Pep Guardiola long made the point that he plays the way he does not because he’s wedded to some aesthetic conceit of what good football should be, but because he thinks it’s the most effective way to win. Inevitably, given the glut of attacking players in his side, we lazily assume he just wants to win by outscoring the opposition but on Saturday, he showed this was not the case.
Away to Chelsea, City put on a defensive masterclass above all else. The press was crisp and precise, robbing the opposition of options and when Chelsea did get through, the defensive mechanisms held up perfectly: John Stones and Nicolas Otamendi were exactly where they needed to be, when they needed to be.
Take out the early header from Alvaro Morata and the late one from Andreas Christensen (the latter off a set piece but then again, you can’t coach size) and Chelsea were neutered for much of the game. Combining tactical rigor, individual creativity and old-fashioned work rate into the same team is something of a Holy Grail for managers, regardless of their football philosophy: Guardiola did all three at Stamford Bridge. That he got it done without Sergio Aguero and Benjamin Mendy (and Vincent Kompany too, though I’d imagine they’re used to it by now) is a further feather in his cap.
You can second-guess Antonio Conte, of course. Maybe complaining about having one less day to prepare did take a lot out of them and did depress the mood though frankly, I don’t buy it.
Maybe going 3-5-2 at home was unnecessary: then again, it was the only way shoe-horn Cesc Fabregas into the team and he was supposed to be the guy to get them playing out of the back to break the press). Maybe Marcos Alonso and Cesar Azpilicueta did sit too deep though when you’re up against roadrunners like Leroy Sane and Raheem Sterling, space behind can be costly. Maybe, having lost Morata to injury after half an hour, he should have turned to the only other legitimate striker in his squad, Michy Batshuayi, but if the problem was getting out from the back, the Belgium international certainly wasn’t going to fix that.
The fact is this was one of those games where it felt, early on, that Chelsea were going to get pushed around and the conviction only heightened after Morata’s exit.
Conte focused on keeping it as tight as he could and trying to nick something at the other end, either from an Eden Hazard moment of magic or a set-piece, where he could make his big men count. They succeeded, to some degree, on the former count: City didn”t create major chances until after the hour mark and even Kevin De Bruyne’s goal, brilliant as it was, amounted more to an individual long-range effort than any team move. But they came up short on the latter, thanks in part to City’s defensive prowess.
Stereotypes are hard to kill but maybe someone will begin to notice that out of Europe’s Big Five leagues, only Barcelona (another team not exactly known for stout defending) have conceded fewer goals than Manchester City so far this season.
Fallout from Barca’s painful day
Politics and sport aren’t supposed to mix but they certainly came together on Sunday in Barcelona against the backdrop of a referendum on Catalan independence that the Spanish government had declared “unconstitutional.” It was inevitable that Barcelona, the self-styled “more than a club,” would be drawn into it given their strong Catalan identity dating back to the days of Francisco Franco.
As videos shared on social media and over the airwaves circulated of riot gear clad police storming polling stations and using heavy-handed methods against civilians did the rounds, it’s hard to see how players could not be affected and the issue quickly became whether Barcelona’s home fixture against Las Palmas should go ahead. There was a security issue — one set of Barcelona fans said they would storm the pitch and force the game to be abandoned if it went ahead — and there was also a strong, emotional one that cut right to the heart of the club and what it stands for.
“The world has seen what has happened,” said Pep Guardiola, who grew up at the club. “I would not have played.”
The club did not want to play either. They asked the Spanish league for a postponement; it was denied. Barcelona were told they would forfeit this match and face a subsequent penalty of up to three points: that’s a minus-six in the table. Still, there were plenty at the club level who were ready to take that step.
The players were asked to weigh in: many reportedly backed playing once it was made clear what the consequences would be. Ultimately, it was president Josep Maria Bartomeu’s call and he opted for a compromise. They played (and won, 3-0, though that’s the least important bit), albeit behind closed doors. He said it was a form of protest against events that day, while two senior club officials resigned in protest. Neither of the local radio stations who normally broadcast Barcelona matches carried the game.
Sid Lowe summed it up nicely.
98,000 empty seats. And a game that feels empty too. pic.twitter.com/B1aSGK3JIY
— Sid Lowe (@sidlowe) October 1, 2017
It may well be remembered as one of the toughest days in the club’s recent history. On a sporting level, you hope the fallout will be manageable, albeit painful. On a political level — and no, you can’t divorce a club from its city, especially not this one — we’re flying blind. There are plenty of reasons to be worried sick.
Overdue appreciation for Marouane Fellaini
You don’t need to be a Manchester United fan to appreciate the resurrection of Marouane Fellaini. The Belgium midfielder had become the symbol of the David Moyes era, the ugly big-haired blot on Louis Van Gaal’s attempts to get the club back on track and a tolerated Mr. Bump during Jose Mourinho’s first season. Now, however, he has taken on a new dimension and not just because of the two goals he scored in the inevitable 4-0 walloping of Crystal Palace this past weekend.
Fellaini is an atypical player with an unusual skill set. He’s big (6-foot-4) and strong in the air but also good on the ball, especially when given space. On the flip side, he’s not quick, he can be ungainly and his awkwardness makes him prone to fouls and cards.
A guy like that is ideally suited to mismatches: creating them and exploiting them but he’s not just a big lump to put in front of the back four, though to some degree he can do that too. Mourinho understands this and appreciates this. He’s getting the most out of someone who’s different, maybe only in a long-term substitute role (Paul Pogba will be back one day) but nevertheless an important one.
What’s next for Bayern after “mutiny?”
Bayern opened the post-Carlo Ancelotti era the way they ended it: with a 2-2 draw that saw them squander a two-goal lead. Still, the so-called “rebels” — Arjen Robben and Franck Ribery on the wings, Mats Hummels and Jerome Boateng at the back — were all on the pitch and in their preferred positions. Thomas Muller was in the hole while James Rodriguez, Niklas Sule, Thiago Alcantara, and Sebastian Rudy were on the bench. Just like old times.
It’s obviously unfair to expect interim boss Willy Sagnol to provide instant life to this squad: give him time to work. But it’s hard to escape the notion that there are far more serious issues here, ones that won’t be solved by picking a fall guy (Ancelotti) and jettisoning him. If he really was the source of all of Bayern’s ills, at some point (you’d imagine) someone will take the club to task for not acting in the summer when they had all the time in the world to find a successor they liked, as well as providing him with the players he needed.
Instead, they waited until late September and peddled the notion that Ancelotti’s removal was down to a cadre of players, two of whom (Robben and Ribery) are 34 and 33 respectively and whose contracts have not yet been extended beyond next June. If the great mutiny (assuming there was one) doesn’t yield results, not to worry: they’ll be gone come the summer too.
After all, you can pass the buck so many times.
Harmony restored at PSG?
Paris Saint-Germain pummelled Bordeaux on Saturday, rolling to a 6-2 win. And if you’re keeping track of the Neymar-Edinson Cavani penalty saga, it seems they’ve reached some sort of understanding: Neymar took the spot-kick and celebrated with Cavani. No fuss and apparently, they’ll now alternate, as least according to Thomas Meunier, who said that it had been arranged with coach Unai Emery: “Had there been another one, it would have gone to [Cavani].”
Whatever works for them, I guess.
What’s obvious is that if this team takes the lead early, they are devastating. We saw it against Bayern and we saw it again on Saturday, when Neymar pulled a highlight-reel worthy free-kick out of his hat. With Neymar and Kylian Mbappe running rampant on the counter, it’s a mismatch.
VAR the talking point in Juve’s draw
Atalanta and Juventus served up a cracking 2-2 draw and Max Allegri was angry at the final whistle. It probably had more to do with the fact that his team had missed a penalty and had let a two-goal lead slip away, but the headlines again were about VAR.
Stephan Lichsteiner’s elbow found Alejandro “Papu” Gomez in the build-up to Mario Mandzukic’s goal. Referee Antonio Damato first let it stand, VAR asked him to review and he then overturned his decision, disallowing it. Damato’s decision was correct — Lichtsteiner was protecting the ball by extending his arm, but he caught Gomez and it was dangerous, meeting referees’ directives for a foul and a yellow card– but some were miffed at the fact that 13 seconds elapsed between the foul and the goal.
Again, this is a VAR procedural issue, one that we’ll need to get used to: how far back can you go in the build-up? As the guidelines stand, since there was no change in possession or stop in play, it was considered all part of the same attacking move. Not everyone may like this but hey, that’s why VAR is being trialed.
VAR also featured shortly thereafter when Damato awarded a penalty to Juventus after Andrea Petagna appeared to extend his shoulder to meet a free-kick while standing in the wall. Here VAR questioned his call, he watched the replay and stuck with his decision. That one was a lot more dubious but again, VAR says a decision can only be overturned if there is a “clear error.” You can only assume Damato did not see a “clear error,” at least not in the pictures he watched.
It’s probably a debate for another time but it’s always worth remembering that this is a season-long test of VAR and it’s not just officials who are being tested. The fans and media are being educated too.
Ronaldo’s drought a concern for Real?
Real Madrid’s weekend was overshadowed by events elsewhere but they kept pace in La Liga with a 2-0 win over Espanyol. Again, when you consider the absentees up front (Gareth Bale and Karim Benzema) and especially at the back (both first-choice full-backs, Marcelo and Dani Carvajal), this is a good result.
The difference-maker was, not for the first time, Isco, who bagged both goals while Zinedine Zidane gave a debut to an 18-year-old right-back, Achraf Hakimi, who acquitted himself well. The only blot is that Cristiano Ronaldo still hasn’t opened his Liga account. He may well be the only one who cares but for those keeping track at home, it’s now 270 minutes without a league goal in 2017-18: that’s his longest drought since he arrived at the Bernabeu. (It’s 358 minutes if you go back into last season.)
Sympathy for Jurgen Klopp
Regular readers will know I have a lot of time for Jurgen Klopp and I genuinely sympathize with him, especially after seeing Liverpool give up sort of goal they conceded against Newcastle.
Joel Matip and Dejan Lovren switched off at exactly the same time, leaving themselves square with Joselu between them, equidistant from both. Jonjo Shelvey collected the ball in his own half, enjoyed seemingly enough time to recite T.S. Eliot’s “The Wasteland” and then hit a simple ball over the top that left both defenders flat-footed. Joselu raced on to it, scampered into the area and then, because when it rains it pours, Matip’s tackle from behind won the ball but sent it off Joselu’s leg and into the back of the net.
Klopp said he was disappointed and frustrated, not just over this but over the many chances Liverpool failed to take and a penalty not given when Joselu tugged Dejan Lovren’s shirt at the other end. (As I saw it, it looked as if both has a fistful of shirt, but whatever.)
That Joselu goal should serve as a reminder that defensive breakdowns can sometimes be a combination of factors. Some you can control, like the fact that there is no excuse for Lovren and Matip to defend the way they did. Some you can’t, like Shelvey’s perfect ball or the ricochet off Joselu.
You’d imagine Klopp is working on the things he can control yet at the same time, short of implanting a chip in the brains of his center-backs and buzzing them whenever danger is near, there is only so much he can do.
Milan unlucky to lose to Roma?
I didn’t think Milan were anywhere near as poor in the 2-0 home defeat to Roma as they have been in recent games. In fact, for most of the match they arguably had the upper hand. And yet, it only took a defensive slip-up for Roma and a super Edin Dzeko finish to pull ahead late and then add another. For all their supposed supremacy earlier in the game, Milan created less than they should have.
We’ve said it before: the Panini sticker approach to team-building doesn’t quite work. And it may be time to revisit the back three as well. Or rather, if you’re going to redesign the side to accommodate Leo Bonucci and go 3-5-2, at least let him (or, if not him, Alessio Romagnoli, who is also a superb passer) occasionally step into midfield and take some of the workload off the hugely predictable Lucas Biglia.
Dortmund ride out nervy win
Borussia Dortmund stayed top of the Bundesliga with a 2-1 win at Augsburg but again, they showed just why it’s often a white-knuckle ride with Peter Bosz at the helm. They dominated the first half, took a 2-1 lead and everything was going swimmingly until the usual bugbears — players dragged out of position by the incessant and indiscriminate press, center-backs left on their own — gave Augsburg numerous chances to equalize. Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang did his part to contribute to the late-game fear when he hit one of the worst Panenka penalties in recent memory.
“That was the worst game we’ve played since I got here,” said Bosz afterwards, possibly forgetting the performance in midweek against Real Madrid in midweek.
Still, it’s Bosz. You’ve got to take the good with the bad.
Harry Kane just keeps getting better
I’m sort of running out of superlatives when it comes to Harry Kane. He scored two goals on Saturday in the 4-0 hammering of Huddersfield but could have had twice as many. Easy. He has eight goals in his last four Premier League games (with a hat-trick in the Champions League sandwiched in there too…) and what strikes you is how effortless he makes everything look.
The better he does, the more folks speculate about whether he’s too good for Tottenham. I don’t know Kane well enough to be sure but I like to think the more that happens, the more determined he is to stay. Few players have the privilege of playing — and excelling — for the club they’ve supported all their lives.
Hamsik off the mark as Napoli win again
Napoli made it seven wins from seven games to open their Serie A season, downing Cagliari 3-0. The only other side in Europe’s Big Five with a perfect domestic record is Barcelona and that’s saying something. We’ll get a better sense of whether they’re real contenders — Maurizio Sarri is smart to keep dampening that enthusiasm — after the break, when they face Roma and Inter (with a trip to take on Manchester City at the Etihad in between) but thus far, they’ve been exceptional.
The fact that their captain, Marek Hamsik, opened the scoring is significant too. He’s been the one cog in Sarri’s machine that hasn’t been quite firing properly this season. If he’s now out of his funk, it can only make them better.
Incidentally, depending who you talk to, Hamsik’s goal may or may not have made him Napoli’s all-time leading goalscorer, surpassing some guy named Diego Armando Maradona. There’s a dispute as to whether he’s on 116 or 114: official league tallies suggest the latter, many major media outlets plump for the former. It’s all down to these two goals that were considered own goals (though, in many other nations, would be credit to Hamsik).
You be the judge.
Gabriele Marcotti is a Senior Writer for ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @Marcotti.