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Another busy weekend in Europe means it’s time for another bumper edition of Monday Musings. Gab Marcotti is here to recap the big stories around soccer.
Jump to: Derby draw suits Atletico, Real | Will Liverpool’s luck run out? | Barca still lacking minus Messi | Man City’s Bernardo mess | Alexis is Inter’s hero and villain | Neymar PSG’s hero again | Leipzig’s Bundesliga slip | Don’t stress about Pulisic | Juve, Sarri show their talent | Bayern winning without Muller | Promising signs for Spurs | Milan look awful | Sociedad stumble vs. Sevilla | Dortmund in decline? | Famalicao are no fairytale | And finally… Bas Dost
Derby draw suits Atletico, Real just fine
Surprised that the Madrid derby finished scoreless with not much in the way of excitement, save for the Jan Oblak super-fans who got to see him make some superb stops?
Don’t be. These two clubs have had seriously bumpy starts to the season, both in terms of results and performances. Teams tend not to start playing brilliantly overnight. What’s more, when they’re trying to put a rough patch behind them, they tend to err on the side of caution.
Going into the game, Atletico had won just once since Sept. 1 and that was against Mallorca, who had taken one point from their previous 12. They needed a late, late comeback to avoid defeat at home against Juventus in the Champions League. Diego Simeone was shuffling personnel and formations to make things click and, perhaps, to steer this team away from the “Cholismo” of yesteryear, the spit-and-gravel grind that had taken them this far.
Real Madrid had beaten Osasuna, who hadn’t won since opening week, and gutted a win at Sevilla, but they had also been humiliated away to Paris Saint-Germain. They had conceded in their first five outings of the 2019-20 campaign. Somewhere in the back of their minds was the seven goals they had conceded in the International Champions Cup over the summer.
Most of all, this was a game in which the benefits of victory were far outweighed by the damage of defeat.
Zinedine Zidane, who had talked up the need for “intensity” after the 3-0 debacle in Paris, opted for Federico Valverde‘s 21-year-old Uruguayan “garra” (“grit”) instead of the silkier James Rodriguez or the quality of a fit-again Luka Modric. Simeone again dropped Thomas Lemar and put his eggs in the Vitolo basket but again, his team felt like a Hummer at a Formula One race: a big engine trying to do something it’s not really cut out to do. And despite his tinkering — Koke seemed to play three or four different positions at different times — Atletico never quite came together.
And so, you hoped for the stars to conjure something out of nothing. But Eden Hazard and Gareth Bale, perhaps mindful of Zidane’s death stare after Paris, mostly ferreted away defensively and Joao Felix had an off night on the opposite front.
Real could still have won it and would have if not for the superhuman between the sticks by Oblak. They didn’t create much but when they did, it was wiped away by the Slovenian eraser. You can slice off two of your fingers and you still won’t be able to count on one hand the number of keepers better than Oblak right now.
The weird thing is that both teams have more points than they did at the same stage last season. Real are joint-first, just like last year (and that was still in the Julen Lopetegui era, lest we forget). And Atletico are joint-second, up from fourth last year. It suggests that while the neutrals may have been disappointed, this was probably a point gained — rather than two points lost — for both teams.
How long will Liverpool’s luck last?
We’ve talked before about Liverpool’s maturity this season, about how they don’t need to be at their best to win, about how they limit unnecessary risks, picking their spots for when to dial up the intensity. Seven straight league wins to start the season, and an incredible 16 straight going back to last year, tell their own story. But you wonder if there aren’t warning signs there.
Miller: Liverpool get away with it
Saturday’s 1-0 victory at Sheffield United was lucky — something the ESPN Luck Index continues to track — and came about thanks to an individual error by opposing keeper Dean Henderson. And while both Sadio Mane and Mohamed Salah carved out a couple of chances, they certainly weren’t the overwhelming attacking force we’ve seen in the past. In fact, they weren’t the previous week against Chelsea either.
Credit must go to Sheffield United, sure, but you also wonder if there aren’t some warning lights flashing on Jurgen Klopp’s dashboard. And when you consider what’s ahead, including a heavy fixture list in December/January made more complicated by the Club World Cup in Qatar, you wonder if maybe they could use an extra body to come off the bench up front. The drop-off — not just in quality, but perhaps more importantly in style — between the three starters and the likes of Divock Origi, Xherdan Shaqiri, Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, Rhian Brewster and whoever else you care to name is pretty stark.
Barca still look disjointed without Messi
By the time October rolls around (tomorrow), Lionel Messi will have played just 122 minutes from the start of the season. The last time he had featured so sparingly at the start of a campaign, Barca went on to win the Champions League. So if you’re superstitious (and a bit dim) his various injuries are no big deal. Of course, that was back in 2005-06, when Messi was 19, Frank Rijkaard was in charge and Pep Guardiola was still playing (for Dorados in Liga MX).
– Barca ratings: Ter Stegen 9/10
If Ernesto Valverde’s plan was to us the Messi hiatus to give his side an identity and maybe even offer a glimpse into a Messi-less future, then matters are somewhat worrying. There were few bright spots in the 2-0 win at Getafe other than a couple prodigious Marc-Andre ter Stegen saves and a neat assist for Luis Suarez, a lot of energy from Arthur and plenty of running from Carles Perez.
This team is still nowhere near where it needs to be and it can’t all be down to Messi (and Jordi Alba) being out.
Such is Manchester City’s current form that Pep Guardiola could leave out Sergio Aguero, Bernardo Silva and David Silva (in addition to the long-injured Aymeric Laporte, John Stones and Leroy Sane) and still come away with a 3-1 win at Everton.
By some metrics, it wasn’t the most comfortable performance — the eight shots on target conceded were the most ever since Guardiola arrived at City — but equally what strikes you is how players can come into the side and change games without needing to bed in, Riyad Mahrez being a case in point here.
Less impressive was the way this was handled.
There was never any need to personalize this and make it about Bernardo Silva’s character (“an exceptional person,” according to Guardiola.) All you had to do is realize that what may not be seen as an ugly racist stereotype in one context (“Conguitos” are freely available for sale in Portugal and Spain) may actually be deeply offensive to others elsewhere. And since tweeted images instantly go global, there were many who were understandably offended.
It’s frankly irrelevant whether Benjamin Mendy is his buddy or not or whether or not he was offended. This wasn’t a private joke between the two; this was chucked out there in public. Simply own it, say that you were not aware of the racist connotations, apologize to those who were offended and move on. And, perhaps, maybe take the opportunity to educate yourself about what that image stands for and why it’s upsetting to so many.
Nobody believes there was any malice behind his tweet. So why drag this out?
Sanchez the hero and villain for Inter
Alexis Sanchez had quite the afternoon on his first start for Inter in Serie A. He looked bright and sharp early on, scored Inter’s second in the 3-1 away win over Sampdoria and then got himself sent off in the most foolish way at the start of the second half… with a second yellow for diving. Evidently he forgot all about the all-seeing eye in the sky that is VAR.
Instead of 2-0 up and able to manage the game, Inter found themselves on the back foot (all the more so when Samp pulled one back). It’s the sort of situation that infuriates Antonio Conte (and would likely cause his hair to fall out, if that were possible).
We’ll get a better sense of where Conte’s Inter this week after they face Barcelona in the Champions League midweek and Juventus next weekend.
Neymar comes to PSG’s rescue again
Him again. Neymar’s second-half goal gave Paris Saint-Germain their third 1-0 win in their last four Ligue 1 outings, each with a late score from the Brazilian.
The good news? Kylian Mbappe is back (though looking a tad rusty) and it was a bounce back after the midweek defeat. The not-so-good news? PSG looked a bit sluggish against an opponent that defended with numbers and intensity, at least until Mbappe came on with half an hour to go.
Neymar compared his relationship with PSG fans — many still boo him after he tried to engineer a move away in the summer — to that with a girlfriend: “When there is a problem, everyone stays in their corner… but with lots of love and hugs, everything will return to normal.”
That’s one way to put it, but let’s remind ourselves about how it’s nothing like a relationship with a girlfriend. The “problem” in question was generated by the “boyfriend” (Neymar) trying to dump his “girlfriend” (PSG), only staying because the other potential “girlfriend” (Barcelona) couldn’t afford (or didn’t want) to pay to get him out of the relationship. The “boyfriend” has made no guarantees that he won’t try to leave again at the next opportunity. Oh, and perhaps most importantly, the “boyfriend” is being paid (handsomely) to be with the “girlfriend.”
So yeah, it’s really nothing like a romantic relationship.
RB Leipzig let Bundesliga lead slip
Leipzig lost their place at the top of the Bundesliga with a painful 3-1 home defeat to David Wagner’s Schalke. Any Leipzig defeat will, understandably, generate plenty of schadenfreude but I wouldn’t write them off just yet. This game would have taken a very different turn if Marcel Sabitzer and Emil Forsberg had converted their early chances.
More of a concern is how, having gone behind, Leipzig were so imprecise in their movement in the final third and how easily Schalke picked them off.
Let’s not panic about Pulisic
Another week, another non-appearance from Christian Pulisic, this time in Chelsea’s 2-0 home win over Brighton. I know some are scratching their heads over the fact that you would spend some $70 million on a player and then not play him in a real game (sorry, EFL Cup, nobody cares) for a month. But let’s just remind ourselves that Pulisic only turned 21 this month and that last year he was slowed by injuries and started just nine of 34 Bundesliga games for Borussia Dortmund.
Carlisle: Time to worry about Pulisic?
While we’re at it, let’s also note that the guys ahead of him include a veteran Brazilian international (Willian), another veteran who won a World Cup (Pedro) and guy who manager Frank Lampard groomed all of last season at Derby (Mason Mount). Plus Callum Hudson-Odoi, who is very young but is a homegrown fan favorite. Not to mention the fact that he was poor in his last outing (against Sheffield United) and when Chelsea play three at the back, there’s no natural position for him.
Chelsea view Pulisic as a long-term project, not as a finished article who will have an instant impact. Players who have gone on to achieve far more than Pulisic might ever dream of weren’t guaranteed starters at his age. Give him time, let him continue fighting for his place and most of all, let him grow into the best player he can be.
Sarri, Juve finally show what they’re capable of
We finally have a Maurizo Sarri sighting… as in the sighting of a Maurizio Sarri team. For the first time in this campaign, Juventus looked like what their manager might wish them to look like. SPAL aren’t great — most of all, they’re an open footballing side who can easily get “out-footballed” by better opponents — but if not for some huge saves by Etrit Berisha, it could easily have been five or six rather than the two they scored.
Playing Juan Cuadrado and Blaise Matuidi as full-backs, lining up Aaron Ramsey in the hole and, once again, putting his faith in the “Dybaldo” partnership are exactly why Sarri was brought in: as a guy who can find creative solutions and produce attacking football. It shows he has the self-belief to pursue his ideas (and yep, sometimes he’ll get it wrong).
That’s a good sign for Juve. No point having Sarri if he’s going to go out there and try to be an off-brand Max Allegri.
Is Bayern’s good form bad news for Muller?
Bayern sprung back up to the top of the Bundesliga with a 3-2 win over Paderborn. It’s still not entirely clear to me what Niko Kovac’s long-term view of his lineup is but it looks as if it’s bound to include Philippe Coutinho in the hole. Based on his performance — he scored one, set up another and generally opened up play with ease — it makes sense, but it also means that the light is dimming for Thomas Muller.
For the third straight game, Muller was stuck on the bench and it seems evident that Kovac can’t accomodate both him and Coutinho. That’s a big statement for Kovac to make, too: while Muller has been on the slide in many ways, he’s still a Bayern stalwart, born, bred and buttered at the Sabenerstrasse. Never the most technically gifted player, Muller reached his heights thanks to his athleticism and intelligence but athleticism tends to decline north of thirty. He can, however, reinvent himself as an impact sub or possibly as the alternative to Robert Lewandowski up front. Either way, you can’t imagine him disappearing from view this early.
Promising signs that Spurs can pull it together
If Tottenham are to be what many (including yours truly) thought they would be, namely the third force in the Premier League after Liverpool and Manchester City, they need more performances like Saturday’s against Southampton. Coming after a hard-fought (and frankly harsh) defeat at Leicester and getting knocked out of the League Cup (which is probably a blessing in disguise and ought to be entirely irrelevant but instead adds fuel to the fire) it was important for their stars to turn up and be counted. Harry Kane, Tanguy Ndombele and others did just that.
There’s still an elephant in the room — the contractual situation of Toby Alderweireld, Jan Vertonghen and Christian Eriksen — and it’s frankly grotesque that it has reached this point. But if Mauricio Pochettino can keep the focus on the fact that there’s a common goal for all, even in less than ideal circumstances, this team can hit last year’s heights and maybe even go further.
Another awful weekend for Milan
Fiorentina’s 3-1 walloping of Milan at the San Siro was more one-sided than it appeared. Federico Chiesa missed a penalty, Franck Ribery scored a “worldie” and Gaetano Castrovili continued to shine. But obviously, the focus is on the rossoneri, who are just one point above the relegation zone.
Milan’s Ultras voiced their displeasure by leaving early (and missing Rafael Leao’s late consolation wonder-goal). You can understand their frustration. Marco Giampaolo, whose team had shown progress in midweek, looked to have gone backwards again. He has plenty of square pegs in his round holes but he also has guys who, right now, would look out of their depth in any formation, from Krzysztof Piatek to Hakan Calhanoglou to Suso.
The club say they’re keeping faith with Giampaolo. The best thing he could do at this stage is show a bit of courage and perhaps play guys on merit rather than reputation and transfer fee. And when he does, conjure up a scheme that actually works for what he has.
Real Sociedad stumble vs. Sevilla
It didn’t happen. Real Sociedad did not climb back to the top of La Liga after 17 seasons (back in the Reynald Denoueix days). Or, rather, they were top for 14 minutes, from the moment Mikel Oyarzabal gave them the lead right up to Sevilla’s equalizer. Sevilla went on to win 3-2, showing plenty of fight after their midweek loss to Eibar.
But while imperfect, the performance ought to be a reminder that La Real aren’t going away any time soon. In Mikel Merino, Martin Odegaard and Mikel Oyarzabal, they have three of the better young players in Europe and on their day they can match anyone for intensity. As for Sevilla, it’s still a work in progress for Julen Lopetegui, but they’re still just two points off the top of the table.
Next week, Sevilla visit the Camp Nou. The last time he was there, on the Real Madrid bench, he got thumped, 5-1, and got fired shortly thereafter. He won’t be lacking for motivation.
Dortmund might not be title contenders after all
Like many, I had this as Borussia Dortmund’s year and like many, I’m not sure what to think after they dropped another two points, this time in a 2-2 draw against Werder Bremen. The numbers say it’s one win in five, though that’s a bit misleading because the victory was a convincing one over Bayer Leverkusen and they deserved more from their draw against Barcelona.
But the Bremen performance might have been their worst one yet. They were sloppy at the back and some of the youngsters (Jadon Sancho) looked rattled. Most of all, after Bremen’s equaliser, they seemed to simply wilt away. Time for Professor Lucien Favre to earn his bacon.
Famalicao’s story is no fairytale
FC Famalicao, newly promoted to the Portuguese top flight and with crowds of around 5000, sit atop the Primeira Liga. Impressive? Sure. Heart-warming Cinderella story? Not so much.
It’s not just the fact that the club have a billionaire backer (Israeli magnate Idan Ofer, who also owns just over a third of Atletico Madrid), it’s also the way they’ve been built up in no time flat (19 summer signings) with the help of superagent Jorge Mendes, who stocked the club with his clients and players from “Mendes-friendly” clubs (Wolves, Atletico, Valencia, etc).
Mendes is just doing his job of course (and doing it well), but it does take some of the gloss off.
Bas Dost scored in Eintracht Frankfurt’s 2-1 away victory at Union Berlin, a win that leaves them ninth in the table. He has two goals in four Bundesliga appearances this season.
This concludes this instalment of #BasDostWatch.