Mourinho, Tottenham show they're in title race; Barcelona in free fall; Zlatan the hero for Milan
Jose Mourinho and Tottenham asserted their title credentials by beating Manchester City this weekend, while in Spain, Barcelona and Lionel Messi looked ugly in defeat to Atletico Madrid, the presumptive title favorites. Elsewhere, Zlatan Ibrahimovic helped AC Milan stay atop Serie A, Real Madrid are struggling to fire, Bayern Munich also suffered a hangover from international break and Erling Haaland scored four for Borussia Dortmund to overshadow the debut of 16-year-old Youssoufa Moukoko.
It’s Monday, and Gab Marcotti reacts to the biggest moments in the world of football from the past week.
Jump to: Spurs’ win no fluke | Atletico-Barca fallout | Ibra, Milan in form | Zidane struggling to get Madrid firing | Liverpool rise above | A warning sign for Bayern | Ronaldo shines | Van de Beek mystery | Sociedad win again | Haaland overshadows Moukoko | Conte, Inter stress | Chelsea better without Havertz, Pulisic? | Leipzig need more than Poulsen
Lessons learned from Spurs beating Man City
Tottenham’s 2-0 win over Manchester City this weekend doesn’t mean they’re a better side, or even that they were necessarily better on the day. However, it does mean that they’ve made significant progress and that rumours of Jose Mourinho’s demise were distinctly premature. And, yeah, while a number of things would have to fall into place, it does mean they’re title contenders: they are not top of the league by accident.
– Olley: Spurs’ win reignites Mourinho vs. Guardiola rivalry
So what needs to happen from here?
Despite having conceded the fewest goals in the Premier League (and having the second-best xG conceded, after Manchester City), Tottenham would need to tighten up further defensively. Mourinho has done an exceptional job in this department and, in particular, getting natural wing-backs like Serge Aurier, Matt Doherty and Sergio Reguilon to perform more like full-backs when needed. The midfield duo of PIerre-Emile Hjobjerg and Moussa Sissoko are formidable in shielding the back four, but they would likely need to go even further, mainly because the individual quality is what it is: Eric Dier has improved, but he’s still not Virgil van Dijk.
The other requisite jump is to consistently create chances against teams who park the bus and sit deep. That means playing a possession game and doing so incisively and with creativity, and/or relying on individual match winners to do something outstanding to create goals out of nothing. Spurs have individuals who can do the latter in Harry Kane, Son Heung-Min, Lucas Moura and Gareth Bale. The problem is it’s not something you can rely on.
As for the former, Mourinho has attacking full-backs when he needs to use them, Giovani Lo Celso is a creative force and Tanguy Ndombele can be one too. Plus, the evolution of Kane — dropping into space to create and not merely being a terminus — is one of the stories of the season. It can be done, but it’s far from easy.
This isn’t meant as a criticism of Mourinho’s work. On the contrary, it’s remarkable that we’re even contemplating something like this when you consider he’s been in charge for only 12 months (and that includes a COVID-19 lockdown). It just goes to show the enormity of the task ahead and the strides that he has made.
As for City, this is not how Pep Guardiola wanted to celebrate the contract extension he announced last week. He has underscored how they can’t afford to drop many more points, and he pinpointed the lack of goal scoring. The issue isn’t just goals — they’re averaging 1.25 per game, which is less than half of last season’s return (2.68) — but goal-scoring chances. Their expected goals (xG) is 1.22, lower than teams like West Ham and Everton and, again, nearly half of last season’s when it was 2.24.
Sergio Aguero’s absence is, obviously, a factor — better finishing, crisper movement to open space — but your 32-year-old striker, whom Guardiola himself admitted requires maximum care after his injuries, can’t be the only answer. City’s intensity and the speed of their build-up seem to have dropped as well. Plus, when they do get into the final third, too often they don’t seem to find that extra pass to get them into better positions.
It’s the sort of thing that will improve as Raheem Sterling and Bernardo Silva, both of whom started the campaign slowly, continue to improve. But it also requires work and tweaks on the training ground. Unfortunately for Guardiola, the fixtures list is absolutely brutal between now and the new year. He’s going to have to solve this on the fly.
Atletico fancied for La Liga, Barca a mess
Conventional wisdom said that after signing Luis Suarez, Atletico Madrid would have to be more attacking, since playing on the counter with a 33-year-old front-man makes little sense. But equally, given that Suarez was unavailable against Barcelona on Saturday night after testing positive for COVID-19 on international duty, you would have forgiven Diego Simeone for reverting to the old sit-and-counter script, letting Angel Correa and Joao Felix run wild.
Instead, Simeone served up a formula that wasn’t direct, particularly in the first half, with Atleti keeping the ball for long stretches, letting the quality of Koke and Saul and the runs of Yannick Carrasco poke holes in Barca’s set-up. They created several quality chances, hit the woodwork and kept Barca away from Jan Oblak before exploiting some horrid defending at the end of the first half to take the lead. After the break, we saw some of the old “Cholismo” with some deep defending, albeit with a twist: rather than the usual directness, we saw them play “keep-away” for stretches, limiting Barca to just the one clear-cut opportunity, one that Clement Lenglet didn’t poke home.
Atleti are three points off the top, with two games in hand, and given events elsewhere, this season is perhaps their best chance to win La Liga in years. It’s not just the fact that Felix and Koke are having standout campaigns, that Oblak remains one of the best in the world and that Suarez gives them a different dimension. It’s also that the defending is as stout as ever: they’ve conceded just two in eight games thus far.
As for Barcelona? When it rains, it pours.
The main takeaway, obviously, revolves around the long-term injuries to Sergi Roberto and Gerard Pique. Sergino Dest, it appears, will get his baptism of fire at right-back, but central defence is now a major headache. With Samuel Umtiti still recovering from injury (and seemingly made of glass), you’re looking at Ronald Araujo or Oscar Mingueza to partner with Lenglet. Between them, they have just three Liga starts under their belts, and, in any case, Araujo is currently injured.
Barcelona ratings: Griezmann 5/10 against former club
It appears as though Ronald Koeman’s solution will be moving Frenkie de Jong into the back line. Needless to say, it’s not what they signed him for and it will do little to help his growth in the side. Plus, as good as de Jong is, he can’t be in two places at once. And if he’s at the back, he’s not in midfield in Koeman’s 4-2-3-1. That means a lot of Miralem Pjanic plus Sergio Busquets (who hasn’t gotten any quicker in his old age and, in any case, is injured right now) or, perhaps, the resurrection of two homegrown youngsters who Koeman appears to have snubbed thus far: Carles Alena and Ricki Puig. They’re both gifted, but both are apparently on the outs with Koeman, which explains why they’ve played just 18 minutes all season.
On the pitch, it was ugly. Antoine Griezmann performed like he’s been performing (read: poorly and in a different zip code from Lionel Messi), Pedri reminded us he’s still growing and Messi wasn’t wearing his superhero cape.
There’s a listlessness to this team right now on top of everything else. A sourness, too. At the final whistle, when Barcelona had to send out a player for flash interviews with broadcasters, nobody came out. It’s a contractual obligation and, eventually, it was Pedri who manned up and faced the music: shades of what happened after El Clasico, when they sent out Dest.
Obviously, a group of veterans who would normally have done it were unavailable — Sergi Roberto, Pique and Busquets — and Messi doesn’t like doing it. But there are others: Pjanic, de Jong, Jordi Alba, Griezmann. Yet none of them stepped up, and it was left to a 17-year-old kid. At a time when they need leadership, it’s another black eye.
Barcelona are in the bottom half of the table. They’re stuck in a financial straitjacket. Messi’s contract expires in June, and there is no indication what he plans to do. Oh, and they won’t have a president until elections in January. It’s just going from bad to worse.
Ibra stars as Milan keep winning
And so it continues. Milan’s 3-1 win over Napoli sees them stay top in Serie A, and with Zlatan Ibrahimovic scoring two goals — and going off with a muscular injury — he’s the man of the hour. That first goal in particular — a superb header from just inside the box, outfoxing and out-muscling none other than Kalidou Koulibaly — is highlight-reel stuff. We’ll know more about the injury soon, but at the moment it looks as if he’ll be out for 10 days to two weeks. Hardly ideal, but hardly tragic either.
Zlatan dominates everything, as you’d expect, but the interesting aspect is that even relative to the spring and summer, when he was so impressive post-lockdown, we’re seeing a different Ibrahimovic. This side is less dependent on him, which may sound ridiculous — he scored eight of their last 11 goals — but isn’t.
Early 2020 Zlatan was a guy who tried to do everything. He’d drop into midfield, he’d take every set piece, he tried to win games single-handedly. This version is a centerforward, which is what Milan need him to be. He seems to trust the players around him more, possibly because they’ve done more to earn his trust. That matters, because it’s the sort of thing that will extend his shelf life even further.
Meanwhile, with Zlatan out, it’s an opportunity for Milan to work on their Plan B. Whether it’s Rafael Leao or Ante Rebic, Jens Petter Hauge or maybe even the kid, Lorenzo Colombo, this is a chance to glimpse the future in terms of others taking responsibility. It will be different, but it need not be catastrophic.
As for Napoli, the absence of Victor Osimhen weighed heavily. Rino Gattuso complained about a lack of intensity, but that feels sort of like the go-to moan of many managers these days. They hit the woodwork, they looked like they might equalize in the brief spell between Dries Mertens’ goal and Tiemoue Bakayoko’s sending off, and they kept going until the end. This is a deep and gifted Napoli team. Expect them to be in the title hunt until the end.
Arteta’s miserable week at Arsenal
It was not a good week for Mikel Arteta and Arsenal. There was the training ground bust-up between Dani Ceballos and David Luiz. With Thomas Partey already injured, there was Mohamed Elneny testing positive for COVID-19 on international duty. There was Willian taking advantage of the international break traveling to Dubai, despite the UK government’s ban on “non-essential travel” — he said he was there “on business,” only to be pictured on Salt Bae’s Instagram feed. (Perhaps he was diversifying his portfolio into steakhouses?) And then there was a horrendous performance in Sunday’s 0-0 draw against Leeds United, marked by Marcelo Bielsa’s crew hitting the woodwork three times and Nicolas Pepe getting himself foolishly sent off.
Arteta switched to a back four when Arsenal went down to 10 men, dropping Alexandre Lacazette and playing Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang through the middle. Nothing worked and while Pepe’s sending-off will make headlines, the issues run deeper. They appeared entirely unprepared for Leeds, as if they hadn’t seen Bielsa’s football before. You hope it’s a blip and merely a function of the fact that most of the teams they’ll play this season don’t play the way Leeds do.
Zidane struggling to get Madrid firing
Villarreal away was a classic trap game for Real Madrid. Unai Emery’s side hadn’t lost since September and had won four in a row in all competitions; Madrid were coming off the 4-1 thumping against Valencia before the break and were without Casemiro, Sergio Ramos and Karim Benzema, basically their backbone.
With Borja Mayoral now at Roma and Luka Jovic sidelined by COVID-19 (not that he’s much to write home about), Zinedine Zidane opted for Mariano Diaz — remember him? — up front. He would end up playing more minutes (84) than he played in the previous 10 months … which is fine when you’re a promising youngster, less fine if you’re 27 years old.
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Still, Mariano opened the scoring after just two minutes (with a bit of help from the assistant referee, who put his flag up for a nonexistent offside, possibly confusing the Villarreal defenders) and at that stage you figured Madrid could manage the lead. Instead, despite Emery’s crew not pulling up any trees, they were on the back foot most of the rest of the game, eventually conceding an equaliser when goalkeeper Thibaut Courtois (not helped by Raphael Varane daydreaming) pulled down Samuel Chukwueze and Gerard Moreno converted the spot kick.
Beyond that, the only bright spot for Zidane was Dani Carvajal’s return at right-back. Eden Hazard was anonymous, as were most of his attacking midfielders. At this stage, it’s not a question of getting guys fit — at least not in the final third — it’s about getting them to produce. And that has to be on Zidane.
Liverpool rise to the challenge
The old cliche is that the name on the crest on the front of the shirt matters more than the name on the back of it. Jurgen Klopp’s Liverpool proved it in the Sunday night demolition of Leicester. It finished 3-0, but it could have been twice that as they hit the woodwork three times. And please note that Brendan Rodgers’ Leicester were top of the league going into the game.
Ogden: Liverpool remind Premier League why they’re title favorites
Klopp was without Trent Alexander-Arnold, Virgil Van Dijk, Joe Gomez, Thiago Alcantara, Mohamed Salah and Jordan Henderson. That’s more than half his starting XI. (Plus Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain too, for those keeping score at home.)
And yet the replacements played with the same drive, precision and quality as the players they replaced as they turned in arguably their best performance of the season thus far. To do this after an international break, in these circumstances, is simply remarkable. And it’s a big part of the reason why it wouldn’t be surprising if Liverpool repeat as Premier League champions.
A warning sign for Bayern
Bayern Munich boss Hansi Flick was obviously concerned with the potential hangover from Germany’s 6-0 humiliation at the hands of Spain in the Nations League last week, leaving Niklas Sule, Serge Gnabry, Leon Goretzka and Leroy Sane out of his starting XI against Werder Bremen. Perhaps he figured that, even with Corentin Tolisso, Alphonso Davies and Joshua Kimmich injured, he had more than enough at home against Werder Bremen, who have won just twice all season.
In fact, but for some spectacular Manuel Neuer saves, Bayern could easily have lost this game. USMNT striker Josh Sargent and teammates stung them again and again on the counter and Bayern really struggled to get decent service to Robert Lewandowski. It finished 1-1 and Bayern did have late chances, but it’s a warning sign on Flick’s dashboard.
Bayern remain top, but there are three teams within two points behind them.
Ronaldo on song but Juve’s defence shines
Perhaps Cristiano Ronaldo was a bit annoyed with the international break and so he took it out against Cagliari on Saturday. Maybe he hoped that Portugal’s games against France, Croatia and, especially, Andorra would yield him more than a single goal and that he’d be a little bit closer to Ali Daei’s all-time men’s scoring record right now. (He’s at 102; the Iranian is at 109.) Whatever the case, he was in sparkling form, bagging two goals in Juve’s 2-0 win.
Having Ronaldo in such form (he’s scored in every Serie A appearance this season) evidently papers over cracks, but Juve showed definite signs of progress against a Cagliari side that raised the barricades. I’m still not sure Arthur is a viable playmaker in midfield, but Federico Bernardeschi turned in his best performance in a long time, Juve’s possession felt more purposeful than before and, most encouragingly, Matthijs de Ligt crowned his return with a stellar performance at the back.
De Ligt is probably the best fit at centre-back for what manager Andrea Pirlo is trying to do, and with Merih Demiral also looking sharp, Juventus won’t have to worry about the post-Leonardo Bonucci/Giorgio Chiellini era … if they keep this up.
United’s Van de Beek mystery
Ole Gunnar Solskjaer said that Manchester United’s 1-0 victory over West Bromwich Albion was “definitely not a step forward, performance-wise.” Hard to disagree there. In five home games, United have scored one goal from open play: Donny van de Beek’s strike against Crystal Palace.
The Dutchman is a good example of how difficult it is to understand Solskjaer’s approach. Van de Beek has yet to start a Premier League game and even at home against West Brom, Juan Mata gets picked ahead of him. No disrespect to Mata — a class act and a great player — but he’s 33 in April, on an expiring contract and hasn’t scored a league goal in 18 months. Aren’t you supposed to be building toward something?
If Van de Beek (and no, fatigue presumably was not an issue, given he didn’t start for the Dutch in their two Nations League games) can’t get on the pitch against West Brom when Paul Pogba is unavailable, when does he play?
How far can Sociedad go?
It’s seven wins in a row now for Real Sociedad, who beat Cadiz 1-0 on Sunday thanks to Alexander Isak’s header. Imanol’s crew are top of La Liga and you wonder if they can stay there.
Last year, of course, they started brilliantly and dropped off badly toward the end, winning just two of their last 11. This year feels different, in part because the likes of Mikel Oyarzabal, Mikel Merino and Isak look better. And having a veteran like David Silva as your midfield leader/value-added guy, rather than a youngster like Martin Odegaard, can make all the difference when you hit a rough patch.
They’re not favorites, obviously, but it will be telling how much they learned from what happened a year ago.
Haaland overshadows Moukoko debut
Many of us had hyped up Youssoufa Moukoko’s possible debut for Borussia Dortmund and with good reason. Nobody in the history of the Bundesliga had received as much buzz before playing a single minute of senior football. He had to wait until he turned 16 — which he did on Friday — before becoming eligible to play, and the fact that Lucien Favre took him along for the away trip to Hertha Berlin left little doubt we were likely to see him.
Moukoko came on in the 85th minute to become the youngest player ever in the Bundesliga, but the day belonged to the man he replaced: another wunderkind, Erling Haaland, scored four goals, to lead Dortmund to a 5-2 win, leaving them second in the table and a point behind Bayern.
Haaland, who lest we forget only turned 20 in July, was evidently well-rested over the international break, since the Norwegian national team had to self-isolate following a positive COVID-19 test. Haaland now has 15 goals in 12 appearances this season in all competitions and has scored in his last six games.
There’s no rush, Moukoko. No rush at all … Erling’s got this for the foreseeable future.
Inter shrug off sluggishness to beat Torino
Stop me if you’ve heard this before. Antonio Conte lamented his team’s lack of ferocity and intensity after the 4-2 comeback win over Torino. It’s hard to fault him: For just over an hour, as they went 2-0 down, they were virtual spectators against a relegation-threatened, injury-riddled opponent.
But is it really just about intensity? No. That’s just one component and Inter’s problems in the first hour go well beyond that. In the end, they turned it around not because they were suddenly more intense, but because any team in the world has a shot to come back when they have better — far better — players than the opposition. Mistaking those four goals in the last half-hour for a sudden burst of the “ferocity” the manager wants is simply wrong.
Romelu Lukaku put it best when he said “we’re not a great team yet.” The pieces to the puzzle are there. It’s up to Conte to put it together.
Final thought on Christian Eriksen, after Inter executive Beppe Marotta said they’re not going to keep a player who wants to leave: if he does go, it will be a major stain on Conte and how the club operates. Blame, of course, must be shared all around. But Conte knew what he was getting and if he hasn’t figured out how to use him in the past 10 months, that’s largely on him.
Are Chelsea better without Havertz and Pulisic?
Chelsea looked fluent and efficient in their 2-0 win away to Newcastle that leaves them third in the table, two points behind Spurs and Liverpool. Some of it was down to Newcastle being, frankly, awful on the day. Some of it is simply that this Chelsea team looks more efficient without its two most expensive players: Kai Havertz and Christian Pulisic.
Sometimes it’s addition by subtraction. Having a physical, athletic reference point up front opens space for Timo Werner and Hakim Ziyech, as well as Mason Mount running through from midfield. Putting a passer like Mateo Kovacic next to N’Golo Kante allows you to better retain possession. It will be curious to see how manager Frank Lampard handles it when Havertz and Pulisic are available again.
Unless there’s a drop-off in quality elsewhere (like we saw with striker Tammy Abraham last season — though that was also down to fatigue since he was playing virtually nonstop), it’s not immediately clear that they’ll walk back into the starting XI.
Leipzig need more than Poulsen
RB Leipzig missed their chance to draw level with Bayern at the top of the table after being held 1-1 by Eintracht Frankfurt. They went a goal down following an uncharacteristic blunder from defender Dayot Upamecano, who completely misjudged a header. But moments like these lend themselves to dime-store psychology. Upamecano is one of the highest-rated central defenders in the world (rightly, in my opinion), and recent media reports suggest he’ll be moving elsewhere next season, maybe even in January. Is he somehow distracted by the speculation? Or did he just make a major mental error because, well, he’s human?
I lean toward the latter. In any event, while it’s true that Leipzig needed a slick finish from Yussuf Poulsen to equalize, Julian Nagelsmann’s crew probably did enough to win, despite a rough 45 minutes from Alexander Sorloth, who clearly hasn’t yet settled into the side. There’s more to come from this team, but it’s evident somebody other than Poulsen has to step up in attack.