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The return to club football didn’t disappoint after a two-week layoff. Here’s Gab Marcotti to get you up to speed with the latest edition of Monday Musings.
Jump to: Man United rattle Liverpool | Alarm bells for Real Madrid? | Man City avoid Palace trap | Barca’s front three in sync | Juve hold their nerve | Germany’s tight title race | Good start for Pioli, Milan | Defensive crisis for Bayern | Chelsea’s winning run | Magic Milik leads Napoli | Dortmund win, but also lose | What’s wrong at Tottenham? | Inter drama vs. Sassuolo | Atalanta’s wild weekend | And finally… Bas Dost
Man United get the last laugh vs. Liverpool
Shortly before kickoff at Old Trafford on Sunday, I retweeted United’s lineup and asked “Back 3?” Typically, I got all sorts of humorous responses of the “back 8” and “back 10” variety but it was Ole Gunnar Solskjaer who had the last laugh. For a little more than an hour, he had the tactical upper hand over Jurgen Klopp and Liverpool. And that was something few of those on social media, who seemed to luxuriate in the fact that this was the least gifted United side since the 1980s, would have expected.
Solskjaer’s plan was straightforward and effective: three central defenders and two holding midfielders to create density through the middle, two wing-backs to patrol the flanks, Andreas Pereira to do a Park Ji-Sung man-marking job on Fabinho, and two forwards, Daniel James and Marcus Rashford, to throw themselves in the space between full-back and central defender, thereby pinning back Trent Alexander-Arnold and Andy Robertson. It’s not rocket science, but it’s a plan based on sound principles. And when you have such a plan and you have guys who can execute it with intensity, life becomes difficult for the opposition. Especially when, as happened Sunday, the opposition both fails to adjust and has a rough day.
Divock Origi, standing in for Mohamed Salah, showed all his limitations though Sadio Mane and Roberto Firmino also struggled up front. With Pereira harassing Fabinho and the full-backs pinned in their own half, there was little in the way of creativity from Liverpool. Klopp eventually made adjustments at the hour mark, sending on first Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain and then Adam Lallana, but you were reminded once again that if the strikers aren’t on song and you can bottle up the full-backs, this team has issues in the creative department. And the bench offers little solace: maybe a fit Xherdan Shaqiri, possibly a Naby Keita playing like the guy they thought he was when they signed him.
There was plenty of controversy around the United goal, though few would have argued they didn’t deserve at least a draw. Whichever way you feel about Victor Lindelof‘s challenge on Origi prior to Rashford’s goal, it’s pretty evident that the Premier League’s version of VAR doesn’t help. This “high bar” nonsense, coupled with the league’s decision never to have on-field reviews (supposedly to not “slow down the game”), means you have to put up with situations like this. The VAR is a no-name hiding in some basement somewhere in Stockley Park and the referee is one of the three best in the Premier League: does anybody really think he’s going to have the guts to ask Mark Atkinson to take another look?
Nope, me neither, and that’s the absurdity here. It was a subjective call — I thought it was a foul, personally, but I can see how, in the context of this game, Atkinson might not give it — and you have a different, far-less-experienced guy watching on TV hundreds of miles away rubber-stamping the decision. Rather than having the referee “own it,” you’re abdicating responsibility.
Klopp said postgame that Atkinson didn’t give it because he knew there was VAR and VAR didn’t give it because they didn’t want to contradict Atkinson. I wouldn’t go that far: Atkinson called it the way he would have called it last year, when there was no VAR, based on his experience and during a fast-paced match in full flow. That’s his job. But not giving the very person who is in charge of the game a chance to re-evaluate — especially since, as we’re seeing, the VARs are absurdly deferential to the match official — is silly and counterproductive. The final word on anything subjective ought to be with the referee.
So where does this result leave United? Better off than they were Sunday morning, especially in terms of confidence, both in themselves and in Solskjaer’s ability to read a match, though I’m not sure this is a viable blueprint going forward: most teams won’t approach games the way Liverpool did.
As for Liverpool, the streak ends at 17 straight wins from last season to this, but that was always going to happen. There were enough warning signs in previous games. The lack of creativity beyond the full-backs (and Firmino, if they can get him the ball) is something Klopp will want to address however. Because as the campaign progresses, they’re bound to run into more parked buses.
Warning signs galore for Real Madrid
Regular readers will know I’m less concerned by results than by performances, which is why Real Madrid’s defeat at Mallorca on its own isn’t cause to pull hair and gnash teeth. Mallorca scored early and then hung on. Madrid, despite having eight players unavaliable for reasons ranging from injury to fatherhood (Eden Hazard), created enough to win but failed to capitalize. While that’s all true, that’s also viewing the game through white-tinted spectacles.
Madrid’s chances came about more through individual quality than any sort of cohesive play. They were out-hustled and outworked by Mallorca. Isco in a midfield two is a nice idea in theory, but not viable in practice. (You assume Federico Valverde, who played 180 minutes over the international break, was too fatigued to start, but his absence was certainly felt.) Luka Jovic and Vinicius Jr. looked like foreign objects, James Rodriguez didn’t seize the opportunity in the playmaker “hole” and Alvaro Odriozola was poor even before his bone-headed sending-off.
So much for the B-team seizing opportunities.
“Every player needs to prove every match that they deserve to be here,” said Zinedine Zidane afterwards. To some degree, it also applies to him. He needs to show this Madrid side can be molded into what it was three years ago, and he needs to do it quickly. Galatasaray away is never fun — as Real must do in the Champions League this week — and even less so when you’re stuck with just one point from two games. From that vantage point, the postponement of next weekend’s Clasico until December is a godsend.
Man City avoid the Palace trap
On paper, it was a trap game. After an International break and after a home defeat, Manchester City traveled to a counterattacking side with two central defenders injured (Aymeric Laporte and Nicolas Otamendi) and another only fit enough for the bench (John Stones). Guardiola opted to play two central midfielders, Rodri and Fernandinho, in central defence, with Joao Cancelo and Benjamin Mendy wide against Roy Hodgson’s roadrunners of Jordan Ayew, Andros Townsend and Wilfried Zaha.
It worked and City won 2-0, though largely because Palace were awful until the final 20 minutes or so and because this City side still have so much going forward that they can outgun anyone. It’s still far from ideal and Guardiola knows it. Expect them to pick up a centre-back in January, just to have an extra option. Because as good as Eric Garcia may look, if he can’t get on the pitch in a game like this, he’s not getting a game when Stones and Otamendi are fully fit.
Barca’s front three have finally figured it out
Barcelona leapt back to the top of the table with a 3-0 away thumping of Eibar. But more than the victory — not to be taken for granted against a side that had not lost in more than a month — the big takeaway for Barca fans must be the performance of the front three. For the first time, the big guns all fired together.
Antoine Griezmann got on the scoresheet early (and added an assist later), Lionel Messi chipped in too and so did Luis Suarez, who scored in his fourth straight game. There’s been a lot of talk about a lack of cohesion and a clash of egos among those three. Saturday showed that some of it might be exaggerated.
Juventus hold their nerve vs. Bologna
Juventus stayed top of Serie A this weekend despite being stretched by Bologna, who hit the crossbar and forced a tremendous last-ditch save from Gigi Buffon deep in injury time. That said, they played well, with Cristiano Ronaldo arguably turning in his best performance of the season in the 2-1 win and you can see Maurizio Sarri’s concepts percolating into this side.
That said, a number of small things went their way, and not just when it comes to Bologna’s late chances. Miralem Pjanic‘s winner was a gift from Bologna’s defence, who failed to clear, while at the back Matthijs De Ligt once again showed he’s still learning the trade. (That said, Bologna players were wrong when they appealed for a penalty after the ball hit his arm following a deflection off his leg. The Laws of the Game are quite explicit on this point: if there’s a carom off the body to the arm and the arm is in a natural position, it’s not a penalty.)
Enjoy the Bundesliga chaos while you can
We thought the top of the Bundesliga was a giant cluster-mess when there were seven teams separated by just two points. How about now, when there are (count ’em) nine (or, put it differently, the entire left-hand side of the table) within two points?
Hope springs eternal, sure, but when results back up your dreams, it’s that much sweeter. You can say there’s a long way to go but equally, after next week the Bundesliga season will be more than a quarter over and, right now, there’s not much separating “the nine” on the pitch. Injuries and inconsistency are acting as great levelers. And the fact is that seven of those nine also finished in the top half of the table last season. Of the two who did not, you always expected Schalke to bounce back after last year’s debacle and, as for Freiburg, well, Christian Streich has long been an imponderable witch doctor.
We’ll get regression to the mean, we’ll see the table thin out and things will go back to normal. At least, logic says they will. So for now, just enjoy it while it lasts…
A promising start for Pioli in Milan
A home draw with newly promoted Lecce is nothing to write home about but Stefano Pioli can still take some comfort from Milan’s performance on his debut. Two of the most criticised Rossoneri thus far, Hakan Calhanoglou and Krzysztof Piatek, got on the scoresheet, while Lecce scored via a penalty (fair, but somewhat unfortunate) that Gigi Donnarumma could only parry into Khouma Babacar‘s path and a late (and improbable) long-range strike.
Rafael Leao looked sharp, if a bit wasteful, leading the front-line before a muscular injury forced him to give way to Piatek. There was more bite in the midfield and Calhanoglou, especially, looked an entirely different player to the plodding midfielder we saw under former boss Marco Giampaolo. There’s work to be done and it will take time to win over the fans — the Ultras again mostly sat in silence and you can’t blame them for their “wait and see” attitude — but it’s a first step forward. Under his predecessor, they weren’t taking any steps, but merely sinking in quicksand.
Bayern have a defensive crisis on their hands
So much went wrong for Bayern in their 2-2 away draw with Augsburg: bad luck on the first goal, bad defending on the injury time equalizer and wasted chances in-between (including one by Thomas Muller, who came on as a substitute for the umpteenth time). But the worst news came in the injury department: Niklas Sule‘s cruciate injury will rule him out for most of the season.
Defensively, they are now a mess. Benjamin Pavard has been poor and Lucas Hernandez (he got roasted for the equalizer) hasn’t been much better. Mats Hummels, of course, now plays for Borussia Dortmund. Javi Martinez hasn’t played central defence consistently in years and, in fact, hasn’t played consistently in years, period.) That leaves Jerome Boateng, himself a perpetual injury worry and a guy they spent much of the summer trying to offload.
The worst part of all? As one Bayern fan I know joked, it gives Niko Kovac an alibi…
Impressive Chelsea win their fifth straight
Chelsea made it five wins in a row in all competitions thanks to Marcos Alonso‘s winner late over Newcastle in the second half. The fact it took so long to break down Steve Bruce’s side shouldn’t be cause for concern. When your opponent parks the bus, stuff like this can happen. What has to be encouraging to Frank Lampard is his team’s resilience in pushing for the winner and the fact that Callum Hudson-Odoi is already looking like the player many thought he might be.
So too, in his own way, is Christian Pulisic, albeit coming off the bench. Remember all the whining from some media about how Lampard wasn’t giving him his chance and how Pulisic should seek a move in January? He’s getting his chance now and he’s taking it.
Napoli don’t need Icardi. They’ve got magic Milik
Arkadiusz Milik bagged two goals as Napoli downed Verona, 2-0, but still the rumblings continue in some quarters about a “lack of cutting edge” and “finishing ability” and how Carlo Ancelotti ought to “get more out of Lorenzo Insigne.” They even trot out the old nonsense about how they should have mortgaged the house to sign Mauro Icardi over the summer, because he’s some kind of finishing savant.
The fact is, Ancelotti is rotating his front men and none have started more league games than Insigne. They may be fourth in Serie A right now, but they’ve also had to play Juventus away (hitting them for three goals) and, in Europe, they’ve beaten the current Champions League holders. How about we chill out a little?
As for Icardi, since finishing is his forte, you might want to note that over the past 15 months he has underperformed xG — unlike, of all people, the much-maligned Milik.
Dortmund win, but still lose
Other than the result, there aren’t too many positive takeaways for Borussia Dortmund this weekend. Marco Reus‘ second-half strike means they get the three points against Borussia Moenchengladbach, but for long periods they were second-best and it took an absurd late save from Marvin Hitz (who came on for Roman Burki) to secure them.
On top of that, there’s more grumbling in the camp. Jadon Sancho was dropped for returning late from international duty. With Paco Alcacer out, Lucien Favre played Reus up front instead of Mario Gotze, fueling further suggestion that the former Golden Boy is being marginalized.
Overall, it was Marco Rose’s Gladbach who looked better equipped to challenge for the title: more personality, more verve and even more quality.
What’s wrong with Tottenham?
These are tough times at Tottenham Hotspur. They’ve won just one of their last eight in all competitions and could easily have been on the losing end at home to Watford on Saturday. Instead, a late Dele Alli strike got them a point but only because of the usual PL-style VAR nonsense. Jan Vertonghen clearly brought down Gerard Deulofeu and Watford should have had a penalty. Referee Chris Kavanaugh waved play on, and anonymous-VAR-man-in-Stockley-Park-basement didn’t dare ask him to take another look. (You sort of get somebody being fearful of contradicting Atkinson, but Kavanaugh? Chris Freaking Kavanaugh? Really?!?)
Beyond that, there are two evident — and worrying — differences between this side and the one Mauricio Pochettino sent out for most of the past few years. One is the sharp decline in pressing, which used to be a Pochettino hallmark. The other is the shaky, fragile defence — whether in a back four or a back three — where once the Vertonghen-Toby Alderweireld partnership seemed to be the by-word of solidity.
The personnel has hardly changed, evidently the answer can be found somewhere between the manager and the squad.
Inter avoid collapse vs. Sassuolo
Inter stopped playing their long-time club anthem “Pazza Inter” (“Crazy Inter”) before games, possibly to shed their long-standing flaky image. Sunday’s performance at Sassuolo makes you wonder whether it isn’t indelibly in their DNA. They dominated — with the strike force of Romelu Lukaku and Lautaro Martinez turning in their best joint performance of the season — and were 4-1 up with 20 minutes to go. But then Sassuolo pulled two back, making for another nervy ending of the sort Antonio Conte hates.
I don’t think there’s a larger message here, other than individual errors — especially from Valentino Lazaro, who came on and was horrendous… not sure we’ll see this guy again — and the fact that Sassuolo, like other smaller Serie A sides, are a footballing team who always play on the front foot. That means managing a lead, even a sizeable one, can be that much trickier.
You can write this off, cautiously, and instead focus on the growing chemistry between Lukaku and Lautaro or, as one paper called them, “Laukaku.”
Gasperini overshadows Atalanta’s wild weekend
Only Barcelona, Bayern and Manchester City have scored more league goals than Atalanta this season. Gian Piero Gasperini’s free-scoring run continues and they’re deservedly third in Serie A. On Saturday, they drew 3-3 with Lazio and Gasperini was furious with the match officials, especially with a penalty given for a pretty evident Ciro Immobile dive. (The dive wasn’t Immobile’s most embarrassing moment of the day: this was.)
He overstepped the mark with his comments (forgetting perhaps that Josip Ilicic won a similar penalty very recently in similar circumstances) and it’s a shame that his post-match behaviour risks overshadowing the brilliance of his team’s play.
Bas Dost scored in Eintracht Frankfurt’s 3-0 home victory over Peter Bosz’s Bayer Leverkusen, a win that leaves them joint sixth in the table, eighth on goal difference, but just two points off the top. He has three goals in five Bundesliga appearances this season.
This concludes the latest instalment of #BasDostWatch.