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Another great soccer weekend and a fresh batch of talking points! Manchester United’s win over Tottenham cemented the exit of Nuno Espirito Santo, but it doesn’t necessarily mean Ole Gunnar Solskjaer is safe in his job. Barcelona stumbled to a draw, Juventus are in trouble, Bayern Munich shrugged off last week’s 5-0 cup defeat with a 5-2 win, and Arsenal’s strong run of form continues (though don’t ask us what it all means).
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It’s Monday, and Gab Marcotti reacts to the biggest moments in the world of football.
Jump to: Why Nuno’s out | Solskjaer boosted | Juve woe | Barca stumble | Bayern hit back | Man City lose | Super Vinicius | Liverpool’s midfield | Dortmund’s good luck | Real Sociedad slip | Arsenal deceiving? | Correa saves Inter | New-look Atletico win | Napoli win ugly | And finally…
Nuno’s flop at Tottenham is a systemic failure
Sometimes more than one thing can be true. Nuno Espirito Santo did not have a positive effect on Tottenham Hotspur. They won their first three games of the campaign, all 1-0, while being outperformed most of the way. That’s the main reason the league table — they’re eighth, five points from the Champions League places — doesn’t look disastrous.
The trend, however, is that they’ve lost five of their past seven league matches. The stats are poor, too, whether it’s expected goal difference (12th), shots on goal (19th) or passes in the box (15th). Equally, Nuno clearly never quite connected with the fan base, or at least not those who loudly called for his sacking when he was mercilessly booed after substituting Lucas Moura in the 3-0 home defeat to Manchester United on Sunday.
All of the above is true. Also true is that while he may have been ill-equipped for the job, he walked into a dumpster fire that made his job more difficult. He was only appointed on June 30 (more than two months after Jose Mourinho’s departure), he had to work with a sporting director, Fabio Paratici, who was also new, and he had to deal with the Harry Kane situation. All of this against the backdrop of a club heavily affected by the pandemic, most of whose signings over the past two seasons have been underwhelming.
So yeah, you can conclude that the decision to dispatch Nuno is correct while also not making him the sole scapegoat for all of the clubs ills. And that second part is important, because it will inform what happens next.
Run through this squad and you can probably count on one hand the number of players who look like viable top-four material, especially if you discount Kane (who presumably is no more jazzed to stay now than when he asked to leave) and Hugo Lloris (whose contract is up in the summer). It’s mad to think that this team was in a Champions League final and finished fourth, one point away from third place, just three years ago. That rapid decline speaks to systemic poor decision-making that goes beyond Nuno or Jose Mourinho or whatever manager is appointed to try to make it work.
If there is a silver lining to all this, it’s probably that the club seem to be more aware of how their supporters feel, especially when they make poor decisions. Naturally, it would be better if they didn’t make really foolish choices to begin with.
Solskjaer tweaks formation and gets response from Man United… for now
As I see it, there were three main takeaways from Manchester United’s 3-0 win away to Tottenham. One is that Spurs aren’t very good, which may explain why they sacked Nuno Espirito Santo less than 48 hours later. Two is that Solskjaer’s switch to the 5-3-2 makes Cristiano Ronaldo more effective. And three is that the players are professionals who aren’t going to intentionally undermine their manager: when they screw up, it’s in good faith.
Janusz Michallik credits Ole Gunnar Solskjaer for his tactical change in Man United’s win over Spurs.
But here’s the thing: Manchester United can only do so much with the last two points. That 5-3-2 setup isn’t any sort of permanent solution — not unless you plan on benching a whole stack of expensive (and younger) talent and not unless you bring in more bodies at the back. Ronaldo is at his best with a strike partner these days, but this formation also means no room for Jadon Sancho, Marcus Rashford or Mason Greenwood, except as alternatives to Edinson Cavani. (It also means no room for Paul Pogba, but heck, few seem to care about that these days.)
And United simply don’t have enough centre-back depth to play a back three consistently: get beyond the three who started, and you’re looking at Eric Bailly (who has played zero league minutes this season), Teden Mengi (who is 19 and hasn’t played first-team football at United yet) and Phil Jones (who hasn’t actually played in 22 months). So something like this works, but only with major surgery on the squad. Otherwise, you’re one or two absences away from being forced back into the 4-2-3-1.
The other point leaves us no further forward. Solskjaer’s tenure has been a roller coaster of getting to the brink and pulling back. Screw up against Atalanta in midweek, get pummelled by Manchester City in the derby and the knives all come out again.
We’re a long way away from any kind of solidity here, in terms of Solskjaer’s job security. Better get used to it.
Allegri takes responsibility as Juventus free fall
Two defeats on the bounce — Wednesday against Sassuolo via a heartbreaker of an injury-time winner, Saturday against Verona via a Gio Simeone knockout combo inside of 15 minutes — means Max Allegri’s Juve are in serious trouble. So much so that Allegri has decreed something we hadn’t seen at Juve since 2015, and which feels like an anachronism today: a “ritiro.”
The “ritiro” was something Italian clubs used to do all the time up until the 1990s and consists of everyone being sequestered in a hotel leading up to a game, only leaving to train and play matches. It’s supposed to focus the mind, eliminate distraction and build chemistry. The reason it’s so rarely used these days is that most players feel it only serves to increase stress and boredom. That’s how DefCon 1 Allegri has gone in deciding the players would be in “ritiro” for a week.
Gab & Juls explain the strange approach Max Allegri is taking to try to fix Juventus’ poor form.
Allegri blamed a lack of concentration, intensity and fight, particularly against smaller clubs. Maybe this will fix it. Certainly it was part of the problem in the past two games, but not the whole problem. Fundamentally, Allegri inherited an ill-assorted group whose results the past two seasons would probably have been even worse if Cristiano Ronaldo hadn’t been around to paper over the cracks. (As for the performances, they weren’t particularly good with or without Ronaldo, so that hasn’t really changed.)
He believed he could coach his way out of it not by employing the same approach he had the last time around — Allegri is an intelligent guy, he knows football has moved on and successful clubs these days are far more proactive than reactive — but by simply working with players on the training pitch and making them better. So far, that hasn’t happened. He’ll get the time to do it, because his reputation (and his salary) will determine that he gets it, but there’s a bigger hill to climb than many realize.
Injury-riddled Barcelona held to draw as the wait for Xavi continues
I made the point before: sacking Ronald Koeman after a defeat in which they played reasonably well felt like a knee-jerk response. It’s not that he was the right man for the job or that if they persevered things would turn around — he showed he wasn’t and no, they wouldn’t — it’s just that it often makes little sense to pull the trigger when there’s no plan in place. Or, at least, no immediate plan.
There was no reason to think things would suddenly improve with Sergi Barjuan temporarily promoted to the big chair, certainly not while the massive injury crisis continues to decimate the club’s ranks — it got worse against Alaves, with Gerard Pique and Sergio Aguero, the latter hospitalised with cardiac issues, coming off injured — and while the air of negativity continues to permeate everything.
Sergi lined Barca up the way Koeman did (Sergino Dest on the wing, Philippe Coutinho on the bench, Nico and Gavi in midfield because Frenkie de Jong and Pedri are out) and got similar results: sterile possession, defensive errors (like the one that led to the equalizer), chances created almost exclusively because Memphis Depay does something special.
Barcelona president Joan Laporta speaks about whether he should have sacked Ronald Koeman earlier.
Barca drew a little more than 37,000 fans to the Camp Nou, their smallest crowd for a LaLiga game in 20 years. Statistically, as some media pointed out, this is the worst start since another Dutchman (Louis van Gaal in 2002), though even those two facts need to be taken with a pinch of salt. Barca fans will return in double-quick time if Xavi (assuming it’s him) gives them even a fraction of the jolt they expect. And the gap to fourth place is six points, with 27 games to go. Throw in the Champions League, where they still control their destiny and yeah, there’s scope for Xavi to turn things around. As long as he shows up sooner rather than later, of course …
Bayern bounce back in classic trap game
Having taken the 5-0 humiliation against Borussia Monchengladbach on the chin in the DFB-Pokal, Bayern Munich’s Bundesliga trip to face Union Berlin at the Alten Försterei was a classic trap game.
Union were undefeated at home this season and they’re exactly the sort of physical never-say-die side you’d rather not face in these situations. Bayern raced to a 3-0 lead after 35 minutes (yup, that Robert Lewandowski guy again, bagging two and taking his seasonal total to 19 in all competitions) and you’d ordinarily expect it to be game over. But Union battled back, to 1-3 and to 2-4, and there were times in the second half when it felt the game could get out of hand.
Credit to the German champions that it didn’t. On a day when the atmosphere, the occasion and the change in fortune after the early lead were all working against them (and the normally dominating midfield was getting a rough ride, especially Corentin Tolisso in his first start of the campaign), they saw out the game and the three points to remain top of the league.
Goals and red cards change games … and Man City lose
Credit to Patrick Vieira. Crystal Palace are closer to Europe than they are relegation despite seeing a raft of players leave in the summer, and in a few short months he has managed to revolutionise their style, from stolid counterattackers to a more well-rounded possession game. I didn’t think it would work so well and, when you beat Manchester City 2-0 on the road, you deserve all the praise you get. That said, this was also a reminder that when you go a goal down straight away and lose a man before half-time, things get incredibly tough real quick.
Janusz Michallik points out the biggest area of concern for Man City after losses to West Ham and Crystal Palace.
I’m not entirely sure Aymeric Laporte’s foul warranted a DOGSO (Denial of a Goalscoring Opportunity) red card, but it was all uphill after that for the home team. With Kevin De Bruyne and Ruben Dias having off-days, City had neither solidity nor the invention to find openings. It was left to individuals and, sometimes, the light bulb just never comes on.
Is it a concern? City have plenty riches beyond De Bruyne, so even if he needs time get out of his funk (assuming it is a funk), they can weather it. Dias’ performance feels like a one-off, but five points off the pace with a quarter of the season gone is not insignificant. Especially with a big derby coming up next weekend.
Vinicius shines, Benzema rests, Madrid win
Janusz Michallik explains how Vinicius Jr. is becoming a top goal scorer for Real Madrid.
Carlo Ancelotti took the calculated risk of giving Karim Benzema the day off as Real Madrid visited Elche. The Frenchman, who turns 34 next month, had started every game in the league and Champions League this season and was due a breather. It was curious, though, that his replacement wasn’t Luka Jovic (who may be a bust, but if only for balance sheet reasons can’t be written off just yet), but rather Mariano Diaz (a dud to many Madridistas, as evidenced by his eight starts in three seasons).
Yet Mariano actually played well, setting up Vinicius’ goal and looking confident. The only blemish was a late-game howler when he opted to shoot from a ridiculous distance on the break (and screwed his finish well wide) rather than finding a wide-open Eden Hazard. Still, the story isn’t Mariano, but Vinicius, who seems poised to be Benzema’s heir apparent as the leader of Madrid’s attack.
Now that he’s added cool finishing and intelligent decisions to his existing skill set of pace and trickery, Vinicius is quickly ascending to the next level. He scored both goals in the 2-1 win and, at 21 years old, it feels as if he has a few more levels to which he can ascend.
Liverpool’s midfield chickens come home to roost in 2-2 draw
An old-time football mantra is that if you let a two-goal lead slip at home, then you’re more likely a chump. It’s an over-generalisation of course, but still: Liverpool might have felt that way after going 2-0 up against Brighton and nearly scoring a third, only to get pegged back to 2-2.
Jurgen Klopp didn’t call out his midfield, but he did talk after the game about the importance of keeping the ball, especially against a quality side like Brighton. And it’s pretty evident that the middle of the park has to be an area of concern, not just based on this game, but the recent outing against Atletico Madrid as well.
Janusz Michallik says Brighton were more than worth their draw from two goals down against Liverpool.
The form up front of the likes of Mohamed Salah (who failed to score for the first time since August) has papered over the cracks, but there is no denying — as we wrote a while back — that Liverpool are undermanned in midfield. Thiago Alcantara and Fabinho were sidelined (and Harvey Elliott, who started earlier in the campaign, is of course a long-term absentee) and Klopp lost Naby Keita after just 20 minutes. That left Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain to come on and join Jordan Henderson and Curtis Jones; against Brighton’s slick passing, that was a bridge too far.
There’s not much Klopp can do to bolster the ranks in the short-term. Joel Matip has played some midfield in the past and there’s 35-year-old James Milner … but that’s it. The attack and the defence are going to have to carry this team for the time being.
Dortmund were due some good luck, and they got it against Cologne
OK, so we’re suspending judgement on Marco Rose, because it’s not fair to be judged when you have an injury list in the double digits. The good news, of course, is that after Saturday’s 2-0 win over Cologne, they’re still just a point behind Bayern in the Bundesliga. And despite that humiliation against Ajax, they’re still three points clear of the chasing pack in the Champions League.
Beyond that, they had oodles of good fortune on Saturday. Cologne’s finishing was poor, Gregor Kobel had to make some very good saves (including one where he face-planted on the goalpost) and the opening goal came off Thorgan Hazard’s shoulder. Donyell Malen still hasn’t scored in the league (and still looks like a bust), they were outshot 21 to 8 and looked nothing like a team. But, like we said, they were due some good fortune. This was it.
Blunder and heartbreak for La Real in Basque derby
A man up and a goal up heading into the final minute of the derby against Athletic Bilbao, it looked as if it was all set up for Real Sociedad to keep their three point lead at the top of La Liga. And then local boy/cult hero Ikea Muniain uncorked a swerving free kick that Alex Remiro somehow contrived to push into his own net.
La Real are still without Mikel Oyarzabal and make no mistake about it: they are still punching above their weight. This was a tough, physical game and they didn’t play poorly, but it’s also one that will feel like two points dropped at the end of the campaign. And that’s where these dropped points really add up.
Big win for Arsenal against Leicester, but the numbers tell a different story
Janusz Michallik praises the performance of Aaron Ramsdale and the Arsenal backline against Leicester.
There’s a tendency to lump games together. Arsenal beat two ambitious and well-coached sides (Aston Villa and Leicester City) in consecutive games, victories that coincided with Mikel Arteta renewing the Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang-Alexandre Lacazette partnership up front and dropping Martin Odegaard to the bench.
Except while Arsenal dominated Villa, it was a very different story against Leicester. After a blistering first half, the Gunners created very little and, instead, were bailed out by some prodigious saves from Aaron Ramsdale. They didn’t manage a single shot on goal in the final 20 minutes and had Leicester equalized, few would have been surprised.
So who are Arsenal, really? Both things can be true. The side we saw in the first half were sharp and solid, just the way Arteta wanted. Equally, they’re probably not yet a 90-minute team at that level. Not every week, anyway. And if this is going to be the setup — Lacazette plus Aubameyang — you’re either going to need to extend the Frenchman’s deal (it expires in June) or you’ll need to find somebody who can do what he does.
Inter’s wild card, ‘El Tucu’ Correa, saves the day
The thing about Joaquin Correa is that scouts and coaches have long drooled over his skill set. He’s strong, he’s quick, he’s technically gifted. And yet, they often pointed to that one, overarching flaw that made him good enough to rarely get dropped at Lazio, but not good enough to start at the next level up: his maddening inconsistency.
Inter’s 2-0 win over Udinese Sunday only reinforced this. He started alongside Edin Dzeko, did very little in the first half and then came alive with two individual efforts that blew the game wide open.
Certain managers would never trust a guy like Correa. Simone Inzaghi, who had him at Lazio, knows better. You’re not going to build a team around Correa: he’s 27, and he won’t turn into something he’s never been. But he can be the sort of wild card who changes games out of the blue and as an option off the bench, that suits Inter just fine.
New-look Atletico shine in win over Betis
The suspended Diego Simeone was watching from afar. On the pitch, with a new-look 3-4-2-1, Atletico were dismantling Betis, with Angel Correa and Antoine Griezmann linking up nicely. Betis had won three in a row and, even without Nabil Fekir, looked like they might throw their hat in the ring as a top four contender, but a great goal from Yannick Carrasco and one of the more bizarre own goals you’ll see in a while sent Atleti on their way. More importantly, this was, again, an Atletico side that took the game to the opposition much more than you expect.
Simeone often likes to mix and match in midfield and attack. I don’t know how often we’ll see this set up, but it’s certainly another valid option, especially if Griezmann continues to show that he has turned the corner after his Barca blues.
No Insigne, no Osimhen, but Napoli win ugly in derby
Salernitana are not a good side and will likely get relegated. But it’s still a local derby for Napoli and, after nine wins in ten games to start the Serie A season, you could see a hiccup here, particularly without Victor Osimhen and Lorenzo Insigne. Instead, they ground out a 1-0 win that sees them stay top, level with Milan.
The importance of substitutions in changing games is sometimes overstated: not here. Luciano Spalletti was having little joy with the lightweight, speedy attack of Dries Mertens and Chucky Lozano. So he switched it by sending off football’s equivalent of the Sherman tank: Andrea Petagna. The big man gave them the no-frills reference point they needed and helped them see out the game, even after Kalidou Koulibaly’s red card. Sometimes, winning ugly is a skill too.
And finally… #BasDostWatch
Bas Dost scored twice for Club Brugge in their 2-1 away win against Anderlecht. He now has three goals in 10 Belgian league appearances and is on pace to score nine in the league. Overall, he has five goals in 13 appearances in all competitions this season.
This concludes the latest instalment of #BasDostWatch.