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The real Ted Lasso: Inside an ex-NFL player's madcap stint in English soccer

Before Ted Lasso, there was Terry Smith. And English soccer’s first American owner appeared to have a Lasso-esque plan ready to roll on day one.

But, as Kevin Ratcliffe, then-manager of Chester City, explained to theScore, there was one problem: Smith didn’t have a clue about soccer.

Smith, a former backup for the NFL’s New England Patriots, plunged into the world of soccer when he bought debt-riddled Chester City in 1999. He spent more time at the fourth-tier team’s training sessions than in his office, filling his notepad while he inquired about the purpose of certain drills.

Ratcliffe was mulling over a season-opening defeat to Barnet in the guts of the club’s Deva Stadium when Smith’s father Gerald – reportedly a key source of financing for the takeover – asked him for the whereabouts of someone named Keith.

“I said, ‘Keith who?’ He says, ‘Keith, the manager,'” Ratcliffe told theScore.

Ratcliffe thought quickly and mischievously directed Gerald to the dressing room for “Keith.” The turn of events bought the actual manager a few more hours until he met the Smiths the following morning.

A former defender who captained Everton during their greatest era, Ratcliffe felt “brain-dead” after that fateful meeting with Terry Smith and Gerald Smith. Ratcliffe irritated the younger Smith when he tried to excuse himself after four hours to spend time with his family on his day off.

“He got this scruffiest bit of paper that I’ve ever seen,” Ratcliffe described, “flattened it out, and proceeded to write on it. He gave it to me and it was a written warning.”

Ratcliffe was already plotting his exit from the club, a process that included him safeguarding players’ immediate futures with new contracts. The face-to-face encounter simply hastened his departure. He resigned shortly after the start of the 1999-2000 season, ending his first managerial role after over four years.

“If he was on fire on the other side of the road, I’d go and throw a log on him,” Ratcliffe said of Terry Smith.

Over his head

Chester City were on life support under their previous owner. Ratcliffe covered a £5,000 bill in 1998 to turn the stadium’s water back on and allow a friendly match to go ahead. He paid himself back with the gate receipts.

Former manager Kevin Ratcliffe Michael Steele – EMPICS / PA Images / Getty

Darren Moss made his debut at 16 due to his obvious talent, but also, he suspects, because he was a cheap first-team option when his youth contract weighed in at just £42.50 a week.

The state of the club’s finances and the rather antiquated state of banking around the turn of millennia combined for a Mario Kart-style dash every payday.

“We’d get a cheque from the office after training and we’d all race down to the club’s bank branch in the middle of the town center so that we could make sure that you weren’t the last person,” ex-Chester midfielder Nick Richardson recalled. “Whoever was last one there might not have got paid.”

For Smith to deliver his ambitious promise of First Division football, he needed to ensure the club was on surer financial footing. Dan Brooks – a linebacker for one of the successful teams Smith coached in the UK’s American football circuit – was at a loose end in his native Canada when Smith invited him “to come and participate” in the Chester project.

“I marketed American football in a country where it really was not a priority. We had some success with that,” Brooks explained of his experience before he was named Chester’s commercial director. He also noted his position of marketing director for Frontierland, a theme park in the British seaside town of Morecambe that ceased operations in 2000.

Despite the off-field uncertainty, Smith was a regular fixture in training from the beginning. Ratcliffe claims Smith was going over his head to dictate when training started and finished even before his takeover of the club was ratified, and the owner was regularly inviting out-of-contract footballers to try out at Chester’s base.

“It was every week you’d get somebody come through the door,” Moss said. “You’d be like, ‘Fucking hell, who’s this now?’ And they’d be dreadful.”

Ratcliffe remembered an Icelandic trialist who Smith claimed could whip in dangerous crosses, was strong in the air, and was a good finisher.

“I’m thinking, ‘What’s he doing at Chester if he’s got all these qualities?'” Ratcliffe quipped.

Somewhat predictability, the trialist failed at Ratcliffe’s basic crossing, heading, and shooting drills while the rest of the squad went through its workouts nearby. Shaun Reid, the younger brother of then-Sunderland boss Peter Reid, watched in disbelief, and delivered a line which riffed on the trialist’s home nation sharing a name with a British discount frozen-food chain.

“Shaun shouted over to me, ‘So, gaffer. We got the lad in from Iceland, when’s the lad from Kwik Save coming in?'” Ratcliffe laughed. “(The joke) was right over Terry’s head.”

Shaun Reid Neal Simpson – EMPICS / PA Images / Getty

The Icelander’s unfortunate audition is one of Ratcliffe’s many tales of Smith’s transfer dealings. Ratcliffe says Smith signed an amateur player but paid him so little that he struggled to cover the one-hour round trip to training, while one American trialist had to stay the night at a local policeman’s house when Smith reneged on a contract offer and abruptly ended the player’s hotel reservation.

Smith also apparently decided to sanction the £10,000 sale of Andy Crosby to Brighton & Hove Albion. Ratcliffe said he’d recently rejected an offer worth twice that amount from Brighton.

“His face just turned blue,” Ratcliffe recalled of showing Smith the £20,000 bid he received via fax. “It just shows you, if you’re not conversing with your manager, you’re on a slippery slope.”

Ratcliffe thinks Brighton went behind his back because “they knew the state of the club.”

‘He’s going berserk’

Smith sensationally succeeded Ratcliffe at the team’s helm, trusting what he’d learned from around two months at the club’s training ground.

“All coaching is 90% the same, regardless of the sport,” Smith is widely quoted as saying after he assumed his self-assigned role.

“He loved to be in control of everything; hands-on with every single thing. I’d describe him as a bit of a control freak,” ex-player Moss shared.

Smith didn’t seem to use much of what he observed at Ratcliffe’s sessions.

“When Terry came in, the actual focus then shifted from 80% football and 20% set-pieces to 80% set-pieces and 20% football,” former midfielder Richardson estimated. Players would wear numerous layers to contend with the increased hours of standing around in the wet English weather.

It wasn’t only the strong set-play focus that harkened back to Smith’s American football roots. Moss said they played 11-v-11 gridiron in one session, where they threw the ball into the net instead of completing touchdowns. In an effort to boost leadership, Smith elected three captains: one each for defense, midfield, and attack. He also introduced prematch renditions of the Lord’s Prayer – a ritual that would be unique in any British sport.

Brooks, Smith’s marketing man, credits his friend as the most prepared coach he encountered during his American football career, and Chester’s unlikely manager was similarly meticulous in soccer. Moss remembered Smith would leave dossiers under each player’s hanger ahead of a match, with details such as set-piece positioning and information on opponents included. Moss said he and his teammates understood Smith worked long hours to prepare the personalized playbooks.

Steve Morton – EMPICS / PA Images / Getty

Smith’s competitiveness was undeniable and spilled over into him testing his strengths against those of his players. Richardson said there were a few gym sessions when Smith challenged the squad to lift a “fantastical weight,” but it would invariably turn into the players watching as Smith outdid everyone on the bench press.

“The bar would be bending,” Moss added. “He was a strong fella, to be fair.”

But aspects of Smith’s management clashed with his will to win.

He was disorganized for someone who tried to fill many roles. Martin Nash, the younger brother of two-time NBA MVP Steve Nash, was briefly on the club’s books and remembers there being “shit everywhere” in Smith’s car. Numerous people mentioned Smith’s office was seldom used and full of unopened letters.

And though the players were given little excuse to lapse on their set-piece routines, the nutritional preparation for games was counterproductive. There are accounts of McDonald’s, pizza, and cookies eaten as prematch meals, while Richardson remembered beans on toast at a greasy cafe under the highway before a 5-0 cup loss at top-tier Aston Villa.

The passionate yet rudderless nature of Smith’s regime didn’t foster respect among the squad. He became a bit of a laughing stock.

Moss describes an incident when someone locked Smith in the gym for an extended period.

“The groundsman heard him banging and came back over to get the keys,” Moss said. “He said, ‘You’re gonna have to get him out. He’s going berserk!’ I just remember Smith coming out and being red-faced – he was fuming. But he didn’t know who (locked him in), so he couldn’t put it on anyone.

Another unidentified player slashed Smith’s tires, and Richardson said defender Ally Pickering’s slapstick impersonation of the manager was a popular dressing-room act.

The poor relations between Smith and his players were unsustainable as the team sunk further into trouble.

‘He ran out of the dressing room’

Smith eventually relinquished the reins in January 2000 amid heavy pressure from supporters, after one win, one draw, and eight losses over their previous 10 outings. He expressed disappointment at how certain players and backroom staff let him take the blame for Chester being rooted the bottom of England’s professional pyramid, two points adrift of safety.

Ian Atkins – a manager with a strong lower-league resume – was given the unenviable task of trying to keep Chester City afloat under the guise of director of football.

Ian Atkins Steve Morton – EMPICS / PA Images / Getty

“You were a manager because you ran the team, but Terry wanted that title as a manager,” Atkins told theScore.

The job title didn’t matter to Atkins. Smith assured him he would be in control of the senior side, and Atkins subsequently oversaw a swift squad overhaul with the support of assistant manager Gary Shelton and well-connected physio Joe Hinnigan. Some players were discarded and seasoned professionals were brought in. The tactical approach became more pragmatic.

Smith still wanted to be involved, though. He preferred to sit in the dugout alongside his coaching staff for matches, and he liked to warm up the goalkeeper before kickoff – even though Smith was often wearing a suit.

“Browny would take the piss,” Moss said of his former club colleague Wayne Brown. “Browny would be in goal lashing balls so Terry would have to run after them. Rather than playing them back to (Smith’s) feet, he’d zip them in, so he’d miscontrol it. He’d be collecting balls out the stands from the fans.”

But Atkins’ approach worked. An embarrassing 7-1 home loss to Brighton & Hove Albion in late February sparked a run of five wins and four draws in 12 matches, a spell in which Chester conceded only eight goals. Their fine springtime results remarkably put the Blues on course to avoid relegation on the final day of the season, but Smith was apparently unimpressed with the team’s style of play.

“We were having less possession than the opposition but winning,” Atkins said. “He couldn’t believe that his team were playing so open and having a lot more touches and attacking, but getting walloped every week.”

“He loathed the fact that people were giving me credit, Joe and Shelts credit, and the players credit,” Atkins added.

In the end, the upturn in results wasn’t enough. Chester City were relegated, plummeting out of England’s professional leagues for the first time in 69 years.

A lot conspired against them. One of Chester’s players decided to join the Trinidad & Tobago squad instead of playing in his club’s decisive final-day fixture. On the eve of that same match, another player was imprisoned for his alleged involvement in a fight outside a nightclub.

Meanwhile, Ratcliffe, the former manager now in charge of Shrewsbury, was seeking £200,000 in compensation from Chester.

And it was Ratcliffe’s Shrewsbury who won on the final day, securing their Division Three status while Chester lost theirs.

“It was a great feeling for me in one way, but a sad feeling in another,” Ratcliffe reflected. “Chester meant a lot to me.”

Ratcliffe celebrates a Shrewsbury goal Laurence Griffiths / Getty Images Sport / Getty

The crestfallen Chester players took exception when Smith tried to offer his post-match thoughts.

“In the dressing room after the game, he started to pipe up and a couple of the lads went for him,” Atkins said. “He ran out of the dressing room door and I’ve never seen him again.”

Atkins was already a popular figure with supporters and could’ve committed for another year with Chester, but felt he couldn’t match his ambitions when Smith handled the club’s operations. Graham Barrow, who was a fan favorite from his earlier stints as a player and a manager at Chester, was brought in to succeed Atkins, but Smith’s regime was already disintegrating.

Brooks is unsure what levels of abuse Smith dealt with from some fans. But the former commercial director told theScore that even he was in the firing line, as hosting press conferences and meetings with supporters had effectively made him “a secondary face of the organization.”

“I would get calls and people would be threatening my life and telling me to go home,” said Brooks, adding that a window was smashed at his house following the club’s relegation.

“I was looking over my shoulder. The threats and intimidation weighed heavily on me. I take things personally. I don’t have as thick a skin as some people … I didn’t know if (the threats) were going to be followed through or not.”

Brooks had an agreement with Smith that gave him an option to leave at the end of his first season, and he snatched at the opportunity. Smith himself was looking to take off when Chester were consigned to non-league football, with Brooks helping arrange meetings with potential buyers.

David Rawcliffe – EMPICS / PA Images / Getty

Smith eventually sold the club in October 2001 to Stephen Vaughan, a boxing promoter with links to infamous Liverpool gangsters. Vaughan was jailed for assaulting a police officer in 2013.

Chester City went bust in 2010, three years prior to Vaughan’s conviction, but a supporters’ group launched phoenix outfit Chester Football Club later that year. They now play in the sixth tier of England’s soccer ladder and protect themselves from shady investors by only inviting those who believe in the “ethos and the history of our club” to join the supporter-led ownership group.

Smith’s missteps, and those made by the owners that preceded and succeeded the American, can’t be made again.

“He didn’t realize what football meant to Chester City and the supporters. It was about him. Really, it was about him,” Atkins concluded. “He didn’t know football. He didn’t know anything about the club. He didn’t know anything whatsoever about players, how to win games of football.

“He didn’t know anything.”

Copyright © 2021 Score Media Ventures Inc. All rights reserved. Certain content reproduced under license.

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Premier League

Best images from Sunday's snowy Premier League action

Heavy snowfall blanketed northern England on Sunday, creating wintry conditions for a trio of Premier League matches. Here’s a look at some of the best images from a picturesque day in England’s top flight:

Burnley vs. Tottenham Hotspur

This one never even got started, as the adverse weather forced a postponement of Burnley’s contest with Tottenham. It’s no surprise considering the state of Turf Moor.

There’s a football pitch under there somewhere – we think:

Simon Stacpoole/Offside / Offside / Getty

Some Tottenham players made the most of the situation with a snowball fight:

Simon Stacpoole/Offside / Offside / Getty

This fan was bundled and ready for the action, blizzard be damned:

Stu Forster / Getty Images Sport / Getty

Sadly, there was no cameo from the iconic orange balls:

Robbie Jay Barratt – AMA / Getty Images Sport / Getty

Leicester City vs. Watford

Leicester’s 4-2 victory over Watford began like any other contest – the field was actually green – but the scene eventually resembled a winter wonderland.

As is always the case in these situations, members of the grounds crew were the heroes:

Richard Heathcote / Getty Images Sport / Getty

Perhaps they should have kept the sprinklers off for this one:

Tim Goode – PA Images / PA Images / Getty

Manchester City vs. West Ham United

Manchester City claimed a 2-1 win over West Ham at the Etihad Stadium, overcoming both the conditions and the dangerous Hammers.

Marking Pep Guardiola’s attackers is already difficult, but the weather rendered City’s home kits nearly indistinguishable:

Alex Livesey / Getty Images Sport / Getty

A more cohesive unit: Manchester City in full flight, or the club’s groundskeepers?

Alex Livesey / Getty Images Sport / Getty

Spare a thought for the goalkeepers in today’s snow-filled games; they don’t get to run around and stay warm like their outfield peers:

Tom Flathers / Manchester City FC / Getty

Copyright © 2021 Score Media Ventures Inc. All rights reserved. Certain content reproduced under license.

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Premier League

10 thoughts from the weekend's Premier League action

theScore examines the most important Premier League developments from the weekend, dissecting the biggest talking points after a busy slate of action.

Chelsea’s marauding defenders wreak havoc

Chelsea didn’t need a full squad to produce a complete 3-0 shellacking of Leicester City on Saturday. Even with Romelu Lukaku out, Timo Werner watching on as an unused substitute, and Hakim Ziyech and Christian Pulisic starting on the bench, the Blues produced enough chances to more than double their score.

That’s because Thomas Tuchel has coached a system and style of play that relies not just on one player but the entire collective. Tuchel also tasks his defenders with pushing forward and joining the attack. The wing-backs look like de facto wingers out there, almost creating a front five when they enter the opposing half. We’ve seen Pep Guardiola’s Manchester City operate with so-called inverted full-backs, and Chelsea are pulling off something similar. Reece James and Ben Chilwell routinely find themselves in the final third and even in the penalty area.

On Saturday, James had more touches in the 18-yard box than Jamie Vardy, and Chilwell created more chances than any of his teammates. Trevoh Chalobah, one of Chelsea’s three center-backs, progressed the ball up the field like a midfielder, and Antonio Rudiger scored off another set piece. Chelsea’s defense is so prolific due to Tuchel’s aggressive tactics.

Leicester regressing under Rodgers

Leicester slid into the bottom half of the table with Saturday’s dismal showing, and the fans let them have it. All the goodwill manager Brendan Rodgers had going for him seems to be evaporating.

It feels very much like the beginning of the end.

The stats read like an obituary: with one clean sheet in 17 league matches and just two wins out of six at home, the Foxes look nothing like the high-pressing, all-action side Rodgers unleashed in his first few months in charge. Vardy’s struggling to run off the shoulders of defenders as he usually does, and the midfielders are completely capitulating ground to their opponents. Jonny Evans, an otherwise sturdy presence since joining the club in 2018, can’t possibly mistime any more tackles without getting a red card, and Caglar Soyuncu has offered futile resistance to onrushing opponents.

Mike Egerton – PA Images / PA Images / Getty

Youri Tielemans’ absence certainly took a toll on Saturday – it was the first time he missed a Premier League fixture in nearly two years – as his teammates couldn’t cover the cracks. Chelsea had tons of space whenever they ventured forward, and their long balls over the top forced Leicester’s slower defenders into foot races that showed them up.

It was also peculiar to see Patson Daka – Leicester’s young livewire and author of four goals in last month’s Europa League match at Spartak Moscow – sitting on the bench alongside the club’s No. 10, James Maddison, while Marc Albrighton started in the year 2021.

Solskjaer’s firing long in the making

Nothing was going to save Ole Gunnar Solskjaer this time around, no last-minute push for an equalizer to salvage this lost cause. Last month’s 5-0 capitulation to Liverpool was embarrassing, the 2-0 loss to Manchester City humiliating, but Saturday’s listless 4-1 defeat to Watford was perhaps the worst of all. Watford had scored just twice in their previous five home fixtures, but the goals came easy against Manchester United, who conceded chance after chance to their relegation-threatened opponent.

Afterward, the Norwegian held up his hands to the traveling supporters in the corner of Vicarage Road, apologizing for his team’s lethargic display. Midfielder Bruno Fernandes insisted Solskjaer wasn’t to blame. But many of the problems that plagued the team in recent months – the lack of cohesion, the absence of a game plan, the shortcomings in defense – had resurfaced. The manager hadn’t found a fix.

IAN KINGTON / AFP / Getty

Reeling from their fifth defeat in seven league matches, United had no choice but to fire Solskjaer. The club gave its former player of 18 years every opportunity to succeed, committing over £400 million in transfer fees across the past three seasons. It even awarded him a contract extension in July. But nothing worked. The buzzing positivity that marked the early days of his reign had long evaporated. After 168 matches in charge, Solskjaer failed to establish forward momentum.

Now, the club has to find a capable replacement midseason. Is Michael Carrick really the only interim solution? Did the board not learn its lesson about former players with limited coaching experience? United made a mistake allowing Solskjaer to stay for so long. They could’ve appointed Mauricio Pochettino last year or Antonio Conte earlier this season. Both are now unavailable. Not even Zinedine Zidane seems interested. So around and around United go, searching for answers in familiar places.

Maguire’s fallen off a cliff

What on earth has happened to Harry Maguire?

The England stalwart was legitimately excellent last season for Manchester United. The Red Devils boasted one of the best backlines in the nation and the imposing captain was a critical reason why, anchoring the defense while logging over 3,000 league minutes.

However, he’s been a downright liability this season.

It seems obvious that rushing back from injury to feature for England at Euro 2020 has played at least some part in Maguire’s downfall. The malaise at Manchester United doesn’t help, but some of it comes down to egregious mistakes Maguire simply wasn’t making last campaign.

The horrible sequence that led to his sending off against Watford – turning the ball over under absolutely no pressure before lunging wildly in a desperate effort to recover – was another low point for the 28-year-old.

Maybe the suspension-induced absence will be a good opportunity to reset.

Gerrard settles early nerves at Aston Villa

Aston Villa supporters were chanting Steven Gerrard’s name by the end of Saturday’s victory over Brighton & Hove Albion. Ninety minutes prior, many were unsure how to feel about their new manager. Fans had just bid farewell to “one of their own” in Dean Smith, the man who led Villa back to the Premier League. Gerard is undoubtedly a legend of the English game but is still an apprentice in the coaching department.

Matthew Ashton – AMA / Getty Images Sport / Getty

Still, Gerrard inherited a capable squad, and he’s fostered some kind of team spirit in the short week-and-a-half he’s had in charge. He can be proud of the 2-0 win at Villa Park, his first as a Premier League manager, and he’ll be happy with the contribution of veteran Ashley Young, who supplied a superb assist to Ollie Watkins on the counterattack. Gerrard’s Rangers played at pace on the break, and the early returns suggest a similar strategy could work at Villa Park as well.

Maybe some would’ve liked Villa to show more ambition at home – the hosts had less than 40% possession – but the result was paramount. Villa now have their first win in six league matches, and Gerrard has some breathing room as he settles into the club.

Arsenal still a work in progress

Arsenal have made some clear strides in recent weeks – their 10-match unbeaten run was cause for legitimate optimism – but the Gunners were given a harsh reminder of the gap that still exists between themselves and the Premier League’s elite on Saturday.

Liverpool steamrolled Mikel Arteta’s men in the second half of a dominant 4-0 win at Anfield; the visitors looked overawed as the Reds ramped up the pressure, a telltale sign of a young team still under construction.

“When we had to grow momentum at the start of the second half we gave the game away,” Arteta said after the defeat. “We gave the ball away under no pressure and were punished. They had all of the momentum. They were the better team and that is the level. They have been together for six years. We haven’t. That is the difference.”

There were only two points – and one place in the table – between the two sides before the contest, but that gap was an illusion. That Aaron Ramsdale had an excellent outing and still conceded four goals tells the whole story.

What was in the water on Saturday?

Saturday was hectic in England’s top flight.

There were 30 goals scored across the eight matches played, with teams seemingly throwing caution to the wind and going for broke. That was especially true near the foot of the table, with Newcastle United and Burnley playing out relentless 3-3 draws against Brentford and Crystal Palace, respectively.

Was it just a one-off, or a sign of things to come?

Particularly for teams mired in the relegation race, wins are infinitely more valuable than draws. Those sides might be willing to take more chances and risk throwing away one point in their quest for all three.

For the sake of the neutral viewer, hopefully managers don’t overreact to this weekend’s chaos and revert to conservative tactics.

Rodri integral to City’s title bid

Picking the Man of the Match from Manchester City’s dominating win over Everton couldn’t have been easy, but on a night when a host of City stars could have laid claim to the honor, it was Rodri who stood above the rest.

He was simply unplayable against Rafa Benitez’s uninspired side. He capped off his commanding performance with a 25-yard screamer to help seal another three points for City. The goal was a thing of beauty, but it was Rodri’s work in the heart of Pep Guardiola’s midfield that proved once again why he’s one of the best holding midfielders in the world.

Performances like this would have been difficult to forecast earlier in Rodri’s career at City. His highly anticipated arrival in 2019 was quickly followed by concerns over his ability to adapt to life under Guardiola.

But, just over three months into the season, the Spaniard has established himself as a stalwart at the Etihad. His development will also give Manchester City supporters peace of mind about a smooth transition when Fernandinho calls time on his legendary career.

In awe of Cancelo’s pass

If you haven’t yet seen it, do yourself a favor and marvel at Joao Cancelo’s otherworldly assist from Manchester City’s win over Everton (45-second mark of the video):

Is there anyone in world football who can manipulate the ball with the outside of their foot like the Portuguese star? Eat your heart out, Ricardo Quaresma.

Cancelo had six assists in 76 appearances over the last two seasons for City. He’s already matched that total in just 18 matches this term. With passes like that, it’s no wonder.

Spurs break out of malaise

Over 250 minutes without testing the opposition is long enough to drive any football fan crazy.

After a dismal first-half performance against Leeds United on Sunday, tempers boiled over among Tottenham supporters who booed the home side off the pitch at halftime. It was a deserved response to an opening 45 minutes that saw Daniel James give the visitors the lead, while Tottenham Hotspur’s streak without a shot on target was extended to six consecutive halves.

The second half was a different story.

Adam Davy – PA Images / PA Images / Getty

Harry Kane ended the streak a minute after the break for a side that implemented a much more aggressive game plan. Pierre-Emile Hojbjerg brought Tottenham level before Sergio Reguilon scored his first for the club, securing Conte’s first Premier League win as Spurs manager.

Now unbeaten in three games as Spurs boss, the manager celebrated the victory in true Conte fashion. When the aggressive fist pumps and hugs were finished, the Italian tactician said he was confident the victory could be a springboard for Tottenham, saying, “This is a point to start for the rest of the season.”

Copyright © 2021 Score Media Ventures Inc. All rights reserved. Certain content reproduced under license.

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Premier League

10 thoughts from the weekend's Premier League action

theScore examines the most important Premier League developments from the weekend, dissecting the biggest talking points after a busy slate of action.

Ole’s defensive approach backfires

A frustrated Bastian Schweinsteiger summed it up best as his former club was being utterly dominated in the first half of Saturday’s Manchester derby: Passive Manchester United versus active Manchester City.

At that point, United looked like they were well on their way to a thrashing similar to the 5-0 thumping they received against Liverpool. But, in the end, Manchester City took their foot off the gas in the second half before claiming a 2-0 victory – a scoreline that was more than flattering for United.

It was a stunning display of ineptitude from both Ole Gunnar Solskjaer and the United players. The Red Devils were pegged back right from kickoff before gifting Manchester City the lead inside the opening seven minutes to set the tone for the remainder of the contest. Pep Guardiola’s side doubled the lead just before halftime and continued to dominate en route to an easy win.

The post-match numbers told the miserable story for United.

Going with three at the back was an obvious mistake that led to another catastrophic result for a manager already under extreme pressure. Solskjaer might have thought because that strategy worked against Tottenham Hotspur, it would yield the same result against City, but he was emphatically wrong. It was a failed approach that could ultimately cost him his job, as United – losers of three of their last four Premier League games – will have plenty of time to consider their manager’s future before their next match on Nov. 20.

Damning indictment of Solskjaer

We’ve discussed the need for Manchester United to part ways with Solskjaer ad nauseam, and so has the entire football world by this point. So instead of delving into that discussion again, we’ll just leave this stat here and move along:

Everyone can see it except those in positions of power at Old Trafford.

Cancelo on another level

Joao Cancelo has a real claim for the title of world’s best full-back right now.

The Portuguese international has shown attacking brilliance going back to his Valencia days, but he’s taken an enormous step forward since joining Manchester City from Juventus in 2019, thriving under Guardiola.

“He has been playing incredibly well all season,” Guardiola said of Cancelo earlier this week. “Of course, he sometimes has to improve his quality. He has highs and lows, but he has a special ability to do something good.”

Cancelo, 27, tore Manchester United apart in Saturday’s derby, creating both goals and spending more time on the ball than any other player.

Per Squawka, he now leads Manchester City in the following categories this season:

  • Most touches
  • Most passes
  • Most passes in the final third
  • Most tackles made
  • Most interceptions
  • Most aerial duels won
  • Most duels won
  • Most through balls
  • Mosts shots

Cancelo is a full-back in name only.

Burnley setback exposes Chelsea’s lack of cutting edge

The stage was set for Chelsea to strengthen their grip on the Premier League ahead of Burnley’s visit to Stamford Bridge. Instead, the visitors escaped with a point to shock the Blues.

A lopsided victory seemed inevitable for a Chelsea side that continuously knocked on the door for a second goal after Kai Havertz gave them the lead in the first half. But Matej Vydra scored a late equalizer to make the Blues pay for wasting countless chances to double their lead.

Predictably, manager Thomas Tuchel was less than pleased about his side’s shortcomings after a performance that highlighted Chelsea’s lack of cutting edge in attack. “It’s our fault. We should have scored more,” he said. “We created so many chances.

“… If we played this game 100 times, we’d win 99 times.”

Luckily for the Blues, there’s an international break on the horizon that should make it easier to forget this minor setback. The break should offer injured attacking stars Romelu Lukaku and Timo Werner enough time to overcome their respective injuries ahead of Chelsea’s next Premier League test against Leicester City on Nov. 20.

Right decision, wrong timing for Norwich

Norwich City made the necessary decision to part ways with manager Daniel Farke on Saturday, dismissing the bench boss just hours after their first league win of the season.

The timing was unconventional and caught many off guard, but even Farke himself must have known this was coming at some point. His overall body of work in the Premier League doesn’t lie.

Steven Paston – EMPICS / PA Images / Getty

Farke’s commitment to his tactical ethos was noble; the likable German insisted on playing the same brand of attractive football that worked wonders in getting the club promoted twice from the Championship – but there was also an element of naivety at play.

Farke watched as his preferred style yielded poor returns and resulted in the Canaries getting relegated from the Premier League in 2020. After immediately bringing them back up and getting another chance – a relative rarity in professional sports – he didn’t alter his approach.

Prior to Norwich’s 2-1 win over Brentford, they had gone 20 consecutive top-flight matches without a victory. The decision to fire Farke had clearly been made before a ball was kicked on Saturday.

As odd as the timing may have seemed, it’s hard to argue with the sacking.

Vieira working wonders at Palace

After some early hiccups, Patrick Vieira has Crystal Palace on a roll.

The Eagles extended their unbeaten streak to six league matches on Saturday, following up last week’s shock win over Manchester City with another 2-0 triumph, this time against Wolverhampton Wanderers. Standouts Wilfried Zaha and Conor Gallagher delivered the goals once again.

Palace threw away a pair of late leads – and four potential points – earlier in the season, but Vieira hailed his team’s “maturity” after Saturday’s win, which was as comprehensive as they come.

The Eagles have climbed into the top half of the table and boast one of the stingiest backlines in the country, as their expected goals against total (11.4) ranks fourth best. Marc Guehi and Joachim Andersen have formed a solid partnership in central defense, while Cheikhou Kouyate shields them and Vicente Guaita backstops the whole operation.

With matches against Burnley, Aston Villa, and Leeds United on the horizon, the good times should keep rolling at Selhurst Park.

Solid defense fueling Arsenal revival

At this time last year, Gabriel was anchoring a three-man Arsenal defense between Kieran Tierney and Rob Holding, with Hector Bellerin and Bukayo Saka at wing-back in a home match against Aston Villa that the Gunners lost 3-0.

Fast-forward to full-time at the Emirates Stadium on Sunday, and the difference is palpable. The Gunners took care of business against Watford to boost Arsenal’s reputation as one of the Premier League’s top defending teams, after recording their third-successive clean sheet and eighth overall this season.

Ben White, who arrived from Brighton & Hove Albion last summer for £50 million, has rebounded since his rough debut to become an integral part of Arsenal’s defense alongside Gabriel. New right-back Takehiro Tomiyasu has been a revelation, while Nuno Tavares’ emergence as a more-than-capable replacement for Tierney could give manager Mikel Arteta a difficult decision when the Scottish left-back returns to full fitness.

It’s clear that Arteta’s defensive vision is taking shape less than two years into the job, but the Arsenal boss will get a true sense of where his team stands when they clash with high-scoring Liverpool after the international break.

Ranieri’s anger justified?

Watford manager Claudio Ranieri was incensed with Arsenal after the final whistle of Sunday’s 1-0 defeat, complaining that the Gunners didn’t return the ball after the Hornets kicked it out of play to allow Ozan Tufan to receive treatment after he went down injured.

Arsenal kept the ball, and after an extended period of play in which Watford never truly regained control, Emile Smith Rowe scored the lone goal of the contest.

Robin Jones / Getty Images Sport / Getty

Ranieri confronted Arteta about the incident after the match and addressed it to the media.

“There is only one thing I’d like to know,” said Ranieri, according to Jamie Redknapp of Sky Sports. “When there is a man on the ground, everybody expected the ball goes back and it didn’t go. There is a respect in that situation. Then we get the ball with (Ismaila) Sarr and go on the counterattack and there is a big foul. It’s unbelievable.”

He added, “When you put the ball out, you have to give the ball back.”

Arteta, of course, had a retort.

“I have to defend my players, team, and club. We are the most honest,” he said, per Sky Sports. “At some stages, we can even be naive. I’m sure there was no intention to take advantage.”

Your stance on the matter likely depends on which club you support, but the question is simple: Should Arsenal have given the ball back? It’s an established gentleman’s agreement that is almost always observed, but there’s no rule dictating that Arsenal had to give possession back.

Aston Villa raise white flag

It was the end of an era at Aston Villa as the fan-favorite Dean Smith was let go after three years in charge. The decision to part with the English manager was announced after the Claret and Blue dropped yet another match to leave them just three points outside of the relegation zone.

After Smith guided the club back to the Premier League and kept them there last season, the 2021-22 campaign had gotten off to a terribly rocky start. The final straw came after Saturday’s contest on the south coast, as Villa slumped to their fifth Premier League defeat in a row with a 1-0 loss to Southampton.

Despite the club’s disappointing performances, there are bound to be some fans who view Smith’s dismissal as harsh given that Aston Villa had the odds stacked against them after selling superstar Jack Grealish in the summer.

Reds stumble at another crucial point in title race

Matchday 11 was an opportunity for Liverpool to solidify their place in the title race. Instead, Jurgen Klopp’s men were left to rue another blown chance to close the gap at the top of the Premier League table.

A week after failing to capitalize on Manchester City’s shocking loss to Crystal Palace, Liverpool had a golden opportunity to cut into Chelsea’s advantage after the Premier League leaders dropped two points in a draw with Burnley on Saturday.

Alex Pantling / Getty Images Sport / Getty

But, when the full-time whistle sounded at London Stadium, the Reds found themselves worse off than they were when the day started. Losing to West Ham United not only ended the club’s 25-match unbeaten run, it also resulted in David Moyes’ revitalized Hammers leapfrogging Liverpool to take sole possession of third place.

Liverpool’s title hopes are far from irreparable – as the Merseyside club sits just four points back of Chelsea – but there’s no doubting that Sunday’s result was a bitter blow that will sting for the entirety of the upcoming international break.

As for West Ham, well, we warned you last week that the Hammers are for real.

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