Antonio Conte isn’t just the name of the manager currently in charge of the Premier League leaders, the Premier League title favourites and the team who have won nine consecutive Premier League matches. He’s also the retort to anyone who pleads blanket patience with Pep Guardiola, Jose Mourinho and pleads blanket faith in Arsene Wenger. Each of those managers will understandably stress how difficult it is to transform a squad in one transfer window, or how tough it is to rid the players of exactly what the last guy preached. Conte points at the league table and laughs.
Let us not underestimate the job Conte has done at Chelsea. Five months ago on Tuesday, the Italian took his first training session at Cobham, running his eye over a squad that had flunked as league champions. Morale was low, and rumours of players either being forced out or forcing their own way out were rife. Michy Batshuayi was the only signing, the expensive recruit of a relatively unproven striker who supporters feared was Diego Costa’s replacement.
A reminder, should it be needed, that Chelsea finished a combined 53 points behind Manchester City, Arsenal and Manchester United last season. As Conte takes training in the cold December sunshine, that picture has been flipped on its head. Chelsea now have a cumulative lead of 23 over those three clubs, the three preseason title favourites ahead of Chelsea.
A shift of 76 cumulative points is extraordinary, yet Conte has made Chelsea victory seem perfectly normal, expected even. Their current run of nine straight league wins has been achieved through the concession of just two goals. Even during their title-winning season under Mourinho in 2014/15, Chelsea only ever won four straight league games. They’ve made even that achievement look small fry.
No title is won in December, and this race still has plenty of twists and turns to come. Manchester City looked unstoppable before stuttering and so too did Liverpool before Bournemouth and West Ham. Yet, for now, Conte is king. Two months after taking over as manager of a new club in a new country, he identified and rectified a significant tactical issue in his team. In doing so, he has set Chelsea free.
Chelsea’s defence (in comparison with the rest)
If the 2016/17 Premier League season can be defined by any one thing, it is high-scoring matches. Six 3-2s, six 4-1s, four 4-2s, two 6-1s, two 5-1s, two 4-3s, a 3-3 and a 5-4. The current average goals per game of 2.89 would represent the highest total in Premier League history, should it continue.
The big clubs have played their part. The defining characteristic of most top Premier League teams is a potent attack combined with a defence that threatens to hamper progress. That has played out in the clean sheet statistics, despite Manchester City, Arsenal and Liverpool all having more points than at this stage last season.
Last season, Manchester United, Manchester City, Arsenal and Liverpool kept 18, 16, 18 and 11 league clean sheets respectively, a combined total of 63. Continue as they are this season, and those same four clubs will reach 36. In 60 combined attempts, they have managed 14 clean sheets.
Those statistics only make Chelsea’s defensive effort more impressive, particularly as Conte’s back three contains two much-maligned defenders in Gary Cahill and David Luiz, and a natural full-back in Cesar Azpilicueta. Of the four central defenders in Gareth Southgate’s last England squad, Cahill has eight league clean sheets this season. The other three (Phil Jagielka, John Stones and Michael Keane) have six between them. Chelsea account for 47% of the clean sheets kept by the current top four.
It is not just goals that Chelsea are not conceding. During this run of nine victories, Chelsea have scored 23 times but only allowed the opposition only 21 shots on target. Even if Conte’s side had allowed every single shot on target during those nine games to go in, they’d still have won as many games as they lost.
Since the beginning of October, Chelsea have allowed fewer shots on target, conceded fewer goals and scored more goals than any other team in the Premier League. Unlike other teams, Conte is not relying on one aspect of his team to fire and mask deficiencies elsewhere on the pitch. This is truly a team effort.
In his programme notes before the visit of Tottenham, Mourinho chose to insert his tongue into cheek on Manchester United’s form: ‘Given how well we have played while getting frustrating results in the Premier League, perhaps we can play badly and win today!’
A nice line, but obviously not the United manager’s preference. No, that would be a win in exactly the same circumstances as Everton, but without the late setback. And exactly the same circumstances as Arsenal, but without the late setback. And exactly the same circumstances as Stoke, but without the late setback.
That is how Mourinho gains his strength. Some managers take pride is shifting plans, accepting culpability; Mourinho doesn’t. His elixir is to show that, actually, the plan was suitable all along. It was the execution of that plan by his players that was faulty. To rip up plans is for Mourinho to concede that he has erred, and that isn’t something that comes naturally to him. To admit guilt is to shake the foundations of the church of Mourinho.
And so, again, we had the bright Manchester United display that led to the opening goal, just as against Everton, Stoke and Arsenal. We then had Manchester United looking dangerous on the counter attack, and missing chances, but happy to get men behind the ball as full-time approached, just as against Stoke, Everton and Arsenal. We even had the introduction of Marouane Fellaini, as if to prove to supporters that that plan was also logical.
All of which made Manchester United’s victory a personal one for Mourinho, if only for the courage of his conviction. Tottenham’s foggy performance aided United’s win, but the fallout should the home side have conceded late on once again would have placed Mourinho squarely in the spotlight.
For only the third time this season, United won a league game at Old Trafford. For only the third time this season, United kept a home league clean sheet. For only the third time this season, United won a league game without conceding. Reasons to be thankful.
For more on that win, go read 16 Conclusions. What have you been doing?
Sarah Winterburn’s early winner. There are those in this office who would kill for such a moniker.
Eighteen goals and assists in 28 league games last season, already 17 in 15 appearances this season. Almost more impressive is that Costa has conceded only six fouls in his last eight matches and not been booked in any of them. A well-behaved warrior, the toy every kid wants this Christmas.
He’s played right-back. He’s played right wing-back. He’s played right midfield. He’s played right wing. He’s played left wing. He’s played as a striker. He runs his balls off, gives his all in every position and has scored seven of West Ham’s 17 league goals. If every player had the attitude and energy of Antonio, football management would be a lot easier.
Plenty of words about Mkhitaryan’s magnificence in 16 Conclusions, but I can’t stop thinking about the confidence of that finish against Hugo Lloris. The greatest compliment I can pay Mkhitaryan is that it reminded me of Gabriel Batistuta.
Michael Carrick, Ander Herrera, Paul Pogba
We said it so many times. A 4-3-3 formation, with a midfield three of Carrick central, Herrera right and Pogba left, mirroring his position at Juventus. We cried to see Pogba being played as a holding midfielder or a No. 10, and cried again when Pogba got criticism for his performances. Never change that shape, except through necessity, again.
His first league clean sheet since October 25, 2015, when crooner Bruno Mars topped the charts. Who remembers that blast from the past? Oh, he’s still in the top 20.
Riyad Mahrez and Jamie Vardy
Not only did Mahrez complete a pass to Vardy, but he provided a first-time cushioned ball of such quality that he deserves at least half of the subsequent goal. And I got a ludicrous amount of messages on Twitter when in the middle of bathing a godchild.
There now follows a list of the occasions on which 27-year-old striker Stefano Okaka has scored more than once in a league game:
November 24, 2007 – Modena vs Bari, Serie B
October 18, 2015 – Anderlecht vs Zulte Waregem, Belgian Pro League
December 10, 2016 – Watford vs Everton, Premier League
A collector’s item. Enjoy it.
Just as people were creating a space between Tasmin Archer and Las Ketchup in the one-hit wonder museum, back came Vardy with his first hat-trick in league football.
“I am very pleased for him,” said Claudio Ranieri. “When he finished, I said ‘welcome back’.” We bloody bet you did.
Romelu Lukaku has now scored 68 Premier League goals since 2012/13, only Sergio Aguero has more in that time (89). pic.twitter.com/NO4FYyMsXn
— Squawka Football (@Squawka) December 10, 2016
“My sense is that there are parts of the press in the UK that like to be clever. So they look for anything that they think is different, funny, interesting, whatever. Somebody said something about ‘offence and defence.’ I’ve never spoken like that and I’ve never used those words in relation to football. The idea that somebody throws that out there is just garbage.” We say ‘rubbish’, Bob, but now’s probably not the time.
“I have confidence from the work I’ve done and from the results I’ve had,” Bradley continued. “I’ve coached far bigger players than some of the pundits who now like to talk. I’ve had my chance to prove myself on the job. So I’m not going to listen when people on the outside, who are paid to talk, take cheap shots.”
When you hit out against the media, you can be sure that your next few results will come under the microscope. Bradley was taking a risk by going public with the footballing xenophobia he believes he has received. Winning, scoring three times and keeping a clean sheet is the perfect way to follow up those words. Well done that man. Good hustle?
Sean Dyche has as many home PL wins this season as Mourinho and Guardiola put together
— Chris Boden (@bodenknights) December 10, 2016
That statistic was broken by Manchester United’s home win over Spurs on Sunday, but I reckon Dyche might still enjoy it.
A stop-start season that has seen Southampton win, draw and lose five each of their 15 league games and drop out of the Europa League group stage. Yet some things don’t change: Southampton still have one of the best home records in the land. Since last Christmas, the only clubs to have won at St Mary’s in any competition are Crystal Palace against an under-strength Southampton in the FA Cup and Chelsea in the Premier League. Some effort, that.
My favourite goal of the Premier League season so far, from a player at the top of his game. That’s what Manchester United paid the money for.
— Crystal Palace News (@CpfcNews_) December 10, 2016
The general key to football management PR is to maximise the media impact of victories and minimise the reaction to damaging defeats. So when Guardiola chose to say “I don’t coach tackling” after a 4-2 defeat to Leicester, I did a sharp intake of breath. Is that really the right thing to say?
Like it or not, Guardiola must have known that his words would be translated as ‘I’m not interested in gutsy defending, just pretty passing’. When your team have kept two league clean sheets all season, your spanking new central defender is struggling to even tread water, and the entire defence and goalkeeper look panicky utilising your system of playing it short, it is a very risky PR move from Guardiola.
And so it proved. ‘Pep Guardiola is asking for trouble by saying he is not a coach for tackles. It was one of the most bizarre statements I have ever heard in football,’ wrote Jamie Redknapp in the Daily Mail on Monday. ‘Fans applaud a nice pass but the stadium erupts when there is a crunching 50-50 challenge. Supporters pay to see players put their bodies on the line and that is exactly what Manchester City are missing right now.’
Redknapp’s right, too. Guardiola’s passing philosophy worked at Barcelona, because La Masia was designed to produce that type of player. It worked at Bayern Munich too, because they had the best passing goalkeeper in the world and Xabi Alonso is a bloody dreamboat. Aleksandar Kolarov is not Philippe Lahm. Bacary Sagna is not David Alaba. Claudio Bravo is not Manuel Neuer. Pablo Zabaleta is just not a midfielder.
It is too early to say that Guardiola’s tactics will not work at Manchester City, but not too early to say that they won’t work with these players and not too early to say that they won’t work if the manager keeps insisting on changing his defensive lineup every week. City have kept fewer league clean sheets than Swansea City and West Ham; those two have been touted as the Premier League’s two crisis clubs. They have kept one clean sheet in all competitions since September 17.
That leaves Guardiola with three options:
1) Carry on doing what he’s doing, and hope that his players improve quickly. That strategy is risky in the extreme.
2) Change the shape to a defensive four. Pick Gael Clichy at left-back, Zabaleta at right-back and tell Kolarov to go on holiday.
3) Bite the bullet, and change the way the defence plays, ie more direct balls forward and down the line to wingers. Then, in January, ask for two full-backs and a new central defender before reverting back to type.
Whatever Pep decides, it really needs to work. Manchester City cannot afford to be dragged into a battle for a top four place for the second season in succession.
Liverpool without Philippe Coutinho
To say that Liverpool miss Philippe Coutinho is a statement of the bleeding obvious. Even having failed to start three league games this season, the Brazilian is Liverpool’s No. 2 without the faecal connotations. Second most league goals, second most shots on target, second most chances created and second most dribbles completed. Oh, and first for assists, just to ruin the symmetry.
Yet Coutinho’s unavailability represents more than just his own individual contribution. In the absence of anyone quite like Liverpool’s No. 10, it has forced Jurgen Klopp to move Roberto Firmino out wide and bring in Divock Origi as a striker.
This is nothing against Origi, who on Sunday became the first Liverpool player since Daniel Sturridge’s last wonderful run of form to score in four consecutive games, but that shape does hamper Firmino. Against West Ham he looked lost, unable to get on the ball as much as he would like and thus drifted in from the left. That’s understandable, but hindered Liverpool in the final third. Rather than options left and right, there was too often a gap on the left and an overcrowded middle third of the pitch. That’s far easier to defend against than the alternative.
Firmino’s desire to drift actually forced Georginio Wijnaldum further forward from his position on the left of a midfield three to act as an auxiliary wide forward, but that just rendered Liverpool prone to the quick counter attack. Jordan Henderson does not a one-man central midfield make.
It is the one position in Liverpool’s squad that Jurgen Klopp could do with supplementing. When Jose Mourinho arrived at Chelsea in 2004/05 he spoke of creating a squad of 23 players, with a direct replacement for every position on the pitch and an extra goalkeeper. If the absence of one player causes a shift in shape that is detrimental to other key players, that issue must be solved posthaste.
The Tottenham player most picked on in 16 Conclusions. I’m still struggling to believe that he lasted the entire 90 minutes.
The same number of touches in the opposition box as Phil Jones, and one fewer shot on target too. Still no goal against Manchester United.
It was in an interview with the Daily Mail’s Ian Ladyman that Loris Karius hit back at Gary Neville’s criticism: “I don’t care what Gary Neville said. He was a manager for a short bit and now he is back to being an expert again.”
Now perhaps Ladyman slightly mis-sold that quote, but it certainly comes across as an inflammatory thing to say. Neville is paid to be a pundit who picks out the flaws in individuals and systems, and could hardly be expected to ignore Karius’ obvious errors. He was not the only one.
I have no issue with players sticking up for themselves and giving back to a pundit (it’s actually great to see), but said player must realise that it will only increase the scrutiny of his own performances. On Sunday, Karius was slow to react to Dimitri Payet’s free-kick, and managed to somehow make himself smaller in the attempt to block Antonio’s shot.
Like or not, this issue is not going away. As a Manchester United ex-player and fan, Neville perhaps has his own reasons for continuing to put a Liverpool goalkeeper in the spotlight, but Karius must get used to it. As Jamie Carragher said on Sunday, Karius would be advised to keep his mouth shut and get on with proving that he’s a good enough goalkeeper for Liverpool.
He’s been in charge for less than six months, but Koeman is already feeling the heat at Goodison. Plenty of Everton supporters are distinctly unimpressed by their new manager, and are not afraid to tell him so. You should now read Sarah Winterburn’s excellent post-match piece on Everton, because she watched the game and I didn’t.
Victory over Liverpool followed by defeat at Burnley, and two steps forward followed by at least one more back. It has become a familiar feeling for Eddie Howe; Bournemouth have not won consecutive games in all competitions since March.
Manchester United’s absent ones
Anyone who prefers to play as a No. 10 or right forward for Manchester United must have watched the victory over Tottenham with some trepidation. That formation and personnel not only looked like the natural fit, but must also be Mourinho’s first-choice front six. Wayne Rooney, Juan Mata and Jesse Lingard, look away now.
When Ndong joined Sunderland for a transfer record fee, the story goes that Lorient’s president could not believe the offer he had just received, and immediately agreed to sell. Now we can see why.
Against Swansea, Ndong was abysmal. Taken off after 57 minutes having received his fifth yellow card of the season, the Gabon international laboured around the pitch without offering any discernible help either defensively or inswitching defence to attack. A waste of money that Sunderland barely have, on current evidence.