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: Man United’s Rashford mistake? | Haaland’s magic BVB debut | Setien wins Barca opener | Man City hurt by planning | Real lucky vs. Sevilla? | Juve still work in progress | Leipzig’s success story | Lazio proving critics wrong | Arsenal’s slump might be helpful | Inter breaking down? | Chelsea fans shouldn’t worry | Coutinho no fit at Bayern? | And finally…
Did Man United make a mistake with Rashford?
The fact that Liverpool beat Manchester United — this Manchester United — 2-0 at home on Sunday obviously is no surprise. If there was some scenario where United could go to Anfield, park the bus, hope that Liverpool were somewhat sated by their gargantuan lead in the league (and their record-breaking 61 of a possible 63 points before the weekend) and nick something on the counterattack, that went out the window with Marcus Rashford‘s injury.
This being United, the fact that he had a stress fracture in his back, which became a double stress fracture after his substitute appearance against Wolves, led to more conspiracy and finger-pointing. Was it Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s fault for playing him in a (largely) meaningless cameo? Why did the club’s medical team allow this?
As ever, with injuries, we need to remind ourselves that we’re not doctors (most of us, anyway) and we haven’t examined Rashford’s back (again, most of us) and, in any case, medicine isn’t an exact science, which is why folks get second opinions. You would hope that if Rashford has been playing through injury all year, Solskjaer was aware of it and both he and Rashford were comfortable with the risks involved in doing so. The fact that he got hurt against Wolves is, frankly, irrelevant. If he hadn’t played that game and had done it in the first 15 minutes against Liverpool, the outcome would have been the same.
Rashford’s absence — he’s likely to be out until April at the earliest — is of course a huge blow and puts further strain on an undermanned front line. It’s pretty evident that Man United need another forward, even as a short-term option. It could make all the difference in reaching (or failing to reach) the Champions League spots next season. Coming up short would mean forsaking around $100 million in revenue in UEFA prize money and reduced commercial deals (the Adidas contract first and foremost).
The most frustrating thing is that you could see this coming. And while there has also been a good dose of bad luck — whatever you think of Paul Pogba, he’s their most gifted player by a country mile and has played just 72 minutes since September — the reality is that this situation could have been avoided. (Also, oft-forgotten, is that two other top-four contenders, Arsenal and Spurs, are enduring difficult campaigns and have changed managers: that is a stroke of good fortune to partially offset the bad for United.)
As for the game itself, Liverpool railroaded them. They could have had five or six goals if their composure in the final third had been better, if David de Gea had been more ordinary and if Sadio Mane hadn’t had an off day. In fact, it’s pretty frightening how sharp Liverpool looked given their relatively humdrum performances (by their standards) in recent games and the fact that they knew they could have won this game at half-throttle.
Jurgen Klopp’s crew showed the kind of form you want to see in the spring, at the business end of the Champions League. And given that they could seal the title by mid-March (possibly at Goodison, which would be interesting), you wonder whether at that point the focus won’t shift entirely back on trying to repeat as European champions.
The most fun bit for the neutral was Alisson’s mad sprint up the pitch to celebrate Mohamed Salah‘s goal that made it 2-0 in second-half stoppage time. There was just so much unbridled joy in that moment — and so much nous in Alisson’s quick thinking to hit it long previously, with Salah onside but behind the last United defender by virtue of still being in the Liverpool half — that you can’t help but conclude that, right now, this team is in the perfect state of mind. And that’s on Klopp.
Haaland enjoys a magical Dortmund debut. Now what?
Sometimes you worry that you’re needlessly overhyping players when you write stories like this. And maybe Borussia Dortmund executives Hans-Joachim Watzke and Michael Zorc at some point, in their most private moments, wondered if they got a bit carried away when they pulled off the January signing of Erling Braut Haaland, one of the sport’s hottest prospects following his performance in the Champions League for FC Salzburg.
But then Haaland’s first-team debut rolled around on Saturday and the doubts receded… at least for a while.
Haaland came on with 10 minutes gone in the second half and Dortmund 3-1 down at Augsburg, a scoreline down to the usual mix of wayward finishing, cartoonish defending and a Marco Richter wonderstrike. All Haaland did was promptly score a hat-trick in an eventual 5-3 win, which could have been four if Jadon Sancho had squared the ball instead of netting it himself (not that he should have).
You want to say that Augsburg made it easy for him by failing to keep the ball while playing an absurdly high line? OK, sure. They didn’t help themselves, but the technical ability, physicality and flat-out, rumbling speed (especially on the last goal) Haaland displayed were all very real. Equally real was the lift he gave his team when he came on and the sense we were about to see something special.
Dortmund manager Lucien Favre has a potentially generational player at his disposal. Using him correctly, keeping him fit (he wasn’t 100 percent on Saturday) and letting him grow in his own time will be critical, though that won’t necessarily be easy to manage.
Favre himself was close to getting fired in November. Until Haaland came on, it wasn’t hard to see why they’ve been such a disappointment this season. They’re fourth, level on points with archrival Schalke and with Leverkusen two points behind. Champions League football is by no means guaranteed next year, and given the big (once you factor in commissions) investment in Haaland, there will be pressure to play him.
Dortmund need to take a long view here. Thirty-one goals in 26 games this campaign is impressive, but they can’t lose sight about why he’s there: to fulfill his potential.
Setien gets off to a winning start at Barcelona
A Barcelona fan I know messaged me during Sunday’s game with Granada saying “so happy to have my team back.” I didn’t need to ask what he meant. Quique Setien, who replaced Ernesto Valverde last week, had set up a side that was all about passing, possession and movement, with full-backs coming inside and the ball being at the center of the plan. It’s not as if Valverde was some kind of long-ball devil (though his enemies depicted him that way), but it was pretty obvious that Setien’s first Barca team was a throwback to a happier team, attempting to play the football we saw a decade ago when Pep Guardiola was there.
The crowd’s appetite for this was evident in the way it greeted Riqui Puig when he came on. He’s 20 and hasn’t actually played a single minute of first-team football since last year. But he came to represent the paradigm of the “canterano” — the home-grown kid with “Barca values” — whom Valverde snubbed.
The problem was that Granada packed the box (as you’d expect a small club to do at the Camp Nou) and it turned into a ton of sterile possession. And, in fact, when Granada popped up at the other end, they even hit the woodwork. But 15 minutes from time, Lionel Messi, with a bit of help from Arturo Vidal (who some insist isn’t a fit for Setien’s “throwback” Barca), broke the ice and the three points were secured in a 1-0 win.
Getting the win under his belt will obviously make things easier for Setien. And while the vibe was very much that of the Guardiola era, he knows he can’t just replicate that. His decision to play Messi through the middle in Luis Suarez‘ absence is testament to that: Antoine Griezmann may be a more obvious choice to impersonate a center forward, but if you want to press high and hard, you can’t ask Messi to do it, so it’s better to stick him centrally where there’s less running.
Besides, not even Guardiola plays the Guardiola football of 2010. The game has moved on and, you hope, Barcelona’s top brass understand this. Besides, Setien is his own man, a guy who has been in management for two decades. Let him be himself and then draw your conclusions based on performance.
Man City’s poor planning to blame for failed title race
Those of us who maintained that “it ain’t over until it’s over” have to bow to reality now. Manchester City’s 2-2 home draw with Crystal Palace leaves them 16 points back, which will become 19 points if Liverpool win their game in hand.
Yeah, I know what you’re thinking: “OK, Captain Obvious! Liverpool wrapped this up ages ago!” Watch as much football as I have for as long as I’ve watched and you’ll know that teams collapse, rivals go on runs, and seemingly cast-iron leads can disappear in the space of a month. But when you get to 16 points (and a game in hand) by late January, it really is over — also because Manchester City’s priority will, you’d imagine, shift to the Champions League.
Man City ratings: Stones a liability vs. Palace
Saturday’s draw with Palace followed a familiar script: Man City controlled the game, created most of the chances, made a couple of blunders and dropped points. At the very least, this calls for a serious review from the top down in how this group was put together. I’ve mentioned it before, but the Leroy Sane and Aymeric Laporte injuries were heavy blows. We might not have a title race even if they had stayed fit, but it would be a darn sight closer. Instead, City have eight points fewer than last season and 14 fewer than the year before. They have just two more than they did in Guardiola’s first season, when they spent much of the campaign in fourth place, before sneaking into third, 15 points off the pace.
This was poor planning, plain and simple. Logic would suggest addressing this in January in order to mount a sustained challenge for the Champions League. I know it’s not a priority to a certain section of City fans for whom UEFA are tantamount to the devil, but I guarantee you it matters to Guardiola and to his players.
Real Madrid get some luck vs. Sevilla
Sevilla were furious that Luuk de Jong‘s goal against Real Madrid on Saturday was disallowed. And so they should be. Yes, Nemanja Gudelj effectively set a pick, basketball-style, that wiped out Eder Militao and gave De Jong a free run at the header. But Gudelj was standing still and it was Militao who ran into him. That’s not a foul. Period.
That said, on the balance of play, Real Madrid were worthy for the 2-1 win. And they did it with a front line of Luka Jovic, Rodrygo and Lucas Vazquez: a center forward who has scored once all season in the league, a winger who turned 19 this month and another winger who hadn’t featured at all since mid-November.
Zinedine Zidane is rummaging deep in his squad as he looks for answers and he’s churning out results. That’s what a manager is supposed to do. Those who accused him of being just a man-manager and Galactico whisperer are being proved wrong.
Juve keep winning but are a work in progress
Juve pulled away at the top of Serie A as Cristiano Ronaldo‘s two goals (one with the help of a big deflection) gave them a 2-1 win over Parma. He’s on a tear right now — 12 goals in his last nine games — but on the downside, Juve struggled far more than you’d expect. (Or, as Maurizio Sarri put it, they didn’t have a “clean” game.)
Once again, it feels like a version of Max Allegri’s Juve and not what Sarri was supposedly brought in for. There’s time to work on things, but you sense that as long as he’s forced to keep changing personnel and formations it will be that much harder to build chemistry.
Time to praise Leipzig
OK, this is bordering on the ridiculous. Leipzig’s 3-1 win over Union Berlin means they have scored three goals or more in nine consecutive Bundesliga games. They have failed to score just once all year in all competitions and, yup, they’re sitting top of the league, with a four-point gap. (Equally weird is that their last 11 goals have come in the second half.)
Whatever you think of this club — and yes, there’s plenty not to like — what Julian Nagelsmann is doing is remarkable. And, frankly, different from everybody else.
Lazio keep proving the skeptics wrong
It’s now 11 wins in a row in Serie A for Lazio, after their 5-1 thumping of Sampdoria. Simone Inzaghi’s magical moment endures: the record is 17 straight, set by Roberto Mancini’s Inter and — don’t look now — if they win the derby next weekend, it may even be within reach. Their next six outings are all either at home or winnable road games.
And, of course, you can’t talk Lazio without mentioning Ciro Immobile. His hat-trick takes him to 23 league goals on the season. Not only is he on pace to break the Serie A record (held by Gonzalo Higuain), he’s also well ahead of every other goal scorer in the Big Five. The skeptics (including yours truly) are being proved wrong.
Arsenal’s slump might help their rebuild
If Arsenal lose at Chelsea on Tuesday night, they will be 13 points out of fourth place and, depending on results elsewhere, possibly out of the top half of the table. It sounds horrendous but it might actually prove liberating in the long-term and allow Mikel Arteta to continue his rebuild.
This reshaping at the Emirates is happening in baby steps and isn’t comforted by results — based on the run of play, they should have beaten Sheffield United on Saturday instead of drawing 1-1 — but you can see what he’s doing and how things are coming together. There’s an identity being formed and while by the time Arsenal compete for the title again (or at least the Champions League) much of the cast will have changed, at least you feel they’re moving in the right direction again.
Inter showing signs of wear and tear
Inter’s 1-1 draw at Lecce on Sunday sees them slip four points behind Juventus and, yeah, there’s a sense of deja vu. Once again, they huffed and puffed and scored first, but dropped points late in the game. They’re not in a position right now to manage a lead as effectively as a big team should.
Conte continues to blame the fact that they need to play with intensity, otherwise his football won’t work. And because they’ve had injuries and have older players, it’s hard for them to do that sometimes. Fine. But if you don’t have the conditions to play a certain way, maybe it’s time to change up the way you play. If he gets his hands on Christian Eriksen, that option becomes much more viable.
Chelsea fans shouldn’t worry about Newcastle defeat
Another reminder that if you care about future results, the best indicator football can offer is current performance, not current results.
Chelsea lost 1-0 at Newcastle after pretty much dominating the game. It happened in injury time; it happened thanks to an improbable touch and a goalkeeping blunder. That’s football. It’s not voodoo; you accept it. But it goes to reinforce just how wrong those who say “it’s all about results” time and again are.
Performance matters. And while Chelsea have a long way to go, which is pretty normal when you’ve had a transfer ban and have a side packed with youngsters, they’re well on their way.
Bayern smashed Hertha but Coutinho doesn’t fit
As everybody knows, Jurgen Klinsmann and Bayern did not exactly part ways on the best of terms. So when they came face-to-face again in Berlin when Hertha hosted Hansi Flick’s side and Klinsmann’s crew kept a clean sheet in the first half, you could imagine the smoke coming out of Uli Hoeness’ ears.
But it was a bit of an illusion. Hertha held the 0-0 that long because Bayern were either inaccurate or unlucky in the final third. They certainly created plenty of chances and when they broke through via Thomas Muller at the hour mark, the floodgates opened on their way to a 4-0 win.
On the pitch, Flick opted to play Philippe Coutinho behind the striker, with Muller wide. The experiments are clearly ongoing but the Brazilian still doesn’t quite seem to fit. (And, for that matter, neither do the pieces around him.) Unless there’s a big uptick, expect him to be back at the Camp Nou next summer, which, if Quique Setien is still in charge at Barcelona, might not be a bad thing.
Bas Dost scored for Eintracht Frankfurt in their 2-1 away win at Hoffenheim, which takes them to 21 points in the table (good for 11th place) and snapping a four-game losing streak. He has five goals in 12 league appearances. Overall, he has seven goals in 16 appearances in all competitions, all of them from open play.
This concludes the latest installment of #BasDostWatch.