Welcome to The Briefing, where every Monday during this season, The Athletic will discuss three of the biggest questions from the weekend’s football.
This time, Manchester United and Chelsea stumbled again, Barcelona played with flair not seen for some time and Tottenham and Arsenal continued their winning ways to set up an exciting north London derby next Sunday.
Here, we will ask whether Manchester United manager Erik ten Hag is making his own job harder, why Chelsea fans are booing their team so early in a new era and whether Mikel Arteta has a point when he says he wants to rotate his Arsenal goalkeepers.
Is Ten Hag making a near-impossible job even harder?
If you wanted to defend Erik ten Hag, there are plenty of things you could cling to.
His undeniably positive 2022-23 debut season in charge of Manchester United, for example, which brought a trophy and a return to the Champions League places and went about as well as could be realistically expected.
The sheer noise around United is deafening at the best of times, but now even more so with the club’s awful handling of the Mason Greenwood situation, the accusations against Antony, the banishment of Jadon Sancho, fan protests, the ongoing takeover saga: managing an actual football team must be next to impossible amid all of that.
Plus there’s the fact that nobody has been able to make sense of United since Alex Ferguson retired in 2013: David Moyes, Louis van Gaal, Jose Mourinho, Ole Gunnar Solskjaer, Ralf Rangnick and Ten Hag have conjured four trophies, two second-place finishes and no convincing title challenges between them in the past decade. Who could succeed when the club is set up as it is, with at best unconvincing leadership from on-high and apathetic owners currently dithering about whether they want to sell?
All of those mitigating factors have to be taken into account when judging the job that Ten Hag is doing.
But boy oh boy, he doesn’t help himself sometimes. Especially with some of the stuff he says in public.
Take his comment, after being convincingly beaten 3-1 at home by Brighton on Saturday that the visitors “spend money too” when the cost of his squad was put to him.
Maybe he wasn’t across the exact cost of the respective starting XIs, but even if he didn’t know that Brighton’s was assembled for around ?18million, which is less than United paid for Diogo Dalot alone, he will have known the disparity was stark and that by drawing attention to it he made himself look ridiculous.
Then we can go back to after the Arsenal defeat at the start of this month, when he bemoaned the use of the “wrong camera angle” to determine an offside call that went against Alejandro Garnacho, as if that had anything to do with how offside is judged.
And with Sancho: some say he was simply giving a straight answer to a question when he was asked why the England winger wasn’t in the squad for that Arsenal game, that some Dutch people have a reputation for directness and even bluntness. Dutch he may be, but Ten Hag is not an idiot: he must have known that being critical of an individual player in public would lead to problems.
There are other examples, including trying to claim United had actually played well against Brighton, which was at best an optimistic appraisal of the game.
Ten Hag has an incredibly difficult job. Close to impossible, you could say. But he’s making it harder for himself than he needs to.
Erik ten Hag's Manchester United are no longer improving
Are Chelsea fans conditioned to be impatient?
For the second game in a row, in just their fifth match of the season, Chelsea were booed off at the end of their 0-0 draw away to Bournemouth on Sunday.
This wasn’t just internet malcontents, this was the hardcore, the travelling support, the few who have been able to get an away ticket at the smallest ground in the Premier League (yes, it is marginally smaller than Luton’s Kenilworth Road).
The instinct is to recoil, to think Chelsea didn’t even lose against a decent Bournemouth team and weren’t that bad. Not good, but not awful either.
This is a team still getting used to each other, put together over three transfer windows by an investor who has recruited financial assets first and footballers second. It is also a squad with so many injuries that only three of their nine substitutes had made a senior appearance for the club, two of whom are left-backs and the other is Cole Palmer, with a whole 28 minutes to his name in Chelsea colours.
Surely some patience is required. Surely it must be counter-productive to get so quickly on the back of a new manager who has been given a mammoth task, even considering the money spent on the players at his disposal. Surely there’s some recognition that this is a ‘project’, which will need time.
But then you realise that Chelsea fans aren’t really conditioned for circumstances like this.
Since Roman Abramovich arrived in 2003, their permanent managers have essentially fallen into two categories: 1) the ones that won something pretty quickly, and 2) the ones that lasted about five minutes.
Jose Mourinho (Version 1.0) won the Premier League in each of his first two seasons; Luiz Felipe Scolari was sacked in the February of his only season; Carlo Ancelotti won the double in his first season; Andre Villas-Boas was sacked in the March of his only season; Roberto Di Matteo won the Champions League in interim charge, was then made permanent manager that summer but was gone by the November.
Jose Mourinho (Version 2.0) won the Premier League in his second season; Antonio Conte won the Premier League in his first season; Maurizio Sarri won the Europa League in his only season, but still had to listen to his own fans sing “F*** Sarriball”; Frank Lampard was a bit of an outlier, afforded a little more patience because of his status as a playing great for the club and the circumstances; Thomas Tuchel won the Champions League after five months in charge, then added the Club World Cup the following season, but was gone seven months after the latter; Graham Potter lasted seven months.
All of which to say is that Chelsea fans have essentially been conditioned to expect either rapid success or swift action. For the past 20 years, it’s all they have known. They are Pavlov’s football fans, instinctively reacting negatively to adversity.
A harsher interpretation is that they’ve become entitled, spoiled by success, devoid of patience and unable to accept anything else. But it’s not really their fault. They are a product of their environment.
Maybe this is a little patronising. Maybe these fans are just tired of their team being bad, having been bad for over a year. Chelsea have won just six games in 2023: against Leeds (later relegated), Leicester (ditto), Borussia Dortmund (fair enough), Crystal Palace (in the middle of their latter-Patrick-Vieira-era funk), Luton (newly promoted) and AFC Wimbledon (League Two).
But even if that was true, given the club’s immediate history, it’s hardly a surprise that this was the reaction.
Is Arteta a disruptor genius or a needless fiddler?
“I am a really young manager. I only have been three and a half years in the job and I have few regrets. One of them is that on two occasions I felt, after 60 minutes and after 85 minutes, in two games in this period, to change the ’keeper and I didn’t do it. I didn’t have the courage to do it… I was so unhappy.
“Tell me, why not do it? Why not? We have all the qualities in another goalkeeper to do something, something is happening and you want to change momentum. Do it. It is a regret that I had. And now my feeling is to get everyone engaged and in the team, they have to play, regardless of the competition. That is my message.”
It’s a great answer in theory.
Arteta seems to be positioning himself as a great disruptor, someone going against the orthodoxy that says you must have a first-choice goalkeeper and a clear backup, that two ’keepers fighting for one spot week to week simply won’t work, because it’s never worked in the game before.
It’s fascinating, looking from the outside, to consider whether this is going to be a success.
Is Arteta a brilliant innovative thinker, spotting a thing nobody else has and taking advantage of everyone else’s old-fashioned attitudes? Or is he a needless fiddler, changing something for the sake of changing it, not stopping to think that conventional wisdom might actually be right, that the reason barely anyone else has done this is because it actually doesn’t work?
Essentially: is he Steve Jobs, the brains behind Apple and any number of devices you probably own that have changed the way you live your lives? Or is he a far more harmless and likeable version of Sam Bankman-Fried, the crypto investor who people thought would change the world but who is about to go on trial for fraud and who recently described himself as “one of the most hated people in the world”?
Maybe it will work, maybe it won’t.
Those of us who aren’t Arsenal fans have the luxury of just being able to sit back and watch.
- There’s one more Premier League game, as Nottingham Forest host Burnley tonight (Monday).
- But the really juicy stuff starts on Tuesday, with the return of the Champions League. Newcastle return to the big dance for the first time in two decades, as they travel to an AC Milan side fresh from Saturday’s 5-1 spanking at the hands of rivals Inter. Other ties include Paris Saint-Germain hosting Borussia Dortmund, Lazio vs Atletico Madrid, Feyenoord vs Celtic and Manchester City starting their defence at home to Red Star Belgrade.
- On Wednesday, it’s the most legacy of all the legacy Champions League rivalries, with Manchester United heading to Germany to play Bayern Munich and see if they have better luck against Harry Kane than they did when facing Danny Welbeck on Saturday. Arsenal start at home against PSV Eindhoven, Real Madrid play newcomers Union Berlin and Inter face a trip to Real Sociedad.
- Want some more Euro action? You got it, with the Europa League also back. Thursday sees Liverpool start their campaign in Austria against LASK, West Ham are at home to Serbian side Backa Topola and Brighton start their big continental adventure by welcoming AEK Athens.
- And there’s more! The 2023-24 Europa Conference League also kicks off on Wednesday, the sole fixture that evening being Lille against Slovenia’s Olimpija Ljubljana, but the following evening, Aston Villa kick things off with a trip to Legia Warsaw, while if you prefer your football a little more niche, Fenerbahce vs Nordsjaelland could be interesting, as might Genk against Fiorentina and Eintracht Frankfurt at home to Aberdeen.
(Top photos: Getty Images)