I’m a big believer in “score effects.” Give up an early goal — or two — and the way you and the opposition play changes dramatically; sometimes to the point that there isn’t much more to learn from the game.
Liverpool made two huge errors in the first 12 minutes of Sunday’s clash with Tottenham at Wembley and that was that. It wasn’t just that they necessarily played into Spurs’ hands because they had to get back into the game, it was the psychological damage done to the players on the pitch.
I don’t like to bring up mental errors because I assume that you don’t get to become a professional footballer — and especially not a defender or midfielder — without the ability to concentrate and execute during games, but it’s hard to see this any other way.
More Liverpool lapses led to Tottenham’s third and fourth goals. Players make mistakes, sure, and the reason you work on defending and shape and movement is, partly, to mitigate the damage when people screw up (and they will screw up at some point).
But Liverpool failed to do that. And while Dejan Lovren ultimately was the scapegoat and certainly was awful, he also wasn’t the only one who struggled and what his teammates did — or failed to do — only made things worse.
Jurgen Klopp took the blame head on and promised to fix things. There’s not much else he can say, though he did point out that, even at 50 years of age, at least one of the goals wouldn’t have been scored if he’d been on the pitch.
Far more broadly, Liverpool’s issues speak to a spectacular miscalculation in the summer. As I’ve written before, it’s not simply a case of coming up short in the hunt for Virgil Van Dijk, because there are other defenders out there.
That Liverpool did not move for anybody else suggests they thought that the trio of Lovren, Joel Matip and Ragnar Klavan — plus Joe Gomez and Emre Can, though that would mean reshuffling elsewhere — was sufficient.
Whose call was that? Ask Klopp and he’ll say it was a collective decision but he had the last word. That’s toeing the company line. If it’s true, then Liverpool might want to review his ability to judge talent. If it’s not true, then they might want to take a look at how and why they misjudged the situation so badly.
On other occasions, Liverpool’s defensive woes could be blamed on Klopp’s swashbuckling style and high press. Not on Sunday; these were players playing badly, who compounded matters by making bad individual decisions.
None of this should take anything away from Tottenham. It’s easy to miss amid the focus on their opponents, but this is a side that lined up without Eric Dier, Victor Wanyama and Mousa Dembele, in theory the heart of their midfield.
Manager Mauricio Pochettino also made a big call in playing Serge Aurier out of position on the left instead of Ben Davies or Danny Rose; the decision only worked to a degree but showed he’s not afraid to gamble.
Harry Kane, meanwhile, took his seasonal total to 13 goals in 12 games in all competitions but, hey, that’s not news anymore. Evidently, he’s a four-season wonder…
PSG pushed all the way by Marseille
Reaction to Paris Saint-Germain’s 2-2 draw at Olympique Marseille was rather negative. In fact, you can just about see folks jumping off the PSG bandwagon, revealing in the schadenfreude and starting to print those “my favorite teams are X and whoever plays PSG” t-shirts.
Maybe it was inevitable. The only way PSG is ever going to justify the fees paid for Neymar and Kylian Mbappe and satisfy Financial Fair Play — assuming they can, which is far from certain — is by trading on image.
That’s how big clubs do it; they provide something that’s at once appealing and aspirational. The thing is that the “appealing” bit matters. And the risk for PSG is that, if they become a turn-off to neutrals, it will hurt them in the wallet.
Neymar’s sending off on Sunday is a case in point. Yes, PSG were chasing the game and Marseille were fouling systematically, but picking up two yellows in quick succession — and, no, the fact that Lucas Ocampos threw himself to the ground doesn’t mean Neymar gets a pass — is simply foolish and not what you expect from a player of his caliber, let alone one who has been targeted his entire career.
The other negative came before the match, when Dani Alves revealed he couldn’t name three Marseille players. Considering he played with Patrice Evra for six months last year at Juventus and with Luis Gustavo for some five years with Brazil, it’s kind of shocking. (As it happened, Alves didn’t name either; maybe he forgot).
The message he gave off is: “I just came here because they pay me a ton of money, allow me to hang out with my buddies from home and compete for the Champions League. Oh, and we also played in this crummy league filled with no-name muppets, who we beat the stuffing out of every week.”
The flip-side? PSG showed drive and intent against a tough opponent while a man down. Prior to that, they probably should have had a penalty when Jordan Amavi appeared to handle the ball after tackling Kylian Mbappe.
Plus, Edinson Cavani showed once again that he knows how to take free kicks. (Actually, upon reflection, that last might not be a positive for everyone at PSG…)
Serie A title race is intriguing
Napoli dropped their first Serie A points of the season against Inter in about as riveting a scoreless draw as you could hope for. Maurizio Sarri’s crew were coming off two tough away trips — Roma in the league and Manchester City in the Champons- League — and that may have had something to do with it.
Napoli still had the better chances and Samir Handanovic made a few huge saves but, make no mistake about it, this was still an excellent defensive performance from Luciano Spalletti’s Inter. And with more cutting edge from Ivan Perisic, perhaps they could even have nicked a goal.
Inter remain a work in progress but, equally, they’re undefeated and they showed that they can hang with the big boys, at least on the defensive end. They’re two points off the top of the table and if (when) they come together fully they might legitimately start thinking of contending for the title.
As for Napoli, they still play the best football in Serie A and, over time, that ought to make all the difference. But what’s obvious is that it’s not just a case of keeping an eye out for Juventus in the Italian title hunt. Inter, Roma and — surprisingly — Lazio are all within striking distance.
Mourinho will expect his players to respond
Part of the art of being a great manager is knowing when to deflect blame and attention from your players and when to throw them under the bus. Jose Mourinho opted for the latter after Manchester United’s defeat away to Huddersfield and talked about how he knew they were going to make a mistake, how the attitude was “really poor.”
“And when you lose match because of attitude that’s really bad,” he said. “I can’t explain. It concerns me. If it happens today, why can’t it happen tomorrow?”
He’s right to be annoyed. Some players played badly and other, like Victor Lindelof, might not be ready. When managers say stuff like this, they had better be sure their players take it the right way: As a prod to show what they’re made of.
Mourinho has been around the block enough times to know this and to be able to judge their state of mind. Gut feeling says we won’t see a performance so listless for a while.
Much-changed Madrid look to stay fresh
Real Madrid were distinctly business-like in dispatching Eibar 3-0 on Sunday, thanks to an own goal and strikes from Marco Asensio — their top scorer — and Marcelo. The gap with Barcelona is still five points but all Zinedine Zidane’s men can do is keep pace ahead of El Clasico in December.
One thing that stands out is that only five players have started more than two-thirds of Madrid’s league games this season. And, of those, only Casemiro and Sergio Ramos are regulars; the others, for those keeping score at home, are Asensio, Isco and Nacho.
Injuries and rotation help explain this but you wonder to what degree it might turn out to be a boon late in the season when Madrid’s players will, presumably, go into the stretch run with less wear and tear.
Heynckes’ winning start continues
It took a while and a red card to the opposition but Bayern Munich eventually got the better of Hamburg as Corentin Tolisso’s goal gave them a 1-0 victory.
That’s three wins out of three for Jupp Heynckes who, perhaps with an eye to the midweek cup game against RB Leipzig, shuffled his deck considerably: Jerome Boateng, Thiago Alcantara, Joshua Kimmich and Thomas Muller were all on the bench.
In terms of performance, at least at 11 vs. 11, we’ve seen better. After Gideon Jung’s sending off late in the first half, however, Bayern found the going a heck of a lot easier and Thiago Alcantara hit the woodwork twice after coming on.
Milan failing to meet expectations
The joke doing the rounds is that Leonardo Bonucci’s move from Juventus to Milan managed to make both teams’ defending worse. It’s harsh, but it’s also not a million miles removed from reality.
Bonucci’s arrival forced Milan manager Vincenzo Montella to disassemble his scheme and switch to a back three. At this stage last year, they were third; currently they’re 11th. Meanwhile, Juve have dropped from first to fourth but, more worryingly, have conceded more than twice as many goals — 13 to six — in 11 Serie A and Champions League games.
Milan’s scoreless home draw against Genoa only turns the screws on Montella, following the summer spending spree and the “Champions League-or-bust” diktat issued by the club (a necessity, given the massive loans the owners have taken on to acquire Milan).
It’s perhaps telling that, of the 10 fancy new signings secured in the most recent window, just four were still on the pitch at the final whistle on Sunday. If Montella is going to go down, he’s going to do it his way and not as a facilitator of someone else’s Panini sticker fantasy game.
Barca meander past Malaga
It should have been a cakewalk for Barcelona when Malaga visited the Camp Nou. The visitors had one point and had failed to score at all away from home all season. When Barca scored inside two minutes through Gerard Deulofeu, though it appeared the goal should have been struck off, it looked as there were some stats to be padded.
Instead, Barcelona’s tempo dropped and they rather sleep-walked their way through the rest of the game. Luis Suarez is having — by his standards — a horrendous campaign and he missed a few sitters; it took Andres Iniesta’s strike in the second half to seal the win. The trick for Ernesto Valverde is determining whether this was just a bad day at the office or if there are cracks that need addressing.
Hope for Arsenal, woe for Everton
Mesut Ozil, Alexandre Lacazette and Alexis Sanchez started together for the first time this season and all found the net as Arsenal rolled to a 5-2 win away to Everton, which ultimately cost Ronald Koeman his job.
You wonder if the win will be enough for the “Arsene Knows” brigade to suddenly jump back on the bandwagon. The reality is that their opponents were awful, that two of those three will be free to sign with another club in 69 days’ time and that a top-four finish would remain a formidable achievement for Arsenal. Yet, equally, as long as they’re around, they are more than capable of producing. So in the short-term, things aren’t quite as dire as some suggest.
As for Everton, as the saying goes, it’s easier to replace one Koeman than it is a gang of Sigurdssons and Klaassens. From the outside, you’re always left to wonder — a little bit like with the red half across town — who actually made such awful personnel decisions. You would hope that, at least, majority shareholder Farhad Moshiri would have some idea. And act accordingly.
Juventus decide attack is the best form of defence
You’re a goal up but you have to face the next hour or so with a man down away from home. Most teams hunker down and hope for the best, praying they don’t unravel. But Juventus went for it at Udinese and ended up winning 6-2 on the back of an improbable Sami Khedira hat trick.
You don’t necessarily want to call it a turning point — it’s not as if Juve were imploding, though they remain a work in progress — but it’s testament to the team’s self-belief, unity and resources that they stormed back the way they did.
Max Allegri still has plenty of questions to answer — particularly at the back, in central midfield and on the wing — but he knows his team can dig deep in tough moments. Just as important, they avoided the psychological blow of falling at least five points behind the leaders Napoli.
Optimism growing at Valencia
Valencia won their fifth consecutive game in all competitions and did so in the most emphatic way, thrashing Sevilla 4-0. The only points Marcelino and his men have dropped all season were against the two Madrid sides and in the derby with Levante.
Talk about a turnaround from the nightmare of the last few seasons: Valencia are quick and incisive and have genuine quality in the likes of Jose Gaya, Rodrigo and Goncalo Guedes. The latter stole the show with two goals on Saturday, one of which was absolutely gorgeous. Guedes is on loan from PSG and it might be a while until he makes it back, though with performances like this you wonder if Unai Emery couldn’t use him sooner.
Meanwhile, Simone Zaza’s purple patch continues. He has scored in five consecutive games, bringing his Liga total up to eight, more than Cristiano Ronaldo, Gareth Bale, Isco, Karim Benzema, Toni Kroos and Luka Modric combined.
(When I tweeted something similar some folks seemed to get genuinely upset; needless to say, it doesn’t mean Zaza on his own is better than the entire Real Madrid starting midfield and attack).
Dortmund continue to serve up drama
A home defeat to RB Leipzig last week evidently had a knock-on effect for Borussia Dortmund: After a horrendous Champions League draw against APOEL, Peter Bosz’s men followed it up by squandering a two-goal lead against Eintracht Frankfurt.
After his blunder in midweek, Roman Burki followed up by giving away a silly penalty and Dortmund were rattled by a string of Frankfurt chances late in the second half, before Makoto Hasebe’s goal-line clearance stopped what would have been Nuri Sahin’s winner.
It’s white-knuckle stuff and, while attacking in numbers is fun, you sometimes pay the price when you continue to leave yourself exposed. The upshot is that Dortmund, who were five points clear of Bayern just nine days ago, now share first place with the Bavarians.
Bas Dost scored a hat trick in Sporting’s 5-1 hammering of Desportivo Chaves, a result that allowed his side to stay within two points of league-leading Porto.
His goals ended a scoreless run that extended back to Sept. 8 and an injury-time winner against Feirense. He had not scored from open play since a late strike against Steaua Bucharest in the Champions League preliminaries, two months ago.
Dost has seven goals in nine league matches, putting him on pace to score 26 this season. Overall, he has in eight in 14 games in all competitions.
Gabriele Marcotti is a Senior Writer for ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @Marcotti.