Examining Pickford's escape for Van Dijk tackle, Barcelona and Real woe pre-Clasico
A weekend full of big derbies delivered plenty of talking points, from Liverpool’s costly 2-2 draw at Everton that saw Virgil van Dijk seriously injured (and Jordan Pickford unpunished), to AC Milan’s win over rivals Inter thanks to a certain Zlatan Ibrahimovic. There were also subpar performances from Barcelona and Real Madrid ahead of the Clasico, woe for Juventus ahead of the Champions League group stage Matchday 1, concern around Man United and a Tottenham collapse that will have Jose Mourinho fuming.
It’s Monday, and Gab Marcotti reacts to the biggest moments in the sport of football from the past week.
Jump to: VAR lets Pickford off | Milan humble Inter | Aguero’s transgression | Griezmann should lead Barca attack | Dortmund need Haaland back-up | Real have many issues | Solskjaer shows guts with Man United | Juve shouldn’t panic about Pirlo | Spurs should focus on positives | Bayern bounce back vs. Bielefeld | Chelsea are not a team yet | Napoli prove doubters wrong vs. Atalanta | Leipzig’s attacking depth
Why didn’t VAR rule on Pickford’s horror tackle?
The top-of-the-table, 2-2 clash between Merseyside rivals Everton and Liverpool ended up being overshadowed by VAR decisions and, above all, Virgil Van Dijk’s horrendous cruciate injury, which will likely see him out until the Euros at the earliest. The fact that Jordan Pickford remained on the pitch is difficult for many to understand — including Liverpool, which is why they asked the Premier League for an explanation. Let’s hope that those in charge take this opportunity for some transparency here, something that gives us a better understanding of what the rules are and how they are applied.
Liverpool weren’t awarded a penalty because Van Dijk was offside at the time of the collision with Pickford. It wasn’t immediately obvious, but VAR confirmed this, and while it was tight, that part is indisputable.
What’s less easy to understand is why no action was taken against Pickford. Referee Michael Oliver — who, lest we forget, is supposed to be one of the English game’s top two or three officials — evidently felt that while it might have been a foul (but not a punishable foul, since Van Dijk was offside), it did not warrant a yellow or red card. Fine. Or, rather, not fine, because in my opinion he got it badly wrong. But hey: referees make mistakes with the naked eye in real time.
Yet the person in the VAR seat, David Coote, had the benefit of replays. His first job was to determine whether Van Dijk was offside, and that must have taken some time. After that, he was called to decide whether Oliver made a mistake in not awarding a red to Pickford. Sticking strictly to the protocol — and I’m engaging in speculation here, because we’ve have had no explanation — you assume he might have personally felt that it was worthy of a yellow card. But since VARs aren’t allowed to intervene in yellow card situations, he possibly felt there was nothing he could do.
– Ogden: Liverpool’s title defense might fail without Van Dijk
– Madcap derby just another day in Premier League’s new normal
– Sources: Liverpool concerned, confused by VAR decisions
What we don’t know, and may never know, is the conversation between Coote and Oliver. Oliver is a star and Coote a relative no-name, but they’re on the same team. You would hope that Coote would have had the confidence to feel empowered to tell Oliver: “Michael, you’re sure you had a clear view of it? Looks pretty nasty to me. Maybe you should take another look.”
If that’s what happened and Oliver waved him off, then we have to accept it. If Coote simply stuck to the letter of the law and told himself “that’s no worse than a yellow, I can’t make him do an on-field review” well, I’m not sure that’s in the spirit of VAR at all.
Everything is magnified here, of course, by the fact that it was early in the game — the fifth minute — and Pickford is a goalkeeper. A sending-off at that stage radically changes the match. It shouldn’t have come into the reckoning, but referees are human too. However you feel about it, the PGMOL (Professional Game Match Officials Board, the group that is responsible for referees in English football) could do themselves a favour by releasing the transcripts of the conversation between Coote and Oliver, if only to help people understand. And, perhaps, to ensure situations like these do not arise again.
What we do know, in the meantime, is that Pickford won’t face retrospective action. This was always going to be the case. In these situations, the FA simply doubles down, unless referees have missed the incident entirely.
Regardless of the Pickford decision (or non-decision), I think Liverpool deserved the three points. Not because of the late VAR offside that struck off what would have been Jordan Henderson’s winner, which was as much down to Pickford’s mistake than anything else. But simply because over the 90 minutes, Liverpool shaded it in terms of chances created and conceded.
That said, credit to Everton. This is not a deep squad, particularly in certain positions, and the fact that they’re still top in the second half of October speaks volumes about the work Carlo Ancelotti and his staff have done.
What next for Liverpool? Obviously you’re not going to find somebody who will fill Van Dijk’s shoes — we’re talking about a guy who started every single league game in the past two seasons. In the short-term, you imagine Klopp will go with some combination of Joe Gomez, Fabinho and Joel Matip at the back, but it seems obvious that they will need to bring in an extra body in January, even it means going out on a limb financially.
This Liverpool side are a team built to win now, not in two or three years. There are a whole bunch of players who are in their late 20s and once you go with the “all-in” approach, you need to stick with it, so it makes sense to seek help in the transfers market. If you can get a long-term asset, go for it. If not, there’s nothing wrong, at this stage, to think short-term: a veteran player to tide you over.
What’s unthinkable is believing you can get through to the end of the season with two central defenders and recycled midfielder.
Milan outthink rivals Inter in big derby win
Zlatan Ibrahimovic’s performance in the Milan derby powered the Rossoneri to the top of the Serie A table. I wrote about his performance in their 2-1 win on Saturday, so let’s not dwell on him too much here. Rather, it’s worth praising Stefano Pioli for putting the right pieces around Zlatan to help mask his deficiencies and maximise his strengths. Using Rafael Leao to pin back Achraf Hakimi, and setting up the back line to withstand Inter’s second-half onslaught were moves that made all the difference on the night.
– Zlatan defies time as Milan win derby
As for Inter, Antonio Conte is right to say they had chances to equalize or even win, but that doesn’t change the fact that the Inter we saw hasn’t yet found the right balance. Playing two strikers with wing-backs like Ivan Perisic and Hakimi — the former is a recycled winger, the latter is basically an adjunct attacker — isn’t a plug-and-play exercise. It requires a lot of tactical work, on the training pitch — exactly what Conte is known for — except with no real preseason and very little time to train in a congested season, he hasn’t yet had the opportunity to do it.
You wonder, therefore, why Conte doesn’t keep things simpler. Aleksandar Kolarov in a back three isn’t necessarily a bad choice, but when he’s asked to cover for Perisic and recover inside? Yeah, it won’t come natural to him straightaway. Christian Eriksen as a No.10 may be unsustainable with this set-up, so why not play him as one of the three-man midfield, a role that isn’t entirely new to him? (Regarding Eriksen, I still can’t shake the feeling that there aren’t some inherent preconceptions about him and his lack of emotion and histrionics, which are so at odds with Conte’s approach.)
Aguero shouldn’t have put his hands on Massey-Ellis
Having worked side-by-side for several years, it was perhaps inevitable that Mikel Arteta and Pep Guardiola would each try to throw curveballs in an effort to catch the other off-guard.
Arteta’s new-look Arsenal included Willian as some sort of “false nine” with Nicolas Pepe and Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang out wide. Guardiola and Man City countered with Nathan Ake at left-back, Joao Cancelo in some sort of hybrid wing-back role and, late in the game, Raheem Sterling through the middle with Sergio Aguero. It was hard to figure out on TV, but the impression was that City deserved the 1-0 win and, perhaps, Arteta engaged in a bit of overthinking.
The other big talking point was Aguero putting his arm on/around assistant referee Sian Massey-Ellis after disputing a call. It was an awkward, uncomfortable moment that Guardiola tried to minimise after the game, saying “Sergio is the nicest person I ever met in my life. Look for problems in other situations, not in this one.”
– Dawson: Man City beat Arsenal as “normal service” resumes
– Man City ratings: Ederson 8/10, Sterling 7/10 in win
– Arsenal ratings: Saka 7/10 as Gunners rue missed chances
Let’s be clear here. Nobody is saying Aguero is an ogre and yes, there is no rule that says you can’t touch a referee or assistant. It’s a case-by-case situation and, perhaps, that didn’t warrant a booking. But, equally, those who say it’s no big deal because it happens a lot and if that had been a male assistant instead of a female assistant, we wouldn’t be talking about it, are missing the point.
Massey-Ellis is not a male assistant. She is a woman with a role in a sport whose conventions and rules were written and defined by men for virtually all of its 150-year history. And there are thousands of years of conventions in male-female power relations that predate this and can’t be ignored.
I am neither a woman nor an assistant referee, and I’m in no position to judge whether and to what degree Massey-Ellis was made uncomfortable here. Nor is it fair for me, or anyone else, to put her in a position where she has to speak for every female match official (let alone every woman) out there.
But what is undeniable is that you can’t pretend gender isn’t part of the story here and part of what made many so uncomfortable. Hopefully Aguero and others have picked up on this and will learn from it.
Griezmann deserves a shot up front for Barcelona
Barcelona knew they were going to get a rough ride against Getafe because, well, everybody does. Frenkie de Jong gave up the penalty that Jaime Mata converted for the only game’s only goal. Against sides coached by Javier Bordalas, you either reply with muscle or with skill and speed. Ronald Koeman went for the latter, starting 17-year-old Pedri behind the striker, 19-year-old U.S. international Sergino Dest at left-back in place of the injured Jordi Alba, and giving Ousmane Dembele his umpteenth mulligan down the left.
– Barca ratings: Griezmann 5/10, Dest 7/10 in loss
It didn’t quite work out. Pedri did well, but Messi — possibly because of his intercontinental travels for Argentina’s World Cup qualifiers — was subdued. Dembele offered little and, yes, the talking point — again — was Antoine Griezmann, given more licence up front, but, again, wasting opportunities.
The pieces don’t fit together like they should, but at this stage, you may as well give Griezmann a clear run up front. It’s not dissimilar to what he did at Atletico Madrid over the past few years (albeit in as one member of a two-person attack). Either that, or bench him entirely. At this stage, the endless chatter — with even France manager Didier Deschamps piping up too — isn’t helping anyone.
Will lack of Haaland backup hurt Dortmund’s title hopes?
After an international break and with a Champions League game against Lazio coming up, Lucien Favre did some heavy rotating against Hoffenheim — Marco Reus, Erling Haaland, Raphael Guerreiro and Jude Bellingham all started on the bench — and for a while, Borussia Dortmund looked flat. Things picked up once he sent on the cavalry (the aforementioned quartet) after the hour mark, and it was Haaland who set up Reus’ winner with 15 minutes to go. (It was his first Bundesliga goal in nearly a year.)
– Highlights: Hoffenheim 0, Dortmund 1 (U.S.)
– Stream replay: Hoffenheim vs. Dortmund (U.S.)
Hoffenheim are a tough nut to crack, and some squad rotation given the brutal grind of the 2020-21 campaign makes sense. But while Dortmund are stacked with options in midfield and out wide (and can probably reinvent midfielders as central defenders in a back three), what’s evident is that there is no backup for Haaland. Julian Brandt gave it a go, and it simply didn’t work. He obviously can’t play up front the way Haaland does it, but readjusting the team to suit his skill set doesn’t quite work either.
It’s something for Dortmund to address in January.
Madrid’s issues run much deeper than lack of goals
Not a fan of citing attitude or body language or other intangibles to explain away defeats and poor performances, but Real Madrid’s game against Cadiz must be an exception. Whatever happened pregame, they clearly weren’t mentally prepared on the pitch and fully deserved the 1-0 loss to their newly promoted opponents.
Real ratings: Isco 4/10, Marcelo 5/10 in defeat
Zinedine Zidane clearly tried to shake them up with four changes at half-time and a shift in formation, but nothing worked. Other than Karim Benzema (who hit the woodwork) and, again, Thibaut Courtois, there was very little to cheer. It’s the worst possible preparation ahead of the return of the Champions League and next weekend’s Clasico. Sergio Ramos going off injured doesn’t help either.
Until now, Real Madrid’s main issue was lack of goals. On Saturday, it went deeper than that.
Solskjaer’s gutsy moves pay off in Man United’s win
Say this for Ole Gunnar Solskjaer: he’s got guts. In the hyper-pressure, instant-reaction world of football, he had two weeks to stew over the 6-1 humiliation at the hands of Tottenham. And he returned to face Newcastle with his captain, Harry Maguire, publicly pilloried for his red card while on England duty.
Man United ratings: Rashford 9/10 in late victory
Solskjaer not only started Maguire, but he also left Paul Pogba and Donny van de Beek on the bench alongside new signing Alex Telles, and stuck Daniel James in the front three. When United went a goal down, you feared another humiliation, possibly one Solskjaer might not survive. Instead, the side kept their cool and pressed on, even after Bruno Fernandes missed a penalty, reaping a deserved three points thanks to three late goals.
It doesn’t mean Solskjaer is the right man for this job or that he’ll turn things around at United. It does mean that, for now at least, his self-belief and confidence are unshaken. And that’s important.
Juve shouldn’t panic about Pirlo after Crotone draw
Juventus drawing 1-1 with Crotone — a team that had lost every game prior to this weekend — will inevitably lead the knee-jerk brigade to question Andrea Pirlo and his decisions and, perhaps, lament the fact that this would have never happened under Max Allegri or Antonio Conte. (It probably wouldn’t have happened under the version of Maurizio Sarri we saw last year, either.)
Stream replay: Juventus vs. Crotone (U.S.)
Leaving aside the obvious — Juventus did more than enough to win the game, hitting the post and having a goal scratched off by a very marginal offside, and playing without at least five starters while also being reduced to 10 men when Federico Chiesa was sent off — folks are missing the point.
Pirlo has been given licence to take this club into an entirely new direction: tactically, philosophically and materially, hence why there were so many youngsters out there (including a debutant in Mattia Portanova). It’s a choice in part dictated by necessity (the balance sheet is what it is, aka not good), and in part by a desire to do things differently and experiment.
After years of being domestically successful and hugely conservative (on the pitch), Juventus are trying to do things differently. It may or may not be the right choice, and Pirlo may or may not be the right man to deliver change. But at the very least, understand what he’s trying to do, and give him time to do it.
Tottenham, Mourinho should focus on positives
I can imagine Jose Mourinho views dropping two points when you’re 3-0 up with less than 10 minutes to go as some sort of cardinal sin for any football manager to commit. Managing a lead when your side are playing well and you have a team packed with expert counterattackers who thrive on wide open spaces should be entirely second nature. So while he put on a brave face after Manuel Lanzini’s screamer held Spurs to a 3-3 draw Sunday, he must have been seething inside.
Olley: Tottenham’s lack of ruthlessness is a problem
That’s understandable, but it shouldn’t detract from the way Tottenham played. And having been hard on Mourinho all those times his teams played poorly and won, the least I can do is point out when they played well and were unlucky.
Forget the cliche about “making your own luck.” When a weird own goal and a goal-of-the-season contender are what ultimately cost you points, you can’t really legislate for that. Best to take the positives, because there were plenty, starting with Harry Kane’s performance and his ability to be at once, creator and finisher.
Bayern back to form vs. Bielefeld
Newly-promoted Arminia Bielefeld were designated sacrificial lambs against Bayern, and they followed the script. Hansi Flick’s crew won, 4-1, with Thomas Mueller and Robert Lewandowski bagging two goals each. (For those keeping score at home, that’s now 41 goals in his past 35 Bundesliga appearances for Lewandowski. Write your own captions.)
Stream replay: Arminia Bielefeld vs. Bayern Munich (U.S.)
We had written about the lack of depth at the club and — presto! — Bayern addressed it with a late, late shopping spree that yielded a right-back (Bouna Sarr), a central midfielder (Marc Roca), a winger (Douglas Costa) and a striker (Eric-Maxim Choupo-Moting). The folks upstairs are listening.
Chelsea have quality but are not a team (yet)
Chelsea were held to a 3-3 draw at home by Southampton in a game that seemed to encapsulate all the cliches about Frank Lampard’s side. Kepa Arrizabalaga (replacing the injured Edouard Mendy) was poor, and he and Kurt Zouma gifted the opposition a goal. Defensively, the club switched off at key moments. N’Golo Kante looks anything but happy. Kai Havertz is hugely gifted, but still very raw. You could tell it was Christian Pulisic’s first game back.
Going forward, there’s enough quality to paper over most cracks, but this is still a tactically imbalanced side that is nowhere near as good as the sum of its parts. There’s plenty of work for Frank Lampard to do, and Saturday did nothing to dispel the impression that for all the quality, the pieces don’t fit together as they should.
Napoli show they’re Serie A title contenders vs. Atalanta
Having added depth and quality, Atalanta are legitimate title contenders in Serie A this season. That Napoli demolished them 4-1 is a credit to many, but their coach Rino Gattuso stands out for me. Given their high-risk/high-reward approach, Atalanta will always concede opportunities, but it’s up to you to identify them and target them, and Gattuso did it wonderfully, unleashing Mattia Politano, Giovanni Di Lorenzo and Chucky Lozano down the flanks. So much for those who thought he was just a shouty motivator.
Gattuso also deserves credit for regenerating and relaunching a number of players who struggled last season. Lozano was on his way out and is now the club’s top goal scorer. Kostas Manolas is back to the lustre of his Roma days, and Victor Osimhen looks as if he’s been playing in this side all his life. Gattuso has tons of depth too.
They too are legitimate title contenders, make no mistake about it.
Leipzig show attacking depth vs. Augsburg
Leipzig won away to Augsburg, 2-0, to remain top of the Bundesliga. Julian Nagelsmann approached the game like he did the previous week, with a de facto striker-less front trio made up of Dani Olmo, Christopher Nkunku and Emil Forsberg.
I’m not sure how much more of this we’ll see, and not just because of the investment in Alexander Sorloth and Hee-Chan Hwang over the summer, but because Leipzig’s second goal came thanks to a proper striker (albeit not a prolific one). Yussuf Poulsen came on and nailed a volley reminiscent of Marco Van Basten at Euro 88.
Goals aren’t the problem for this team, and Nagelsmann now has three serviceable center-forwards. Expect one of them to play most weeks.