake of Jose’s blue juggernaut: Chelsea have been top of the league after seven fixtures in four of the last six years, but have gone on to win the league only once.
If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it
Plaudits are raining down on West Ham and Sam Allardyce, and rightly so. Not only are The Hammers enjoying their best start to a Premier League season this century, they’re trying to play attractive, passing football married with pace and energy. Arsene Wenger must look at the industrious and commanding midfield displays of Alex Song and wonder why he didn’t try to re-sign the former Gunner; the lightning quick Diafra Sakho, a £4.5m summer signing from Metz, has four goals in as many starts, including strikes against Man United and Liverpool.
All of which begs the question: where will Andy Carroll fit back into this dynamic new West Ham? The tall, burly striker – The Hammers’ record signing at £15m – can be a potent weapon; a battering ram of a forward. But his height and strength tempts teams – not least Sam Allardyce teams – into playing the ball high and long: the polar opposite of what has been so good about West Ham so far this season.
We hope Allardyce doesn’t abandon the principles that have served West Ham so well so far in order to accommodate his pony-tailed bruiser.
Lead by example
Harry Redknapp isn’t a tactical genius. He isn’t at the forefront of new coaching techniques, nor is he a coach with a track record for uncovering hidden gems from far-flung leagues. No, Harry Redknapp, first and foremost, is a motivator; a cajoler; a manager of men.
Quoth Harry before the start of this season: “If we hadn’t had gone up this year I would have turned it in, I would have deﬁnitely packed up.” Quoth Harry just today: “If we get relegated I wouldn't expect to stay and I wouldn't want to.”
Quite the uplifting and inspirational outlook, we’re sure you’ll agree.
Is it any wonder, then, that his QPR side showed all the fight of a pacifist at a Buddhism convention against West Ham this weekend, just as they’ve done in their previous six fixtures? No team has committed fewer fouls or picked up more yellow cards than QPR, a result not of clinical tackling but a total lack of gumption and spirit.
The Rs sit bottom of the table, below two teams that have yet to win a game, with a goal difference of -11. We’ve seen nothing to date that suggests Redknapp will be manager of QPR this time next year.
Focus on the long-term
No wins in seven games this season, just four wins in the whole of 2014 and increasingly the object of Newcastle United supporters’ considerable ire, how Alan Pardew is still in a job is quite the mystery.
Except it really isn’t. While Papiss Cisse’s two goals against Swansea this weekend have been hailed as extending Pardew’s stay of execution, the credit for his continuing reign at St James’ Park lies elsewhere: Newcastle owner Mike Ashley – the man who renamed St James’ Park the Sports Direct arena, banned local newspapers from the ground and stopped giving free match-day tickets to backroom staff – is distracted.
Ashley wants to buy Glasgow Rangers, and this week bought up another 5% worth of shares in the club. When you understand that Ashley can’t own both Rangers and Newcastle, you suddenly realise why he seems so sanguine about the Magpies’ long-term future: he doesn’t intend to be a part of it. Why sack a manager, with all the associated costs, if the object of your attention lies elsewhere?
Newcastle United fans are in limbo: their club is owned by a man who no longer wants them, and managed by a man whom they no longer want. The sooner Ashley completes his move north, the better for all concerned.