Blog, Blog - Marcotti's Musings, Clubs, English Premier League, Liverpool, Story, Tottenham Hotspur

Missed some 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: Breaking down LFC-Spurs | Bad weekend for Juve | We need to fix Premier League VAR | Was that David Silva’s goal? | Bayern keep winning | Well done, Pulisic! | PSG too good for Marseille | Man United ease past Norwich | Granada are top of La Liga! | Dortmund continue to slip | Don’t bet against Atletico | Conte complaining at Inter | Another mess at Arsenal | Gladbach look incredible | Praise for magic Atalanta

Liverpool rise to the challenge vs. Spurs, who don’t

It wasn’t something to be taken for granted. A week before, you dropped league points for the first time all season. You did win big in midweek, but that was against Genk, who are playing more like Gunk right now, sitting sixth in the Belgian league with two wins out of eight ahead of Liverpool’s visit.

Manchester City’s victory over Aston Villa the day before leaves them three points back. Then you take the pitch against Tottenham Hotspur and within a minute, you’re a goal down.

In those situations, a wobble is not just understandable, but expected. But Liverpool took it in stride and seemed to get stronger as the game wore on. It wasn’t just the possession — Spurs chose to play on the break — but the intensity and the sense of unwavering belief that they were going to turn it around. Don’t let the scoreline fool you: it finished 2-1 but could have been more, if not for some massive saves by Paulo Gazzaniga.

– Reddy: Fabinho has become Liverpool’s key
– Spurs ratings: Alli, Eriksen underwhelm at Anfield
– Ogden: Mane’s opportunism wins the day for Liverpool

Manager effects are often overstated. Truth be told, whether teams win or lose in the medium term usually has far more to do with wage bill and net spend, chance and probability, injuries and suspensions. But you suspect Klopp is a bit different. When you get the sort of buy-in he has from players and fans alike, when you exude this level of up-and-at-them confidence in the face of adversity, it almost feels like a cult and its leader. That dynamic might not be great in real life, but it can be really useful when it comes to playing football.

Jordan Henderson and Liverpool played with such belief vs. Tottenham that they’d come back and win despite conceding in the first minute at Anfield.

As for Tottenham, Mauricio Pochettino looks like a guy searching for answers. He dropped Jan Vertonghen for Davinson Sanchez, left out record signing Tanguy Ndombele and brought back Christian Eriksen. We’re not privy to what happens in training and maybe there are reasons we don’t know behind his choices, but it feels like somebody unhappy with his current lot, opting to proceed by trial and error.

Playing on the counter after the early lead wasn’t necessarily a bad choice, but, again, the execution was poor. These aren’t necessarily bad players, these are players playing poorly and there likely are reasons for each. There’s a series of gambles that backfired.

In nine-and-a-half weeks’ time, Vertonghen and Eriksen can sign for any club outside the Premier League as free agents. (To remain in England, they’d need to wait until the summer.) Tottenham may have thought it was worth keeping them around in the summer either because they’d eventually extend their deals or they’d want to play well to impress potential suitors. That ship has likely sailed. Technically, Jan. 1 is when they can start talking to other clubs, but it’s hard to believe stuff isn’t already happening behind the scenes, stuff that won’t be influenced by lacklustre performances in the autumn.

Tottenham left Danny Rose out of their tour to Asia so he could move to another club; after it being made clear he wasn’t in their plans, he’s now their first-choice left back. The gamble was that he’d be galvanised and more realistic and might play better and get himself the sort of deal he wants at White Hart Lane. Don’t hold your breath.

Kieran Trippier was allowed to leave for Atletico Madrid, the gamble being that either Kyle Walker-Peters would establish himself as a viable right-back or Serge Aurier, without competition, would finally live up to his gifts and cut out the silly mistakes. We know how that one worked out.

As for the summer signings? Ndombele has played 90 minutes once all season. Giovani Lo Celso has yet to start a game. Ryan Sessegnon, who is injured, hasn’t played at all.

Transfers and contracts are, fundamentally, wagers. You win some, you lose some. If you’re clever or lucky, you win more than you lose. Spurs have been neither. To me, that’s a far simpler explanation than the popular one whereby they’ve gone stale and players are bored/indifferent to Pochettino’s messaging. It’s a neat idea — the old trope whereby every three years you either change the manager or change the team — but it’s also a convenient catch-all.

You have to go back to 2008-09, the season when Juande Ramos was replaced by Harry Redknapp and they lost six of their first 10 games, to find the last campaign that began worse than this one. Managers are measured not just by how well they do on their way up and how high they go, but also how well they cope when they’re down and whether they can right the ship. This is where Pochettino can earn his Spurs. Again.

Juventus suffer a chemistry issue without Ronaldo

Juventus dropped points drawing 1-1 at Lecce, but the fact that Napoli and Inter did not win mitigates the damage. What it doesn’t do is mitigate the nitpicking, which has centered on chance creation when Cristiano Ronaldo is absent (he was rested on Saturday) and Matthijs de Ligt‘s supposed penchant for handling in the box and conceding penalties, which happened against both Lecce and Inter and probably should have happened against Bologna.

Maurizio Sarri’s crew actually created plenty against Lecce — and recorded their highest xG in more than a year — but if things don’t look super-smooth, it may well have to do with the fact that Ronaldo’s absence makes them play differently. When he’s on the pitch, he’s generally free from defensive responsibilities. Chemistry matters to Sarri: if a piece is missing, it has a knock-on effect.

As for de Ligt, I thought it was harsh — contrary to what some ex-pros keep spouting, there is still a level of discretion even when it comes to silhouette, and the ball was deflected toward him while he tried to retract his arm — but it’s hard to ignore the fact that more expert defenders seem to be avoiding these situations. Of course, this shouldn’t be surprising. He’s 20 years old. Let him grow.

VAR needs major fixes in the Premier League

After weeks of lying dormant with the excuse that it would be used only in the case of extremely serious errors — which meant almost never, since nobody defined this “high bar” nonsense — VAR sprang to life in the Premier League at the weekend, overruling referees left, right and center. Some will say the pendulum swung too far in the other direction, but that’s what happens when, as the Premier League did, you decide to rewrite the VAR protocol ignoring the thousands of games that took place elsewhere and thinking you have some sort of magic formula.

The decision to effectively abolish on-field reviews (the monitors are there for some reason, but referees are told not to use them) has meant faceless no-names in Stockley Park are making subjective decisions. I touched upon this last week at Old Trafford,  but this week bordered on the grotesque. Daniel James‘ penalty at Norwich, Aaron Connolly‘s at the Amex and Sokratis Papastathopoulos,’ disallowed goal are Exhibits A, B and C here.

It’s not so much that they were incorrect decisions by VAR — the first two obviously were, the third one somewhat less so — but they all involved a degree of subjectivity. Which is fine, as that’s the nature of officiating, but to rob the guy on the field of the right to make the final call is simply foolish. It leads to re-refereeing of games, which is exactly what we were told must not happen, it undermines the guy on the pitch (as well as faith in VAR) and it leaves a subjective decision in the hands of a less qualified person. It’s the difference between getting an opinion from a world-class oncologist who has observed you over time and having your tumor diagnosed by a guy who got his medical degree over the internet.

Time for a rethink.

Wait, how was that goal given to David Silva?

While we’re on the subject of Premier League quirks, how about David Silva‘s goal for Manchester City in their 3-0 win against Aston Villa? Kevin De Bruyne‘s free kick comes in from the left, the Spanish midfielder’s boot either does or does not deflect it,  and it goes past both Tom Heaton in the Villa goal and Raheem Sterling standing in front of him.

It’s pretty simple. If Silva didn’t touch it, then it’s a goal because Sterling was onside when the free kick was taken. If he did touch it, then it should be offside because Sterling is in an offside position and interfering with an opponent.

It should be one or the other, but VAR somehow managed to rule that Silva did not touch it and allowed the goal to stand, while at the same time the league ruled that Silva scored. (It means he must have touched it because while Silva is an outstanding footballer, he’s not so outstanding that he can score without touching the ball.)

It was no biggie as Man City won 3-0, bouncing back after the break following a poor first half. But really, Silva’s career tally of 107 goals should forever be accompanied by an asterisk.

Lewandowski to the rescue for injury-cursed Bayern

Bayern’s defensive crisis — Niklas Sule, Lucas Hernandez and Javi Martinez out, David Alaba unfit and on the bench — has reached Manchester City levels to the point that Alphonso Davies lined up as an emergency left-back against Union Berlin. The good news? Even with a makeshift defence and an attack that blew hot and cold, the gulf in quality was big enough for Bayern to get the three points in a 2-1 win.

It helped that Benjamin Pavard uncorked a volley reminiscent of his ballistic heroics against Argentina at the World Cup. It helped even more that Robert Lewandowski scored again, just as he has done in every single Bayern match this season since Round 1 of the German Cup on Aug. 12. That’s 19 goals in 13 matches — including a record-setting nine straight in the Bundesliga — for those keeping score at home. That’s simply out of this world.

Don’t worry about Pulisic… seriously

I wonder if Christian Pulisic‘s hat trick — a perfect hat trick, no less, scored with his right foot, left foot and head — for Chelsea in Saturday’s 4-2 win over Burnley might persuade the hair-pullers and teeth-gnashers stateside that maybe Frank Lampard isn’t an ogre and maybe some time off for a guy who had a whole seven days off this past summer was just what he needed. And no, he doesn’t need to look for a new club in January.

Pulisic should enjoy hat trick and keep working
– Pulisic Watch: Best game yet for Chelsea’s U.S. star

Lampard’s crew have now won seven in a row in all competitions and sit a mere two points behind Manchester City. And their best player, N’Golo Kante, has started just three league games all year. Not bad so far for a transition season that began with a transfer ban.

PSG expose the talent gap vs. Marseille

Olympique Marseille may be Paris Saint-Germain’s fiercest rivals on paper, but Sunday night served as a reminder of the gap in talent between these two.

Andre Villas-Boas hoped to surprise PSG by pressing high and hard early and it backfired quickly, with Kylian Mbappe and Mauro Icardi bagging two each by half-time to seal the 4-0 win. Hindsight being 20-20, it felt like one of those “AVB being too clever by half” moves given PSG’s ability to play through the press and the pace up front.

Icardi, on loan from Inter, has seven goals from his last five games, each of them a first-time finish. The guy who was described as an unstable, selfish figure at Inter is now the epitome of productivity. Funny how that happens. Either it’s all down to a magical change of scenery or maybe he wasn’t the root of all evils at San Siro.

Don’t read too much into Man United beating Norwich

Manchester United’s 3-1 win at Norwich marked the first time they scored three goals on the road since last February, when conventional wisdom had it that Ole Gunnar Solskjaer could do no wrong and that sacking Jose Mourinho had solved all of the club’s problems.

Norwich’s approach made it easy for United, who nevertheless looked sharp and executed well. Most encouraging (for those of us who have lost faith in Solskjaer, anyway) is that they understood they could not approach this game the way they approached the Liverpool game at Old Trafford. Instead, against an open opponent, they went for the jugular and punished them. We’ll get a better sense of where they are against Bournemouth next weekend.

Granada’s Cinderella season continues

OK, so Barcelona and Real Madrid have a game in hand because the Clasico got postponed. And if it had been played, it would be mathematically impossible for Granada to be top. I get it. But the fact is that, after beating Betis 1-0, this newly promoted side are in fact leading La Liga for the first time since 1973.

Will it last? Almost certainly not. They’ve had the rub of the green too, including against Betis, and their six clean sheets have a lot to do with standout goalkeeper Rui Silva. But it’s a neat story and it’s a testament to the work Diego Martinez has done. Enjoy it while you can.

More is expected from dismal Dortmund

Borussia Dortmund are in full safety-first mode, a shadow of the side many admired last season (or even in August). They showed it again against Schalke, getting battered for much of the first half and seeing their opponents hit the woodwork twice in a pulsating 0-0 draw.

A point isn’t a horrendous result given the circumstances — given the vagaries of this wacky Bundesliga season, they’re only three points off the top and one out of the Champions League spots — and there’s plenty left to salvage. Equally though, they’ve managed two wins in their past eight and played plenty of uninspired football. You expect more from Lucien Favre, especially after the summer spend.

Atletico keep hanging around in La Liga title picture

Atletico Madrid are still doing their thing, still hanging out close enough to the top of the table — they’re fifth but just a point off the pace, although Barcelona and Real Madrid have a game in hand — after their 2-0 win over Athletic Bilbao.

Saturday’s victory was marked by yet another decisive Jan Oblak save (if you don’t have him in your top three keepers, well… I can’t help you) and more “Cholismo” than we’d seen most of this year, as Diego Simeone tried to make them more expansive. They’re a work in progress, yes, but they’re also deeper than they’ve been at any time during the Diego Simeone Era. Count them out at your peril…

Conte up to his usual tricks at Inter?

It’s deja vu all over again. Inter get held at home by Parma, 2-2, and Antonio Conte starts talking about his limited options on the bench, how he’s been hammered by injuries and his annoyance at having to play youngsters like Alessandro Bastoni (20) and Sebastiano Esposito (17). To some, this is a rerun of what we saw from Conte at Chelsea and Juventus: after initial success, he starts demanding more and more investment from the club and puts pressure on them via the media.

You hope it’s not that because right now, Inter’s budget is limited. They just got out of their Financial Fair Play settlement and have already gambled this season on spending and wages. It’s not as if Inter have been hit harder by injuries than, say, Roma or Juventus. And, in a normal world, you’d think he’d be more on board with getting minutes for guys like Bastoni and Esposito rather than worrying about “burning them out.” Bastoni featured 24 times in Serie A last year and was a starter for half the campaign, while Esposito has played all of 47 minutes in all competitions this year.

I think they can handle it.

Arsenal’s mess deepens with “Xhaka-gate”

The supporters’ right to boo is sacrosanct and in Granit Xhaka‘s case, I get why they did it. It’s not just (another) lacklustre performance. It’s a 2-2 draw vs. Crystal Palace at home, there’s half an hour to go, he’s been substituted and he’s leaving the pitch with all the urgency of a sloth on sleeping pills.

Nor can you defend his reaction: waving his arms to the crowd, removing his shirt and disappearing down the tunnel. But this shouldn’t just be a “fans vs. Xhaka” narrative. You have to ask about the guy in charge, Unai Emery, whose job is (among other things) to set the culture at a club. And you have to ask why, after 15 months, he’d even leave the door open for something like this — fans booing their club captain — to happen.

Arsenal insiders insist Xhaka is hugely popular at the club — the fact that he was voted captain underscores this — and several teammates went to visit him Sunday night because he was so upset. And sure, it must be upsetting to be booed like that. Just as it’s upsetting to spend a sizable chunk of your salary to watch a guy seemingly not putting out a modicum of effort to get off the pitch so play can restart and you can try to win.

But the buck stops with Emery. If he’s going to allow the players to choose the captain and they choose a guy who is prone to react this way and he does nothing to step in and then substitutes him… hey, you make your bed, you lie in it.

Gladbach are the best in Germany right now

Borussia Moenchengladbach continue to set the pace in the Bundesliga, unleashing a 4-2 beatdown on Eintracht Frankfurt and probably playing the best football in Germany. Manager Marco Rose is the toast of the town right now and rightly so.

That front three of Marcus Thuram, Alassane Plea and Breel Embolo (who picked up an injury against Frankfurt) are a sight to behold, switching from 4-3-3 to 4-4-2 depending on possession and the type of pressing they apply. Rose often gets compared to his buddy Klopp at Liverpool, though his brand of football is perhaps a bit more precise and a bit less intense. He was a hot commodity last summer and is bound to be one again should he decide to move on.

Though given he just arrived and given how well they’re doing, expect him to stick around for a while.

Atalanta soaring thanks to free-attacking football

Atalanta’s attacking pyrotechnics continue. They went a goal down at home to Udinese and then roared back to a 7-1 victory. Their numbers are Playstation stuff: they’ve scored 28 goals in nine games, only bettered by Manchester City (32 in 10) in the “Big Five” European leagues. And they’re third in Serie A, evidence that this brand of football works.

So why have they been so poor in the Champions League? They were awful against Dinamo Zagreb, dominated but threw away the game against Shakhtar Donetsk, and, away to City, capitulated after taking the lead. You can give them a pass on that last one. Their sort of attacking high-press, based on one-on-ones all over the pitch, is a recipe for disaster against a side like City,  where everybody is comfortable on the ball. Coach Gian Piero Gasperini wasn’t going to change it up for a one-off game.

Logic suggests that this kind of high-octane, high-risk football will ultimately fizzle out as the season wears on. It’s simply too energy-sapping. Of course, many of us felt the same last season and they ended up finishing fourth.

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