Hello, and welcome back to another edition of Tactically Naive, SB Nation’s weekly soccer column. These Monday evening fixtures are really playing havoc with our schedule.
On the overwhelming pointlessness of West Ham
Thanks to some unusually vigorous weather patterns, the angry squalls of a dying planet, West Ham found themselves in an uncomfortable spot. Having to play one of the best teams in the country is an unfortunate necessity, whenever it happens. Having to play them both in a week is verging on the sadistic.
To keep things fresh and exciting, West Ham went at the games in different ways. Against City they set out their stall to do nothing much of anything, seeming to reject the very idea of participation. They were defensive to the point of parody, they were limp, and at times they were barely present at all. They were defeatist, and they were defeated.
Against Liverpool, by contrast, they were pretty sparky. There was an energy and an application about them. And they even scored. Twice. For 14 minutes, they led the undefeated runaway leaders. There was just enough time for Arsenal fans to get their hopes up — maybe the Invincibles are safe! — before former Arsenal goalkeeper Łukasz Fabiański Arsenalled the ball between his own legs for the equaliser.
Shortly afterwards, Liverpool took the lead, and kept it. West Ham played pretty well! And still, they were defeated.
There is nothing surprising about the results, of course. First and second in the Premier League should generally be beating the relegation strugglers, and West Ham are having one of those seasons again. But taking both games together, Tactically Naive — and we may, of course, be overthinking things — found the whole process mildly depressing. And not just because Felipe Anderson is a gorgeous footballer who deserves better.
Let’s say that there are two ways in which the statement “anybody can beat anybody” can be true. The first is banal and not particularly interesting: if Liverpool don’t turn up, their opponents might nick it. And the second is far more engaging: both teams have the capacity to overcome the other even if the other plays well.
Obviously the second can only be true to a certain extent: if both teams play well, the better team will tend to win more often than not. That’s part of the point; that’s why, every year, we spend all this time watching these teams sort themselves into ranking order. And perhaps one could argue that all against-the-odds victories hinge to a certain extent on the better team not turning up.
Yet watching West Ham play badly and lose, and then play quite well and lose, Tactically Naive didn’t feel for any second as though the outcomes of either game was anything much to do with West Ham.
Good to see people criticising a team selection for West Ham away to Liverpool as if there was ever a way to materially affect the result
— Tom Victor (@tomvictor) February 24, 2020
To watch West Ham play Liverpool, then — to watch any not-currently-in-crisis superclub play any normal team — is, in fact, to watch Liverpool play against Liverpool, while West Ham hang around nearby hoping to pick up any points that Liverpool might deny Liverpool. If Liverpool get their game going, they win. Even if it takes them a while.
And of course Liverpool are very good at getting their game going, for they have a brilliant squad overseen by a wonderful manager, all brought together by intelligent, forward-thinking club operatives. None of that is true of West Ham.
Liverpool’s giant lead notwithstanding, this has actually been a pretty good season for aristocratic nose-tweaking. Spurs, United, Arsenal, and Chelsea have all looked delightfully un-super at various points. Even City have deigned to hit themselves in the face from time to time. But these are errors, and vast amounts of effort and money are being directed towards correcting them.
For games like this are the end-point of the superclub logic that has captured the very top of the game. It’s not just about winning. It’s about rendering two-sided games one-sided; about extending the gap between teams to such an extent that one side cannot possibly reach across it. And then offering up the Champions League as compensation.
A brief and heavily-qualified defence of José Mourinho
Tottenham lost again. Except, when a club hires Mourinho as manager, they don’t lose any more. He becomes the club; the club is swallowed by him.
So: Mourinho lost again. A 2-1 defeat at Chelsea, which must have stung, to go with last week’s limp 0-1 loss at home to Red Bull Leipzig. And circumstance is conspiring to make him look silly: for a manager of his naturally conservative instincts to end up with no fit strikers is … well, it’s almost sarcastic.
Obviously, all Spurs’ bad results — as with Mourinho’s Manchester United missteps before them — can be incorporated into the ongoing carnival of Mourinho Mockery that we all know and love. Look at the fool, look at his low block. Bet he thinks pressing is something you do to a shirt. The man’s a dinosaur. Call yourself Special? Shave your head all you want, mate, you’ll never be Pep.
And so on.
Maybe we’re going soft in our old age, but this seems a little harsh. He’s had the job a shade over three months, and in that time he’s already ticked off his two main goals for the year: stop whatever the hell was going wrong under Mauricio Pochettino, and get back into the European conversation. Even without injuries, he’d be on the way to a job done; with them, it looks pretty decent going. Going into the Chelsea game, Mourinho’s Spurs had taken 26 points from his 14 games in charge. Lampard’s Chelsea, over the same stretch, had only picked up 18.
In any case, the managerial ranking tier below Special isn’t Clatteringly Useless. It’s something like Good, or Fine. Or maybe Pretty Useful in Certain Circumstances. That’s what Tottenham needed, and that’s what they’ve apparently got. So we can save the Mourinho is a Dinosaur stuff for next season, when he’s got a full-strength squad that’s he had all summer, but he’s still playing football in the style of a migraine.
And perhaps there’s a story hidden in Spurs’ January signings. Stephen Bergwijn, aged 22. Giovani Lo Celso, aged 23, on a permanent deal arranged before Mourinho’s arrival. The total and complete absence of Nemanja Matić. We might not be able to see beyond Mourinho’s glowering presence, but Tottenham’s squad already looks like it’s being prepared for the next manager along.