What a weekend in soccer! Tottenham put their North London rivals Arsenal in a tailspin with a derby win, Bayern Munich and RB Leipzig served up a treat in the Bundesliga, Liverpool’s tired squad racked up another big win and Man United turned in the ultimate “tale of two halves” in beating West Ham. Elsewhere, Real Madrid rallied for Zidane Zidane, Barcelona didn’t for Ronald Koeman, Milan showed that they don’t need Zlatan Ibrahimovic (though he fits nicely) while Dortmund look poor without Erling Haaland.
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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: Gulf between Spurs, Arsenal | Lessons from Bayern-Leipzig | Liverpool’s resilience | Barca take step back | Milan aren’t Ibra-dependent | Dortmund lost without Haaland? | Man United’s inconsistency | Real rally for Zidane | Conte, Eriksen drama at Inter | PSG’s gamble | Juve get lucky | Man City need a striker | Atletico keep winning | Chelsea’s next challenge | Gattuso fits at Napoli
The gulf is obvious between Tottenham and Arsenal
The great thing about football is that there’s more than one formula to win. Great managers figure out what they’re good at, what their players are good at and then succeed in getting them to buy in. That’s what Jose Mourinho is doing at Tottenham.
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The haters will point to the fact that the difference between Spurs and a lacklustre Arsenal on Sunday was an early “worldie” from Son Heung-Min and a goal scored when an injured Thomas Partey wandered towards the touchline. They will note that Spurs managed one shot after half-time, that by the final whistle Mourinho had bolstered his back four with the additions of Joe Rodon and Ben Davies, with Pierre-Emile Hojbjerg and Moussa Sissoko serving as adjunct central defenders, and that he was content with playing on the counterattack for the whole game.
That may be so, but that’s what Mourinho felt he needed to do to win. And not only did it work, with Spurs ending up 2-0 winners, but his players seemed to fully buy into it. They played that way with confidence, not fear. That’s management.
It’s not a magic formula, and as we’ve written before, there will be games when you need another way of playing. It works great when you score first, sure, but even then it’s not foolproof: witness the points Spurs dropped in injury time against West Ham and Newcastle. Against opponents who let you have the ball, you need to mix things up and whether or not Spurs can legitimately compete for the Premier League title will depend on how well he does that.
Mourinho, left, set his Tottenham team up perfectly to handle Arsenal’s limited threat on Sunday. All in all, it’s clear how far apart the two sides of north London are heading into the festive period. PAUL CHILDS/POOL/AFP via Getty Images
Because we like sweeping generalizations and because we don’t recognise that people (especially men in their late 50s) can change, the knee-jerk reaction in some quarters is that Mourinho is a dinosaur, that the game has passed him by and that the shortcomings — on and off the pitch — at Manchester United define who he is. The game has indeed changed and evolved, but to assume that Mourinho’s football is the same that it was in the dark days (Old Trafford, the latter years at Chelsea or at the Bernabeu) is simply silly. It’s as silly as thinking that what we see from Spurs today is a carbon copy of what we saw in happier times at Stamford Bridge, Inter or Porto.
As for Arsenal, the fact that they’re now 15th in the table is neither here nor there. They’re closer to fifth place than they are to the relegation zone, and that’s what matters in many ways. (Except, of course, at the end of the season, where, especially for a club that’s already stretched financially, it makes a huge difference if you end up in the Champions League versus the Europa League, Europa Conference or, watching midweek football on TV.)
More of a concern is how little this Arsenal team produces and how poorly they defend. It’s not just the fact that they’ve scored once from open play in the Premier League in the past two months. Arsenal are below the league average for Expected Goals (xG), which stands at 1.18. They’re below it in both xG (1.04) and well above it in terms of xG conceded (1.31). More worryingly for Arteta, they weren’t great in xG last season after he took over either (1.25, when the league average was 1.23). And they were poor in xG conceded (1.37) too.
So is this a failure of system or of personnel?
Gab and Juls discuss Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang’s performance in Arsenal’s 2-0 defeat to Tottenham.
Arteta has alternated between a back three and a back four. He effectively played a front two (Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang and Alexandre Lacazette) with two wingers (Bukayo Saka and Willian) after going with a lone front man for most of the season. Whatever the combination, he doesn’t seem to get enough out of the press up front to mitigate the damage the opposition does in transition, and that leaves his back line exposed. But here, matters aren’t helped by his pair of full-backs. Hector Bellerin and Kieran Tierney are fine footballers, but the former these days looks more suited to a back three and the latter to a back four — unless he plays wing-back, but that’s tricky because they’re short on competent central defenders and if you play him there, you don’t know where to put Saka.
– Arteta on Partey: ‘I was trying to push him’
As for the offensive output, against teams who concede possession, you need Dani Ceballos on the pitch, ideally from the start. He’s the most creative midfielder they have, apart from that Mesut Ozil guy, but we won’t be seeing him. And producing endless streams of crosses for Aubameyang and Lacazette — neither of whom is the second coming of Duncan Ferguson — against opponents who defend narrowly also doesn’t help.
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Arteta needs variants in his patterns of play. Presumably he knows this. He also knows that, to do this, he needs time to work on the training pitch. But in the 2020-21 season, for teams involved in Europe, that’s in desperately short supply.
He likely also needs a chance to get his guys right mentally. Willian and Aubameyang aren’t producing. It’s easy to be cynical and chalk it up to their recently signed mega-contracts. More likely it’s a rough patch of the sort most players go through. Fine. He needs to nurse them through that. The same applies to Bellerin, who is increasingly turning into a defensive liability now that he’s lost a step from his previously blistering recovery speed.
The best thing Arsenal’s hierarchy can do is remind Arteta (and the squad) that a couple of results will get them back to competing for a Champions League place. Nothing is lost. The rest, though, is up to Arteta. Some of his problems are structural, the result of poor choices and poor squad-building by those above him. Those won’t be solved straight away. Some, however, are down to the choices he makes. He just needs to some time to work, assess the situation and, hopefully, make the right decisions.
Bayern, Leipzig serve up a show
Jan Aage Fjortoft breaks down why Niklas Sule and Jerome Boateng let Bayern down in a 3-3 draw vs. RB Leipzig.
One way to look at Bayern and Leipzig is how the two managers, Hansi Flick and Julian Nagelsmann, deal with adversity, whether it’s fatigue or unavailable players. (And there’s plenty of both at both clubs.). Flick sticks to the script, replacing the guys who aren’t there with others and hoping that they can do a comparable job. And, because Bayern are a huge and deeply talented club, they often do. Nagelsmann digs deep into his alchemist tool kit, shuffles things around and offers you an entirely different look.
Saturday’s 3-3 draw may well have been a fair result, but it also showed the value of chemistry and form. At times, Niklas Sule and Jerome Boateng looked as if they’d never played together. Javi Martinez and Joshua Kimmich may both be central midfielders, but it’s in the way that Cardi B and Marilyn Manson are both musical performers: what they do is entirely different, especially when the Spaniard is 32 and has already packed his bags to leave. It wasn’t really a surprise when he went off injured, forcing Flick to throw on 17-year-old Jamal Musiala. The kid played well, even scoring a nifty goal, but he’s no central midfielder. Not yet, anyway.
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The best solution in this situation would probably have been moving David Alaba into central midfield, but he was needed at left-back given injuries to Alphonso Davies and Lucas Hernandez. (Evidently, Flick doesn’t yet trust Marc Roca.) And so, despite a superhuman effort from Leon Goretzka, Bayern’s midfield failed to match up with Leipzig’s, leaving the Sule-Boateng partnership more exposed than they would have liked.
Flick wasn’t helped by the fact that Leroy Sane and Robert Lewandowski had subpar games. You give Lewandowski a pass — everybody is entitled to a game off — but Sane is more complex. Bayern invested roughly $50 million on him (and the fee could rise further) and thus far, he has shown glimpses of greatness coupled with long pauses, particularly off the ball. He turns 25 in January and missed nearly all of last season through injury — you have to allow him time. But equally, this was a missed opportunity in a big game.
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On the flip side for Flick, Kingsley Coman was sharp until the end and Thomas Muller donned his superhero cape once again. Muller doesn’t quit; few players in the world offer his combination of tactical nous and athleticism. If you can get to where you need to be first, time after time, you don’t need to be superbly technically gifted.
Jan Aage Fjortoft says Germany coach Joachim Low can regain faith by calling back Bayern’s Thomas Muller.
As for Leipzig, it has to feel like two points dropped. Nagelsmann again showed his ability to pick the right XI and the right game plan based on the opponent, despite the fact that his team played a tough game last midweek in the Champions League — Bayern, who had already qualified, rested seven of the guys who started on Sunday — and have a huge decider coming up against Manchester United on Tuesday.
Nagelsmann made three changes, the most significant being playing Emil Forsberg up front instead of one of his two center-forwards (Alexander Sorloth and Yussuf Poulsen), while having the foresight to give Justin Kluivert only his second start of the campaign. Both Forsberg and Kluivert scored and both were key in picking apart Bayern’s back four.
Could he have done a better job in preserving the 3-2 lead he enjoyed from early in the second half to Muller’s equaliser 15 minutes from time? Old-school football heads will say “yes” and to be fair, his substitutions were, at first glance, counter-intuitive. He sent on a target man (Poulsen) for Forsberg at the hour mark. He followed up 10 minutes later by removing a right-back (Nordi Mukiele) and sending on a midfielder (Kevin Kampl), while also taking off his emotional leader in midfield (Marcel Sabitzer) and replacing him with yet another attacking midfielder (Dani Olmo).
Jose Mourinho probably wouldn’t approve, but that’s Nagelsmann. In his world, you defend your lead by adding to it. That’s what got him this far, that’s what he’s built his career on. And if Leipzig win the Bundesliga, that’s how they’ll do it.
Klopp has to be delighted with Liverpool’s resilience
Frank Leboeuf can see a case for any of the Premier League’s current top six lifting the title this season.
Jurgen Klopp likely would have been more than content with what he calls a “dirty win” against Wolves, who were devoid of Raul Jimenez. Get the job done, one way or the other, and then take it easy in the meaningless Champions League group game against Midtjylland — the Reds are already in the last-16 — and the home Premier League tie against Fulham, bringing as many of your injured guys back in as you can before the big clash against Tottenham on Dec. 16.
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– Liverpool ratings: Wijnaldum, Salah superb vs. Wolves
For an hour or so it looked like the game was heading that way … and then Liverpool turned on the afterburners, winning 4-0 at Anfield. Caoimhin Kelleher, deputising for Alisson, did a fine job and Curtis Jones again showed that he deserves to be part of the rotation in midfield. On top of that, Trent Alexander-Arnold and Naby Keita both came off the bench and one step closer to full fitness.
Wolves without Jimenez are obviously a different proposition, but to be able to sit jointly atop the Premier League despite the injury crisis and to find that guys who looked destined to be squad players (Kelleher and Jones, sure, but also Diogo Jota) can be key contributors too has to be beyond even Klopp’s expectations.
Koeman, Barcelona take a step back
Ale Moreno says Barcelona’s players are finding ways to give results away against lesser opponents too often.
Saturday’s game against Cadiz might have felt like the perfect opportunity for Ronald Koeman to try something new with his Barcelona team. A newly promoted opponent (albeit one that had already beaten Real Madrid), a de facto empty Champions League game in midweek (Juventus would have to beat them by four goals at the Camp Nou to take first place in the group)… why not give Martin Braithwaite another start and figure out whether Philippe Coutinho can contribute?
– Koeman: Messi will play vs. Juventus
– Barca ratings: Coutinho 4/10 in Cadiz defeat
Koeman’s plan was wrecked by two grotesque defensive errors that led to Cadiz’s two goals in the 2-1 defeat. Oscar Mingueza is a kid, and you don’t want to be too hard on him (especially since you need him right now), but that header back towards his own goal was horrendous. And goodness knows what the trio of Jordi Alba, Clement Lenglet and Marc-Andre ter Stegen were thinking when they compounded each other’s mistakes.
– Lowe: Barca are a mess not even Messi can save
More worrying though — as individual mistakes can happen — is the inability to again break down a deep-lying, well-organised defense. Barcelona’s futility in that department has little to do with the foibles at the back, and it feels like two baby steps forwards, one giant step back.
Milan prove they’re not dependent on Ibra…
Gab Marcotti outlines the importance AC Milan’s win vs. Sampdoria had with Zlatan Ibrahimovic absent.
Milan showed once more that they are not dependent on Zlatan Ibrahimovic: he’s just a guy who makes them better. Stefano Pioli’s young team never lost composure against a Sampdoria side that set up to defend, eventually coming out 2-1 winners and maintaining their five-point lead at the top of Serie A.
Games like this build further confidence in the likes of Sandro Tonali (who replaced Ismael Bennacer), Brahim Diaz and Matteo Gabbia at the back. When Zlatan does return (very soon), he’ll find a group that complements him rather than one that depends on him.
… but Dortmund are reliant on 20-year-old Haaland
Jan Aage Fjortoft reacts to Borussia Dortmund’s draw vs. Eintracht Frankfurt without Erling Haaland.
It’s rather absurd that we treat a month-long injury to a 20-year-old kid, with 23 league appearances under his belt, as a threat capable of derailing a club’s title ambitions. But when that kid is Erling Haaland and he has scored 23 goals in those 23 appearances (plus another eight in six Champions League outings), and when you’re Borussia Dortmund and consistency isn’t really your thing … yeah, it’s big.
Against Eintracht Frankfurt, Lucien Favre dealt with Haaland’s absence by dusting off his “false nine” set-up with Julian Brandt up front. It produced little and left them a goal down at half-time, so he threw on 16-year-old Youssoufa Moukoko up front. Business picked up, Gio Reyna scored a brilliant equalizer and Favre said afterwards he was pleased with the 1-1 draw.
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Favre had a bunch of injuries beyond Haaland and is dealing with a number of half-fit players. Consider those mitigating circumstances; that said, Dortmund’s inability to produce without a genuine center-forward is worrying. This is the point in time when the many gifted youngsters — above all, Reyna and Sancho — who were maybe a bit overshadowed (in terms of hype and media coverage) by Haaland’s arrival have a change to impose themselves. And also where the veterans — from Marco Reus to Mats Hummels, from Axel Witsel to Emre Can — need to offer some leadership.
You don’t want Haaland coming back to a side already out of the Bundesliga race.
Man United need to be more consistent for Solskjaer
Ahead of Man United’s crunch UCL tie with RB Leipzig, Julien Laurens was impressed with their latest comeback.
Manchester United specialise in glass half-full/glass half-empty debates. You can point to Saturday’s 3-1 win at West Ham and note that they’ve won five straight away games in the Premier League this season — actually nine straight, going back to last year — and that if they win their game in hand, they go joint-third in the table, two points off the top.
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Or you can point to the fact that they were woeful in the first half against West Ham and could easily have been 3-0 down. And that Ole Gunnar Solskjaer would much rather not have been forced to call in the cavalry in the form of Bruno Fernandes and Marcus Rashford (especially not now that Edinson Cavani and Anthony Martial are both ruled out).
A better indicator might be how often Ole Gunnar Solskjaer gets a solid, 90-minute performance from whatever team he puts out, regardless of the result. He did it against Southampton (despite the 0-2 deficit), he did it again RB Leipzig in the Champions League, he’s done it a few other times, too. It needs to happen more regularly.
Things looking better for Zidane, Real Madrid
Zinedine Zidane’s future may yet hinge on what happens in the Champions League midweek and in the Madrid derby next weekend. But his Real Madrid side decisively cleared the first hurdle against Sevilla on Saturday.
– Real ratings: Vinicius to the rescue
– FC 100: Where do Ramos, Hazard, Courtois rank in 2020?
Never mind the fact that it finished 1-0, or that the goal came thanks to a goalkeeping blunder. They looked poised and confident, and created a half dozen clear-cut chances against Julen Lopetegui’s side (who, to be fair, looked hungover from the pasting they took against Chelsea in the Champions League). Casemiro’s return in midfield was big, but just as important was the disciplined, hard-working performance Vinicius Junior and Rodrygo provided alongside Karim Benzema up front.
It could all go up in smoke on Tuesday, of course, but for now, signs are good… plus, Sergio Ramos will be back to full-fitness soon and itching to go.
What was Conte thinking by subbing Eriksen in?
Gab Marcotti examines Antonio Conte’s tactical approach and Inter Milan’s attitude in a 3-1 win over Bologna.
Inter bounced back with a convincing and composed 3-1 win over Bologna that featured another top-notch performance from Romelu Lukaku and two goals from Achraf Hakimi, who is beginning to settle in nicely in Antonio Conte’s set-up.
Conte could simply have basked in that afterglow; instead, he created controversy out of nothing by sending Christian Eriksen on in injury time. In Italy — and not just in Italy — substituting in a star player (or, at least, one banking star player wages) to waste time when you’re up by two goals is seen as a humiliation. You’re not going to learn anything about them, they won’t make a difference and, unless they’re on some sort of appearance-related bonus, they won’t thank you for it.
Maybe this is some sort of Conte psychology to try to get Eriksen back to form. (If so, it’s curious, given the club have all but said he can leave in January.) Maybe it’s a master plan so the media will focus on the Conte-Eriksen relationship rather than building pressure ahead of Inter’s must-win clash with Shakhtar Donetsk in the Champions League.
Maybe it’s pettiness? Who knows what goes through Conte’s mind…
PSG’s risky strategy isn’t sustainable
Thomas Tuchel rested Neymar and left Kylian Mbappe initially on the bench (alongside Alessandro Florenzi, Marquinhos, Leandro Paredes and Danilo) for PSG’s trip to Montpellier and for a while, it looked as if his gamble was backfiring. Then Moise Kean came to the rescue with a tremendous solo effort, and Mbappe added his 100th goal for PSG in injury time to seal a 3-1 win.
Tuchel evidently doesn’t want to take any chances in the Champions League — they just need a point against Istanbul to be sure of qualifying for the last-16 — but it’s a risky strategy. Without those late goals, Lille and Lyon would have both joined them at the top of Ligue 1.
What’s up with Juventus?
Gab Marcotti explains the impact Weston McKennie made off the bench for Juventus in a comeback win vs. Torino.
The old Juventus could have said “a win is a win, and winning is all that matters” after their 2-1 victory over Torino in the derby. This one, Andrea Pirlo’s Juve, the one that promises to overhaul philosophy and playing style, can’t do that. So it’s fair to be critical when the two goals come from headers in the last 15 minutes (thank you Weston McKennie and Leo Bonucci) and, after going a goal down, they serve up the same turgid, unimaginative build-up gruel for much of the game.
Paulo Dybala, partnering Cristiano Ronaldo, was poor — again — but he can’t be the only scapegoat. Ronaldo was subpar too and, far from lighting up the wings, the lightning duo of Federico Chiesa and Dejan Kulusevski offered little. And that’s before we get to the paucity of creativity and intensity in the middle of the park.
Bonucci said after the game that they’ve taken Pirlo’s instructions into their mind, but they haven’t yet taken them into their hearts. It sounds poetic. Maybe that’s what’s missing.
Will Man City go looking for a striker in January?
As you’d expect, Manchester City didn’t break much of a sweat in downing Fulham 2-0 on Saturday. Pep Guardiola said he was “delighted” by the fact that City conceded few chances in the past few games: “Burnley, not one shot on target, today [Fulham] one, Porto the same. As long as we create enough, we will improve.”
He’s right, of course — football isn’t rocket science, but this is when you might point out that the thing about creating chances is that you need to finish them.
Read all the latest news and reaction from ESPN FC senior writer Gabriele Marcotti.
I’m less concerned about that: City have enough firepower and goal scorers (they have no fewer than five players who hit double figures in the Premier League last season) to finish chances. The problem is that it’s a darn sight easier to create chances when you’re playing with a genuinely outstanding centerforward whose movement opens up space and passing lanes.
That man is Sergio Aguero, though he’s 32 years old and been limited to just 109 league minutes this year due to injury. That man could be Gabriel Jesus, but it simply isn’t: not yet, anyway and, perhaps, never. You wonder, given that Aguero’s contract is winding down anyway, whether City might not be tempted back into the transfer market this January.
Atletico Madrid continue to set pace in La Liga
Atletico Madrid leapfrogged Real Sociedad (who drew 0-0 at Alaves) at the top of La Liga with a 2-0 victory over Valladolid. They are now one point clear with two games in hand, though it wasn’t smooth sailing, by any stretch. Atletico’s Champions League future will be decided in midweek — they need a win or draw against Jesse Marsch’s Salzburg to advance from Group A — which may explain why Koke and Joao Felix were initially on the bench.
The game-changer was Marcos Llorente’s introduction at half-time, as well as a sterling performance from Thomas Lemar. Both guys are a testament to what Diego Simeone does well. Llorente arrived as a holding midfielder from Real Madrid, and is now showing how can contribute almost anywhere on the pitch (witness the two goals at Anfield last season). Lemar looked like a bust in his first two campaigns, but Simeone didn’t give up on him and now could play a larger role.
Chelsea win, but Lampard’s man-management is going to be tested
Craig Burley praises Chelsea’s ability to respond after being tested repeatedly in their win over Leeds United.
Games against Leeds United are the worst possible benchmark to judge teams, because Marcelo Bielsa’s football is so unlike any other manager’s in the Premier League. Still, Chelsea got the job done and they did it efficiently, winning 3-1.
The Blues are undefeated since Week 2 at home to Liverpool, Kai Havertz and Christian Pulisic are fit and back in the mix (though whether Havertz in midfield is the answer remains to be seen), Frank Lampard’s decision to let Olivier Giroud back into the rotation is paying handsome dividends, and they’re two points off the title pace being set by Tottenham. Now that he has plenty of options, this is where Lampard’s man-management comes in: picking the right guys in the right games to keep everybody happy. It’s easy to do, as long as you keep winning …
Why Gattuso is perfect for Napoli
God bless Rino Gattuso. Most managers would be basking in the glory of a 4-0 away victory that featured an early goal of the season contender from Lorenzo Insigne. Not Rino. He said the scoreline against Crotone flattered his team — and to be fair, they did score three of the four goals against 10 men — and there was “lots of work to be done.”
That’s one way to look at it. If Gattuso means what he says, more power to him. Too many managers don’t seem to bring up the quality of performance when they win. With Gattuso, it seems it’s all he cares about.