The sombre look on Manchester United boss Jose Mourinho’s face spoke volumes.
As his players cavorted with the League Cup on Sunday, the non-plussed behaviour of the ‘Special One’ stood in stark contrast.
Despite his protestations about the benign nature of his actions, it is difficult to believe they did not possess an ulterior motive.
A message was surely being delivered about the true value of success in England’s third-ranked competition and the pressing need for summer refinements.
True, we are talking about a man who has consistently proven not to be beholden to pomp and ceremony. He wasted no time bolting from the pitch after he staggeringly led Porto to the 2003/04 Champions League, while a succession of medals quickly found their way into the crowd at other postings.
Extensive work is not needed to lift United up from sixth in the Premier League.
A late salvage job from Zlatan Ibrahimovic – who else? – was required after a two-goal lead was spurned against Southampton, but this was the worst performance in an otherwise promising run of one defeat in 26 matches.
United also find themselves so close to every other giant in the top flight apart from runaway leaders Chelsea despite a paltry chance-conversion rate of 12.5 per cent – the 17th best.
Mourinho will relish retooling a £600 million (Dh2.7 billion) squad classed as the most-expensive ever by the CIES Football Observatory.
Talismanic striker Ibrahimovic’s free-kick and last-gasp header undid the Saints and brought him onto 26 goals in 38 appearances during a bravura debut campaign.
This tally is 19 more than any of his team-mates.
This glaring dependency – if the Swede exercises the option on the second year of his deal – must be reduced, with Atletico Madrid and France forward Antoine Griezmann the obvious and expensive solution.
A ball-playing centre-back to add refinement alongside the agricultural Phil Jones and Eric Bailly should be recruited. Benfica’s Victor Lindelof is a better option when compared to the increasingly-shaky Chris Smalling.
Left-back remains an issue. Argentina’s Marcos Rojo was a repeat sinner against the Saints, meaning Luke Shaw’s abandonment is ever puzzling.
A system which can ensure Paul Pogba consistently lives up to his billing as football’s £89m (Dh406.7m) record buy is another priority.
Of this term’s benchmark matches, only November’s 1-1 draw with Arsenal can be classed as one which he truly grasped.
His partnership with fellow runner Ander Herrera can leave the kind of spaces which Southampton regularly exploited, with defensive midfielder Michael Carrick’s advancing years ensuring he cannot always be counted on to plug gaps. A successor in the transfer market is a must, with Monaco’s Tiemoue Bakayoko repeatedly linked.
A definitive solution to Wayne Rooney’s situation must follow. The captain and club-top scorer was an unused substitute for the showpiece, yet still dominated coverage. If his phasing out under Mourinho reaches a denouement at the end of the season, it will force a clear path towards the future.
The list of changes is not long.
Now watch them be enacted with characteristic precision by one of football’s most-prolific winners.
Joel Matip has been a fantastic signing for Liverpool this season. With Mamadou Sakho not featuring at all for the Reds in the first half of the campaign and being loaned to Crystal Palace in January, the Cameroon international has been a mainstay in defence and has adapted to the Premier League with ease.
Matip, who arrived at Anfield on a free transfer, has been one of the positives of Liverpool’s season, and during his 16 league appearances, the side had only lost on one occasion before the defeat away to Leicester City on Monday night.
Completing just over 250 appearances for Bundesliga side Schalke 04, the 25-year-old has successfully carried his form into the Premier League.
On the other hand, there is still room for improvement. Alongside the dominant aerial presence, sliding tackles and intelligent distribution, he is also prone to strange fouls or bizarre decisions. Matip has a tendency to go into tackles very aggressively and also has the habit of proceeding high up the pitch while in possession.
He is the type defender who likes to play on the edge, which can also involve doing more than just defending and helping the team go forward in attack. Playing at the half-way line leaves a centre-back open to get caught out on the counter-attack, which is an area in which Matip needs to improve going forward.
This was revealed during the Hull City game in early February. Matip held a high line as Liverpool chased an equaliser, but Oumar Niasse received the ball after making a darting run in behind him. The forward went on to slot the ball past Simon Mignolet to secure all three points for his team.
Nevertheless, former Liverpool defender, Jamie Carragher, has been full of praise for Matip.
“He’s made a huge difference since he’s come in. He brings calmness to the rest of the team. The effect he’s had on [Dejan] Lovren as well. It’s not just his own performance, it’s the effect he has on everyone else.”
Considering the defender’s performances over the course of the season, Carragher is correct. Matip has had an instant impact since moving to Anfield. However, he is not the finished article yet and has some way to go in order to become one of the best centre-backs in the league.
Liverpool have been suffering from defensive issues for the past few years now, but the way things have gone so far this term, Matip could be the ideal individual that solidifies the heart of their defence.
Although Lovren, who was considered the side’s weak link last season, has improved and has been able to form a partnership with Matip, he has failed to replicate the form he showed at Southampton and needs replacing once the summer transfer window arrives.
Since his move from Germany, Matip has already been regarded as the best centre-back within the squad. Once Jurgen Klopp digs into the summer transfer funds to recruit the right partner for him, Liverpool could forge a steady defence.
With a central defender alongside who sweeps up behind him and compliments his best assets, there’s no reason why Matip can’t be permanent fixture in Liverpool’s back-line for years to come.
Following the recent 5-1 defeat to Bayern Munich in the Champions League, that recurring question of whether Arsene Wenger is still the right man for the job has cropped up again.
On the other hand, it does seem odd to have doubts in a manager who has successfully led the team to a top four finish in every season he’s been at the club.
However, after spending just under £100 million during the summer transfer window, Wenger has failed to get the best out of a strong squad, relying instead on crucial goals from Alexis Sanchez and Olivier Giroud when introduced off the bench. Meanwhile, his team selections in recent months have been questionable.
With the potential exit of the manager who has been at the club since 1996, rumours of his replacement have surfaced and here are the three candidates that have been linked.
Juventus manager Massimiliano Allegri, who is known to be adaptable to many systems and formations, is regarded as the main candidate to replace Arsene Wenger.
During his first year in Turin, he delivered the league title to Juventus and took them to the final of the European competition, but suffered a 3-1 defeat at the hands of an unstoppable Barcelona side.
Nevertheless, his good work led to a well-deserved one-year extension which kept him at the club until the end of this season.
Weeks before his contract extension, Allegri dipped into the transfer market and brought in Paulo Dybala and Mario Mandzukic, showing that his ambitions included Champions League success and rather than settling for only the league. Both attackers came in for a total fee of £45 million, which could easily be seen as a bargain if you look at what they have achieved in the past 18 months.
Given Antonio Conte’s success at Chelsea this season, there is no reason why Italian managers like Allegri cannot thrive in the Premier League. Although his tactical decisions were questioned at the start of the season, Conte has now utilised his preferred back-three system which is now being used by other managers in the league.
Allegri’s tactical choices had a lot of Juventus fans confused a couple of months ago, however, he has started to use the 4-2-3-1 and 4-4-2 formation which helped his side recently overcome Inter Milan in a vital 1-0 victory.
If he was appointed at Arsenal at the end of the campaign, without a doubt, his ability to turn a good side into a dominant force would be something the fans can look forward to.
Second on the list is Borussia Dortmund’s Thomas Tuchel.
Since replacing Jurgen Klopp at the Bundesliga club ahead of the 2015/16 campaign, the German coach has already been regarded as ‘the new Klopp’ as well as one of the best young managers in Europe.
Only 43, he has instantly helped his squad to tactically adapt to several formations.
Just like the Liverpool manager, the former Augsburg and Mainz coach is also known to work around the football philosophy of high pressing, popularly known as gegenpressing in Germany.
Similar to the likes of Pep Guardiola and Mauricio Pochettino, Tuchel is known to place a lot of faith in youngsters and give them the chance to develop. Although it takes time for players to settle at a big club, the young guns at Dortmund have gotten into their stride quickly and the manager should be commended for that.
So far this season, Dortmund and Tuchel have got the most out of the talents they brought in during the summer in Ousmane Dembele, Emre Mor and Rapahel Guerreiro as well as Felix Passlack and Christian Pulisic, with the pair being promoted to the first team from the youth academy.
Tuchel has proved to be resourceful when it comes to working with a tight budget, which could be seen as a big positive given Arsenal’s reluctance to spend big over the years.
On the other hand, Tuchel leaving Dortmund anytime soon seems unlikely given his determined pursuit of success at the Westfalenstadion.
The final candidate on this list, is none other than Eddie Howe, who impressively took Bournemouth from League Two in 2008 to the Premier League in 2015.
The fact that the Englishman has not managed a top club in any of the major leagues in Europe doesn’t appear to have limited his chances. Wenger also believes that Howe is an example for all young managers and has a massive future ahead of him.
Despite his side conceding a lot of goals, Howe isn’t afraid of sticking to his attacking style of play. Although he isn’t anywhere near as tactically versatile as either Allegri or Tuchel, Howe has demanded his side press high up the pitch which led them to a famous 4-3 win over Liverpool in December and a six-goal thriller against Arsenal last month.
However, due to the small squad at his disposal, the high-pressing strategy has been difficult to sustain and Bournemouth often drop in intensity around the hour mark.
At the end of the day, Howe has done very well so far in his managerial career but could do with experience at a club in the top half of the table before a potential move to Arsenal.