Missed any of the action around Europe this weekend? Have no fear: Gab Marcotti is here to catch you up with all the talking points in the latest Monday Musings.
Jump to: Setien’s Barca a mess so far | Kobe the soccer fan | Why Juve lost at Napoli | Klopp entitled to play LFC kids | Zidane, Real keep winning | Man United escape Tranmere | Haaland stars again for Dortmund | Neymar, PSG peaking? | Bayern back in title race | Inter slip again in Serie A | Don’t worry about RB Leipzig | Lazio’s hot streak ends | Lo Celso perfect for Spurs | Praise for Atalanta | Williams abused in Spain
Setien’s attempts to recreate ‘classic’ Barca didn’t work
Quique Setien’s appointment at Barcelona was hailed, by those who wanted Ernesto Valverde gone, as a return to the club’s core values. It’s a fuzzy notion that seems taken straight from a politicians’ playbook, but still, it’s not without merit… provided it’s part of an actual plan.
The problem with Barca is that once they agreed it was time for Valverde to go (not necessarily the wrong decision, by the way), they were all over the place in terms of possible replacements. During their truncated search, they went from a guy with plenty of “Barca DNA” who has 27 games as a manager under his belt (Xavi), to a guy who spent six years at Barca but whose football is of a different stripe (Ronald Koeman), to Setien, who is 61 and has no historical ties to the club. It felt as if Setien was ushered in once the Xavi news leaked to avoid embarrassing Valverde even further.
What we’ve seen from Setien looks like an attempt to recreate the Barcelona of a decade ago, albeit mostly the bad bits.
– Marsden: Setien learns size of his task at Barca
Against Valencia in Saturday’s 2-0 loss, it was almost a parody. Eight hundred and sixty-seven passes, tons of the most sterile possession, defenders caught out of position, almost no legitimate chances created. Most of all, it was their first time in 27 attempts that they failed to score against Valencia and it came in a match where their opponents started without arguably two of their three best players, as Dani Parejo was unavailable and Rodrigo Moreno was on the bench.
Forget the haters’ stereotyping. Setien isn’t some philosophical fool, preaching possession for the sake of it. And, in fact, after the game, he recognised that the vast majority of his team’s passes “served no purpose.” The question is whether he can get them to serve a purpose, whether the possession, the probing, can be turned into a creative force like it was in the early Guardiola era. That takes creative midfielders, strikers who make the right runs at the right time and, above all, the sort of chemistry you don’t build in a few weeks. It’s up to Setien to build it, and to demand it to suddenly appear after three games is just silly.
There are two broader issues that need to be addressed, however, and these aren’t as straightforward. Guardiola’s Barcelona worked because they kept the ball, yes, but also because when they lost it they pressed with a viciousness and collective intensity few of their contemporaries can match. Can you press as effectively with a 32-year-old Lionel Messi and a 28-year-old Antoine Griezmann? It’s not clear to me that you can.
The other issue is Luis Suarez‘s absence. He turned 33 last week and won’t be back for several months. Logic would suggest bringing in a striker, which explains why they were linked to Rodrigo; incidentally, that’s why he started on the Valencia bench. But can you commit serious funds to someone now when you’ll likely need to do it again in the summer?
Barcelona’s season is far from over. Heck, the gap is just three points between them and Real Madrid, they’re alive and well in the Champions League and who knows? With Messi and Marc-Andre ter Stegen, who saved them a greater embarrassment at the Mestalla and is as close to a shutdown keeper as there is in the game today, anything can happen. But they may want to think about their next steps right about now so they don’t get caught (again). As far as Setien is concerned, let him do his work and use the rest of the season to figure out whether you want to keep him around.
Remembering Kobe the soccer fan
At the sort of level Kobe Bryant inhabited, superstardom is universal, slipping across boundaries of sport and even outside it. It’s not surprising then that his tragic passing Sunday turned into an indelible “where were you?” moment for so many, including the football world. But Kobe’s link to football goes far beyond it, probably further than any other American NBA star.
Simply put, he was a genuine football fan, bitten by the bug at an early age, thanks to the fact that he spent seven years (ages 6-13) living in Italy, where his dad, Joe “Jellybean” Bryant, played professionally. He was a Milan supporter, like many of his generation who marvelled at Arrigo Sacchi’s powerhouse of that era: Marco Van Basten and Franco Baresi, Ruud Gullit and Paolo Maldini. Little did he know he would become their sporting peer in another discipline.
And that love of football, which went deeper than mere love of competition (though obviously he had plenty of that), continued to grow and flourished even after he moved back home, first to Philadelphia and Lower Merion High School and then to Los Angeles. He returned to Europe whenever he could, catching a game or a bit of training camp. He watched with the enthusiasm of a fan and the affinity of a fellow elite athlete.
Grief, like fame, is universal in these cases, but that star-fan cross-sport duality sets him apart.
Why Juve lost at Napoli
You can chalk up Juve’s 2-1 defeat at Napoli to two things. One is purely emotional. After four straight home defeats and seeing their side tumble from seventh to 14th after Carlo Ancelotti’s sacking, the San Paolo crowd were ready to unleash all their rage and frustration. They understandably targeted the two men they identified as “uber Judases” in the Juventus ranks (Gonzalo Higuain and Maurizio Sarri), but if the game hadn’t gone their way, you can be sure that same venom would have been reserved for their guys. Instead, Rino Gattuso kept them tight, appealed to their pride (something he does very well) and channelled the emotion of the night to his advantage.
The other is down to Juve’s failings and the stop-start nature of their campaign. They were as poor in Naples as they had been impressive against Roma in midweek. There’s no consistency to their performances. And while Sarri should be praised for being bold — namely playing Higuain, Paulo Dybala and Cristiano Ronaldo on the road in a big game — you’ve got to question why this side regularly looks so sluggish in their build-up play.
It’s January, and in terms of where the club want to be in terms of performance, Juve are still a work in progress. I guess it’s understandable given their recent history and the handbrake turn that was Sarri’s appointment. But this Jekyll/Hyde thing — and let’s face it, it’s been more Hyde than Jekyll lately — ought to be a concern and can’t be papered over by results.
Klopp is entitled to play Liverpool youth in FA Cup replay
Liverpool drew 2-2 away to Shrewsbury in the FA Cup, which means they get to enjoy a fourth-round replay next week. It’s pretty evident where Jurgen Klopp’s priorities lie. He played Neco Williams, Harvey Elliott, Curtis Jones and Yasser Larouci (average age: 17; total Premier League starts: 0; total Premier League minutes this season: 16) together with three guys returning from injury: Joel Matip (no starts since October), Fabinho (no starts since Novemger) and Dejan Lovren (no starts since December).
– Liverpool ratings: Jones 7/10, Lovren 4/10
If that was Liverpool’s B-team, the side we’ll see for the replay will be the C-team since he has already indicated he’ll play a lineup similar to the one he fielded in the League Cup quarterfinal vs. Aston Villa in December, when the real Liverpool were away for the Club World Cup. Why? Because he had already made plans for a winter break and had even been instructed by the Premier League not to schedule any friendlies in that time period.
Klopp is entirely entitled to do as he wishes. Playing a full season at the level (and with the style) Liverpool do is taxing and requires planning. His actions already show that he values other competitions more than the League Cup and the FA Cup. It’s his call, and if he chooses this path it’s because he has his club’s blessing. I see no problem with this whatsoever, and, in fact, maybe it will get the Football Association to actually think about things like fixture congestion.
Zidane quietly making Real stronger
There has always been a bit of snark about Zinedine Zidane’s three Champions League titles. It was a nice feat and all, but he did it with Cristiano Ronaldo and a host of Galacticos. And in only one of his campaigns did he actually challenge properly for the title (2016-17, when he won it.). Well, he’s proving those guys wrong.
Obviously Ronaldo is long gone. But Gareth Bale and Eden Hazard, two guys who were supposed to pick up the slack in his absence, haven’t started a game in weeks. And yet, here they are: three wins on the trot and, after Sunday’s 1-0 away to Valladolid, three points clear at the top. This is more of a resilient, week in, week out, grinder of a team, at least until the front men return, and Zidane is a big part of making it work. It’s a side of him many failed to recognise existed.
Man United lucky, in a sense, at Tranmere
There’s only so much you can learn from Manchester United’s 6-0 away win to Tranmere Rovers, a League 1 side that have bigger fish to fry (they’re fighting to avoid relegation) and had come through a draining 120 minutes of football to beat Watford three days earlier. United did what they were supposed to do, and perhaps the most significant takeaway is that there is no question the players believe in Ole Gunnar Solskjaer and aren’t about to down tools or anything like that.
– Ogden: Victory does little to calm anger around Man United
– Man United ratings: Maguire 8/10, Lingard 7/10 in big win
The other thing that was, frankly, shocking was the state of the pitch. It’s the sort of pitch players get hurt on. Obviously Tranmere’s resources are limited, but you wonder if we’re not getting close to the day when a club like United finds it cheaper to pay to have the opposition’s pitch relaid than run the risk of seeing one of their stars injured.
Haaland takes headlines again for Dortmund
Once again, Erling Braut Haaland came off the bench. Once again, he scored, this time limiting himself to two goals after last week’s hat-trick. Once again, Borussia Dortmund scored five times, with Cologne their victims this week.
Haaland obviously is overshadowing everything else these days. Five goals in 61 minutes on the pitch — including a gem like his second, where he showed the acceleration of a much smaller man and the presence of mind of a much older man — tell their own story, especially when paired with the 28 goals in 22 appearances at Salzburg before his move.
More importantly from Borussia Dortmund’s perspective, they took the game over from the start, stamped their authority early and didn’t relent. They’re up to fourth in the table.
The test, Haaland aside, remains whether Dortmund can defend and not concede silly goals. This week, unlike last week, they passed with flying colors. But the jury is still out.
Neymar, PSG peaking at right time?
We’ve been accustomed in recent years to a certain pattern with Paris Saint-Germain. They race out to a massive lead in Ligue 1, they impress in the Champions League group stages, Neymar gets injured and they limp out of Europe with a chip on their shoulder.
Knock on wood, but Neymar is fit and scored both goals in their 2-0 win at Lille, an opponent who hadn’t lost at home since March. They also seem focused and determined, rather than flashy and flaky like in recent seasons. They don’t feel like a side in their comfort zone, and that bodes well for the Champions League.
Bayern are back in Bundesliga title race
Bayern Munich’s 5-0 pummelling of Schalke was far from routine. They may have been a basket case last season, but David Wagner had given them a sense of purpose and they were on an emotional high after the win over Borussia Monchengladbach. That said, the way Bayern dismantled them on the pitch shows the gap that exists when the Bavarians kick into gear.
Leon Goretzka was outstanding, Thiago Alcantara was back to his best and Alphonso Davies is growing into his new left-back role to the point that Hansi Flick may have a decision to make when Lucas Hernandez returns.
Inter let more points slip in Serie A
Inter dropped two points for the third straight game, and again they squandered a lead. It happened away to Cagliari, finishing 1-1, and it left Antonio Conte furious and Lautaro Martinez sent off (and facing a potential extra game ban, which would rule him out of the Milan derby). It feels like a deja vu, and the fact that (ex-Inter midfielder) Radja Nainggolan‘s goal was deflected doesn’t change the fact that they struggled once again at managing a lead.
Conte is engaging in some Premier League retail therapy — Victor Moses and Ashley Young are already on board, Christian Eriksen‘s arrival is imminent and Olivier Giroud might yet join them — but the real issue again seems to be off the ball and in midfield. If you don’t have players who can play with the intensity you demand in the middle of the park for 90 minutes, maybe it’s time to tweak the way you play?
Don’t panic about Leipzig
There’s no reason to freak out over RB Leipzig’s 2-0 defeat at Eintracht Frankfurt. Yes, the nine-game unbeaten streak (and the string of consecutive games scoring three or more goals) is over and Bayern have crept to within a point of first place, with ‘Gladbach just two behind.
But this was a defeat in which they conceded a worldie and a garbage-time counterattacking goal. They still created oodles of chances at the other end and kept Frankfurt far away for most of the game. Oh, and they’ve just added Dani Olmo, one of the most coveted forwards out there, with the €45m ($50m) fee making him the most expensive transfer this window. I stand to be proved wrong, but I still make them favourites to win the Bundesliga.
Lazio’s streak ends (and it’s not a bad thing)
Lazio’s streak of consecutive Serie A victories ends at 11, following their 1-1 draw in the Rome derby. At some point, they were bound to regress to the mean, especially since during that streak, their results were better than their performances on more than one occasion. That they even got a point against Roma has more to do with an absolute Pau Lopez shocker (check it out on YouTube, it’s worth it) than anything else.
This takes nothing away from Lazio’s season and the job Simone Inzaghi is doing. And had they sneaked a win here, they might have even gone on to break Inter’s mark of consecutive Serie A wins. As for Roma, they remain true to the approachj of Paulo Fonseca, who showed, again, that he’s not just a good manager, he’s a gutsy one as well, leaving out long-time Rome derby veterans like Alessandro Florenzi and Aleksandar Kolarov.
Spurs have their Eriksen replacement already
Tottenham and Southampton drew 1-1 in their FA Cup fourth round meeting, which means they’re going to a replay nobody wanted. If there is a silver lining for Jose Mourinho, it’s Giovani Lo Celso. The Argentine was slowed by injuries after arriving on loan from Betis this past summer, but with Eriksen on his way to Inter, Lo Celso showed he can do many of the things the Dane offered in his prime. That’s why Spurs are making his deal permanent, stumping up the circa $35 million it will take to buy him outright in January (and saving themselves some $7m over what it would have cost in the summer).
Lo Celso is 23, he already has big club experience at Paris Saint-Germain, he can fill several roles and he’s not a prima donna. What’s not to like?
A word of praise for Atalanta
They just keep doing it. Atalanta’s 7-0 away whupping of Torino leaves them fourth in Serie A, and only Manchester City have scored more in Europe’s Big Five leagues. Josip Ilicic bagged a hat-trick, including an absurd, goal of the season contender (never mind that the keeper wasn’t paying attention, not even Godzilla was stopping that) to seal another impressive weekend.
A reminder: they’re doing this purely thanks to a supreme team effort. The closest thing they have to a superstar is Alejandro “Papu” Gomez; the rest are kids, role players or retreads. And their wage bill is only the 12th highest in Serie A. Oh, and to show this isn’t a freak result, they did it last season too. There’s plenty to learn there…
Racial abuse in Spain
Atlhletic Bilbao forward Inaki Williams was quite audibly racially abused by a portion of the crowd away to Espanyol on Saturday. It’s not the first time it has happened to him, and, predictably, the authorities have said what you expect them to say: it won’t be tolerated, they’ll identify those responsible and pursue to the full extent possible under the law and so on.
Williams did what he was supposed to do. He alerted his captain, who spoke to the referee, though oddly it didn’t make it into his match report. While they’re at it, the Spanish football authorities might want to look into that too, along with why the protocol wasn’t applied.