Manchester United v Chelsea: match report

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Jose Mourinho produced a tactical masterclass. His side were smarter, sharper and more ruthless than their opponents in every department and showed fans and critics alike what he can do when the big matches roll round. The game in question here, though, was Chelsea’s 3-1 destruction of Sir Alex Ferguson’s Manchester United almost 12 years ago. On that day Mourinho enhanced his reputation further as Chelsea marched towards a record-breaking triumph in the Premier League.

 

12 years is a lifetime in football and this time, Mourinho seems like he is rebuilding his once unquestionable reputation. The Portuguese managed his best Man United game yet as he got the better of rival Antonio Conte in a feisty encounter. Marcus Rashford and Ander Herrera got the goals in what turned out to be a convincing 2-0 victory at Old Trafford and perhaps gives new life to their top four ambitions as well as the title race.

 

The Special One sprung surprises on Easter Sunday choosing to leave star man Zlatan Ibrahimovic on the bench and lining up in a 4-2-2 set-up with Rashford and Jese Lingard up front. Ander Herrera was tasked with marrying himself to Eden Hazard – flashbacks of the F.A. Cup tie where the Spaniard was given his marching orders after a late challenge on the Belgian may have had Man United fans worried. Not so this time as the tenacious midfielder stuck to his task diligently and frustrated the Chelsea talisman in an all-action man of the match performance.

 

Mourinho’s men flew out of the traps at Old Trafford with the pace and understanding between Rashford and Lingard causing problems for the Chelsea back three. The game was not even ten minutes old when Herrera stole possession – questionably as big shouts for handball appeared to be justified – before sliding an excellent ball in behind for Rashford to chance and calmly finish. A goal move unable to materialise, perhaps, if Ibrahimovic was spearheading the attack.

 

Diego Costa, often the subject of many subplots throughout Mourinho’s time at Chelsea, yet has seemed more measured under Conte, showed his unsavoury side yet again. The brutish Spanish striker found himself embroiled in battles with United’s defensive duo Marcus Rojo and Eric Bailly. His frustrations earned him a yellow card after a late challenge on Pogba.

 

Chelsea looked unusually unfocused, drawn into Manchester United’s clever mind games and acts of street-smarts. The focus was so much lacking that Gary Cahill was more attentive in hauling Lingard up from the ground during the build up to Herrera doubling United’s advantage.

 

It took Chelsea 45 minutes to muster their first effort on goal albeit a frustrated lash from Costa.

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Whatever Conte’s half time message was to his flat Chelsea side at the forefront of it must have been not to concede another goal early in the second half. However, some three minutes into the second period they found themselves further behind. Chelsea failed to clear their lines once more and Ashley Young, who was given the captain’s armband for the occasion, drove into the Chelsea penalty area before another failed clearance fell to Herrera. The Spaniard, the beneficiary of two slices of good fortune after his alleged handball in the first half for his assist for Rashford’s goal, arrowed his shot through a crowd of players which ricocheted off player’s in blue shirts on its way past Asmir Begovic in the Chelsea goal.

 

Before the hour mark Conte attempted to turn the tide in this giant game of chess. Cesc Fabregas came on to offer much needed creativity in place of Victor Moses, asked to operate out of the other full-back position after a pre-game injury to Marcos Alonso.

 

Mourinho countered with a tactical change of his own, sacrificing pace for control, as he brought on Michael Carrick for Lingard. The switch left Rashford isolated but that did not stop the young England centre forward from hustling and bustling his was up front and making life uncomfortable for the Chelsea defenders.

 

N’golo Kante failed to get his usual grip in midfield, partly due to the excellence of Mauroane Fellaini and Herrera in midfield scurrying around refusing to give the Chelsea key players a moments rest. Matteo Darmian found himself handcuffed to Pedro on the other side of the field refusing to let the former Barcelona wide man find space to operate in.

 

Mourinho’s side could have filled their boots in truth, Rashford smashed an effort into the side netting and Young spurned two excellent chances from the edge of the area to inflict more misery onto Conte’s men. England manager Gareth Southgate was in the stands and will have been impressed with what he saw from the Manchester United English trio – especially in a new tactical set-up.

 

Rashford was brought off with just two minutes of time remaining to a standing ovation and allowed Ibrahimovic to get on in a cameo appearance.

 

Conte pleaded with his side to push forward in the closing stages but by that point United had become water tight, refusing to give an inch.

 

The final whistle brought with it a rapturous ovation, it was perhaps the most complete United performance since the days of Ferguson, and certainly the best day so far in Mourinho’s time as Man United manager. The former Chelsea boss could not have asked for much more in a week where his side have a vital away goal in the Europa League quarter-final against Anderlecht capped off by a monumental league victory over what many believe to be the champions elect. Mourinho was at his meticulous best – substituting captain Young fully knowing it would take the winger-turned-full-back more time to exit the field due to him passing on the armband.

 

United fans chanted Mourinho’s name in unison clearly buoyed the masterful display. The same fans which were often sickened by Mourinho bringing his Chelsea teams to Old Trafford and furthering his reputation as The Special One now get to experience perhaps what is come down long road ahead.

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A historic night for Barcelona but PSG’s mental frailties rear their ugly head again

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Sergi Roberto struck with virtually the last kick of the game sending Barcelona through to the last eight of the Champions League. Facing an impossible task of being 4-0 down to Paris Saint-Germain after the first leg and then facing a 5-3 deficit with just 28 minutes remaining Barca needed more than a miracle.

 

However, while the world will marvel at Barcelona’s three goals in the final seven minutes of the match, what should not be ignored is PSG’s mental frailties. It was on a plate for the French powerhouse and it seemed for all the world they would shatter their mental block with manager Unai Emery on the touchline. The former Sevilla manager was seen as the secret weapon to guiding PSG through the tie after going toe-to-toe with Barcelona many times when in charge in Seville.

 

However, it was not to be. Yet another cross examination will be carried out by PSG’s hierarchy on how this collection of extraordinary talented individuals cannot band together and dig in when they are required to.

 

The collapse against Luis Enrique’s side evoked memories of their 2014 capitulation against Chelsea in the quarter-finals. After winning the first leg commandingly 3-1, with Javier Pastore scoring in injury time to ‘all but put the tie beyond Chelsea’, the Parisians collapsed in London as Demba Ba netted an 87th minute strike to send Jose Mourinho’s side through on away goals.

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In 2013 Paris faced Barcelona in what would soon become a European rivalry. After Blaise Matuidi struck deep in injury time in the Parc des Princes to give PSG a fighting chance when heading back to the Nou Camp the French outfit then shrunk in the spotlight again. After taking the lead through Pastore the Catalans struck back through Pedro. The scoreline will forever read 1-1 and that Barca advance via the away goals rule but the reality paints a different picture, PSG were in control of the game – on a night when Lionel Messi was relegated to the bench, still recovering from a thigh injury. But when the chances came PSG could not take them and inevitably succumbed to Barcelona’s will.

 

This time the autopsy will take on a different manner. No team had ever come back from a 4-0 first leg deficit to emerge victorious in a Champions League tie. Trailing 3-0 it seemed Barca would at least take the game into extra time, and then the Nou Camp fell silent as Edinson Cavani expertly lashed his shot past Marc-Andre ter Stegan putting Paris Saint-Germain firmly back in control and only needing to resist for 28 more minutes with Barca requiring a trio of strikes to get through – even the most die-hard Catalan must have thought it was over. To go from 4-0 to 4-3 with an hour still to play is a collapse in its own right, but to then leave Messi and company needing another 3 goals after Cavani made it 3-1 on the night – and still lose- is a catastrophe like no other.

 

Emery’s stay in Paris may be a short one after domestic dominance is now being challenged with PSG chasing the pack, rather than setting the insurmountable pace, in Ligue 1 and being dumped out of Europe’s elite club competition in the most extraordinary fashion.

 

Perhaps such a failure felt inevitable, Barcelona have rarely felt like the team of five or six years ago, yet all week the players and their manager maintained unwavering faith: “If they can score four we can score six” remarked Enrique with Neymar adding “It is practically impossible. But we cannot give up.” Barca did not give up – in the week Luis Enrique told the press and his players he would be stepping down at the end of the season the miraculous turnaround felt like the players did it for their departing manager.

 

PSG by comparison felt like a 3-1 defeat would be job done, even 4-1 or 5-1. After all they had the all-important away goal and all that mattered was getting through the tie. After realising they were in a game after Messi’s penalty made it 3-0 on the night and had social media exploding with ‘they couldn’t, could they?’ PSG fell complacent – even conceited – after their star striker netted what should have been the final nail in Barcelona’s Champions League coffin.

 

The difference between the great and the very good were encapsulated in 185 pulsating minutes. Barcelona’s stars banned together as a true team refusing to give in – for PSG the questions once again musts be asked of leadership, selflessness and gut. It truly was a night of history for both teams, and for polarising reasons, one they shall both never forget.

 

Martial welcomes Ibrahimovic – but there is cause for concern

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You don’t buy a Ferrari to drive it like a Fiat, a brash Zlatan Ibrahimovic once screamed at then Barcelona boss Pep Guardiola. Unhappy with his role – playing second fiddle to Lionel Messi – Ibrahimovic has been difficult to keep happy throughout his career.

 

Ibrahimovic is expected to announce his next club on Tuesday along with the launch of his clothing brand. The Swede is also expected to sign for Manchester United in what would be one of the worst kept secrets in football.

 

Anthony Martial is one of a number of United players who is welcoming the 34-year-old to Old Trafford but in the case of the French forward, there could be a cause for concern.

 

The young Frenchman ended the season poised to become the man at Manchester United like so many before him. Ryan Giggs, Eric Cantona, Cristiano Ronaldo and Wayne Rooney. Yet he could return playing second fiddle to a man who while a genius on the ball is well known for being rather self absorbed.

 

Ibrahimovic throughout his career has always felt that the team should revolve around him. No doubt he is one of the best players in Europe and in his earlier years teams have been constructed to work with his strengths and cover what few weaknesses he has. However, last season ended with Manchester United in prime position to build around a sensation of their own in Martial.

 

Martial burst onto the scene with a sensational solo goal against Liverpool. The 19-year-old went on to be one of few bright spots in Louis van Gaal’s reign as he ended the 2015/16 season on the cusp of being a genuine superstar.

While he occupied the left hand side for the majority of the season the arrival of Ibrahimovic could well see Martial’s rise to stardom stutter – for a year at least. Marcus Rashford’s progress also.

 

It was clear that the former Monaco front man was becoming the star of the new Manchester United. Like Wayne Rooney before him, Martial could symbolise a new era at Old Trafford. In 2004 Sir Alex Ferguson paid around £30m for an exceptionally talented forward and years later it could be argued that it was the best £30m ever spent in football.

 

The budding superstar commanded a similar fee – depending on which reports you believe – and has flashed similar abilities of the 18-year-old Rooney. Rooney soon became the heart of the Man United team along with Cristiano Ronaldo and formed one of the deadliest front lines Europe has ever seen along with Carlos Tevez.

 

Martial possesses a similar ability and will blossom into just as formidable player if the team is constructed around him as it once was with Rooney.

 

Ibrahimovic will enter Old Trafford as Jose Mourinho’s guy. The pair have a bond stronger than most brothers. Hardly a surprise when you consider their respective personalities. Martial, as talented as he is, is not Mourinho’s guy. He is yet to build up the former Chelsea boss’ trust and that counts for a lot in a Jose Mourinho team.

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SOLNA, SWEDEN – JUNE 05: Zlatan Ibrahimovic of Sweden and Andy King of Wales during the international friendly between Sweden and Wales at Friends Arena on June 5, 2016 in Solna, Sweden. (Photo by Mikael Sjoberg/Ombrello/Getty Images)

We have seen talented players such as Romelu Lukaku and Kevin De Bryune suffer and ultimately be exiled due to Mourinho’s lack of faith in their ability. The pair have since gone on to become two of the most sought after talents in world football but it was Mourinho’s show – as it always is.

 

Martial made United tick with his directness and pace down the left hand side giving defenders nightmares. His injury time winner against Everton in the F.A. Cup semi-final was the kind of moment in time which all young sensations have. Will Martial’s effectiveness and boldness on the ball suffer with the demand to cater to Ibrahimovic’s ego?

 

Manchester United fans are excited about the arrival of the legendary Swede and they have a right to be. But for all his goal scoring prowess there are a selection of Red Devils supporters than have forgotten about how much of a prima donna he can be. Edinson Cavani, now settled with life at PSG, once had huge issues having arrived at the club as the most feared striker in Europe following his time at Napoli only to find himself out of position and pandering to Ibrahimovic up front.

 

Ibrahimovic possesses a lifetime of football experience but has never been one to mentor. A man who first and foremost looks after his own interests and expects the rest of the team to fall in line. Such an attitude will shackle United’s French sensation and even if it is only for a year we have seen what a draining of confidence can do. Memphis Depay and Angel Di Maria are perfect examples from within the club.

 

Manchester United have always been a club that have made young superstars the hub of their team. Sir Alex constructed a team around the class of ’92 and later around Ronaldo and Rooney waving in a new age of success. Perhaps that United is well and truly dead and buried as the era of short term success takes over.

 

While Ibrahimovic is the star name – Martial is the longer term option. There has never been a signing more representative of the era Manchester United occupy. A short term signing for short term success.

The Inside Story Of Arsenal Under Wenger: A book review

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It has taken a while for me to finally finish the Arsene Wenger biography written by Daily Mirror Chief Football Writer John Cross. It has not been for the lack of great tales or nostalgia bait but simply due to a hectic schedule. However After powering through the second half of the book in a night and a half here we are, a review of the book at last.

 

While I have read several books centred around Arsenal in the past (see my review of Thierry Henry’s biography Lonely At The Top) This is the first one I’ve read that gave me almost an all access look into press conferences with Wenger, away day journeys to all kinds of places with all manner of interesting tales and tensions behind the scenes. As an aspiring sports journalist myself it was genuinely mind-blowing.

 

I think my biggest take-away from the book was Wenger’s emotion. Having worked in a few sporting environments by now I am well aware that what is said in front of pressing BBC or Sky Sports cameras is not always the prevailing feeling away from the prying eyes. However, throughout the book there are constant tales of Wenger’s emotions playing a part in his press conferences, interviews with the newspapers, his players – past and present, board members and rival managers. Wenger is very much a man who wears his heart on his sleeve. His outbursts on the touchline and in the immediate post match interviews have mellowed in recent years and long gone are the days of explosive scenes and quotes like the ones given in 2005 in response to an interview Sir Alex Ferguson gave with the Independent. Wenger lashed out saying:

I have no diplomatic relations with him. What I don’t understand is that he does what he wants and you [the press] are all at his feet. The managers have a responsibility to protect the game before the game. But in England you are only punished for what you say after the game.

 

There are of course examples of Wenger’s emotion being seen in a joyous occasion and you don’t have to dig far into his Arsenal career archives to find it. When referee Lee Probert sounded off his whistle for the final time at Wembley on Saturday May 17th what washed over Wenger was relief as well as champagne. As Cross put it: “Wenger celebrated like never before. The players tried to soak him in champagne and then almost the entire squad lifted him up and threw him in the air.” His emotions make up a large part of Wenger’s DNA as manager of Arsenal and Cross details the Frenchman’s feelings expertly throughout the biography. When Wenger receives abuse from the stands while he looks oblivious to it all Cross makes it clear that he can hear it and it does hurt him to hear fans react so viciously when things are not going well on the pitch. One emotion that rarely crops up, and is therefore much more noticeable when it does, is anger. The two instances that stick out in the book are when his years at Monaco are explored and in 1993 they were consistently finishing second best to Marseille only for southern France team to be embroiled in a match-fixing scandal. The book details how Wenger felt betrayed by the Marseille hierarchy as well as officials and opposing players too. The other instance, which is chilling to the bone when reading the pages, is that Wenger faced a media storm when rumours about his private life started to circulate. Cross, via an interview with then press officer Clare Tomlinson, recalls how angry Wenger was:

All I remember is his reaction. I remember him going very still, very white. He was furious. It wasn’t like a Fergie red mist – he went white cold, just disgust, and I often wonder how close he was to just going outside, getting in a taxi and going back to Heathrow and giving up.

 

While many managers loath the press the book depicts Wenger as a man who enjoys their company, will crack a joke, offer sharp-tongued quips in response to questions and is even sharp when responding to text messages from more trusted members of the media. Throughout the chapters we see his relationship with the media get increasingly frosty especially when Arsenal and Wenger where under the cosh for: their lack of silverware, his future and big players leaving for rivals. However in his early days as the boss at Arsenal Wenger was often jovial with the media – even after disappointing results. After a 1-1 draw to Middlesbrough in 1998 Cross inserts a Wenger quip: ‘If you eat caviar every day, it’s difficult to return to sausages.’ Such a result today has often prompted the Frenchman to give longwinded answers about togetherness, to keep fighting and so on. Yet in this instance Cross paints the picture of a man who was under no pressure from the fans or media after the wonders he worked with the Gunners in such a short space of time. His caviar vs. sausages comparison is the type of one-liner that became synonymous with Wenger amongst the press however such humour in public dwindled as the years went by, swapped out for answers drawn out of tension or annoyance – especially when being pressed to respond to comments made by one Jose Mourinho. It’s a fantastic look into the mindset of one of the Premier League’s most respected managers.

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Throughout the book Cross writes about Wenger’s interests away from football. Politics, culture and business are all hot topics Wenger enjoys discussing at length and in terms of culture Wenger enjoys engrossing himself in the culture of whichever country he is in. This has been evident since he started managing in England but it was something he learned in his early days the slender, well spoken manager embraced the culture of Japan and what Japanese football brought with it as Cross explains:

Japan seemed to reinvigorated Wenger and, in a rather understated way, seemed to help shape the way he is today. His experience there, the adulation of the fans, helped him realise the importance of embracing the culture of the country you are in, thus preparing him for his transformation into an adopted Englishman.

 

Details of the move to the Emirates has always been well documented in the public eye. Yet what Cross writes so poignantly about is how the move to their new home in 2006 took the best years of Wenger’s managerial career. The book mentions clubs such as Real Madrid, Paris Saint-Germain and Bayern Munich trying to charm Wenger away from the Gunners during their baron spell. How would Wenger’s CV look had he taken one of the no doubt lucrative offers? When reading about the sums of money available, the measures taken to help pay off the £390m stadium and how the stress and boardroom unrest you get a real sense of overachievement on Wenger’s part and in hindsight – while the lack of trophies was an obvious frustration – a top four finish was often a remarkable feat considering the revolving door nature of the squad from 2006. The penny pinching did see Wenger lose out on key targets such as Gary Cahill as Cross explains that in the summer of 2011 when Arsenal refused to pay over six million for the England defender only for Cahill to join arch-rivals Chelsea six months later for just one millions more. Nobody knows what Arsenal’s squad could have looked like and achieved had Wenger been prepared to pay the extra million here and there but finishing fourth under such restrictions has to be seen as a success, to a degree at least, especially as Arsenal’s purse strings were forced to tighten around the same time Chelsea were becoming free spending. According to Cross, former vice-chairman of Arsenal and a close personal friend of Wenger said: “He had arrived, parked his tanks on his lawn and was firing £50 notes.” The expert detail in which Cross delves into Arsenal’s move to the Emirates and their finances paints a real picture of constantly fighting an uphill battle in every transfer window when it came to keeping hold of their star players as well as recruiting.

 

Wenger has always spoken about bringing players through the Arsenal academy. Nurturing young talent and giving them a platform to develop has always been one of Wenger’s top priorities and not just on the pitch but in life. The book articulates Wenger as a father figure who cares about the future of young players away from the football pitch. Cross writes about a Q&A seminar in 2013 while in Japan in which the Arsenal manager answered willingly and insightfully about all things football. When quizzed about nurturing young talent this was his response: “I believe one of the best things about managing people is that we can influence lives in a positive way. That’s basically what a manager is about. When I can do that, I am very happy.” It’s a common thread through the book that Wenger is always striving to win but wants the club to produce players that are not afraid to express themselves and will give any young player the chance if he thinks they are ready.

 

While so many clubs are obsessed by instant success and buying ready made superstars Wenger has moulded Arsenal into a club that will develop not just football players but young men. Throughout the book Cross writes about how Wenger is a very well liked man and how no players ever leave the club on bad terms with him. Such is the nature of Wenger that for many of the young, fragile players – many of them experiencing an entirely new culture for the first time – he doubles up as a father figure to them. Through listening, wisdom and protection from the media Wenger builds strong bonds with budding players who get the ultimate backing from a manger who has the upmost faith in their ability. Perhaps the most written phrase in the entire book is: “He is a very nice man.” Out of the wide range of ex players Cross interviewed about the Arsenal manager it is a common occurrence. This explains why it hurts Wenger even more when he has to sell players such as Cesc Fabregas and Thierry Henry as he developed almost a father-son relationship with them watching them blossom from a rough-round-the-edges, enthusiastic starlet turn into a match winning superstar. 

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There are 389 excellent pages about one of the most complex men ever to grace the Premier League. Themes such as his discomfort when dealing with confrontation thus creating a feeling of disillusionment towards his players are often countered with honest interviews with respected members of Arsenal’s past saying he always made them feel involved and appreciated. While managers will often dictate the nature of half time team talks Wenger is a man who would rarely be heavily involved, often leaving the players to discuss it amongst themselves before delivering a concise message about how they play for the rest of the game. There is much more I could write about the book discussing how Wenger enjoys attending international tournaments and soaking up the culture or how he truly believes in his squad using a sports phycologist but the best tale I can tell is the one I endured of nostalgia, intrigue and remarkable discoveries. Over his 20 years of management we have all seen and got accustomed to Wenger the football manager but Wenger the man is a subject so brilliantly dissected that a much rounder image of the man as a whole is formed. Emotions are a large part of Wenger’s make-up while an unshakeable belief in his player’s and his own ability is what keeps him firmly at the helm of the north London club.