This weekend’s action didn’t disappoint across Europe as Manchester City rolled to a big win at Liverpool to effectively end the Premier League title race. (The Reds are no strangers to comebacks, but this one would be their most unlikely yet.) Elsewhere, Juventus turn back the clock in beating AS Roma, Man United’s draw vs. Everton proves they aren’t really challenging for first place, and Lionel Messi and Raphael Varane rescued Barcelona and Real Madrid respectively against tricky opponents.
It’s Monday, and Gab Marcotti reacts to the biggest moments in the world of football from the past week.
Jump to: Liverpool sunk | Juve win ‘old school’ | Varane rescues Real | Man United aren’t contenders | Messi lifts tired Barca | Dortmund collapse again | Spurs’ Kane dependency | PSG oust rivals Marseille | Zlatan hits 500, 501 | Tuchel, Chelsea win again | Leipzig cruise | Is this Arsenal’s best?
Barring an Istanbul-like comeback, Man City knock Liverpool out of the title race
Manchester City’s 4-1 win at Anfield on Sunday leaves them ten points clear at the top of the Premier League with a game in hand. And that means that, barring some otherworldly event of Istanbul-like proportions, Liverpool will not retain their title.
Jurgen Klopp felt that his team could have snatched a draw, and sure, if you factor out the sort of individual errors (especially from Alisson and both full-backs) for which you can’t account, that may have been the case. But it wouldn’t change the fact that his team were comprehensively outplayed by a better side and, save for the penalty gifted to them by Ruben Dias and an early Sadio Mane header, they rarely threatened.
So what next?
One of the single most difficult tasks when things go wrong is establishing the “why” of it, particularly when there are multiple factors at play. Klopp can cite his team’s horrendous injury record — Virgil Van Dijk, Joe Gomez, Joel Matip, Alisson, Thiago Alcantara, Fabinho, Naby Keita, Jordan Henderson and Diogo Jota have all missed significant playing time this season — as well as fixture congestion and the lack of a preseason. That’s there for everyone to see. But there’s also a sharp decline in performance from Andy Robertson and, especially, Trent Alexander-Arnold, as well as a (perhaps less marked) downturn in production from the forwards. There’s the possibility that Klopp has gotten things wrong tactically, that perhaps some opponents have figured Liverpool out. And finally, there are our old friends, luck and randomness.
To some degree, all of the above contribute to the fact that Liverpool have 27 fewer points after 23 games than they did at this stage last season. Sifting through all this and establishing what contributed the most to the decline, and how, and figuring out to how fix it has to be the challenge for Klopp and Liverpool’s front office. The former is tricky and the latter is difficult, because after committing large sums to Thiago and Jota in the summer and with six starters who will be 29 or older at the start of next season, room to manoeuvre will be limited.
As for City, it’s 14 wins on the bounce in all competitions and 10 straight in the Premier League. All with a star center-forward (Sergio Aguero) who hasn’t started since October, while their best player (Kevin De Bruyne) has been out for three weeks. What we’re seeing is prime Pep Guardiola. Forgoing a center-forward like Gabriel Jesus for a guy like Phil Foden and then, effectively switching to a front two of Foden and Bernardo Silva in mid-game. Joao Cancelo and Oleksandr Zinchenko playing fullback with the mentality of central midfielders. Raheem Sterling back to his mazy best.
When Guardiola makes changes and it doesn’t work, he’s accused of overthinking, which has negative connotations. Fine. But then when he takes on a battered Liverpool team and seeks to find an edge by tweaking personnel and formation, we’ve got to give credit, no? It’s all part of the same “overthinking” isn’t it?
The fact is, maybe we should stop talking about things like “overthinking” and just recognise that this is a guy who thinks. A lot. Sometimes he’ll get it wrong, but when he does it’s not because he overthinks, but rather because he simply made the wrong choice.
A final point on Alisson and, indeed, all goalkeepers who play out from the back: they don’t do it because they like to needlessly have a giggle or show off their tekkers mid-game. They do it because their managers believe it gives them an edge in terms of breaking the press or enabling them to play a higher line or whatever, and that edge translates in goals and chances created. I’d love for somebody to actually crunch numbers on this. If the price you have to pay for playing through the press regularly is the occasional blunder, it’s worth paying.
“Old-school” Juventus get the job done, but this isn’t the way forward
Stewart Robson says Juventus were never in complete control in their 2-0 win against AS Roma in Serie A.
Juventus dialed back the clock against Roma this weekend and won 2-0. It didn’t look like Andrea Pirlo’s team; instead, it felt like old-school, Max Allegri-type fare. With Giorgio Chiellini and Leo Bonucci starting at the back, they defended deeper, invited pressure, were less compact, weathered a flurry of Roma shots on goal (most of them relatively innocuous) and took the lead via a moment of magic from one of the greatest players in history.
Roma outshot them, 14 to 3, and won the xG battle, 0.98 to 0.23. But the only number that matters here is “three,” as in the points Juve got, propelling them up to third place, with a game in hand.
The knee-jerk reaction from some quarters is to lavish praise on Pirlo for finding “balance” and “pragmatic,” and bringing back some of the “grit” of the old Juve. I’m not buying this, though, and I’m pretty sure neither are the club.
Pirlo was brought in to change the approach, to go out and make their advantage in terms of talent count, by dominating the pitch and creating chances. The Juve we saw Saturday scored one goal because Cristiano Ronaldo did his own super-human routine (trapping the ball with his studs and then conjuring a laser-guided finish, all in 0.52 seconds, according to Sky Italia) and then another on a clumsy own goal by Roger Ibanez. They also managed exactly zero shots on goal after minute 41 of the first half.
That’s not a plan. Or, at least, not a sustainable plan. You don’t plan on Ronaldo doing something outrageous (because, good as he is, he’s 36 and won’t be around forever), you don’t plan on an opposition own goal and you don’t plan on not shooting at all for more than half the game.
You can credit Pirlo for, perhaps, realising that this game needed Bonucci and Chiellini and that, with that partnership, you have to defend deep. Fine. But the two of them are a combined 69 years of age. They’re not part of the long-term plan. They can’t be.
It worked on Saturday and, to some, that’s all that matters. But if we see this version of Juve too many times between now and the end of the season, it won’t be a good sign.
Varane bails out Zidane and Real Madrid… for now
Julien Laurens outlines the next steps for Zinedine Zidane and Real Madrid for the remainder of the season.
You imagine there was a moment, early in the second half of Real Madrid’s game against last-place Huesca, when Zinedine Zidane figured all was lost. His team were a goal down and Huesca had hit the woodwork… twice. His injury list was so long that, near him on the bench, were just two senior pros (one of them was the “bad luck charm” Marcelo, the other Mariano, he of the five league goals in two-and-a-half seasons), two reserve keepers and two guys from the B-team. And he’d just had news that his captain, Sergio Ramos, would need surgery, which meant six weeks out. All this amid a run that saw Madrid lose three of their last four games and Zidane himself lose his cool in a pregame press conference.
– Real ratings: Varane 9/10 in superb win
Enter Raphael Varane. Two scrappy goals and a Ramos impression eventually gave them a 2-1 lead. For Varane, who was coming off a rough period, it was a “stand up and be counted” moment and he delivered. So did the usual suspects — Luka Modric and Karim Benzema — as well as Marco Asensio, a rare bright spot.
You sense they’re still a loss or two away from another full-blown crisis. Alvaro Odriozola is another injury loss and Toni Kroos is suspended for the next game. And, yeah, facing Atalanta in the Champions League last-16 without Ramos means that anything can happen. For now, they live to fight another day and they don’t slip down to fourth in the table. That’s something — however fleeting, however fragile — to hang on to.
Solskjaer is right: Man United may be second, but they’re not title chasers”
Craig Burley condems Man United’s failure to handle Carlo Ancelotti’s halftime adjustments in their draw with Everton.
After Manchester United‘s 3-3 draw with Everton — a game marked by Dominic Calvert-Lewin’s dramatic injury-time equalizer — Ole Gunnar Solskjaer said: “We shouldn’t even be considered as title chasers… Going forward we were very good, but we need to stop conceding goals.”
The fact of the matter is that United are “title chasers” in the sense that they’re second in the table. That’s the very definition of the term. The problem is, perhaps, that they don’t feel like title-chasers, because the flaws are so evident. It’s not just the goals they gifted Everton (who, by the way, gifted them one of their own), it’s that if you close your eyes and imagine them as title winners on a par with Manchester City or last season’s version of Liverpool, you’d need to probably change half a dozen guys for your fantasy to be plausible.
One of the players who would fit, Edinson Cavani, turns 34 on Valentine’s Day. Another, Paul Pogba, is out of contract at the end of next season and could leave earlier. That further whittles down the numbers and, perhaps, that’s what further fuels the unease.
As for Everton, they’re seventh with two games in hand. Win just one of the two — one of them is against Manchester City, so… — and they’re fourth, level on points with Liverpool. They’re ahead of the curve, but the league is so tight behind them that it’s a very swift drop into mid-table. But if they can continue to outwork most opponents in midfield, while tapping into James Rodriguez’ genius and Calvert-Lewin’s goals up front, a place in Europe beckons.
Messi to the rescue for weary Barcelona
Alejandro Moreno explains how Lionel Messi lifted Barcelona to victory over Real Betis after he subbed on.
High-powered, unpredictable Betis on a hot streak were probably the last opponent Ronald Koeman wanted to face after a sapping (physically and mentally) 120 minutes of football in the Copa del Rey Thursday night — particularly with a cup semifinal against Sevilla coming up on Wednesday. And so he picked Martin Braithwaite, Riqui Puig and and Miralem Pjanic ahead of Lionel Messi, Pedri and Frenkie De Jong (who were all on the bench) and crossed his fingers.
– Barca ratings: Messi 8/10 in win at Betis
Barcelona went behind, just as they have in their past four games, and he had to call on all three, including De Jong after just 11 minutes to replace Ronald Araujo, who got injured. Messi came on and scored straight away before a lucky own goal gave Barca the lead. And still, it was nervy until the end: Victor Ruiz equalized for Betis, before Trincao’s late winner.
What did we learn? Koeman is probably right to prioritize the cup competitions, because on current evidence, there’s no way they’re catching Atletico in La Liga. (Atletico are seven points clear and with two games in hand.) Barca without Messi (and without Pedri, along with the long-injured Ansu Fati, Gerard Pique and Sergi Roberto) are a right-hand side of the table team. But they fight and they have character and believe in Koeman enough (or, at least, have enough professional pride) to not throw in the towel. That’s not insignificant.
Dortmund crumble again as hopes of next year’s Champions League get dimmer
Janusz Michallik examines how an exodus of young stars would affect a Dortmund squad currently in disarray.
Right now, Borussia Dortmund feel like they’re made of papier mache. All is pretty if things go right, but rock the boat a little and they fall to bits.
Against Freiburg, Emre Can rattled the crossbar and Erling Haaland came very close. They could have been 2-0 up; instead, two improbable long-range efforts (the latter with some help from Marvin Hitz in goal) saw them 2-0 down. That’s when you would have expected some sort of reaction, but it didn’t actually come until 16-year-old Youssoufa Moukoko came on, pulled one back and just missed the late equalizer.
Whatever message Edin Terzic is sending, it’s not getting through. He’s not helping himself with some of his decisions — the less we see of Julian Brandt in midfield, the better — but it’s hard to see him sticking around.
The danger now is missing out on the Champions League. They’re in sixth place, four points away, but level on points with Borussia Monchengladbach. It’s not just the financial hit that would ensue; it would also make it that much harder to recruit the new boss and to hang on to their crop of young stars.
Tottenham are dependent on Kane and there’s no shame in that
Steve Nicol speaks about Harry Kane’s influence in Tottenham’s 2-0 win over West Brom.
Jose Mourinho bristled after Spurs’ 2-0 win over West Brom — a victory that broke a streak of three straight defeats — when asked about Harry Kane’s return and his partnership with Heung-Min Son (not coincidentally, both scored in the game). Mourinho said he didn’t want to speak about them, but wanted to focus on his entire team because they all played well.
That’s great — though Jose, it was West Brom, who have won once since November — but the fact remains that, especially under Mourinho, Tottenham are a different side with and without Kane. The numbers are clear. With Kane, they average 1.8 points per game, which means guaranteed Europa League with a shot at the top four in most seasons. In the 10 games they’ve been without Kane, the average drops to 1.1 points per game, which means finishing a couple spots above relegation.
In a perfect world, somebody would step up regularly to fill his shoes when he’s not around, whether Son (who, to be fair, has done it occasionally), or Tanguy Ndombele (when given remit to roam from central midfield) or Gareth Bale (at least that was the idea when they took him back). But we live in an imperfect world. So Kane it is.
PSG cruise past Marseille, who have bigger issues to address
Given the chaos of the past two weeks with fan invasions of the training ground, Andre Villas-Boas’ resignation and rows with city hall over the Stade Velodrome, you could probably forgive Marseille if they were a bit distracted heading into the big clash against Paris Saint-Germain. Compared to last time — with the melees, social media trolling and accusation of racism — this was a subdued affair.
– Marseille in crisis: Why fans rioted, why Villas-Boas left
Kylian Mbappe sent PSG on their way early, Mauro Icardi made it 2-0 by scoring, hunchback-style, with one of his upper vertebrae, and that was that. Neymar, initially on the bench due to a stomach ache (caused either by sheer bad luck, an intimate birthday party or not wanting to come across his old buddy Alvaro Gonzalez) came on without incident too.
PSG remain third in Ligue 1 and what Mauricio Pochettino needs most is a bit of tranquillity, particularly with Barcelona coming up next week in the Champions League. That’s been in short supply at the Parc des Princes in recent years.
Milan roll on as Zlatan hits 500 (and 501)
Gab Marcotti reflects on Zlatan Ibrahimovic’s impact at Milan and how he has adjusted his game this season.
Zlatan Ibrahimovic bagged two goals as Milan trounced Crotone 4-0, a victory that keeps them top of the Serie A table, two points ahead of Inter. Given it’s Zlatan and given how media works, the fact that they were his 500th and 501st career goals at club level received plenty of attention. Crotone’s defending was awful, but Ibrahimovic has been around a long, long time and has been a phenomenally consistent goalscorer throughout. And let’s face it: if he hadn’t reached 500 last weekend, he would have done it very soon. (The scary thing — and it says more about them than it says about him — is that Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi both reached the 500 goals mark at the age of 32, over seven years before Ibra.)
More compelling than his record, though, have been his performances, particularly this season. While he’s been freakishly prolific — 14 goals in 11 Serie A appearances (and that’s with three missed penalties) — he’s been selfless, not trying to do too much single-handedly, deferring to teammates when appropriate and dishing out assists. In some ways, he’s a more complete footballer today than he’s ever been.
And while there are occasions when he lets himself down — witness the confrontation with Romelu Lukaku and subsequent silly red card in the Coppa Italia derby — he’s been an absolute net positive for Milan. They will have a really tough choice to make this summer. Logic and budgets will suggest moving on when Ibra’s contract expires, but evidence and emotion will insist otherwise. And maybe that’s right. When it comes to Zlatan, logic can be overrated.
Chelsea’s coach of Tuchel vindicated thus far, but best is yet to come
The manner of Chelsea’s dismissal of Frank Lampard last month upset more than a few people and felt premature given the stakes involved (at least to me). But there’s no arguing with numbers. Sunday’s 2-1 win over Sheffield United makes it three wins in a row under Thomas Tuchel and they’re now up to fifth, one point outside the Champions League zone. Put differently, Tuchel has won as many points in 11 days as Lampard’s Chelsea managed in the previous six-and-a-half weeks.
The thing is, this still feels like an experimental side in which Tuchel conducts weekly auditions for his starting lineup. We haven’t seen a proper “Tuchel Team” and we probably won’t for a while. One interesting note, though, is that Jorginho has played every minute of every game under Tuchel. Not bad for a guy who had been written off by the commentariat as “too slow”, “too weak” and “only capable of passing backwards and sideways.” (Oh, and he’s also converted his last two penalties, worth noting because commentators feel compelled to express surprise every time he steps up to take them given that he’s had a few high-profile misses in the past.)
Leipzig keep pace with Bayern in Bundesliga
Leipzig’s trip away to Bundesliga cellar-dweller Schalke pretty much went as you might expect. Julian Nagelsmann’s crew dominated possession and took tons of shots, while Schalke hung on and looked for the break. For a while, it worked and it took a set-piece in first-half injury time for Nordi Mukiele to put Leipzig ahead, before they added two more goals in the second half.
The win keeps Leipzig within seven points of Bayern, with 14 games to go. This is when many scoff and declare the Bundesliga race over, but I don’t think we’re at that point just yet. There’s still the head-to-head and Bayern still have a bunch of games where they could drop points (Borussia Dortmund, Eintracht, Gladbach, Bayer Leverkusen). The problem is, of course, so could Leipzig…
Is this Arsenal’s level, at least for this season?
Arsenal’s stop-start campaign continues and Saturday’s 1-0 defeat to Aston Villa means it’s one point from a possible nine in the past three games. Mikel Arteta can cite misfortune — giving up a silly early goal, Kieran Tierney absent, Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang on the bench, Bernd Leno and David Luiz suspended — but, in fact, it’s not like Arsenal were terrible. It’s more like they looked like a team that is at its ceiling, and it doesn’t feel as if they can flick a switch and suddenly get a lot better.
Sure, there were bright spots — Bukayo Saka may be the side’s best player, Nicolas Pepe offered glimpses that justified his huge fee, they didn’t give up (but shouldn’t that last one be a given?) — but equally, you can point to the fact that Jack Grealish was having his way with Hector Bellerin, that Thomas Partey wasn’t moving the needle in midfield and that Alexandre Lacazette looked like what he is: a guy forced to start four games in 11 days.
Fourth place is nine points away, and Europe isn’t much closer. They’re out of the domestic cups and Benfica, a tough out, awaits in the Europa League next month. It’s up hill from here.