So, at what point do you sound the alarm?
After Real Madrid’s 2-1 setback away to Girona, Zinedine Zidane’s men are stuck on 20 points. You have to go all the way back to 2005-06, his final season as a player, to find the last time they were worse off after 10 games. Barcelona are eight points clear (more on this later) and in outright gloating mode. More of a concern, though, was Madrid’s performance against a newly promoted opponent who had won just once at home this season.
There are no real excuses here. Gareth Bale and Dani Carvajal are out, but Madrid are used to it by now. Portu was probably offside for Girona’s winner, but that doesn’t change the fact that the home team also hit the woodwork twice and created the better chances. (Wheel out the expected goals and it’s 2.44 to 1.58: it marks the first time Madrid have not won the xG in a Liga game since 2016 and the draw in the December Clasico.)
“Many times we drew matches, but we were creating chances… not today,” said Casemiro. “It concerns us all that we are very far [from where we want to be].”
What was surprising — and unlike Madrid — was that after getting the early goal, they played as if they were 4-0 up in injury time. There was little urgency and little awareness, almost as if all their thoughts were on the midweek trip to Wembley to face Tottenham Hotspur.
Cristiano Ronaldo was poor, like many of his teammates, but inevitably he’ll fall under the microscope because he collected that FIFA award on Monday, has scored just one league goal all season long and because, well, he’s Cristiano: he doesn’t hide and has the broad shoulders (and wage packet) to bear the responsibility. However, it should be a collective responsibility. All it means is he didn’t paper over the cracks on Sunday: the underlying listlessness that affected his teammates isn’t down to him.
We know Real Madrid can play better, and we know they probably will. The more interesting question is at what point do they write off the Liga season. No Real Madrid side has ever been eight points back and gone on to win the title. I tweeted that out on Sunday — thanks, as ever, to the legendary @2010MisterChip — and plenty fired back that nobody had ever won back-to-back Champions League crowns until Real Madrid did it.
That’s true, but there are better arguments as well. Like the fact that simply put, Real Madrid probably haven’t been eight points back that often in their history. Or the fact that much of that history took place in the two-points-for-a-win era. Or, indeed, that you don’t have to go that far back to find a team that made up an eight-point gap to become champion.
It’s something Zidane will remember well. In early March 2004, Valencia were eight points behind league-leading Real Madrid with just 12 games to play. Rafa Benitez famously went on to lead them to the Liga title, and what’s more, he did it without the benefit of a head-to-head game.
Heck, Real Madrid themselves made up an eight-point margin in 2008-09. They lost the December Clasico to Barcelona to slip 12 back after round 15. By the time the return Clasico at the Bernabeu rolled around, the gap was four points with five matches left. They famously got spanked 6-2 and that was that. But they were pretty darn close to controlling their own destiny, and they had recovered eight points in 18 games against Pep Guardiola’s eventual treble-winners.
Zidane has 27 matches, nearly two-and-half times as many, as Benitez had to turn it around. He also has the two Clasicos left. It’s a tall order, sure, but there is no reason to throw in the towel now. Especially since this Barcelona side aren’t the juggernaut they’ve been in recent years.
Mourinho plays the percentages vs. Spurs
If you watched the first 45 minutes of Manchester United’s clash with Tottenham on Saturday, you’d likely be tempted to hand the Premier League to Manchester City straight away. If these are the closest contenders, the gap is an abyss.
What ultimately separated these two teams in the end was an error on one end (Eric Dier allowing Anthony Martial to slip the ball past Hugo Lloris) and a chance not taken (Dele Alli) at the other. Beyond that, it was largely a war of attrition, and you’d imagine it suited Jose Mourinho just fine. He set up with a back-three defense and midfield to mirror Tottenham, he took no chances, he defended deep enough to deny the runs of Heung-Min Son and Alli while waiting for something to happen at the other end.
Those who criticised him — and there were some grumblings among the Old Trafford faithful as well, as he addressed after the game — rather miss the point. A win against Tottenham is nice, a draw would have been fine and a defeat would have been really, really bad. It’s as simple as that. Mourinho played the percentages, which is what he has done for most of his career.
United didn’t outplay Tottenham but they didn’t need to. And, frankly, with Paul Pogba, Marouane Fellaini and Michael Carrick all sidelined, Mourinho felt he didn’t have the necessary central midfield to take the game to the opposition. He’s probably right: Ander Herrera in a midfield two isn’t quite as effective, which is why he chucked on an extra central defender.
Perhaps realizing the game has changed, Mourinho has made United more attacking this year. And in fact, he did last year, too, although the lack of end product led many to fail to realize it. But in a game like this — or, say, away to Liverpool — coming after an ugly defeat at Huddersfield without some key ingredients, this is what he serves up. It’s what he does. And it worked out.
As for Pochettino, he has the giant alibi of Harry Kane’s absence. What’s interesting is how he reacted to it: he didn’t play Fernando Llorente but opted instead for the quick legs of Son Heung-Min. I’m not sure how much of a difference it would have made (Mourinho seemed prepared to face the Spain striker), but it’s becoming increasingly clear how Pochettino views him. Llorente is someone to bring off the bench and, perhaps, to occasionally partner Kane. He’s not someone to replace him because that changes the whole way Spurs operate.
Incidentally, Tottenham have the same number of points now than at the same stage last season, but they’ve arguably faced a tougher schedule and done it with more injuries to key performers. For what it’s worth, I think they’re on the right path.
Juve pile on Milan’s problems
Juventus went old-school for the trip to take on Milan in a packed San Siro (78,000-plus fans, kinda like the good ol’ days). Not just because not one of the summer signings cracked Max Allegri’s starting XI, but for the way they set up. They were tidy and organized, they soaked up the pressure and they waited for their superstars to make a difference. On Saturday night Gonzalo Higuain was the difference-maker, notching both goals in a 2-0 win.
Beyond the scoring, Higuain was the player he can be and his fans wish him to be but too often, for whatever reason, isn’t. He roamed the front line, he linked play, he was alert and energetic. And yeah, he looked several sizes slimmer too. It wasn’t just him: the likes of Juan Cuadrado and Sami Khedira also did their part, as did two guys who are often forgotten but probably should play a bigger role, Daniele Rugani and Gerard Asamoah.
Juve played the way they played some Champions League games in years past: low center of gravity, density at the back and letting their talented guys do their thing. There’s nothing wrong with that, although it was further confirmation that Allegri’s master plan for Juve 2.0 (the one with flying wingers like Federico Bernardeschi and Douglas Costa) is still in the blueprint stage.
As for Milan, the “absolute minimum goal” for the season — a Champions League place — is 10 points away (it will be 12 points away if Inter win at Verona on Monday) with more than a quarter of the season gone. Of course, it might have been a moot point anyway — it’s hard to see them getting a pass from UEFA on Financial Fair Play even via a “Voluntary Agreement” — but it’s still a major blow. And by the way, the clock is ticking on repaying that $300 million-plus loan from Elliott Management, which becomes due in less than 12 months.
But those are long-term worries. In the short term, Vincenzo Montella will, again, get criticism. He came out firing afterwards, saying his side had matched Juventus and that ultimately, the difference was the quality of guys like Higuain and “centimeters.” By one reading, he’s correct: the game’s only clear-cut chance fell to Nikola Kalinic, who missed it. And if you’re into expected goals, Milan ended up well ahead, 1.07 to 0.46. That doesn’t change the fact that they didn’t play well, were too reliant on Suso in the final third, that this version of the back 3 looks no more assured than the one with Leo Bonucci in it and that Lucas Biglia still plays at two miles per hour while Hakan Calhanoglu looks like he just met his teammates immediately prior to kick off.
I’m a Montella guy, and he has plenty of mitigating factors in his favor. Were it up to me, I’d let him have a run all season long and let the chips fall were they may. But it isn’t. The screws are tightening on the guys above him, and soon they’ll need a fall guy.
Man City are a cut above the competition
Manchester City continue to be the class of the Premier League as they showed in their 3-2 win at West Bromwich Albion. Don’t let the score fool you, either: this was far more one-sided than it suggests.
Yes, City have bent over backwards for Pep Guardiola, and they have spent gigantic sums of money, but beyond the results, there’s a tangible improvement in individual players, and that often goes overlooked. Raheem Sterling has already scored as many league goals (seven) this season (in just eight appearances) as he did last year. He’s still explosive and tricky, but now he’s getting into better scoring positions — and converting.
Leroy Sane, who hardly played in the first half of last year, is one of the most devastating wide men in Europe, combining pace and technique while Fabian Delph, a recycled midfielder, has reinvented himself as a dependable left-back, at least in this system.
That individual improvement — carrying on a theme that began at Bayern — is as much a part of what makes Guardiola great as his overall results.
Heynckes is getting Bayern back on track
Suddenly, they look like geniuses. Three weeks ago, Bayern were five points behind Borussia Dortmund. Three Bundesliga matches (and three wins) later, they’re three points clear. And they could go six clear next week. Evidently Jupp Heynckes brought his magic dust with him.
Against Leipzig, though, Bayern got a big boost when the opposition had a man sent off early (much like midweek in the German Cup). Willi Orban was initially booked for dropping Arjen Robben. Then, after the video assistant referee intervened, the yellow became a red and Leipzig lost their defensive leader. It was harsh, but it was also correct by the letter of the law.
Orban made no attempt to play the ball, and in that sense, it was a clear denial of a goal scoring opportunity. In real time, the yellow seemed more than adequate, but watching it again, the referee evidently felt he needed to be tougher. VAR is supposed to be used for “clear errors.” In this case, the referee himself deemed he made a “clear error” and corrected it. If you don’t like it (or you think he was wrong) don’t blame VAR. Blame the referee’s judgement instead. But at least appreciate the fact that he gets the final word because he has ultimate responsibility.
Leipzig simply aren’t built to play with 10 men. James Rodriguez put Bayern ahead, the visitors replaced Timo Werner with an 18-year-old defender (Ibrahima Konate) and that was that. Robert Lewandowski made it 2-0 before half-time, but it was lights-out well before that. (Incidentally, Lewandowski picked up a muscular injury, much like Thomas Muller the week before. Good thing those new, “more intense” training sessions are paying off.)
Bayern may have been the beneficiaries of a spot of good fortune (Leipzig) and incompetence (Borussia Dortmund), but they won’t be complaining. A veteran like Heynckes knows where his team’s merits ends and where other factors begin. There’s still work to do and you can expect him to get stuck in. In the meantime, the prospect of plus-6 over Dortmund is all the motivation they need.
Barca remain four points clear
Sometimes you need a little luck and a little (OK, a lot of) Lionel Messi doesn’t hurt either. Athletic Bilbao away aren’t the fearsome proposition they once were, but they came out firing against a Barca team that seemed to sleep-walk in patches. Marc-Andre ter Stegen made more big saves than you would want him to have to make, and it took a moment of magic (a collective one, but Messi’s contribution was more magical than most) to break the ice and settle the nerves. Even then, Bilbao hit the crossbar in the second half and ter Stegen again came up big.
Sergio Busquets pulled no punches postgame when he said they “struggled a lot.” Still, the gap at the top remains four points, and if back in August you had predicted they’d be eight points clear of Real Madrid at this stage, few would have believed it. Ernesto Valverde still has work to do — like helping Luis Suarez regain his mojo and finding another cog in the front three as Andre Gomes is not the answer — but at least, for now, he doesn’t need to worry about results.
Napoli’s win overshadowed by “conspiracy” talk
Napoli defeated Sassuolo, 3-1, on Sunday and they did it with the intensity dialled down a notch (so much so that for a time, the opposition got back into the game). It’s not a big deal, they remain top on Serie A, and, in fact, if they can win while pacing themselves, it will only make them a better side down the road.
Less impressive was Napoli president Aurelio De Laurentiis talking about what “they” might come up with to stop his club. Who’s “they” exactly? An ancient Italian conceit whereby there’s always some mega-plot or conspiracy by the powers that be or deep state? “We’re starting to bother some people…” he said. “Nowadays there’s VAR, but I wonder what they’ll invent to cut us down because we’re playing too well.”
It’s hard to tell sometimes when De Laurentiis is kidding or when he’s serious. Give him the benefit of the doubt here, but please: leave the conspiracy talk in the past decade, where it belongs.
Dortmund, Bosz found out again
Another week, another walk on the Bosz side. I don’t want to be unkind to Peter Bosz but the sheer Groundhog Day repetitiveness of it all is staggering. Borussia Dortmund’s 4-2 defeat at Hannover was a compendium of all that is wrong — and is increasingly being exploited by opponents — with the Bosz approach.
Roman Burki making another bad decision prompted by no defensive cover and giving away a silly penalty? Check. A defensive line that’s so absurdly high that they’re actually in the opposition half (meaning there is no offside)? Check.
A needless red card for an 18-year-old defender (Dan-Axel Zagadou) who shouldn’t be thrown in at the deep end in the first place and then gets exposed because he doesn’t step up? Check. Sending hordes of bodies up the pitch but creating little, save for individual initiatives? Check.
Bosz said afterwards they played “soft,” which is sort of a catchall excuse. The thing is that “playing hard” isn’t going to change the fact that opponents appear to have figured him out, and we’re only in October.
Bas Dost scored the late winner that allowed Sporting to take all three points away to Rio Ave. He now has eight goals in 10 league matches, putting him on pace to score 27 league goals this season. Overall, he has in nine in 15 games in all competitions.
This concludes the latest installment of #BasDostWatch.
Gabriele Marcotti is a Senior Writer for ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @Marcotti.