We gravitate towards simple explanations, so the reason Chelsea lost 2-0 away to Arsenal at the Emirates is simple: Maurizio Sarri played his two best players (N’Golo Kante and Eden Hazard) out of position. Easy, right?
Wrong. For a start, Chelsea had no divine right to win at the Emirates, not when they were one place ahead of them in the table. Not when they’d actually beaten them just once in their seven previous encounters, and not when they hadn’t played particularly well since long before the holidays.
Beyond that, Unai Emery won the tactical battle, lining up in a diamond with Aaron Ramsey deputized to harass Jorginho and the front two going wide to pin back the full-backs. And once they were 2-0 up, Arsenal focused on managing the game, intelligently ceding possession of the sterile kind in areas where they couldn’t be hurt.
The victory doesn’t paper over the club’s issues — Mesut Ozil is still on the bench, Sven Mislintat is still leaving, Emery is still saying he can only make loan signings in January — but it’s wins like this that help build belief in Emery. And as any manager will tell you, the more buy-in he gets from his players, the better equipped he is to affect things positively.
Whatever happens, this will be a transition season for the Gunners. Arsenal losing their chief executive and head of recruitment in the space of a few months, with a new manager to boot and the hangover of some big contracts, Ramsey packing his bags after a decade at the club: all of this matters. What Arsenal fans need to remember, I think, is that this is a process. And if/when Emery finally gets the side he wants, it may look a whole lot different than the one he currently has.
As for Sarri, he was evidently out-coached. We’ll get to his post-match comments below but the notion that Jorginho getting pressed causes such disruption and havoc is overplayed. You don’t need to be some kind of super-scout to realize so much of the play goes through him and that if you park someone on his backside, it’s harder for him to do his job.
But it’s not the first time opponents have keyed in on him, dating back to his time at Napoli. And that’s when you need to deal with it in different ways, like moving him wide to drag his marker with him, getting one of your ball-playing center-backs to step into midfield (at Napoli it was Raul Albiol) or one of your wingers to drop. There are ways to deal with it but against Arsenal, whatever he tried did not work.
Whatever it is, as I’ve written before, those who simply urge Sarri to flip Jorginho’s and Kante’s positions don’t seem to understand how he plays.
Put Kante in front of the back four, and you have a guy in a playmaker role without the skills to do it. Put Jorginho in Kante’s role, and you’re asking a guy to go and press high and run around who evidently doesn’t have the athleticism to do it. The only way it works is if you change the game plan entirely and move away from Sarri’s style of football; if you’re going to do that, though, you might as well appoint a different manager.
Some coaches are pragmatists, others are system managers and everyone else falls somewhere on that continuum. Sarri is a system guy; that’s what got him the job at Chelsea. If you are not satisfied with the way he plays, you’re better off changing managers than asking him to change his system.
The other point concerns Hazard deployed in the center-forward role. Alvaro Morata is out the door and Olivier Giroud hasn’t played 90 minutes of Premier League football since mid-September. You need another solution up front and since it worked with a small, tricky Belgian winger at Napoli — Dries Mertens was drafted in from the wing to play center-forward and scored 56 goals in two seasons — he figured it would work with another small, tricky Belgian winger.
Except it doesn’t. Hazard may be a better footballer than Mertens, but his movements are all different. Mertens stayed in the penalty area and only drifted to create space for teammates. Hazard goes wide and drops deep to build play, leaving a hole in the middle. Time and again we saw it. It might be something that works if you have a full pre-season to test it, but Chelsea doesn’t have that luxury.
While they wait for Higuain to rock up, a better solution might be Pedro through the middle.
Will Sarri come to regret his outburst?
After the 2-0 defeat, we saw Sarri calling out his Chelsea players post-match, saying they had the wrong mentality, that they were “never going to be a team well-known for its battling qualities” and that they were “difficult to motivate.”
The knee-jerk brigade immediately saw parallels to his predecessors, Antonio Conte and Jose Mourinho, starting to blame their players when things went wrong. In fact, the two situations really aren’t comparable. Conte and Mourinho were coming off title-winning seasons and their beefs lay as much with the club as with the squad. Sarri took over a team that finished fifth, has been there less than six months and, by all accounts, hasn’t had comparable spats with players. (Contrast this with Conte’s final season when he banished both David Luiz and Diego Costa, two popular players in the dressing room, to the naughty step.)
The translation of Sarri’s comments (I listened to the original, too) was pretty accurate, but as often happens in these situations, he likely wishes he could take a mulligan here. When he spoke of a team not known “for battling” what he meant was that this team is built around technique and movement in possession and pressing high off it, rather than defending deeper. They’re more guile than muscle. As for the wrong mentality in the game, nobody who saw it would dispute that. Nor is he saying that he doesn’t bear the responsibility for it.
As for the “motivational” thing, again the “insta-pundit” reaction is to say “Well, Maurizio, it’s your job to motivate them.” And evidently, speaking out like this is his way of doing it. Again, though, he’s not blameless. As he did in his final season at Napoli, he has been valuing chemistry so much that he plays the same guys, week in, week out. Not only is that demoralising for the rest of the squad — guys like Andreas Christensen, Emerson, Hudson-Odoi and, when he was fit, Ruben Loftus-Cheek could have contributed — but it can leave some of his preferred players in a comfort zone.
It was notable that he added that he wants his players to come see him, confront him and ask questions. If they haven’t been doing that (and they should have been) then it’s time for them to start. We’ll know in the next few weeks whether airing all this in public was a good idea or not.
Real get revenge vs. tired Sevilla
Given that Real Madrid haven’t played anything like Real Madrid should play in several months, Santi Solari needed a reaction against Sevilla. He got it, too, against a side that had road-graded them back in September under his predecessor, Julen Lopetegui.
Luka Modric turned back the clock to last season’s levels, Casemiro was a powerhouse, the back line conceded little other than an early counter-attack wasted by Sergio Escudero and Vinicius continues to grow up front. Isco and Marcelo were still on the bench and Gareth Bale was wherever Bale goes when he’s injured, which is often. But don’t let the late goals fool you: this was a convincing and comprehensive win.
Barcelona are 10 points ahead in La Liga, so the title ship has likely sailed. And, even when Toni Kroos returns, you wonder if this side has enough quality to make a dent in the Champions League. But at least you’re seeing a platform on which something can be built, perhaps with some big moves in the summer.
As for Sevilla, above all else they looked tired and spent. Pablo Machin’s football can take a lot out of you, and they look like a side running on fumes right now.
PSG have a midfield mess
Some 10 days earlier, with the help of three penalties, Guingamp knocked Paris Saint-Germain out of the French League Cup. Maybe that’s why Thomas Tuchel’s crew took out all their fury on Saturday on the Ligue 1 cellar-dwellers. It finished 9-0, with hat-tricks for Edinson Cavani and Kylian Mbappe.
Yet PSG’s day was marred by the injury to Marco Verratti, who should be out for three to four weeks. That means they say “au revoir” to their last remaining central midfielder given that Adrien Rabiot is out of the squad for disciplinary (well, contractual) reasons and Lassana Diarra is on his way out as well. It’s pretty grotesque that they find themselves in this situation, with Dani Alves (yes, really) and Julian Draxler forced into midfield duty.
Are Spurs in trouble?
Tottenham’s ability to create breaks for themselves when things are going against them continues to astound. Yes, Fulham gifted them both goals in their 2-1 comeback win on Sunday — the second one was particularly infuriating for Claudio Ranieri — but equally, you need a guy like Harry Winks to sprint the length of the pitch after running himself into the ground as a defensive midfielder to benefit from those gifts.
Mauricio Pochettino has been coping with injuries all year and things just got worse: with Harry Kane and Heung-Min Son already unavailable, Dele Alli went down with a hamstring injury as well. Tottenham have defied the odds time and again, so you’re wary of betting against them. But it’s obvious that a front three of Erik Lamela, Fernando Llorente and Lucas Moura (assuming he’s fit again) is not quite the same thing.
On top of that, some key guys like Christian Eriksen (who isn’t the most athletic player to begin with) got very little rest over the festive period, playing four games in nine days at a time when other clubs were rotating to some degree.
Barcelona need Messi to save the day (again)
With a trip to Sevilla and the Sanchez Pizjuan coming up in midweek, Ernesto Valverde left Lionel Messi on the bench in a “BREAK GLASS IN CASE OF EMERGENCY” situation for the visit of Leganes. You can’t blame Valverde for getting Philippe Coutinho minutes in a starting role and thinking Luis Suarez and Ousmane Dembele would provide enough oomph against a relegation-threatened opponent.
But after Dembele’s opener, Legnes equalized early in the second half and, inevitably, the call came. So Messi did what Messi does: he set up Suarez’s goal to make it 2-1 (which took an age to confirm because the Uruguayan also flattened the keeper when he scored) and then added insurance deep in injury time to make it 3-1.
Other than that, Dembele looked sharp but went off injured (we’ll know more today) while the midfield was, again, lacking in creativity. This is the stage of the season when Barca, evidently, are pacing themselves. You get that luxury when you can bring Messi off the bench.
Dortmund grind out a priceless win
The most obvious thing, as we’ve noted before, about Lucien Favre’s Borussia Dortmund this season is that they can beat you with dazzling pace and youth, but they can also hang in there and get the veterans to grind it out. A trip away to Leipzig, without Marco Reus no less, was the classic trap game, particularly after Bayern’s win Friday night cut the lead to just three points.
Dortmund needed all their grit and experience — and Julian Weigl at centre-half given the absences of Omar Toprak, Dan-Axel Zagadou and Manuel Akanji — to withstand Leipzig’s assault after Axel Witsel put the visitors ahead. Some tremendous Roman Burki saves did the rest. They once again showed a dimension they arguably haven’t had since the early Jurgen Klopp Era.
Was that the real Liverpool vs. Palace?
Jurgen Klopp seemed incredulous that Liverpool find themselves with sixty points after 23 games, putting them on pace for 99 points. So he should be, because their results have been better than their performances and Saturday’s 4-3 win over Crystal Palace (an error-strewn game) was more of the same.
There are two ways to look at this. Either this is their level and they’ll regress to the mean, which suggests Manchester City shouldn’t give up on the title just yet. Or they’ll start playing better down the stretch and be just fine.
Ancelotti is getting the best out of Napoli
The most evident difference between Maurizo Sarri’s Napoli and Carlo Ancelotti’s version this year? A season ago, you had 11 starters and when more than a couple were missing, it was simply a different team, one that needed superhuman heroics from individuals to stay competitive. This year, Ancelotti has been using his entire squad and making sure that even when key pieces are out, Napoli maintain their identity.
Sunday’s 2-1 home victory over Lazio is a case in point. Against an opponent pushing for a top-four spot, Napoli lined up without their best attacking player (Lorenzo Insigne), best midfielder (Allan), club captain (Marek Hamsik) and best defender (and some might say best player, Kalidou Koulibaly). They still controlled the game, scored twice and hit the woodwork three times.
Napoli’s reserves feel important to a degree they likely never felt last year. And that is making all the difference.
VAR adds to Monaco’s malaise
Whatever your feelings on VAR, you hope we can all agree that if it’s to be used, the actual technology has to functioning. That’s apparently what did not happen when Monaco were routed 5-1 at the weekend by Strasbourg, raising the ire of manager Thierry Henry.
Henry, whose team is second from bottom in Ligue 1, was incensed when he was told a penalty non-call against Monaco could not be reviewed since VAR was offline. At the time, they were down 2-1 with half an hour to go. There have been unconfirmed rumours of this happening on occasion throughout Europe. It doesn’t take a genius to figure out that if VAR stops working, authorities can’t cover it up and pretend they’re simply not seeing anything worth reviewing.
Zapata, Muriel light up Serie A this weekend
It was a great weekend for Colombians in Serie A. Atalanta striker Duvan Zapata, who had never scored more than 13 league goals in a single season, bagged no fewer than four against Frosinone away in a 5-0 victory: he now has 14 goals in his last eight games in all competitions.
And how about Luis Muriel? He joined Fiorentina on loan from Sevilla and, on his Serie A debut (a 3-3 draw with Sampdoria) simply went out and did this.
They’re very different players. Zapata is your blue-collar, mid-table center-forward who, for whatever reason, is enjoying the greatest spell of his career. Muriel is a former “can’t-miss” prospect who, at 27, is looking to jump-start his career for the umpteenth time. He’ll never reach the heights some had predicted for him when he was a teenager, but the technical ability and athleticism that had scouts drooling back in the day hasn’t gone away.