Liverpool won 3-2 vs. Leicester City at the King Power Stadium, and what could have been chance to follow a range of other storylines — their first victory since August, Philippe Coutinho’s stunning performance — instead turns into a discussion of their defending. You sense this will be a theme all season long.
There were pretty craven defensive errors for both of Leicester’s goals in Saturday’s victory (and, no, the fact that Simon Mignolet may or may not have been fouled doesn’t change the way they reacted to the set piece). Still, that might have been lost on the greater public beyond Liverpool forums if not for the fact that Jurgen Klopp talked about it postmatch.
“The main thing for defending is tactical discipline. I don’t know everything about football, but I could write a book in the next two hours about which space we have to defend, why, when and where you have to be. When you have to step up, push up… all that stuff,” he said. “I am responsible. I can’t take a car and drive them out of the box. That’s how it is. As long as not every player is doing it, we will work on it. When everyone is doing it, I will make sure we are doing it for the rest of our lives.”
There’s a basic point to make here, and this applies to other clubs who defend up the pitch and press, from Manchester City to Barcelona to Borussia Dortmund. When things go wrong, these teams will look especially bad. When you don’t have top-drawer defensive full-backs (no disrespect to Joe Gomez and Alberto Moreno) and your midfielders are perpetually on the front foot and you find yourself forced to defend in space, it gets that much harder, and it’s easier to look bad. Relative to a team that’s more safety-oriented, you don’t necessarily concede more goals, but the ones you do give up are worse.
The question is how you minimize this inevitable weakness. In the simplest terms, you either invest in outstanding defenders whose quickness and reading of the game mean they will make fewer mistakes when they’re exposed. Or you work on your system and your tactical cohesion so that your defensive movements are more synchronized, and you minimize danger that way.
The former option is not viable at this time. Klopp hasn’t been helped by injuries (Nathaniel Clyne is Exhibit A) but neither has he really helped himself. It was his choice to go into the season with three central defenders (Dejan Lovren, Ragnar Klavan and Joel Matip) who range from good to average. When the pursuit of Virgil Van Dijk faltered, he could have opted for someone else: he chose not to.
That shows belief in his guys. And that’s commendable until they don’t deliver. But if they’re still making mistakes and still not quite understanding the tactical discipline he’s teaching as he acknowledged, then there’s a problem. And it’s up to him to solve it, on the training pitch. They were all there together last year; they’ve all had plenty of time to work together.
To his credit, Klopp doesn’t hide. He admits the buck stops with him. Asking him to overhaul his style of play, by packing the midfield with guys who sit, is a non-starter. He’s a pressing manager; that’s the philosophy, and that’s what got him to Anfield. But if he wants to stay there and progress, he needs to get his crew to execute better. Either that, or have the courage to make better personnel decisions.
Man-marking works on Messi this time
In a game overshadowed by demonstrations and choruses in favour of Catlalan independence, Girona managed to cover Lionel Messi, the guy who had carried Barcelona to this point. They stuck Pablo Maffeo, on loan from Manchester City, in an old-fashioned man-marking job on Messi, and he saw little of the ball as a result.
Whether that was the answer or whether it was simply Messi taking a (deserved) day off, it made little difference to Barcelona, who still sailed to a 3-0 win and maintained their perfect record in La Liga: 18 out of a possible 18 points and the top of the table.
Man-marking has obviously fallen out of favour over the past decades, and in some ways, it’s a self-fulfilling prophecy: because few teams ever do it, there are fewer specialists. Maffeo is 20, and odds are that he can count on one hand the number of times he’s been asked to do it. But you wonder if perhaps it’s something we’ll see again in an effort to stop Messi.
The stock answer is that if you man-mark, all it takes is some intelligent movement from the guy who is marked and you open up vast swathes in your own defence. Against Barca in recent years, with Neymar, Luis Suarez and Andres Iniesta ready to run into space, that would have been close to self-destruction. But Neymar is in Paris now, the guy in his place in the front three on Saturday was Aleix Vidal, Iniesta is 33 and Suarez is still not firing on all cylinders this season.
It may well be something to revisit.
Guardiola remains realistic about Man City
Leave it to Pep Guardiola to dampen enthusiasm by reminding everyone that this time last year, Manchester City were doing even better than they are now. They had two more points in the table and had arguably played a tougher schedule, winning away to Manchester United. We know how things ended up (third place, 15 points behind the champions) so maybe he’s right not to get carried away. And yet it’s hard not to when you see performances like the 5-0 hammering of Crystal Palace.
It’s not just the goals or the ease with which they seemingly created clear-cut chances with one or two passes or movements. What’s perhaps most impressive is the way Guardiola can so comfortably mix and match his attacking players based on the circumstances. Leroy Sane, Raheem Sterling, Kevin De Bruyne, Gabriel Jesus, Sergio Aguero, David Silva and Bernardo Silva: That’s seven legitimate A-listers (eight, if you want to throw in Yaya Toure, whom we haven’t seen much of yet) that are almost entirely interchangeable based on the opposition and what you want to do.
What can stop them? Maybe what stopped them last year: the defensive side of the game. If Vincent Kompany’s not fit and Eliaquim Mangala reverts to being the guy we saw two years ago, that’s a lot of strain for the Nicolas Otamendi-John Stones partnership to carry. And, equally, just how good Ederson is — and by good, I mean not just better than Claudio Bravo a year ago — is to be determined.
Maybe we’ll find out as early as next week, when they travel to face Chelsea.
Bundesliga hasn’t figured out Bosz, Dortmund yet
I’m not a Peter Bosz guy. He never quite did it for me, sending wave after wave of players up the pitch, wasting tons of energy pressing blindly and forcing your guys at the back to defend on a wing and a prayer seemed like disjointed, playground stuff that a more clever manager could quite easily figure out once the element of surprise was gone.
But heck, the guy is proving me wrong week after week and Borussia Dortmund are on fire. Their 6-1 win over Borussia Monchengladbach leads them top of the Bundesliga, two points clear of Hoffenheim and three ahead of Bayern, who were held at home by Wolfsburg on Friday. Their goal difference is a whopping 19 scored and one conceded.
Against Gladbach, they were leading 3-0 by half-time. You can quibble and point out that the all-out attacking does have its flaws — Lars Stindl and Thorgan Hazard fluffed chances at the other end, and the game might have taken a different turn — it’s pretty obvious that Bundesliga sides have yet to figure Bosz out.
Real get it done despite difficulties
Real Madrid have been playing better than their results. Yes, it happens sometimes, which is why those who simply stare at the table and draw broad conclusions based on who is two points above or behind (or, worse, based on goal difference) at this stage of the season are so terribly misguided. That said, when you’ve already dropped seven points — most of them against sides likely to end up outside the top half — bad results create a snowball effect, one that you can’t magic away by simply talking about regression to the mean.
That made beating Alaves, a poor side who just fired their manager, so important. It wasn’t something to be taken for granted without Karim Benzema, Toni Kroos and Marcelo (and his back up, Theo Hernandez) unavailable while Gareth Bale and Luka Modric were on the bench. And as the game wore on, it got tougher than anticipated.
In the end, Dani Ceballos (making his first Liga start for the club) grabbed two goals and offered further evidence of the depth available to Zinedine Zidane. Real Madrid missed an industrial quantity of chances — the worst, possibly, fell to Sergio Ramos — and while they hit the woodwork twice, so did Alaves.
When things aren’t going your way, stuff like this happens. What matters is putting in a performance, soldiering on and not falling behind, which is what Madrid did.
What’s Mourinho complaining about?
You’d have thought Jose Mourinho would be pleased after Manchester United’s 1-0 win away to Southampton. Mauricio Pellegrino’s men have been playing much better than the league table suggests, and while a Paul Pogba-less United found themselves under pressure at times, they were tough and resilient. In some ways, it was similar to their previous outings, minus the late game goals.
If he was grumpy because he was sent off, he had every right to be. Sometimes, common sense applies. Sure, he encroached on the pitch and left his technical area, but he wasn’t harassing the fourth official or haranguing his opposite number. (In fact, after getting his marching orders, he made it a point of shaking the hand of every single coach on the Southampton bench, which likely won’t endear him to English referees, who tend not to appreciate the theatrical.)
More ominous perhaps were his comments about fatigue.
“[My players] were really tired at the end,” he said. “Nine of them didn’t play in midweek, so nine of them, it’s not even an accumulation fatigue… I saw some players not sharp. Great spirit and always trying, but not the same sharpness.”
It may be just meaningless, postmatch Mourinho-speak. Or it might suggest we’ll see a bit more rotation, given that seven of his players have started every league game this season. He certainly has the squad to do it, particularly at the back and in attacking midfield.
Don’t blame PSG draw on absent Neymar
Neymar missed Saturday’s trip to Montpellier with a foot injury, and Paris Saint-Germain were held 0-0. It shouldn’t be a binary equation but inevitably, many saw it that way. No Neymar, no win.
In fact, the reason PSG dropped their first points of the campaign has more to do with the opposition and a frankly hideous performance, particularly in midfield and attack. You shouldn’t need Neymar to break down Montpellier, even if they park the bus. PSG created two clear-cut chances, one for Edinson Cavani and one for Kylian Mbappe, and wasted both. On another occasion, Mbappe ignored a wide-open Cavani and fired at the keeper.
On a different day, one of those chances goes in, Montpellier open up, and it’s a big win for the visitors. But that doesn’t change the fact that for much of the game they looked static, unimaginative and at times uninterested.
Unai Emery needs to step up. Nobody expects them to win every game, but they ought to at least perform in every match. What we saw in Montpellier was just ugly, and you can’t simply blame it on Neymar.
Cause for concern with Higuain at Juventus?
Another lights-out performance from Paulo Dybala — and an equally impressive turn from Miralem Pjanic — meant that Gonzalo Higuain’s demotion to the bench in Juventus’ 4-0 derby win over Torino was somewhat overshadowed. Juve played well, though the game was largely downhill for them after Daniele Baselli’s red card halfway through the first half.
Massimiliano Allegri said it was “normal” to rest a star (even a $100 million star like Higuain) when he wasn’t in tip-top shape, and there were plenty of fixtures coming up. It was a remarkably grown-up thing to say and spoke volumes about how secure he feels in his post (and given what he’s done for the club, rightly so). It could also have backfired badly.
Now, the ball is in Higuain’s court. He’s not his usual self right now, and a game off won’t hurt him. If anything, from Juve’s perspective, better that Higuain hits his lows now rather than later in the campaign when the stakes are higher.
Atletico go from strength to strength
It was a good week all around for Atletico Madrid. First, they secured Diego Costa from Chelsea, who’ll be a huge boost come January. Yes, the fee is steep — €55m Euros ($65.5m) rising to €65m ($77.5m) is a lot for a guy who turns 29 next month and won’t have any resale value as he’s now the second-most expensive striker that age after Higuain) — but at this stage, Atletico are living in the present.
Then, on Saturday, they became the first side to beat Sevilla this season thanks to goals from Yannick Carrasco and Antoine Griezmann, leap-frogging them in the table into second place. The window of opportunity may be beginning to close for this club, but they seem determined to make it count.
Morata proving critics wrong
Sometimes you wonder how certain perceptions enter the mainstream. Like the notion that Alvaro Morata is “soft.” Yes, if he and Diego Costa entered the Thunderdome — two men enter, one man leaves — my money probably wouldn’t be on him, but that’s a bit like saying a Ferrari is low-key because it’s not a Lamborghini.
Morata grabbed a hat trick against Stoke — admittedly his job was made easier by the fact that Mark Hughes’ team was missing three central defenders, and the one guy they had fit was Bruno Martins Indi — while showing intelligence, technique, pace and yes: toughness. Unless Antonio Conte changes his system, he’ll be playing up front on his own a lot this year, and that will be new for a guy who has never started more than 16 top-flight games in a season. But the tools are there. And the fact that his mileage is relatively low for a guy who turns 25 next month might actually be a bonus.
A public PR mess for Milan
Milan were poor — very poor — in their 2-0 defeat away to Sampdoria. It’s not the first time it has happened this season, and as he usually does, Vincenzo Montella faced the music afterwards and was blunt as usual: “It’s my fault, I misread our condition; we have the youngest squad in Serie A and we need to be patient. But I have plenty of faith.”
Montella needs support; what he doesn’t need is his boss breaking down his game plan in public after matches. But that’s what Marco Fassone, the club’s chief executive, did.
“We need to impose ourselves on games. Milan are stronger than Sampdoria, and I expect us to approach these games differently,” he said. “I don’t want to see any more games like this. I’m not pointing fingers; we’re all responsible.” Fassone also said he still had faith in Montella while adding that they were on schedule in terms of reaching their goal for the season, a top-four finish.
I don’t have a problem with bosses speaking out against their managers, even in public, if it’s for the good of the team. But this sort of carrot and stick routine with Montella — especially getting into tactical issues — is best done behind closed doors.
Fab Falcao keeps Monaco on fire
Monaco traveled to Lille, a club that was hyped over the summer for its clever, innovative approach to scouting, and pounded them 4-0 this weekend. They may have lost Kylian Mbappe, Bernardo Silva, Tiemoue Bakayoko, Valerie Germain and Bernard Mendy over the summer, but no matter. When you’ve got Radamel Falcao in this form, there’s no stopping you.
The Colombian striker bagged two goals, taking his league total to 11 in just seven games. He’s 31 and his horrific pre-2014 World Cup knee injury feels like a bad memory at this point. Winning the title last season was a minor miracle. Doing it this year would be a major one.
Gabriele Marcotti is a Senior Writer for ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @Marcotti.