This week’s Monday Verdict analyses Jose Mourinho’s battle with Antonio Conte, Arsenal’s failures and five other things from this weekend’s Premier League action.
CITY TAKE THE HEADLINES, BUT ARSENAL’S PROBLEMS CLEAR TO SEE
As the Arsenal players trudged off the Wembley turf following a 3-0 humbling by Manchester City in the Carabao Cup final, it would be fair to say not many were too surprised about the outcome.
What may have been surprising was the manner of their defeat; a performance utterly bereft of any real backbone or even a hint of threatening the City goal.
As a top force, Arsenal are long gone – and it’s plain for all to see…
And Gary Neville certainly didn’t mince his words when assessing Arsenal’s performance on the big stage.
“Ramsey. Xhaka. Ozil. You’re walking on a football pitch at Wembley,” he said. “Why are you walking? You’re a disgrace. An absolute disgrace.
“I don’t even want to talk about them because they’ve been an absolute disgrace. Ramsey and Xhaka walking on a football pitch. Absolutely spineless.”
He added: “I don’t even like the football anymore. The last bastion has gone. Liverpool play better, Tottenham play better – there’s three or four teams that play better football than them now.
“This is a dark, dark day – the team have just not shown up.”
As dramatic as it may be, it was indeed a very dark day for the club. They’re not the first club to be swept aside by Manchester City this season, and they won’t be the last, but the gulf in class must be worrying for even the most optimistic of Gunners fans.
Hector Bellerin and Granit Xhaka stood out as two of the worst performers on the field, and the way their performances have regressed over the past few weeks is worrying.
Only Jack Wilshere can truly come out of the game with his head held high; he covered a lot of ground, did not shy away from any battle and tried to push the tempo. This being a player that was almost discarded last season.
Evening @HectorBellerin, just finding out who you’re donating today’s wages too? It’s only fair, seeing as you cannot earn money from failure.
— MR DT © (@MrDtAFC) February 25, 2018
After a somewhat bright start by the North Londonders, it was City who took the lead with what was basically their first threatening attack. What must infuriate Arsenal supporters is the way that it took a simple ball over the top for them to be utterly carved open.
Guardiola’s team have become renowned for their neat and tidy, fast-flowing football but they proved they can mix up their approach if necessary. Arsenal made a decent start to the game and were pressing City high up the field, leading goalkeeper Claudio Bravo to go route one with a long kick which sent Aguero racing clear to score the first goal.
The second and third goals equally demonstrated that Gunners’ weak backbone – the first failure to properly defend a set piece, the second a lesson that strolling back to your defensive position is never the correct course of action.
Arsene Wenger was aiming to become only the eighth manager to win all three top-flight trophies by lifting his first League Cup. While he has often used this competition to blood youngsters, resulting in plenty of early exits, he has now reached three finals – 2007, 2011 and 2018 – without success.
Arsenal have not lifted the trophy since beating Sheffield Wednesday in the 1993 final. With constant speculation about the 68-year-old’s future and the fact he is the second oldest manager in the Premier League, it remains to be seen how many more opportunities he will have.
When will it change? Have Arsenal really gone stale? The answer appears to be staring the club in the face. It’s time for something new.
MOURINHO V CONTE – THE REMATCH
Jose Mourinho’s public spat with Antonio Conte had increased anticipation for Sunday’s Premier League clash at Old Trafford.
Plenty had been said between the pair in a feud that began in October 2016, but would they clash when they went head-to-head on the touchline?
Television pictures from the tunnel showed Mourinho making his way to the front with a handshake or acknowledgement for the Chelsea XI.
Conte seemed visibly keen to stay at the back and away from any confrontation, although the Manchester United boss instigated a handshake as he approached the dugout.
Italian Conte rued Alvaro Morata’s early chance which rattled the crossbar, shouting and clasping his hands. He turned to the bench and pumped his arms in delight in the 32nd minute when Willian fired Chelsea in front but did not look to his right where Mourinho was standing.
The Portuguese, with his side back on level terms, was seen making a point to the fourth official about Chelsea players surrounding the referee at the end of the first half.
The pair were pictured smiling and joking together on the touchline when a free-kick was awarded to Eden Hazard midway through the first half. It looked genuine. No more interactions between the pair were evident during the game, but Mourinho did send on defender Eric Bailly with a note for team-mate Nemanja Matic.
At the final whistle, the pair smiled as they shook hands and Mourinho placed his hand on the back of the Italian’s head. He then handed his notepad to a young fan in the crowd.
Mourinho came out on top and will be pleased with his side’s response to falling behind as goals from Romelu Lukaku and Jesse Lingard secured a 2-1 win.
Victory moved Manchester United back into second spot ahead of Liverpool, who they face at home on March 10. Conte will be disappointed with Chelsea’s failure to build on Willian’s strike. They stay fifth following the defeat.
POCHETTINO A GOOD MANAGER BUT A LUCKY ONE TOO
On their day this Tottenham side is an incredibly good one but judging by Sunday’s 1-0 win at Crystal Palace you could also argue they have one lucky manager.
Mauricio Pochettino is doing a fine job and has taken this Spurs team to new heights but occasionally, just occasionally some of his team selections can be a tad hard to fathom.
Against a Palace team that was always going to give up width and play as narrow as possible he opted to play his two full-backs that are not as comfortable in possession and don’t have quality delivery, even when they have acres of space and time.
Bar one outstanding last-ditch tackle to deny a potential Palace goal, Serge Aurier had an absolute stinker of a game with a miss from two yards, several foul throws and a penchant for picking out the first man virtually every time he crossed the ball.
Ben Davies was slightly better, although that’s not saying very much, and it was a big surprise that the better attacking options in Danny Rose and Kieran Trippier were not preferred instead. The fact that Aurier was not hauled off for Trippier during the second half was almost Pochettino not wanting to admit his guilt.
Pochettino also opted to start Erik Lamela instead of Son Heung-Min, another odd call given how the Argentine always looks to come inside and never get in behind a defence, as his South Korean counterpart often does.
It led to Spurs having a three or four central midfield playmakers when you could throw a net of the majority of Palace’s team, they were that close together, determined not to let the visitors have space in dangerous areas.
It’s true to say that if Spurs had been more clinical they could have won more comfortably but they seemed to get dragged down to Palace’s level and were certainly not at their fluent best.
Pochettino then turned to another player who likes to drift inside in Lucas Moura to try and win the game and although he did offer more threat than Lamela it wasn’t until Son came on with 10 minutes to go that Spurs had an attacker on the field who could go past his man on the outside and offer more of a threat in that fashion.
The pace of Son also meant Palace had to drop deeper and deeper to avoid the ball in behind them and that allowed Spurs to rack up a string of corners – one of which Kane finally scored from.
Attention now turns to Wednesday night’s FA Cup replay against Rochdale at Wembley. Now does Poch pick a strong team to get the job done early or some of his also-runs to make a game of it? The latter is a good bet!
5 THINGS WE LEARNED FROM THIS WEEKEND’S PREMIER LEAGUE ACTION
Goalscorers and goalkeepers were among the talking points on a weekend which saw plenty of drama at both ends of the Premier League table.
Here, we take a look back at this weekend’s top-flight fixtures.
Lukaku can score against the top teams
The talk before the Manchester United-Chelsea showdown at Old Trafford was mostly centred on the bad blood between Jose Mourinho and Antonio Conte. But Romelu Lukaku stole the post-match headlines with his first goal against a top-six rival in a United shirt, his first-half equaliser all the sweeter as it came against his former club.
Lukaku also set up the winner for substitute Jesse Lingard as Chelsea dropped points for the first time this season from a winning position. Paul Pogba was also back in favour as United regained second spot from Liverpool and secured a six-point cushion over Chelsea, who now find themselves out of the Champions League places after Tottenham’s win at Crystal Palace.
England’s World Cup goalkeeper blues
It is less than four months to the 2018 World Cup in Russia and England have goalkeeping concerns.
Joe Hart and Fraser Forster continue to sit on the bench at West Ham and Southampton respectively, while Burnley’s Tom Heaton has not played a senior game since September through injury.
Stoke’s Jack Butland blotted his copybook on Saturday with his clanger gifting Leicester an equaliser, an error brought into sharp focus by the presence of Peter Shilton, England’s most capped player, in the stand.
Add the regularity with which Jordan Pickford has been beaten at Everton this season and England manager Gareth Southgate has a real conundrum to solve in deciding his World Cup number one.
Strong Ox pulling up trees
There were plenty of eyebrows raised when Liverpool spent £35million to take Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain from Arsenal last August, especially with defensive issues to resolve at Anfield.
Oxlade-Chamberlain chose Liverpool over Chelsea with the England international believing Jurgen Klopp would improve his game.
It was a slow start for the ‘Ox’ who did not start a Premier League game for the Reds until the start of November. But he has now fully integrated himself into Liverpool’s high-intensity game and his strength on the ball in a midfield role, as well as his passing and dribbling ability, has boosted his hopes of making a World Cup impact with England this summer.
Silva change paying off for Watford
Watford caused a shock when they sacked Marco Silva in January. The Portuguese received plenty of plaudits in the opening weeks of the season until his flirtation with Everton saw the Hornets tumble down the table.
Watford acted after one win in 11 league games and Silva’s replacement Javi Gracia has since steadied the ship at Vicarage Road.
Gracia has taken seven points from 12 and Saturday’s 1-0 win against Everton gave them a six-point cushion from the relegation zone.
They also had the added boost of Troy Deeney scoring his first league goal this season in open play, and beating bottom-placed West Brom at home next week would all but secure their top-flight status.
Palace in peril without Zaha
After starting the season without a goal or a point in their first seven games, Roy Hodgson managed to breathe life into Crystal Palace. But the Eagles are at serious risk of going down if star man Wilfried Zaha does not return from injury any time soon.
The 1-0 home defeat to Tottenham means Palace have now lost all 10 Premier League games Zaha has been absent from since September 2016, scoring only once in that sequence.
Although there was no shortage of fight against Spurs, who were indebted to Harry Kane’s late strike, the truth was they were fortunate to avoid a thrashing and, worryingly, three of their next four games are against Manchester United, Chelsea and Liverpool.