Another busy weekend in Europe means it’s time for another bumper edition of Monday Musings. Gab Marcotti is here to recap the big stories around soccer.
Jump to: Juve too good for Inter | Man City in crisis? | Barca ride their luck again | Man United go from bad to worse | Real continue to confuse | Rose helping Gladbach bloom | Liverpool win again | Bayern hungover in Bundesliga? | Milan scrap it out vs. Genoa | Where is Ozil? | Is Pochettino to blame at Spurs? | Dortmund’s flaws exposed again | Stop worrying about Pulisic | Icardi shines for PSG | Atletico still work in progress
Sarri and Juve simply too good for Inter
So this is why Maurizio Sarri was brought in. Why Juventus embarked on that cultural and tactical 180-degree turn. Why Max Allegri was effectively shown the door after five years of success. Everything came together on Sunday night as Juve won away to Inter.
Sarri made some big calls — Paulo Dybala ahead of Gonzalo Higuain, Federico Bernardeschi in the attacking midfield hole, Emre Can and Rodrigo Bentancur coming on to safeguard the three points — and gave his Juve side the right tactical impetus. (Witness the 24-pass build-up to Higuain’s game-winning goal.) The rest was about setting great players free to make their quality count, with Miralem Pjanic‘s metronomic point guard play, Dybala’s run and strike and the two Ronaldo efforts: the first, crashing against the bar with raw violence, the other disallowed (correctly) after a give-and-go with Dybala.
When your opponents are more talented and well-coached, there’s only so much you can do. Antonio Conte did it, which is why one Italian TV pundit was probably correct when he said “Sarri won this game, but Conte didn’t lose it.” You need fight and desire, creativity and individuals to turn the tide in those circumstances. Conte’s Inter has plenty of the first two but the latter two are pretty much trapped in the same man, Stefano Sensi, and he went off after 30 minutes due to injury. That’s when the creative light went out and it left Inter relying on willpower alone. Not enough.
It remains remarkable how Dybala and Higuain, two guys who weren’t even supposed to be here, should prove to be so important to Juve. And equally, that a guy like Sarri — a tactical nerd supposedly not exactly well-versed in man-management — is getting production out of both of them and even rotating them. In fact, speaking of guys who were not supposed to stick around, you can make the same point about Blaise Matuidi and Sami Khedira, both of whom are proving to be invaluable in Sarri’s set-up. At the back, penalty aside, Matthijs de Ligt continues his journey: it remains a bumpy ride but it certainly helps to grow on a winning team rather than one in turmoil.
As for Inter, their last two games pitted them against superior opponents stacked with superstars (Barcelona and Juventus). It’s a process for them too and it’s also a discovery of their squad. Romelu Lukaku still hasn’t found his feet, not for lack of trying either. It’s the sort of thing Conte can fix on the training ground. Diego Godin in the back three, especially as a wide center-back, isn’t convincing. And for a team that plays two up front, they probably could have used a serviceable fourth striker rather than forcing Matteo Politano (nice player, but more of a winger) to adapt. Still, there’s plenty to go. And these are the sort of games that tell you a lot about yourself.
Are Man City in crisis?
It had been flagged up by plenty, including yours truly. For Manchester City, letting Vincent Kompany leave without replacing him would most likely be fine unless something bad happened. Well, that happened with the injuries to Aymeric Laporte and John Stones. And now chickens are coming home to roost because there is no insurance policy.
Both Fernandinho and Nicolas Otamendi started each of the past five games that matter (i.e. Champions League and Premier League). They played every minute, except for the last half-hour against Watford, when Otamendi came off because they were up 7-0. It’s not just their limitations — Fernandinho is 34 and not a central defender, Otamendi is 31, not the second coming of Walter Samuel and started only 14 league games last year — it’s also about how Pep Guardiola tried to mask them. It’s not gone well.
You knew what was going to happen when Wolves came to visit because we’ve seen it before from Nuno Espirito Santo on the road against Big Six sides. He’d sit tight, create human density in front of Rui Patricio and try to hit on the counter: the inclusion of Adama Traore was as obvious a “tell” as you’re going to get. Wolves did it brilliantly. In the first half alone, they had four dangerous counterattacks, each of which could (should?) have led to a goal.
Otamendi and Fernandinho aren’t suited to defending out in the open, especially against speedy opponents. It’s hard to fathom why Guardiola failed to address this after the early scares. Instead, he took off Kyle Walker (probably City’s quickest defender) at half-time, and sent on Oleksandr Zinchenko, switching Joao Cancelo to right-back. That made it two D.I.N.O.s (Defenders In Name Only) in the back four.
All around, a bad day at the office for Pep. It can happen even to the very best. And if the front five had done their job properly rather than managing just two shots on target, it might not have been an issue because they might have scored three or four. But Wolves kept them out and, at the end, with City gambling and lopsided, they sunk Pep’s battleship.
Stones will be back soon, you’d imagine, and that will help. At least there will be an extra option. But on days like these, Pep has to coach his way out of the mire. And against Wolves, he failed to do it.
Barcelona ride their luck again… and it works again
Two games in a row doesn’t quite make a trend, but if you don’t learn your history you’re condemned to repeat it. Just as happened against Inter in midweek, Barcelona were battered for long stretches, could have conceded three or four times and then turned things around thanks to individual brilliance. Sevilla came out of the gates with gusto on Sunday and with somebody other than Luuk de Jong (even another Luke… Hemmings, Harper, Campbell from 2 Live Crew even though he’s 58 years old) might have converted the many chances they created. De Jong hasn’t scored in nearly six months for club or country and, for a center-forward, that’s not good.
Luis Suarez keyed the turnaround with a highlight-reel overhead kick, Arthur and Arturo (Vidal) connected to make it two and an Ousmane Dembele “worldie” made it three. All in the space of eight minutes. Lionel Messi made it four with his first goal of the campaign. So while the turnaround was stunning, you can’t get overly carried away no matter how gaudy the scoreline.
– Barca ratings: Messi 7/10 in victory
Dembele’s performance in his first start since Week 1 was as encouraging as his bonehead sending-off was discouraging. Maybe referee Mateu Lahoz was harsh in showing red after Dembele said, in his limited Spanish, “you are very bad,” but there’s no excuse to get sent off when you’re 4-0 up. The same applies, of course, to Ronald Araujo‘s red, though given it was his debut and he’s 20, you’re going to be a bit more lenient.
Dembele is heading for a likely suspension, which means Antoine Griezmann will probably be back and that will dampen any controversy over Ernesto Valverde’s decision to leave him out, at least for a while. Griezmann has had some rough spots, but that’s more than understandable when you’re adapting to Barca after five years under Diego Simeone at Atletico. Suarez turns 33 in January and will need breathers so he’s realistically not just competing with Dembele for tie.
Man United are bad. Real bad
Strip away the heartwarming story of two Longstaffs, one of them scoring on his debut, and the Geordie Nation discovering more tales they can pass on to their grandchildren and you have what Manchester United is right now: not a good side, with plenty of issues.
Craig Burley made the point on Sunday’s FC TV show that Ole Gunnar Solskjaer is getting an easier ride than his predecessors, Jose Mourinho and Louis Van Gaal. He’s probably correct, though you’re also tempted to say it’s down to two factors: He hasn’t had the transfer support that Mourinho and Van Gaal enjoyed and, equally, he’s a much more pleasant, affable guy.
– Ogden: Are United in a relegation fight?
What grates is how one-dimensional this Man United team is. Other than playing in transition, there’s not much they know how to do (and they don’t always do it well). There’s little creativity with Paul Pogba out and, while they’re better defensively, you expect more if not in terms of execution, at least in terms of ideas.
Solskjaer is just one of many issues at this club. It’s a long list. Crucially, though, he’s the manager, which means he’s also the easiest to fix. That may offer a short-term boost, but it will also be a meaningless one unless they get under the hood and fix the structural issues. That will take time, but will also require a real appetite for change on the part of the owners.
Will the real Real Madrid please stand up?
Six weeks into the 2019-20 season and you’re still not sure what to make of this Real Madrid team. Last in their Champions League group and coming off a nervy home draw with Bruges, it seemed like once again they’d bounced back straight away after an hour or so against Granada. They were 3-0 up, Eden Hazard opened his account, Luka Modric scored a peach of a goal. Everything was fine (other than Toni Kroos‘ muscular injury, the club’s 12th of the campaign) and then came the Alphonse Areola horror show.
The Frenchman, standing in for the injured Thibaut Courtois, foolishly gave away a penalty and then looked anything but sound as Granada pulled one back and then another. It was a nervous, messy ending, the sort where you could feel the Bernabeu boo-birds going full Pavlov’s dog in terms of salivating for a “panolada.” The nerves lasted until James Rodriguez scored the fourth, to make it 4-2.
This Real team has tons of quality, no question. But we still don’t know how they are. Will the real “merengues” please stand up? Please?
Rose is making Gladbach bloom
Remember that old trope whereby it takes hundreds of millions of dollars and four or five transfer windows to change a club’s culture and fortunes? Yeah. It’s nonsense. Provided you have the right people and structure, of course.
Borussia Monchengladach leapt to the top of the Bundesliga with a 5-1 win over Augsburg and while they may not stay there — there are seven teams within two points — long-term, manager Marco Rose has already proven the point. An alumnus of the Ralf Rangnick school of football, he arrived at Gladbach after two title-winning seasons at Salzburg and immediately turned things around.
They were flat in terms of net spend and lost Thorgan Hazard, arguably their best player last year, and just three of Gladbach’s summer signings — Stefan Lainer, Breel Embolo and Marcus Thuram (yes, it’s you-know-who’s son — have had significant playing time, yet the style has been radically transformed from the Dieter Hecking grind-them-out days.
Rose is understandably one of the hottest young managers in Europe, shaped by both Rangnick and Jurgen Klopp. But it’s one thing to do it at Salzburg, with the Red Bull machine taking care of your every need. Quite another to hit the ground running at Gladbach in a totally different environment.
Liverpool keep finding new ways to win
Another week, another case of Liverpool squeaking out a win without necessarily impressing. As we’ve written before, it’s either a sign of maturity or a sign that you’re getting the breaks now, but you’d better shape up because you might not get them later. Klopp is evidently working on finding the right mix up front, as evidenced by his reshuffling with Roberto Firmino and Mohamed Salah.
Equally though, while the penalty at the end may be contentious — and Marc Albrighton‘s clumsy tackle on Sadio Mane was a gift from the heavens — this is no time to go Chicken Little. Leicester didn’t have a real chance until Denis Praet’s speculative effort with 20 minutes to go. Defensively, Liverpool held up nicely.
The gap between them and Manchester City is eight points. Avoid defeat on Nov. 10 against Guardiola and you’re halfway there.
Bayern follow up win at Spurs with stunning defeat
Bayern Munich’s first Bundesliga defeat since February came thanks to two goals scored by a 26-year-old who was playing amateur football until two years ago and who was making his first-ever start. Sargis Adamyan punished a hungover Bayern side with the sort of clinical precision we normally see from his opposite number, Robert Lewandowski (oh, he scored too).
The 2-1 defeat leaves the Bavarians in a third-place cluster mess with four other clubs, behind Wolfsburg and table-topping Borussia Monchengladbach. It’s a bit of a cliche to chalk it up to a comedown after the 7-2 win over Spurs, but you wonder why manager Niko Kovac didn’t see fit to do some rotation here. A home game against Hoffenheim, who hadn’t won since August, might have been a logical place to find some minutes for the likes of Ivan Perisic, Javi Martinez and, of course, Thomas Muller.
Milan scrap it out vs. Genoa
I’m not sure if it was quite the “worst half of Milan’s season,” as my colleague Matteo Bonetti suggested, but those first 45 minutes against Genoa were a cartoonish synthesis of Marco Giampaolo’s season so far. Poor personnel choices, poor tactics, listless performance.
At half-time, he made the changes most would have begged for — Hakan Calhanoglu and Krzysztof Piatek off, Lucas Paqueta and Rafael Leal on — and within 15 minutes, Milan went from 0-1 down to 2-1 up. It was still a wild second half culminating in Pepe Reina‘s penalty save (Gianluigi Donnarumma had helpfully injured himself in the warm-up). And if reports are to be believed, Giampaolo is still hanging onto his job by a thread. But it showed there’s fight in this team.
Now, if he can just find the right tactics to get the quality out — yes, there’s quality too, not a lot, but more than we’ve seen — maybe this season won’t be a write-off. Assuming he’s still around after the international break, that is.
What’s going on with Ozil?
I don’t know what it says about Arsenal that they’re third in the Premier League table despite not exactly firing on all cylinders this season. Unai Emery has had injuries, sure, but so have other top four contenders. I guess the good news is that there is a lot of room for improvement and they’re grinding out results, like the 1-0 win over Bournemouth, while still finding themselves.
Less understandable is the Mesut Ozil situation. Despite being fully fit, he was left out of the 18 both in the Europa League and against Bournemouth. This is the same Ozil who was made one of the three highest-paid players in the Premier League just 20 months ago. Emery simply says “others deserve a place in the squad more than Ozil.”
Maybe one day we’ll find out what’s going on. And yeah, I like to think there’s something going on, mainly because I don’t want to believe this guy is simply mailing it in while collecting a (huge) paycheck.
Is Pochettino to blame for Tottenham’s slump?
It’s well and truly finger-pointing time at Tottenham, which is what happens when you concede 10 goals over two games between Europe and the Premier League. Saturday’s 3-0 defeat at Brighton was a massive blow. The issues run far deeper than Mauricio Pochettino — see what fun it is when you have three key players on expiring deals — but it’s also pretty evident that this team just plays differently.
It’s not just the 4-3-1-2 we saw the last few games, it’s also the lack of intensity and pressing, which had been Pochettino hallmarks earlier in his tenure. Some of it may be by choice and some of it may be forced upon him, but it looks like a whole other team, despite the fact that many of the names are the same.
The silver lining? Pochettino’s mega-contact makes him extremely difficult to sack, which means he’ll have plenty of time to take on what may be the biggest challenge of his career.
Dortmund’s flaws hurt them again
OK, this isn’t funny anymore. Borussia Dortmund threw away yet another opportunity to nose their way into the Bundesliga hunt, drawing 2-2 at Freiburg. You can budget for that sort of result — Freiburg are a good side — but it’s hard to fathom how you twice let a lead slip away, eventually dropping two points on an own-goal with a minute to go.
Fingers will be pointed at defender Manuel Akanji but the truth is that Dortmund broke down further up the pitch, wasting opportunity and simply taking their foot off the gas with a 2-0 lead. Lucien Favre has been around the block and has a reputation as a cerebral boss. Time for him to live up to it. And, if necessary, crack the whip.
Stop worrying about Pulisic at Chelsea!
I was thousands of miles away from the ESPN studio in Bristol when we were asked for the umpteenth time about Christian Pulisic and Frank Lampard, but even then I could sense Craig Burley rapidly reaching his boiling point. I covered this last week, so no need to get into it again, but no, an assist for Michy Batshuayi in garbage time of a 4-1 away win against Southampton isn’t going to move the needle for him in terms of playing time.
What will move the needle is what he shows every day in training and the performance of the guys who play his position. So far, those performances have been so good that Lampard rightly put his faith in other players. Leave Pulisic alone: he turned 21 last month, let him reach the level he’s going to reach. Hopefully, though, the 11 minutes he got after being left out of the squad entirely in midweek might convince some that Lampard doesn’t bear a personal grudge against him.
Icardi stars as PSG dismantle Angers
Technically, it was a top-of-the-table clash but you wouldn’t have known it given the way Paris Saint-Germain disassembled Angers at the Parc des Princes in Ligue 1. With Kylian Mbappe and Edinson Cavani still out, Mauro Icardi notched his first Ligue 1 goal, turning in a typically minimalist performance (just 21 touches) on the way to a 4-0 win.
The big question is what happens when Cavani returns. Is Icardi just a guy to eat up minutes and bang in goals while the veteran Uruguayan (who goes out of contract in June) saves himself for the big games? Time, and Thomas Tuchel, will tell.
Atletico still a work in progress
If you want to insist on seeing the glass as half-full, you’ll note that Atletico Madrid are on track in the Champions League for a spot in the round of 16 and are third in La Liga, three points off the pace. If you’re more of a glass half-empty inclination, then “Cholismo 2.0” is proving to be a dud.
Joao Felix, Alvaro Morata and Diego Costa all started together for the first time this season and achieved something close to nothing away to Valladolid, who also managed to miss a penalty. The tinkering continues but the impression is that we don’t need to see this trio again. Not unless the midfield suddenly kicks it up a notch.