What a weekend of action! Inter Milan took a decisive step towards the Serie A title, Liverpool lost again (this time to rivals Everton) at Anfield, La Liga leaders Atletico Madrid slipped up to give Real Madrid and Barcelona faint hope, and there was further joy for both Manchester City and Manchester United in the Premier League.
In the Bundesliga, Leipzig closed the gap on bumbling Bayern, while Erling Haaland and Borussia Dortmund thrashed Schalke to keep themselves in with a shout of a strong finish (and Champions League qualification next season). And what was Jose Mourinho talking about after Tottenham’s latest poor performance?
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It’s Monday, and Gab Marcotti reacts to the biggest moments in the world of football from the past week.
Jump to: Milan derby lessons | Klopp, Liverpool need reboot | Atletico shouldn’t panic | Man City win easily | Bayern stumble | Solskjaer spot-on | Real Madrid lacking mojo | Leipzig keep pressure on | Tuchel vs. Hudson-Odoi | Barca lose more ground | Mourinho’s wild words | Haaland, Dortmund roll
Inter smash Milan, but Serie A title race far from over
Milan derbies are special even when there’s little at stake and, truth be told, for these two clubs, there hasn’t been much to cheer over the past decade other than nostalgic pining for happier times as befits a city that has won no fewer than 10 European Cups in the last half century, more than any other. (Yep, I chose an arbitrary 50-year cut-off because it suits my celebration of Milan. I am perfectly well aware that Madrid, as a city, has 13, all of them courtesy of Real.)
The former (and maybe future) capital of European football anointed Inter on Sunday thanks to a 3-0 spanking that saw them overwhelm Milan physically, technically and tactically.
– Report: Milan 0, Inter 3
– Highlights (U.S.): Lukaku, Inter thrash derby rivals
Often, especially with Inter, you can pick out outstanding individuals. It’s a legitimately tough task to do against Milan, because there are so many options.
Romelu Lukaku rag-dolled Alessio Romagnoli and Simon Kjaer, scoring once and playing a key role in the other two. Lautaro Martinez bagged two goals, formed a telepathic partnership with Lukaku and tormented Sandro Tonali off the ball. Nicolo Barella roamed the midfield with menace and purpose. Samir Handanovic made three critical stops in less than a minute at the beginning of the second half that could well have changed the narrative. (It’s a derby; no matter what has happened before, you get to 1-1 and it’s a different game.)
Inter Milan’s impressive win cements them as the Serie A front-runners, but the work is far from done for Antonio Conte & Co. this season. Xinhua/Alberto Lingria via Getty Images
But maybe the biggest and most significant change was the way Antonio Conte trusted his more technical players in roles they were supposedly unsuited to: think Ivan Perisic at wing-back and Christian Eriksen at inside-half. Rewind the clock, and it’s a 100 percent nailed-on certainty that Conte would have opted for a specialist in place of the former (Ashley Young, perhaps) and a “warrior-type” (Arturo Vidal, or maybe even Roberto Gagliardini) in place of the latter. Instead, he went with guys who can pass and play and, suddenly, Inter had five guys across the middle of the park who were all comfortable on the ball and who tend to make good decisions. And they were at the heart of the second goal.
Conte, of course, wanted rid of both Perisic and Eriksen not that long ago (in Eriksen’s case, after first wanting him and getting the club to make a huge financial commitment to secure him). When the window closed and both were still there, he didn’t freeze them out. He doubled down and figured out how to make it work. It’s a credit to them that they both adapted, and it’s a credit to him that he was less stubborn than he might have been in the past.
As for Milan, you can reflect on the absence of Ismael Bennacer — Tonali may fill his shoes one day, but not just yet — or the fact that this team had been trending downwards for some time. Evidently, both are important, as is the fact that Inter had a whole week to prepare, whereas Milan played on Thursday in the Europa League (though, again, just three of the outfield players who started against Red Star Belgrade were in Stefano Pioli’s XI against Inter). But, seeing how physically and athletically Milan were overwhelmed, you wonder if maybe it isn’t time to freshen things up a little bit and revert to some of the youth and pace that yielded results earlier in the season.
I’m not referring to benching Ibrahimovic (thought that day will come… eventually) but rather getting guys like Brahim Diaz, Jens Petter Hauge or Rafael Leao more involved, particularly going forward. Hakan Calhanoglou and Ante Rebic may be more experienced and heck, they may be better players. But sometimes, speed and strength and athleticism matter more, especially when you have a 39-year-old center-forward ahead of you.
The gap is now four points and, no, it doesn’t mean the Serie A race is over by any stretch. (In fact, Conte won’t even say the word “scudetto.“) We’ve seen Inter implode many times in the past and Conte is well aware of their history. Having a week to prepare for every match is indeed a huge edge, but for all we know that could only last a few more days if Milan go out in the Europa League. Inter did take a huge step on Sunday, but there are plenty of twists and turns ahead.
Time for Klopp, Liverpool to switch up their approach?
Mark Ogden believes with the list of injuries Liverpool have, Jurgen Klopp can’t make changes needed to improve their form.
Everton’s 2-0 win at Liverpool on Saturday leaves the rivals joint-sixth in the table (with a game) in hand. It’s a considerable achievement for the Blues, but definitely not unimaginable with Carlo Ancelotti at the helm and after a summer that saw them land Ben Godfrey, Allan, Abdoulaye Doucoure and, of course, James Rodriguez. It’s much more difficult to picture them level on points with Liverpool. but that’s exactly where they are and, depending on the game in hand, they could well be ahead.
Unless you’ve been hiding under a rock, you know about the endless string of injuries that have hit the defending champions, starting with Virgil van Dijk up through Diogo Jota and encompassing half a dozen players out for significant spells in-between. That part is pretty straightforward: when half your starting lineup misses significant playing time, you won’t be as good, unless you’re exceptionally lucky or the guys who are fit play out of their skin. Neither has been the case for Jurgen Klopp, which is why they are so far behind where they were a year ago and are in danger of watching next season’s Champions League on TV. That’s also why they’ve lost four home games in a row for the first time in nearly a century.
– Report: Liverpool stunned at home by Everton
– Ogden: Everton deepen Liverpool’s crisis with big victory
– Fight for fourth: Are Liverpool set to miss out?
Some have questioned Liverpool’s depth, but that’s a bit misguided. No club goes into a season with a contingency plan based on having three central defenders missing at the same time (plus a defensive midfielder who can play there). That’s one of those “black swan” events for which you don’t plan because, if you did, it would mean either overspending or not using your resources efficiently, like carrying four spare tires in the trunk of your car and leaving no room for luggage.
A fairer criticism, in my opinion, has to do with the way Liverpool play, which is often entirely predicated on imposing their 4-3-3 formation on the opposition. It’s obviously served them very well when at full strength, but after several years of the same formula — and watered down with various reserves, to boot — you’re getting diminishing returns particularly since some of these players are, quite clearly, fatigued and overworked.
Steve Nicol recaps the Merseyside derby where Liverpool lost to Everton for the first time at Anfield since 1999.
It’s somewhat counterintuitive that Klopp hasn’t opted to mix things up, whether it be playing Mohamed Salah in a more central position or deploying Thiago Alcantara in a two in front of the back line. That’s how many would have reacted in an attempt to halt the slide.
Klopp, of course, isn’t “many.” He’s Klopp, and his track record speaks for itself, but it’s a contrast to the coach who bested him on Saturday, Ancelotti. Everton’s boss has played a range of formations this year, he’s used James wide and centrally, he has played four central defenders, three central defenders and two central defenders, he has used Lucas Digne at the back and in midfield, he has played Gylfi Sigurdsson in three different roles in the same game. In other words, he has tinkered endlessly in an attempt to gain an edge.
It’s a classic dichotomy between the pragmatist and he who, like Johan Cruyff, believes that “If Plan A isn’t working, then Plan B is sticking to Plan A, only doing it better.” At some point, perhaps soon, don’t be surprised if you see Klopp trying something entirely different.
As for Everton, they’re ahead of the curve. The Champions League places are within striking distance, but so is a slide into mid-table. Leave it to Ancelotti to manage expectations, underpromise and overdeliver.
Ale Moreno says Atletico Madrid’s giving hope to Real Madrid and Barcelona after dropping points vs. Levante.
Atletico Madrid’s 2-0 defeat to Levante means their lead in La Liga’s title race has shrunk from 10 points with a game in hand to three points with a game in hand. Cue proclamations that the race is still on. That may well be the case, but I don’t quite think the sky is falling on Diego Simeone’s head just yet.
That said, there are some concerning signs. Jan Oblak still has plenty of miracles left in him, but the defence isn’t as water-tight as it was, especially when Atletico are chasing games, as they’ve had to do in their last five matches. Up front, Joao Felix and Angel Correa are going through a rough patch, as is Koke in the middle of the park. As a result, they’re not quite the “grit-it-out” Simeone team of the past and not quite the marauding, footballing side they were supposed to be this year.
The good news is that Mousa Dembele, who made his debut, should offer physicality and quickness (and a respite for Luis Suarez, should he need it). And even in defeat, it still took some stunning saves from Dani Cardenas to keep them out while, at the other end, they conceded on a double deflection from a shot unleashed by Jose Luis “El Comandante” Morales and a garbage-time goal (however well-finished) by Jorge de Frutos. In other words, this could easily have gone the other way.
There’s no need to go Chicken Little just yet when it comes to Atletico, especially given the state of Barcelona and Real Madrid.
Man City crush Arsenal 1-0 (seriously, it wasn’t close)
Janusz Michallik still believes Mikel Arteta can succeed at Arsenal but several changes need to be made.
Manchester City seemed to hardly break a sweat in dispatching Arsenal on Sunday. It finished 1-0, but it never really felt close, and an Expected Goals count of 2.09 to 0.29 rather supports this. Raheem Sterling scored straight away and Mikel Arteta’s crew never really produced anything significant in the opposition final third.
– Olley: Time for Arsenal to prioritize Europa League
For City, that’s now 18 wins in a row in all competitions, another clean sheet and a Quadruple push that’s still alive. Kevin De Bruyne’s return is a plus — one they no doubt appreciate, but don’t really need as far as the Premier League is concerned. It was interesting to note though that Pep Guardiola used De Bruyne and Bernardo Silva as alternating false nines rather than give Gabriel Jesus (let alone Sergio Aguero) a run. You wonder if perhaps he’s already projecting towards next season and a future without a genuine striker.
As for Arsenal, the many absentees can’t really justify this performance. Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang has had to deal with a difficult time off the pitch, but he contributed little on it and he got little support too. When Guardiola praised Mikel Arteta for Arsenal’s excellent defending, it felt like the sort of pat on the head he gives opponents after beating them. On days like these, it’s hard to understand what, if anything, Arsenal is building towards.
Bayern collapse vs. Eintracht
Gab Marcotti believes Bayern struggle to defend high up without Thomas Muller and may struggle against Lazio.
So much for the notion that the Bundesliga was done and dusted or, maybe, Thomas Muller really is irreplaceable. More worrying than the after-effects of Bayern’s 2-1 defeat against Eintracht Frankfurt is the listlessness we saw, particularly in the first half. Sure, Eintracht had been on a roll, taking 25 of a possible 27 points going into this game, but it still felt like the German champs were sleepwalking through the first 45 minutes.
Germany’s top division is on ESPN+. Can Bayern Munich stay on top, or will the likes of Borussia Dortmund and RB Leipzig take over?
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Bayern pulled one back after the break, but there was little to cheer. Sure, it’s a long, fixture-congested season, they had to fly halfway around the world to play in the Club World Cup and, of course, they were without Muller, Serge Gnabry, Douglas Costa, Corentin Tolisso and Benjamin Pavard.
But guess what? Stuff happens. You’re Bayern. You can’t fall to pieces because Mueller tests positive for COVID or because Gnabry is out (not when you still have Kingsley Coman and Leroy Sane out wide). As for Tolisso and Pavard, if you bought Bouna Sarr and Marc Roca as alternatives and suddenly you don’t like them (Sarr couldn’t even get a start with Pavard out, while Roca lasted 45 minutes), that’s on you.
Bayern’s lead at the top is down to two points and they have Lazio in the Champions League midweek. If things go to plan, nobody will remember this wobble. If they don’t, it will be a turning point to the season.
Solskjaer has messaging right after Man United’s win
Nedum Onuoha says Man United can use their win vs. Newcastle as a stepping stone for future success.
Manchester United rolled to a 3-1 victory over Newcastle on Sunday, which keeps them second in the table. They’re 10 points back of Manchester City with 13 games to go and frankly, at no stage this season have they looked like potential title-winners, even when they were in first place. But when Ole Gunnar Solskjaer was asked if he was ready to concede that the title was bound elsewhere this season, he steadfastly refused.
– Dawson: Man United fringe players fighting for their futures
“I’m never going to say it’s done until it’s done,” he said. “You’ve seen so many examples of teams hanging in there: do your own jobs and something might happen.”
Some may call him deluded, but it’s exactly the right message to send. Stranger things have happened; heck, Solskjaer should know, I imagine he remembers this. United have a whole raft of issues to work out, but the public messaging from the top down, at least, is correct.
Real Madrid need to regain their mojo in La Liga
You can sum up the state of affairs at Real Madrid with the fact that, apart from Isco and Hugo Duro (who hasn’t played at all for the first team this year), the rest of the guys who made up Zinedine Zidane’s bench away to Valladolid had exactly zero career top-flight starts between them. Or you can just mention that Mariano Diaz was starting up front in place of Karim Benzema.
The point is that Zidane was still able to put out a decent XI — OK, Mariano excepted — though he had very little wiggle room (or opportunities to rest players) from the bench. And on a day when the front three — it’s not just Mariano getting the blame here, but Marco Asensio and Vinicius too — it was left to the evergreen midfield of Toni Kroos (who ran the show), Luka Modric (who provided the magic and made sure the front three got some help) and Casemiro (who scored the only goal) to carry the team, along with Thibaut Courtois, who made the usual big saves at the back.
Read all the latest news and reaction from ESPN FC senior writer Gabriele Marcotti.
In other words, we’re hanging by a thread here. You can’t spot the opposition four starters like Benzema, Eden Hazard, Sergio Ramos and Dani Carvajal, as well as a bunch of backups — some serviceable (Fede Valverde, Rodrygo), some less so, but still live bodies (Eder Militato, Alvaro Odriozola, Marcelo) — and expect to sail through games. Nor can you reasonably expect that midfield trio to hold up all season long without incident.
If Atletico continue to falter, it may end up being about who can gut it out the best. But if they regain even some mojo, Real Madrid will have to kick it up several notches.
Leipzig close the gap on Bayern
With Bayern slipping up on Saturday and memories of the 2-0 defeat to Liverpool fresh on their minds, there was reason to believe that Leipzig would crack under pressure. Sure, they were playing Hertha Berlin, who haven’t won since Jan. 2 (and that was against Schalke, so it probably shouldn’t count), but still: we’ve seen this so many times before. Whether it’s the hangover of the defensive harakiri in the Champions League or because of the weird mystical force that seems to compel German clubs to falter when they have a shot at closing in on the Bavarians, there was reason to believe they’d trip up.
But credit Julian Nagelsmann and his crew. They made sure it didn’t happen, blowing away Hertha 3-0 with a “wundertor” from Marcel Sabitzer sending them on their way. There’s plenty of fight in these Red Bulls yet.
Tuchel speaks out about Hudson-Odoi sub
Thomas Tuchel explains his decision to substitute Callum Hudson-Odoi off after bringing him on at halftime.
After five wins on the spin, Chelsea drew 1-1 at Southampton on Saturday. Thomas Tuchel is still unbeaten and two points away from the top four and, to be fair, on another day Chelsea could well have won this game. But the main takeaway here comes from his decision to send Callum Hudson-Odoi on at half-time only to then remove him half an hour later.
It’s one of those “respect” things that, according to unwritten code, a manager should never do. Or, rather, it’s something they should only do if they want to “humiliate” a player.
“For me it’s not a big thing — it’s up to Callum to show that he is a reliable guy when he comes from the bench,” Tuchel said, adding that it was “old-fashioned” to think that a player would have his confidence destroyed or be humiliated by being subbed off after coming on as a sub. OK. Fair enough. How about a manager distilling a players’ performance, warts and all? Like he did with Hudson-Odoi when he said he didn’t do enough work off the ball?
It’s not something you hear from most managers, unless they’re actively trying to throw a player under the bus. Maybe Tuchel isn’t “most managers.”
Maybe he’s just calling it straight and figures brutal honesty, even in public, is the way to go. Maybe, if we (as in fans and media) are mature about this and don’t flip out over some public criticism just because we’re accustomed to anodyne coach-speak postgame, more managers will be more forthcoming. And maybe those post-game comments will be a little more interesting and a little more insightful.
Barcelona fail to rally from Champions League woe
Janusz Michallik feels Barcelona’s season has ended already after their 1-1 draw at home vs. Cadiz.
Against Cadiz, Barcelona needed a win and a good performance after the Champions League humiliation vs. Paris Saint-Germain. They didn’t get either, though they would have had the three points had it not been for Clement Lenglet’s boneheaded air-kick that led to a Cadiz equaliser via the penalty spot in injury time.
Cadiz aren’t shy about sitting deep and Barca enjoyed more than 80 percent possession. They created less than you would expect with so much of the ball, though to be fair, in games like these, one of two things happens: either there’s a deflection or an opposition mistake or a moment of genius and you score or, as happened, you simply can’t break through to get a second against a human wall.
It’s not fair to judge Barca on a game like this one (though it’s perfectly fair to question Lenglet’s judgement), but in a weekend that saw Atletico beaten, it’s bound to hurt more.
What is Mourinho talking about after Spurs’ latest loss?
Janusz Michallik questions if Jose Mourinho has enough magic left to get Spurs to where they want to be.
Tottenham weren’t terrible in the 2-1 defeat to West Ham, but it doesn’t change the fact that over the past month, they’ve taken three of a possible 18 points and slipped from fifth, one point from the top four, to ninth, nine points from the top four (both with a game in hand).
Does the fact that they’ve played Chelsea, Manchester City, Liverpool and West Ham, all of whom are above them in the table, offer some comfort? Not really. It only reinforces the fact that they’re below them in the table for a reason. What’s not helping is Jose Mourinho’s post-match pronouncements.
First, he announces that he and his coaching staff are “second to none” in the world. I have no problem with confidence, but when you’re in mid-table and say such things? Well, you look silly and folks (including, possibly, your players) might start to think you’re a bit deluded.
Then he said there were “problems” in his team that he “could not resolve on [his] own as a coach,” without saying what those “problems” were. When you say stuff like this, all it does is lead to speculation. Do some players have bad attitudes? Is there some broader structural problem that Daniel Levy should be fixing, like the one he blamed for his departure from Manchester United? Does he not have enough power at the club?
Whatever the case, it’s odd behaviour from the artist previously known as the “Special One.”
Jan Aage Fjortoft praises Erling Haaland’s ability to create space and finish clinically after his stunner vs. Schalke.
Haaland, Sancho keeping Dortmund hopeful of strong finish
Erling Haaland bagged another two goals as Borussia Dortmund rolled past arch rivals Schalke and on to a 4-0 win.
Schalke are terrible, but that didn’t stop Haaland from wanting to crush them in an Ivan Drago sort of way. He settled for two goals (one a spectacular volley), bringing his seasonal to 27 (in 25 games). Most unsettling is that his longest run of games without scoring this season is two and yeah, he doesn’t turn 21 until July.
Jadon Sancho, who turns 21 next month, also scored, becoming the youngest player in Bundesliga history to hit the 35-goal mark in the league. I hope he’s enjoying it, because Haaland needs just five to break that record and you imagine it will happen before Easter.
For all the hype Borussia Dortmund’s kids get, it’s worth remembering what the table says: they’re six points away from the Champions League spots. That has to be the priority between now and the end of the season, because it will dictate how many of the young stars they’ll need to sell and at what price.