1) Mourinho’s criticisms a reminder that these are early days
José Mourinho has been asked regularly over recent weeks whether his current team, so impressive over the opening months of the campaign, can emulate Arsenal’s Invincibles and survive the whole season unbeaten. His answer has always been the same. A simple: “No.” The game has changed in the 11 years since Arsène Wenger’s team swept all before them, he has suggested, and the level of competition thrown up by an awkward division makes a repeat unlikely at best.
Yet Chelsea have still largely revelled through 15 unbeaten matches to date: opening up a healthy cushion at the top of the Premier League, easing to the summit of their Champions League group and progressing smoothly into the quarter-finals of the Capital One Cup. The manager’s summer signings have all clicked, his options clear and impressive. Their first XI appears the strongest team in the division. There is so much positivity about the club at present because a season of plunder awaits.
In that context Mourinho’s rather frustrated comments made in the wake of Saturday’s derby victory over Queens Park Rangers actually rang out as a warning to players, fans, staff and hierarchy alike that this campaign has, to date, yielded nothing more than a highly promising start. He had been unimpressed with his team, as sloppiness crept in after the break and QPR threatened to pluck a point. He had been infuriated by the crowd for apparently failing to whip up an intimidating atmosphere – the noise around the arena was hardly the worst of the season to date – likening the whole event to “playing inside an empty stadium”.
Those comments did serve to whip up the locals. Plenty were aghast that the manager had the cheek to criticise supporters paying eye-watering amounts for tickets. Others pointed to a lost generation of younger fans priced out of the market, or squeezed out by corporate initiatives and even tourists keen to take in a Premier League game. The positioning of the away fans in the Shed end was questioned. The Chelsea Supporters’ Trust has asked whether it is time to introduce a dedicated ‘singing area’, with subsidised tickets, to attract younger support back through the turnstiles, and pointed to the anomaly that away fans are permitted to stand and chant, while isolated home partisans who try to stir those around them can find their seat numbers noted by stewards.
All those issues are worthy of debate. Yet Mourinho surely had only one motivation in being hypercritical while his team progress so impressively. His complaints of team and fans will merely keep everyone on their toes, ensuring the side that runs out at Anfield on Saturday will be focused and their travelling support – it should be noted away fans are invariably noisy – drum up a din. The same should apply when West Bromwich Albion visit west London on 22 November. He will be forgiven his criticisms while the set-up is successful. This seemed a neat deflection technique, a timely reminder that his team are only 10 games into a 38-match campaign. They have won nothing yet. Dominic Fifield
2) Fellaini’s incident with Agüero feels familiar
Did Marouane Fellaini spit at Sergio Agüero? Manchester United say absolutely not and Louis van Gaal believes his player deserves the benefit of the doubt. “I have heard that it is a question on social media,” the United manager said. “The TV has shown that he is shouting and sometimes when you shout there’s a little bit of saliva with it. But I don’t think that he’s a spitting figure.” What goes against Fellaini, perhaps, is this all feels vaguely familiar. In the previous derby, at Old Trafford in March, Fellaini jutted his elbow into Pablo Zabaleta’s jaw and was fortunate not to be sent off. Once again, the United player could be seen looking down at an opponent on the floor and the television cameras captured what looked like saliva coming from his mouth. The Football Association looked at the video footage and decided not to take any action and now, seven months on, we have another incident that United would like us to believe was purely accidental. If nothing else, Fellaini needs to stop all that shouting. Daniel Taylor
3) Kane must now warrant a starting spot in Tottenham’s attack
What more does Harry Kane have to do to convince Mauricio Pochettino that he deserves to start a Premier League game? Kane came into the Villa fixture on the back of another midweek goal, his eighth of the season in cup competitions, but again had to settle for a place on the bench. Pochettino did, in fairness, change things around at Villa Park up front but his experiment involved starting Roberto Soldado and Emmanuel Adebayor alongside one another for the first time this season. Soldado put Adebayor through on goal early in the first half – a chance that the Togolese squandered – but it was difficult to remember too many other occasions when they combined. As for Kane, his introduction from the substitutes’ bench at least gave a lacklustre Spurs team some presence and energy up front. His winning goal was more than a touch fortunate – Kane’s free-kick took a wicked deflection off Nathan Baker – but it was a measure of the 21-year-old’s confidence that he was prepared to take charge of the situation and strike the dead-ball ahead of Érik Lamela. Kane now has nine goals this season in all competitions. As for Adebayor and Soldado, they have four between them. Sooner rather than later Pochettino is going to have to start listening to the Spurs supporters. They like Kane. And it is easy to see why. Stuart James
4) Reality is harsh for Burnley
Sean Dyche spoke in that breezy, upbeat manner of his about “positive realities” in the wake of Burnley’s 3-0 defeat at Arsenal. The manager knows his players have given everything this season and he suggested that the fixtures had so far been unkind, given the number of teams from the top 10 that Burnley have had to face. Dyche is giving it a go, too, almost always playing with two strikers. Danny Ings had a few good moments at the Emirates. The broader narrative for the Lancashire club is how far they have come under Dyche’s tenure. “A year ago we were selling players just to make ends meet,” he said. Here is the but. Commitment is the minimum requirement of any professional team and the Premier League has no time for romance. Despite the two-up approach, Burnley have scored only five goals. They remain bottom of the table and without a win. The longer it goes on, the more one has to fear for them and their confidence. Next up are Hull City at home, then Stoke City (away) and Aston Villa (home). The elusive victory must come before the end of the sequence. David Hytner
5) Albion prove value of consistency
The value or otherwise of rotation continues to interest and often irritate supporters in equal measure. West Brom’s manager, Alan Irvine, whose last six starting selections in the Premier League have featured only 12 outfield players, said on Saturday that he does not really believe in it. As long as we look after the players physically and mentally, we can keep playing them, said the Scot, and with three wins and two draws in those six games, evidence is on his side. The Baggies’ match against Leicester may have been less than inspiring but that each player Albion player understood his role was always apparent. Their opponents, in contrast, made four changes, including for the first time this season, in the back four, with Marcin Wasilewski coming in for Liam Moore, though the Pole may find himself facing an FA charge and missing games after the referee, Stuart Attwell, missed his elbow on Saido Berahino. Unlucky as the Foxes were not to get a point, the impression is that their manager, Nigel Pearson, is still working out which of his squad are good enough to be Premier League regulars. Richard Rae
6) Stoke see red but Song does not
Should Chris Foy consider retrospective action against Alex Song after the West Ham United midfielder’s dangerous two-footed lunge on Mame Diouf? It appears the referee, as he did not wave play on for the home team’s advantage, did not consider the tackle, from which the Stoke City forward jumped out the way, a foul. Looking at replays, there is a chance that Foy’s view was restricted by Steve Sidwell but he was in a good position, within 20 yards of the incident.
Mark Hughes, the Stoke manager, said he is not looking for Song to be banned but he would like clarification from the referees’ association, the Professional Game Match Officials Limited. There was a similar incident in last Wednesday’s Capital One Cup tie when Morgan Schneiderlin went lunging in on Jonathan Walters. Stoke fans were understandably left to wonder in tweets what would be awarded, either in real time or retrospectively, had one of their players left the ground with two feet, out of control, in the direction of an opponent. It is irrelevant that Diouf managed to get himself clear of danger as Song’s intent seemed indisputable. Peter Lansley
7) Bruce takes heart
Ask managers in early season about how they believe their team is faring and a staple answer tends to be that the table has no real relevance until 10 matches have been played. It is arguably the juncture at which reality and illusion meet. Hull have been praised for their start to their ‘difficult second season’ in the top flight, lauded for their shrewd signings, such as the £10m Uruguay striker Abel Hernandez, the Scotland full-back Andrew Robertson and especially Mohamed Diamé, a £3.5m snip from West Ham. Within the past fortnight television pundits have expressed with certainty that ‘they will be fine’ after meritorious away draws with Arsenal and Liverpool.
But, for all their plaudits, the facts are that Hull have won only twice and sit three points above the relegation zone. It has not been lost on their manager, Steve Bruce. “You could quite easily say we could be three or four points better off. I’m sure most Premier League managers would be saying that. The margins are so narrow. For us, unfortunately, what’s marred a really good start is this individual error which you can’t really account for,” he said, after Eldin Jakupovic’s unwitting assist against Southampton.
Next week they face winless Burnley but Bruce is taking heart from performances against the bottom four last season. They took 15 points from those matches. “They’re all big but the huge wins in the Premier League are the teams around you. We did particularly well against the teams around us last year. Let’s hope we can do the same again,” Bruce said. Richard Gibson
8) Barkley is still rusty
There was little incident or entertainment in Everton’s sterile goalless draw against Swansea City on Saturday but, before a week when Roy Hodgson announces his next England squad, the performance of Ross Barkley invited questions over his readiness for Slovenia and Scotland. The midfielder is clearly still searching for match sharpness having missed the first two months of the season with a knee injury and it was a surprise when Aiden McGeady, and not the England international, was withdrawn by Roberto Martínez as Everton chased a breakthrough at Goodison Park. “It didn’t help Ross that the game stops and starts,” said the Everton manager, who initially deployed Barkley on the left against Garry Monk’s side. “For a player like Ross, who has been out for such a long time, you are going to have ups and downs. He had a great performance against Aston Villa, a solid one against Lille and at Burnley he participated in the third goal. But he is still working his way through to full fitness.” Andy Hunter
9) Rodgers should try pairing Borini and Balotelli
It was not entirely Mario Balotelli’s fault that, bar a free-kick saved by Tim Krul and a curling shot that briefly threatened to squeeze inside a post, he barely threatened during Saturday’s 1-0 defeat at Newcastle United. Alan Pardew’s contain and counter-attack policy nonplussed Liverpool’s midfield while Raheem Sterling, superbly shackled by Paul Dummett, had an off day, as did Philippe Coutinho. In other words the service to Balotelli was virtually non existent and it was easy to sympathise with the Italian when he spent an interruption in play seemingly lecturing Glen Johnson on tactics. Things did look up a little when Fabio Borini stepped off the bench and joined him up front, though. Balotelli’s compatriot not only sent a low shot skimming fractionally wide but ruffled Newcastle’s previously assured defence. Rodgers could surely do worse than try playing two up front, possibly in a 3-5-2 formation.
Maybe Borini is undervalued at Anfield? He did, after all, score 10 goals for a poor Sunderland side while deployed wide during a season-long loan at the Stadium of Light last term. Moreover Borini proved such a key figure in Sunderland’s eventual escape from relegation that Gus Poyet was desperate to pay £14m to buy him and still devotes part of almost every press conference saying how much Borini’s departure has weakened the Wearsiders. With Luis Suárez much missed and Daniel Sturridge still injured the time has surely come for Rodgers to invest a bit of faith in him. Borini is a much better striker than many people seem to think. Louise Taylor
10) Alan Pardew has confounded the critics
Four wins on the bounce has put Newcastle on the up and pushed Alan Pardew towards the next manager of the month award. Energetic, attacking football with an accent on youth is what the Newcastle boss has been about his whole career, and one reason why in any given season his teams tend to feature in the year’s most unexpectedly exciting matches (with the FA Cup final of 2006 probably the stand out from a neutral’s point of view).
Football fortunes fluctuate, of course, and this run will come to an end sooner or later (Newcastle being Newcastle, one cannot rule out something apocalyptically dramatic) but now is surely the time to assign credit it where it is due. Not only is it important to remember the list of quality players that Pardew has been forced to sell – from Demba Ba to Mathieu Debuchy via Yohan Cabaye – but one cannot help but admire the way his method of managing must have altered.
When Pardew first made his name at Reading, it was by ‘modernising’ a team full of such hardy pros as Linvoy Primus, Barry Hunter and Keith Scott with motivational slogans and techniques ripped out of the book of David Brent. With Mike Ashley’s approach to Newcastle’s playing squad apparently mirroring the high-volume trading model that Sports Direct uses to manage its stock, a different model has been required. Pardew is playing a large part generating enormous financial returns for the club, rewards he will likely take an equally large share of, so he deserves the plaudits and will enjoy them while they last.
There are more than eight languages in the Newcastle dressing room and as soon as Newcastle have amassed 40 points this season the team’s best players are likely to be sold on. Building team spirit, let alone resilience, in such conditions can not be especially rewarding, let alone easy. Yet Pardew’s team remain among the most pleasingly watchable cavaliers in the league. His has not been, and cannot be, the same kind of achievement as Sir Bobby Robson’s or Kevin Keegan’s but it still is remarkable. Scott Anthony