This week’s Monday Verdict showcases the vast improvements of Jesse Lingard at Manchester United, looks at the lessons being learnt by Jurgen Klopp and highlights Chelsea’s battle to defend the title.
JESSE STARTING TO PUR
They say you should never judge a book by its cover – or in the case of Jesse Lingard, never judge a player by any pre-conceived perceptions you have….
That’s certainly the case with Jesse Lingard, whom over the past week has showed himself – arguably for the first time in his career – worthy of a place in both Manchester United’s squad and with England.
It may have been the brilliance of David De Gea that grabbed the headlines, but Mourinho also recognised the impact Lingard had made, not just at the Emirates, but also at Watford in midweek.
The England midfielder struck United’s second after 11 minutes and a second-half third as Arsenal were pushing for an equaliser.
“He played well,” United boss Mourinho said of the player.
“He did what the team needed him to do, defensively and also in terms of going into finishing areas.
“We worked pre-season well and hard about playing sometimes with three at the back, sometimes four.
“When we play with two strikers we need people from the midfield that can arrive in finishing situations and that’s what Jesse did for us.”
If there were doubt surrounding whether the 24-year-old has what it takes to oust Henrikh Mkhitaryan from the United line-up, those have been suitably answered in the last two games.
After scoring a vital goal to kill a spirited Watford revival on Tuesday night, Lingard put in another good shift at the Emirates Stadium, scoring two goals in United’s 3-1 win.
Four years on from his Manchester United debut, Lingard is a player who still divides opinion among fans. Many criticise his attitude, and there are a lot of Red Devils supporters who would welcome a new addition in that position – possibly Mesut Ozil.
The statistics are there to see however; Lingard had 25 appearances in both the 2015/16 and 2016/17 Premier League seasons, amassing five goals and assists in the former and just three in the latter. He has surpassed those totals after just 11 games this season.
While some may criticise his attitude – as overused as that has become as a way of explaining under-performing players – it is clear to see that the midfielder is maturing on the field. And for that, Mourinho and his coaching staff deserve the utmost praise.
If his run and finish for his first were sublime, his movement for the second showed both cunning, wisdom and a new level of understanding in his game. That goal may have been made by Paul Pogba, but it was Lingard’s movement that made it look as simple as it was….
The goal in midweek is another perfect example of what he brings. Lingard used his pace, dribbling ability and vision to beat the four Watford players closing in on him, before finishing with a clinical finish across the goalkeeper.
Having struggled for consistent game time during his spell with the 20-time champions, it appears that Lingard can be their option moving forward.
With Mkhitaryan linked with a move back to Dortmund and question marks surrounding Ozil’s situation, Mourinho must focus on developing one of the brightest English players.
KLOPP FINALLY STRIKING THE RIGHT BALANCE
It’s been eight games since Liverpool’s mauling at the hands of Tottenham at Wembley and it would appear (whisper it quietly) that Jurgen Klopp may have finally found a way to keep his side balanced.
In those eight matches, two of which were in the Champions League, the Reds have scored 25 goals and conceded just six – three of those in one crazy half of football in Seville.
There can be no doubting that Klopp’s troops really are on a charge and this goalscoring juggernaut is going to take some stopping.
Now up to fourth spot in the Premier League, after an inconsistent start to the season, the Anfield outfit are playing a brand of counter-attacking that is arguably the envy of Europe.
The sheer pace in the side is absolutely frightening and must be a nightmare for opposing managers to plan against.
If you go at them they can, and almost certainly will, rip you to shreds but if you try and sit in they have the sort of technically gifted players that can unlock a packed rearguard. Go an early goal behind and you are literally playing with fire for the rest of the match.
Let’s take Saturday’s match at Brighton for example. The recently promoted Seagulls have not conceded more than two goals in any Premier League game since they came up, and they opened their season against free-scoring Man City and had narrow losses at Arsenal and Manchester United.
Chris Hughton’s men have been incredibly well organised and in Lewis Dunk and Shane Duffy have had one of THE outstanding centre-back partnerships in the league, but after 30 minutes of holding their own they were eventually torn to pieces by a rampant Reds side that showed six changes from the midweek hammering of Stoke.
So more than half his team changed but Liverpool’s philosophy stays the same – counter, counter, counter – and all of the players are well drilled in that regard.
Now Klopp took some real flack after that defeat at Spurs, but that was more down to individual errors than Liverpool’s game-plan failing, so the German deserves a huge amount of credit for the way his side have bounced back since.
The Reds remain a world class centre-half and a prolific number nine away from being true challengers for the Premier League title, but the rumours persist of a further bid for Southampton’s Virgil van Dijk and on Sunday it was reported that they could make prolific Dortmund frontman Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang their marquee signing in January.
The thought of the Gabon hitman being flanked by Mo Salah and Sadio Mane with Philippe Coutinho – if they can keep him – pulling the strings behind is scary beyond belief. Not to mention Roberto Firmino’s recent return to form.
Now there have been a few false dawns at Anfield down the years but there really does seem to be something special brewing on Merseyside right now.
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MOURINHO V WENGER – IN FOCUS AT THE EMIRATES
Familiar foes Arsene Wenger and Jose Mourinho went toe-to-toe again as Manchester United secured a 3-1 victory in a pulsating game at Arsenal on Saturday.
Early goals from Antonio Valencia and Jesse Lingard put Mourinho’s men in control before Lingard sealed the win with his second after Alexandre Lacazette had halved the deficit for Wenger’s side.
United had Paul Pogba sent off for a dangerous tackle on Hector Bellerin with 16 minutes remaining but they held on to end Arsenal’s 100 per home league record this season.
Here, we take a look at how the opposing managers fared at the Emirates Stadium.
Wenger’s poor record against Mourinho has been much publicised. The long-serving Gunners boss, in his 22nd season in north London, had managed just one competitive victory and a Community Shield win over his Portuguese counterpart in 18 meetings ahead of kick-off.
The only Premier League success came in May when United, with a Europa League semi-final on their minds, were beaten 2-0 at the Emirates. Thanks to a couple of dreadful errors helping United into an early 2-0 lead on Saturday, the Frenchman was always struggling to improve those head-to-head stats.
Wenger perhaps attempted to give Mourinho a taste of his own medicine in the build-up to the game, declaring striker Lacazette unavailable due to injury before promptly naming him in an unchanged team following Wednesday’s 5-0 thrashing of Huddersfield.
Whether it was mind games by Wenger or a miraculous recovery from the France international is unclear. United also enjoyed a resounding midweek win and Mourinho kept faith with the attacking line-up which won at Watford.
Mourinho, notably against Liverpool and Chelsea this season, has been accused of ‘parking the bus’ when playing the Premier League’s top teams away from home.
There was no sign of negativity from the Portuguese coach in the opening stages on Saturday evening though as United, who scored four at Vicarage Road in midweek, began brightly, attacking with pace and precision as they ruthlessly built a two-goal advantage.
The Gunners responded well to the slow start which undoubtedly ruined their game plan and put United under heavy pressure, pegging them back inside their own half prior to the hosts adding a third on the counter attack.
There was a friendly handshake – initiated by Wenger – ahead of kick-off and, with the technical boxes at the Emirates a decent distance apart, the pair had little interaction during the game.
Wenger was quite happy to ignore the constraints of the box, however, and regularly wandered along the touchline to talk to fourth official Anthony Taylor.
Both men showed plenty of emotion and passion throughout the match, with Wenger understandably the more agitated during the first half and Mourinho, who leaped off the bench in relief to celebrate the third, more concerned after the break.
Mourinho was visibly incensed when, after Pogba was dismissed, Laurent Koscielny was only shown a yellow card after bringing down Romelu Lukaku with the Belgian racing towards goal.
Arsenal produced a superb performance for large parts of the game but Mourinho once again displayed the mentality of a winner by leading his side to an extremely hard-fought victory.
The hosts enjoyed 75 per cent possession and had 33 attempts to United’s eight, underlining the effectiveness of Mourinho’s team.
The one downside for the Portuguese, however, is that he will be without suspended midfielder Pogba for three games, including the Manchester derby.
FORGET MAN UTD, CHELSEA ARE CITY’S BIGGEST CHALLENGERS
If titles were decided on December 1, most fans and pundits would have already crowned Manchester City as champions.
Granted, few have been able to live with Pep Guardiola’s side so far this season and this week’s late wins over Southampton and West Ham only further enhanced theories that it will take something pretty special to stop them in their tracks. Even on their off days, they’re finding ways to grind out the wins. A true mark of champions, for sure….
Much of the focus on who is best to halt City in their tracks has focused on the red half of Manchester and Jose Mourinho – and it certainly keeps the title ‘race’ interesting by pitting the red side of the city against the blues.
United’s much-needed win at Arsenal was further proof that Mourinho and his side are not going away this season.
However, it’s far too soon to eliminate defending champions Chelsea from the reckoning and Saturday lunchtime’s 3-1 victory over Newcastle served as timely reminder. When Dwight Gayle fired Newcastle into a deserved 12th-minute lead, it appeared the Magpies were poised to claim only their second victory at Stamford Bridge of the Premier League era.
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But Antonio Conte’s side are made of stern stuff and, unlike defending champions of recent years, seem unlikely to relinquish their crown without a major fight.
Last December, Chelsea won each and every match they played in December to first serve notice of their title credentials.
This December the Blues have what, on paper, appears a favourable run of matches, whereby they face a number of sides who currently occupy places in the bottom half of the Premier League table.
After their final Champions League group match with Atletico Madrid in midweek, Chelsea then face successive Premier League matches against West Ham and Huddersfield, before taking on Southampton at the Bridge.
Following that, Conte’s men face a televised trip to Everton on December 23, while the festive programme is wrapped (pun intended!) with home matches against Brighton and Stoke.
While Conte has complained about a matchday conspiracy against his side, the Blues manager would be wise to look at how the fixtures computer has given his side a genuinely kind run of games at what is deemed the most grueling and testing time of the year….
Chelsea’s response to going a goal down against Newcastle was encouraging to say the least. With this kind of grit mixed in with the unquestionable ability their side possesses, it looks like it will take something pretty special – coupled with a serious off day – to prevent them collecting either a maximum haul, or something pretty close to it, through December.
The victory against Newcastle temporarily closes the gap on runaway leaders Manchester City to eight points ahead of the Citizens match against West Ham on Sunday. While Conte will continue to batter away talk Chelsea could still have a say in the title race, the table could have a very different look come the start of 2018, especially when December throws up the small matter of games against Manchester United and Tottenham for Guardiola’s side….
Chelsea may lack the star quality or the squad depth of Manchester City, but they have a squad of winners who could find themselves having a major say yet in this season’s title race.