Never mind those Arsenal/Tottenham combined XIs that were all the rage or that Arsene Wenger’s sporting obituary has been written many times over; Saturday’s North London derby was a reminder that fitness matters and tactics matter and that, while Mesut Ozil may be inconsistent, when he’s on a high, he’s a difference maker.
Spurs manager Mauricio Pochettino pointed out that Arsenal’s first goal shouldn’t have counted, and he’s right: It wasn’t a free kick to begin with, and scorer Shkodran Mustafi was marginally offside. But that doesn’t quite explain the second half and the way Tottenham struggled to react when down two goals.
The away side had major problems dealing with Arsenal’s press, partly because the Gunners’ front three worked hard and partly because the usual antidotes to a high press — passing through or going long — weren’t working. In this, Spurs weren’t helped by the fact that both Harry Kane and Dele Alli were badly off the pace — possibly not fit either — and, by the time Fernando Llorente and Son Heung-min came on, it was too late.
Pochettino has, rightly, earned plenty of plaudits. But when it does go wrong — as against Chelsea at home or Manchester United away — he doesn’t necessarily seem comfortable changing things. Perhaps part of it is injuries and lack of depth, but it also seems to be faith in his key men, even when they are not as productive as they should be.
The fact is, against most opponents, Tottenham can go on cruise control and take the points. And that will be the case for most of their games between now and the crunch clash with Manchester City on Dec. 16. But against the better sides, especially when they throw some sort of curveball in their approach, you need to adapt and find a Plan B.
As for Arsenal, by this point we’ve learned not to don the rose-tinted glasses. We don’t know which Ozil will show up, for example. Meanwhile, in six weeks, both he and Alexis Sanchez can agree to sign with any other team on a free transfer, potentially turning their final months at the Emirates into a long, energy-saving operation.
Arsenal’s back three worked fine in this game, but you wonder if it’s really the way to go against most opponents. And you still can’t escape the nagging feeling that this side will need to be rebuilt from the ground up in June and what we’re witnessing is merely a series of last hurrahs.
Then again, they’re up there and, with a bit more boldness — perhaps in the January transfer window — they might actually do something to move forward. Though you wouldn’t hold your breath…
Atletico, Real play out drab derbi
Maybe it was the fear that the season might be over with a defeat, but the Madrid derby offered little solace to the neutral. The 0-0 draw meant that, ultimately, the winner was Barcelona, who extend their lead over Real and Atletico to 10 points.
Atletico had one chance early (Angel Correa) and one late (Kevin Gameiro) and, in between, there was a lot of sterile possession from Real, with the odd half-chance thrown in, most notably for Toni Kroos and Sergio Ramos. Beyond that, you got the usual spikiness from two teams that, right now, are probably better at defending than attacking.
With Atleti, it’s nothing new. Correa looks out of his depth, Yannick Carrasco remains inconsistent and Antoine Griezmann isn’t where he was a year ago. The return of Diego Costa, provided we get the early 2016-17 version, can’t come soon enough but, by the time he does land, it could be lights out in terms of seasonal targets.
With Real, you can’t escape cold, hard numbers: Cristiano Ronaldo and Karim Benzema have combined for two Liga goals in 1,273 minutes. Sure, you can make the point that Benzema wasn’t prolific last year and that Ronaldo has scored five in four Champions League games, suggesting he hasn’t lost his mojo and that his league numbers are just a function of chance and probability. But it’s pretty obvious that, if your forwards aren’t converting or even, as we saw against Atleti, shooting on goal from good positions, things get a whole lot tougher.
The elephant in the room is that no team has ever made up a 10-point deficit from this stage of the season. Plus, the disparity is magnified by Barcelona’s absurdly good — and improbable, given the summer vibes — start.
Unless you believe the 2017-18 version of Barca is the greatest in Spain’s history — it isn’t — you can reasonably expect them to drop off. Throw in the fact that there are two Clasicos to play and that the leaders visit Valencia next week, and maybe Madrid and Atletico fans can continue to hope.
But the clock is definitely ticking, and both clubs may need to come to terms with the fact that, by the end of the year, all they’ll really have to play for — other than the Copa del Rey — is the Champions League in Real’s case and the Europa League for Atleti. It won’t be a lost season, but it will certainly be disappointing.
Napoli beat Milan, who face on- and off-field issues
Lorenzo Insigne’s performance for Napoli on Saturday night was just another cruel reminder of what former Italy boss Gian Piero Ventura — and nobody else — failed to realize: Right now he’s easily one of the best attacking players in Europe. Napoli won 2-1 and rumble on in first place, while the rossoneri remain in some sort of limbo.
For all of manager Vincenzo Montella’s attempts at saying and doing the right things, you can’t escape the gnawing suspicion that, as monumental a task as finishing in the top four this season might be — if Roma win their game in hand, Milan will be 12 points off the pace with just over a third of the season gone — winning their financial battles will define the club’s short-term future.
Milan need to present a credible “voluntary agreement” on Financial Fair Play that satisfies UEFA — a decision is expected next month — and they need to conjure up some $350 million by October 2018 to make Elliott Management go away.
How do they do that? Either with principal owner Li Yonghong coming up with the funds (though this story suggests it will be difficult), or by finding new investors, or by refinancing the debt.
Milan seem optimistic that they can do this via a London-based outfit named BGB Weston, but it’s worth noting that these guys aren’t going to loan them the money: They’re simply going to help them look for someone to do it.
Until this mess gets resolved, there will be more than one shadow hanging over the club.
Pogba’s presence offers Mourinho options
It’s a different Manchester United with Paul Pogba. Against Newcastle, his range of passing, his ability to protect the ball and his athleticism were qualities that were missed when he was gone.
Now, Jose Mourinho has many more options in terms of what he does with his front four because Pogba’s presence allows you to do things — like play Anthony Martial and Marcus Rashford together — you might not do with Ander Herrera and Nemanja Matic sitting in front of the back four.
And if that wasn’t enough, United’s manager has another huge option (literally) in the form of Zlatan Ibrahimovic. The combinations, frankly, are endless, whether it’s playing him in the hole or alongside Romelu Lukaku or, indeed, in place of the Belgian striker in some situations.
This is a front-wheel-drive team, and that’s not something to which we’ve been accustomed with Mourinho. He tried it earlier this season, before Pogba’s injury, with mixed results, and it will be interesting to see what he conjures up.
For all of the talk of him being defensive, Mourinho is, above all, a pragmatist. And pragmatism, with this set of players, suggests taking the game to the opposition more than he’s done in the past.
Valencia will not go away
Los Che made it eight league wins in a row by outlasting Espanyol in a testy affair, which saw manager Marcelino sent to the stands. Unlike some of their previous outings, it wasn’t a stellar performance by any stretch, and it took a wonder strike from Geoffrey Kondogbia halfway through the second half to break the ice, before Santi Mina added a second late on.
Valencia win ugly and, while Marcelino occasionally pulls off the tactical masterpiece — witness October’s victory over Sevilla — a lot of the time it’s edgy, scrappy stuff. Then again, when you think back to recent history and the fact that this club is essentially made up of Dani Parejo, some gifted kids both homegrown (Carlos Soler, Jose Gaya) and loaned in (Andreas Pereira, Goncalo Guedes), and a gaggle of rejects from elsewhere (Kondogbia, Simone Zaza, Gabriel Paulista, Jeison Murillo), it’s remarkable that they are where they are, four points behind Barcelona.
With no European football, comparisons with Leicester City are inevitable. We’ll know more about whether they can really dare to dream next week, after they host Barca. In the meantime, Valencia are loving every minute.
PSG win but don’t impress
The thing Paris Saint-Germain need to wrap their heads around is that there will be games like Saturday’s visit of Claudio Ranieri’s Nantes — matches where PSG sleepwalk and rely on luck and happenstance.
Don’t let the 4-1 scoreline fool you. It took them more than a half hour to break the ice through Edinson Cavani. The second goal was more likely a cross from Angel Di Maria that saw a defender whiff, confusing goalkeeper Ciprian Tatarusanu. After Nantes pulled one back early in the second half, PSG added a third when Tatarusanu pawed Javier Pastore’s shot into his own net, and a fourth from Cavani followed two botched clearances.
In other words, it wasn’t much of a performance, and there weren’t even the usual Neymar highlights to liven things up. Unai Emery’s men bagged the three points, and the gap over Monaco remains six: That’s the good news. But as the season wears on, the manager’s challenge might be to keep his players focused and performing, even in games where the opposition doesn’t offer much of a challenge.
Guardiola has some things to address
We’ve been waiting for Manchester City to collapse like they did last season, and it hasn’t happened, largely because Pep Guardiola appears to have taken them to another level. But you wonder if, maybe, some cracks didn’t appear on Saturday at Leicester, exactly the kind of well-organized opponent capable of threatening both through guile (Riyad Mahrez) and flat-out pace (Jamie Vardy and Demarai Gray).
The Premier League leaders were fortunate that Vincent Kompany wasn’t sent off early, and while they won 2-0, one goal was the sort of highlight reel, team strike that requires perfect synchronicity to pull off, and the other was a trademark Kevin De Bruyne long-range effort (yes, he strikes the ball very well from distance and he’s done it more than enough times this season, but it’s still a low-percentage finish).
Am I nit-picking? Sure. But I guarantee you that, if I’m concerned, an obsessive perfectionist like Guardiola is fretting over it too — and trying to figure out what to do, particularly now that John Stones is going to be out for the next month or so.
Suarez storms back into form
Guess who’s back. Back again. Barcelona had raced out to the best start in Liga history without any significant input from Luis Suarez, which, when you juxtapose it with their horrendous summer, is all the more remarkable. But the Uruguayan striker was in full flow at Leganes, scoring twice in a 3-0 win that was a closer affair than the scoreline suggests.
Suarez had gone 477 minutes without a goal. That wasn’t unprecedented, but there are two important differences from his last barren run, which came in April. The first is that Barca no longer have Neymar, and the other is that it followed another mini-drought: Put differently, Suarez scored once in almost two months, way below his high standards.
You can’t really overstate the importance of his return to form. Not only does it take pressure off Lionel Messi, it also helps paper over the cracks of Ernesto Valverde’s work in progress.
Allegri must address Juve’s issues
We’ve been so accustomed to seeing Juventus dominate Serie A — even if some years were closer than some remember — that seeing them in third place after a 3-2 defeat at Sampdoria is an eye opener. In fact, the situation could be even worse, given Roma and Lazio have a game in hand.
Max Allegri tried to depict the glass as half full, pointing out that Juve probably had the better of a scoreless first half and then found themselves 3-0 down thanks to great strikes from Duvan Zapata and Lucas Torreira and a defensive error from Sami Khedira. He could have also mentioned that, two years ago at this stage, his side was nine points back in sixth, yet they won the title by a whopping nine points.
It’s true that Allegri’s teams start slowly and he’s trying to transition to a different way of playing, particularly in the final third, while also finding the right combination in midfield and coping with the post-Leonardo Bonucci era at the back. But the fact is, he needs to find solutions quickly. And in certain roles — Mario Mandzukic on the wing springs to mind — you wonder if he’s simply being a little too loyal.
But of greater concern right now is how the side reacted after going behind; even Juventus’ two late goals were, broadly, against the run of play. That’s not down to personnel or scheme, that’s down to mentality.
Are Bayern too Lewandowski-dependent?
Bayern pushed their lead at the top of the Bundesliga to six points by thumping Augsburg. Not much to see here; it was one-way traffic, and Robert Lewandowski bagged two goals, bringing his season total to 17. If you want to nitpick, the one concern under Jupp Heynckes is that Lewandowski has no obvious understudy.
Beyond that, Bayern’s manager continues to shuffle his deck. Juan Bernat made his first appearance of the season, Rafinha gave David Alaba a breather at left-back and the great James Rodriguez experiment continued as he made his fourth-straight start in all competitions.
Heynckes is looking for alternatives because it’s becoming obvious that, like last year, the season will be decided in the spring and in Europe. Of course, the one alternative he doesn’t have is up front. And all he can do there is keep his fingers crossed that Lewandowski stays fit.
Chelsea build around Fabregas
Four wins on the bounce for Chelsea have taken Antonio Conte’s men to third place, one behind Manchester United. What seemed clear in the 4-0 pounding of West Brom is that Conte believes Cesc Fabregas can only play with two holding midfielders. Equally, he’s happy to hand the reins of the team to the Spanish international, if he has the requisite cover.
Anyone can point out Fabregas’ athletic limitations off the ball. But few players can pick a pass the way he does and — we’ve said this before, but it’s as true as ever — other than Eden Hazard, there’s nobody else who can offer that sort of creative spark.
Were Chelsea’s fixtures list less cluttered, Conte would be more able to work on patterns of play in training. But it’s not, and, with limited time to refine his system, the manager needs individuals to create out of nothing. And that means more Fabregas, something to which he’s responding well.
Roma claim derby day honours
It took a while, but Eusebio Di Francesco’s message is getting through to the Roma players. His is a certain version of the 4-3-3, and when it works as it did Saturday in the derby with Lazio, it’s devastating.
Roma pressed high, but they did it scientifically. They snuffed out Lucas Leiva, the deep-lying midfielder, as well as Stefan Radu and Stefan de Vrij, two centre-backs who are better on the ball. As such, Lazio built through Bastos, who is a beast defensively but won’t be mistaken for Franz Beckenbauer anytime soon.
As a result, Bastos found himself with two options: Either boot the ball long for Ciro Immobile — with the excellent Kostas Manolas and Federico Fazio lying in wait, it usually went right back to Roma — or try to play, in which case he’d usually lose the ball in his own half, which is never a good thing.
Tedesco is another up-and-coming Bundesliga boss
German football continues to show that there’s a different way to recruit managers, and many of the qualities once thought essential — a decent playing career, experience in the lower leagues, gravitas — don’t seem to be priorities in the Bundesliga. Domenico Tedesco is 32 and, until nine months ago, had never worked above Under-19 level. But following a 2-0 win over Hamburg, his Schalke side are second.
He’s not the only Bundesliga manager who got his chance early and without much of a resume: Hoffenheim’s Julian Nagelsmann (30) is the epitome of this, but you could also cite Stuttgart’s Hannes Wolf (36), Mainz’s Sandro Schwarz (39), Werder Bremen’s Florian Kohfeldt (35) and Augsburg’s Manuel Baum (38).
It’s a different way of approaching things, and whether it yields dividends remains to be seen. Clubs love copying each other if they sniff success, but it’s hard to imagine this mentality taking root in other big leagues.
Gabriele Marcotti is a Senior Writer for ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @Marcotti.