Chelsea enter crisis mode to leave Frank Lampard's job on the line, but Pogba is back — The Warm-Up
Chelsea were made to look extremely ordinary by Manchester City, leaving Frank Lamard in a little spot of bother gvien their terrible form in recent weeks, but a Paul Pogba-inspired Manchester United are back on top (nearly). And in Scotland, Rangers are almost out of sight after a hugely consequential Old Firm at the weekend...
Frank Lampard of Chelsea during a press conference at Chelsea Training Ground
All change in the Premier League. Arsenal are officially good again: they've won a couple of games in a row, they've scored some nice goals, Kieran Tierney is the Scottish Roberto Carlos. Congratulations to them, and commiserations to Chelsea, who take over as the Premier League's official Big Club in Trouble.
This, incidentally, is why the Premier League has a Big Six. It seems greedy and excessive, but it ensures that Crisis is permanent: that at least one of the Big Teams is a mess at any given point.
Chelsea's mess is an odd one: it's not that long since Frank Lampard was modestly deadbatting questions about a title challenge. But there's a definite theme emerging, an inability to mix it with anyone good. Or even half-decent. 19 points against the bottom half of the table; just seven, and only one win, against the top half.
Lampard: ‘Chelsea have to take some pain to get where we want’
Any rebuild takes pain, and I speak for other managers. I remember Pep Guardiola went through it in his first year at City, and now we know their story. You only build through fight and character.
Lampard was quick to add that he wasn't comparing his club to City or Liverpool but, well, he definitely was. We all heard him. And that comparison rather falls down is that both Pep Guardiola and Jurgen Klopp could buy time with silverware. Lampard's managerial CV is short and thin. More of a post-it note, really.
And while Timo Werner's goalless run and the problems of integrating Kai Havertz are eye-catching, this latest defeat came up the other end, as an experimental City line-up embarrassed Chelsea's defence: static for the second goal, and completely missing from their own half of the pitch for the third. Organisation, positioning, not all getting caught upfield at the same time … that kind of thing tends to end up at the manager's door.
Honestly, it must be terrifying, managing Chelsea. You know that your owner once sacked Avram Grant, a close personal friend, just months after he took the team to a Champions League final. Lampard is right: it takes time to knit any squad, however expensive and expansively talented, into a cohesive and functional whole. But the case for him being the man to get that time remains open.
Paul Pogba of Manchester United looks on during the Premier League match between Manchester United and Aston Villa at Old Trafford
Image credit: Getty Images
What an odd season we're having. It doesn't seem that long since Manchester United were themselves labouring with the Crisis hanging over their heads. Now look at them. Second place, by which of course we mean joint first. Medals all round!
Can we call this a title challenge? It's certainly starting to feel like one. United are unbeaten in ten league games now, and while they haven't always been devastating in that time, except at Leeds' generous invitation, they have been finding ways to get things done. An obdurate, professionally tedious draw against City. A late, scabby winner against Wolves. And now a thoroughly decent win over Aston Villa.
Even more excitingly, Paul Pogba appears to be good again. Solskjaer seems to pick a bespoke midfield for every game — who gets to play with Bruno Fernandes today? — and the Frenchman isn't going to start every game. But he's been effective coming off the bench and was the best player on the park for all 90 minutes against Villa. Obviously, this being Pogba, everybody's ignoring that in favour of an argument about his conduct. Did he dive? Did he tell Luke Shaw to dive? Such are the wages of celebrity.
‘Good position to be in’ - Solskjaer 'very happy' as United join Liverpool at top
As is so often the case these last few seasons, Pogba is emblematic of the general state of things. Visibly debilitated by his bout of Covid, and with his agent making unhelpful noises off-stage, it would have been easy for United to ease him out of the side. Nobody would have blamed the manager. But instead he's been brought back into the first-team, on the quite reasonable grounds that there are things he can do with a football that nobody else in this team can.
And if United do have a good season, then Pogba's reintegration and resurgence might well end up representing the whole project. United aren't a perfect football team in any part of the pitch — except wherever Bruno is foraging — and they're going to look silly at a few points between now and the end of the season. But they do, at least, look like a group of footballers that are invested in themselves and each other. It's the paradox of the comeback: a team only needs one when they've made a mess of things, but a team that can manage them is far, far better than one that can't.
McGregor Holds Firm
Get it? Holds firm? Old Firm? Oh, fine. Suit yourself.
For most of the season, Rangers have been clearly and obviously better than Celtic. But for an hour or so on Saturday, this was not the case. Celtic began the Old Firm derby the better team, and Rangers wobbled, just a little bit.
In such circumstances, you need a goalkeeper like Allan McGregor. "World class," according to Steven Gerrard. "[expletive deleted] annoying," according to Neil Lennon, we assume, although he didn't actually say so. At least not into a microphone.
Games behind closed doors are good if you want to listen to goalkeepers shouting, and McGregor barked, harangued, and cajoled his team through the first half. He also told the referee that his best save, from Leigh Griffiths, wasn't a save at all, in a futile bid to save a corner. True heroes are driven by modesty.
Then Celtic's Nir Britton wrapped his arms around Alfredo Morelos and dragged him to the ground. Whether a clear goalscoring opportunity or not, we can all agree that it was definitely really stupid. Rangers goal arrived shortly afterwards and that was that: a nineteen point gap at the top of the table. Even with Celtic's three games in hand, it's going to take a lot of "This does not slip" gags to bridge that.
IN OTHER NEWS
Can't think why more goalkeepers don't go for the flying kick technique when it comes to penalties. Looks a lot more fun than the usual method of diving the wrong way, then feeling sad.
Just watch this:
Puskas winner 2021? Watch Nadiem Amiri's stunning goal for Leverkusen
It's been 26 years since Alex Ferguson took Manchester United to Anfield, watched his side take a 3-0 lead, and then watched his side throw that 3-0 lead away. Pure Barclays avant la lettre, and some decent goals, too, if you like that sort of thing. The Ryan Giggs running scoop is particularly delightful.
Social media notoriety may even affect what goes on on the pitch. One player now in the Premier League is rumoured earlier in his career to have performed skilful tricks during matches with the aim of going viral online, hoping to increase his value and eventually secure a move to a bigger club.
Liverpool head to Southampton tonight, for the Virgil Van Dijk Sadio Mané Danny Ings Probably Somebody Else We've Forgotten Grudge Match. Somebody's changing sides at half-time.
Marcus Foley knows exactly how to get Timo Werner scoring again, but he's not telling. He will, however, be here with the Warm-Up tomorrow.