Arsenal claimed a famous victory at Old Trafford, several big clubs (Bayern, Liverpool, Spurs) ground out victories, and Milan continue to be the hottest team in European soccer.
It’s Monday, and Gab Marcotti reacts to the biggest moments in the sport of football from the past week.
Jump to: Arsenal’s masterclass | Bayern rest stars, still win | Liverpool win ugly | Ronaldo boosts Juve | Ibra, Milan keep streak going | Barca not in crisis (yet) | Chelsea still work in progress | Spurs respond to Mourinho | Bad week for Leipzig | PSG, Mbappe calm down and win | Hazard on mark for Real | Dortmund win | Inter’s VAR drama | Man City grind out a win | Felix shining for Atletico
Arsenal put on a masterclass to finally win at Man United
If you want to view football in the most facile and negative way, then Manchester United 0, Arsenal 1 was a dull game between two midtable sides with few chances, and it was decided by a stupid mistake that led to a penalty. In some ways, I guess you’d be right. You’d also be pretty ignorant, because what we saw from Mikel Arteta’s team was a masterclass at playing a certain type of football.
Arteta took Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s diamond (more of this in a bit) and crushed it like a cubic zirconia.
There were standout performances throughout the team — Gabriel at the back, Bukayo Saka out wide, the duo of Thomas Partey and Mohamed Elneny in midfield — but what struck you most was the collective and the way Arsenal pressed at the right times and in the right areas to disrupt United. Arteta wiped the floor with Solskjaer in the tactical battle and, lest we forget, that takes two things: game planning and execution. Even the most brilliant plan — and Arteta has shown he’s a sophisticated thinker in that regard — falls apart if you don’t get buy in. On Sunday it was total, and that’s a credit to his work on the training pitch.
— Report: Man United 0, Arsenal 1
— Arsenal ratings: Partey, Holding both 8/10 in big win
— Man United ratings: Pogba 5/10 as team underperforms
It’s not just about teaching patterns of movement and repeating them endlessly, either. It’s also about recovering players, mentally and physically.
Elneny and Rob Holding both played very well and were critical to Arsenal’s success. This time last year, Elneny was a guy who had been loaned out to Besiktas to get him off the wage bill and was being shopped around Europe. Holding was a guy who hadn’t played a single minute of Premier League football in 2019 to that point. Few would have predicted that they’d be starring at Old Trafford 12 months later, and in the first Arsenal win there in 14 years.
Arsenal are still a work in progress. An Elneny-Partey likely isn’t something we’ll see most weeks, but the fact that Partey can seamlessly team up with Dani Ceballos and/or Granit Xhaka is a plus. Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang was more effective (and more involved) at Old Trafford, but the fact that he’s managed just 10 shots from open play isn’t great when he’s 31, your top goal scorer and you’ve just handed him a massive contract. (For context, Harry Maguire has taken as many shots as he has.)
Alexandre Lacazette is a pressing machine — and did a lot of valuable off-the-ball work at Old Trafford — but he is even more shot-shy than Aubameyang (he has eight). Kieran Tierney has been very effective as a third center-back, but it does feel as if his future is on the left of a back four.
But these are all things that can be worked on. And displays like they put in on Sunday — and, more generally, the way Arteta has worked thus far — suggest that progress will continue on the pitch. (Where you might be a little less confident is in the front office, where massive contracts have been handed out to older players, but that’s an issue for another time.)
As for United, the two most evident scapegoats are going to be (surprise, surprise) Paul Pogba and Solskjaer. Pogba made a bad mistake in conceding the penalty and was poor throughout. He was far from the only United player to turn in a sub-par performance, but because he’s the club’s most visible player and record signing, he’ll carry the can. Again. Which is fair enough: big wage, big responsibility, etc. What’s foolish, though, is the criticism he received for explaining how and why he conceded that penalty on Bellerin.
Pogba faced the cameras, said he cost United the game and, when asked to explain his rash tackle, said that maybe he was a bit “out of breath.” I have no problem whatsoever with footballers owning their mistakes and explaining, technically, where they screwed up. If it’s going to lead to more mockery and criticism though, what will happen is they won’t talk at all or they’ll go back to hiding behind anodyne cliches.
Craig Burley slams Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s tactics in Manchester United’s 1-0 loss to Arsenal.
As for Solskjaer, I don’t think moving to a diamond midfield was necessarily the wrong decision. In fact, going forward, it’s a way of getting more creative players — Bruno Fernandes, Pogba and/or Donny van de Beek — on the pitch. The idea was fine, the execution was awful.
A diamond necessarily means you’ll play narrower. That’s fine if you have attacking fullbacks — less so if one of your fullbacks is Aaron Wan-Bissaka. So you make adjustments. Your front pair offer the width, or the tip of your diamond; players just can’t be static. But the iteration of the diamond seen on Sunday highlighted all the weakness of the system.
Part of it is down to Arteta simply outsmarting him; part of it is a failure to make the necessary adjustments, and make them properly. You learn that working on the system in training. And, alas, training time is something in short supply this season. It doesn’t mean, however, that this system can’t be effective, or that Solskjaer should give up on it.
Bayern Munich’s heavy rotation is working
Jan Aage Fjortoft breaks down Bayern Munich and Borussia Dortmund’s victories ahead of Der Klassiker.
Bayern Munich made four signings in the last 48 hours of the transfer window. Two of them, Bouna Sarr and Eric Maxim Choupo-Moting, started on Saturday against Cologne, while another two, Douglas Costa and Marc Roca, came on as substitutes. Bayern ended up winning 2-1, with Hansi Flick describing the win as “laboured,” but come the spring, the fact that they have the squad depth to eat up minutes and rest starters might well make all the difference for a Treble defence.
The margin of victory is down to the fact that Cologne played really well and that as dominant as Bayern are, you can’t expect to take the pitch without Robert Lewandowski, Kingsley Coman, Leon Goretzka, David Alaba, Lucas Hernandez and Alphonso Davies and not suffer some kind of decline in performance.
This is Bayern’s version of load management and they seem to be doing it to a degree few other top clubs are.
Liverpool must figure out winning style of play without Van Dijk
Steve Nicol admits he had a difficult time watching Liverpool attempting to come back against West Ham.
Jurgen Klopp described Liverpool’s Champions League win over Ajax as “a bit dirty,” and he might categorize their 2-1 win over West Ham on Saturday in the same way. Liverpool were flat, and their two goals came thanks to a soft penalty won by Mohamed Salah and a moment of true genius from Xherdan Shaqiri, of all people, who set up Diogo Jota’s goal. (Yes, the same Shaqiri who played all of nine minutes in 2020 before Saturday).
— Liverpool ratings: Phillips 8/10 in Premier League debut
Rocked to their foundation when they lost Virgil Van Dijk, Liverpool will take any win they can get right now. But at some point, they need to figure out how to play — and play well — without him. They’ve got a long way to go until January, when they can bring in help, and a longer way still until his return.
Juve get boost from Ronaldo as Pirlo figures out his best XI
ESPN FC’s Gab Marcotti breaks down what he’s seen from Juventus so far this season.
Cristiano Ronaldo came back from COVID-19 with two goals off the bench in Juventus’ impressive 4-1 win over Spezia, a win in which also Alvaro Morata found the net and did not have the goal disallowed by VAR for offside. Cue the inevitable “Cristiano saves Juve” knee-jerk takes.
Obviously Ronaldo makes Juve better and he made the difference against Spezia, though that was likely in part down to the fact that Paulo Dybala had a very poor week (not just Sunday, but against Barcelona too). Andrea Pirlo’s side are still taking baby steps, both forwards and backwards, and there were a few bright spots: Morata’s play (offsides aside), Federico Chiesa growing on the flank, Danilo at the back. But there remain two big questions. One is how to solve the lack of creativity in midfield — Arthur and Rodrigo Bentancur are the closest they come to a playmaker, which speaks volumes — and the other is who partners Ronaldo up front.
In Morata, Dybala (when he regains his mojo) and Dejan Kulusevski, Pirlo has three solid options. If he wants to build chemistry, he’ll want to give one of them a run in the side, even if it means making the other two unhappy.
Milan, Ibra continue club’s remarkable unbeaten run
Shaka Hislop cannot believe how Zlatan Ibrahimovic managed to connect with a bicycle kick aged 39 in Serie A.
Zlatan Ibrahimovic set up a goal for Franck Kessie and notched the winner with an ungainly, but effective, overhead kick in Milan’s 2-1 win at Udinese. They’re two points clear at the top of the table and, in fact, have gone 24 games unbeaten in all competitions. Talk about a turnaround.
— Why Ibra is still soccer’s king of acrobatic goals
Ibrahimovic will get the headlines and, rightly, a lot of the praise. But this turnaround has a lot to do with coach Stefano Pioli, too, because he’s doing it with largely the same crew that was there last season. (Milan added four outfield players — Sandro Tonali, Brahim Diaz, Diogo Dalot and Jens Hauge — in the transfer window, but they’ve started just four games between them).
Pioli is working with one of the youngest squads in Europe and has succeeded in getting the best out of Ibrahimovic without making his squad dependent on him. Part of it is a function of putting hungry, high-energy young talent around him; it’s also down to Ibrahimovic achieving a level of maturity where he doesn’t feel as if he needs to do everything, but is happy to work for the team.
Milan haven’t had a run like this since the early 1990s. Given how uncertain and out-of-whack everything is in this congested, COVID-scarred season, you wouldn’t rule them out for the title.
It looks bad, but this isn’t a crisis yet for Barcelona
Ale Moreno feels Lionel Messi is hurting Barcelona by trying to create everything himself.
The numbers say Barcelona have taken two of the past 12 points up for grabs in La Liga and they’re stuck in the bottom half of the table. Given that the 1-1 draw with Alaves came just a few days after the sudden resignation of club president Jose Maria Bartomeu, there’s a temptation to go all Chicken Little and conclude the sky is falling over the Camp Nou.
In fact, it’s time to pump the brakes. And not just because screaming “CRISIS!” ignores the convincing 2-0 win over Juventus, either.
— Barcelona ratings: Griezmann 7/10, Messi 6/10 in draw
The fact is, Barca dominated Alaves and only went a goal down due to a colossal blunder from Neto and Clement Lenglet. They came back, equalized (Antoine Griezmann scored his first goal of the season, which isn’t nothing) and could easily have won this game.
This isn’t to say everything is fine — far from it. This is still a poorly assembled team with a vacuum of leadership in the front office that is paying the price for mistakes made in the past (and present). But there was a reaction to what happened on Monday and, between Juventus and Alaves, it was a positive one. Manager Ronald Koeman lives to fight another day.
Chelsea won, but Lampard must get more out of stars
Craig Burley says Chelsea fans are going to dislike Frank Leboeuf more than him after he criticised the Blues’ win vs. West Ham.
Frank Lampard dialed up a new-look Chelsea for the trip to Burnley and came up with a 3-0 win.
Rather than line up with a deep-lying passer like Jorginho or Mateo Kovacic, he put N’Golo Kante in front of the back four, with Kai Havertz and Mason Mount alongside him in midfield. Hakim Ziyech, who was exceptional, and Timo Werner were out wide (though both cut inside regularly) with Tammy Abraham up front.
Chelsea ratings: Ziyech 9/10, Kante 9/10 in big win
It worked a charm against Burnley and it’s another option for Lampard, but I’m not sure it’s a blueprint for the future. Against sides with more possession, that midfield three might find it tough. Havertz can play as an “eight,” but it also means he operates farther away from goal, which is a shame. And it’s hard to see this system working with anybody other than Kante in there, but Lampard is correct to experiment right now and search for different solutions. Chelsea are very much a work in progress, and it’s not clear how all these pieces are going to fit together.
Tottenham rise to Mourinho’s challenge
Jose Mourinho jibed at Real Madrid fans after Gareth Bale’s winner for Tottenham against Brighton in the Premier League.
Jose Mourinho called out his crew on social media after Thursday’s 1-0 defeat to Royal Antwerp in the Europa League, and they responded with a 2-1 win over Brighton on Sunday. It wasn’t the prettiest win, but in terms of character they responded, just as he had asked them to. Spurs are now second in the table, two points behind Liverpool, and, of course, Gareth Bale came on to grab the winner.
Mourinho’s approach to Bale the rest of the season will be an interesting one. The Welshman is not a “plug-and-play” footballer, not unless you simply put him up front and play strictly on the counter, which is something Mourinho doesn’t want to do as his team tries to evolve. To put him in a position where he can perform at his best, he needs the right pieces around him functioning in the right way and catering to his skills.
While there have been examples (think Zlatan at Inter), Mourinho has rarely catered to individual talents throughout his career, opting to put the collective first. And given Bale is in his 30s, is on loan and is not the most durable player, it won’t be a straightforward decision.
Leipzig’s week goes from bad to worse
Not a good week for Leipzig. On Wednesday, they were spanked 5-0 by Manchester United in the Champions’ League. On Saturday, they fell to Borussia Monchengladbach 1-0, and they lost their place at the top of the Bundesliga.
Julian Nagelsmann’s heavyweight strike force of Alexander Sorloth and Yussuf Poulsen didn’t quite work out and, further back, there were some key absences that weighed heavily. But what probably hurt more was Gladbach’s goal scorer Hannes Wolf, who is actually on loan from … Leipzig. (Some leagues, like the Premier League, have restrictions on loanees facing their parent clubs. The Bundesliga does not.)
Wolf, 21, was a rising star at Salzburg who moved to Leipzig last season (all part of the RB group, of course), but failed to start a single league game under Nagelsmann. So he moved to Gladbach, where he was reunited with Marco Rose, who had given him his debut back in the Salzburg days. Football can be a small world and revenge is a dish best served cold.
PSG get easy win after Mbappe fury
Kylian Mbappe was livid with the officiating at half-time during Paris Saint-Germain’s game away to Nantes. So what did referee Hakim Ben El Hadj do? He didn’t freak out, and he didn’t start waving his cards around; he simply summoned Mbappe and PSG skipper Marquinhos to his dressing room at half-time and they had a chat.
Think of it as being called to the principal’s office. In the end, a bit of common sense and calm helped defuse the situation. PSG went on to win 3-0 and, for once, there were kudos all around for the referee.
Eden Hazard breaks Real scoring drought
in a 4-1 win against a newly promoted side, of course, but if this marks his return to fitness, it’s a huge boost for Zinedine Zidane. Hazard can either play wide in a front three or off Karim Benzema in a front two, without any drop in quality.
— Real ratings: Benzema 9/10, Hazard 8/10
Caution (and his injury record) suggests not getting carried away. But beyond Hazard, Real Madrid have turned in three solid performances in a row. (Don’t let the late comeback against Gladbach fool you: they could and should have scored more and scored earlier.) Zidane’s hot seat is a little bit cooler right now.
Dortmund rest stars and still win ahead of Bayern showdown
With Erling Haaland sitting out — nothing to fret over with “Der Klassiker” against Bayern a week away, apparently it’s a precaution — it was Marco Reus’ turn to lead the line for Borussia Dortmund against Arminia Bielefeld.
Reus is a fine player who has played up front when he was younger, but a bit like when Julian Brandt spelled Haaland, it’s just not the same thing. The movement is different, the emphasis is different and Dortmund, for all their possession, simply lack the incisiveness they have with a real central striker up front.
Lucky for them that against a team like Bielefeld, who are not very good, Mats Hummels was on hand to do double duty. He notched both goals in the 2-0 win, before going off injured. When the opponent’s bus is parked, there’s no substitute for a bit of muscle and presence in the box. Getting an “off-brand” Haaland for precisely these situations ought to be a priority.
Inter frustrated by VAR
Inter were held 2-2 by Parma on Saturday, and while they should have had a penalty when Ivan Perisic was pulled down emphatically in the box (think Harry Maguire on Cesar Azpilicueta) and neither the referee (who was a late substitute) nor the VAR seemed to notice, it can’t excuse the performance. Without Romelu Lukaku, Inter look like a team of individuals. They still create chances, but not via patterns of play. And defensively, getting burned twice by Gervinho — who may still be quick, but is a predictable counter-attacker — is simply not acceptable.
If there is a VAR silver lining, it’s that Nicola Rizzoli, the head of referees, recognized the error and will take action against referee Marco Piccinini, just as he’s taking action against Piero Giacomelli, the official in the Roma vs. Milan game last Monday. Humans make errors, it’s a fact of life. Some humans make more errors than others. Given they’re all professionals, it’s right that those who make fewer errors be rewarded and those who make more errors be sanctioned.
Man City grinding out results
For the first time in Pep Guardiola’s tenure are as Manchester City manager, they’ve failed to score more than one goal in four consecutive league games. Guardiola himself said that nine goals in six games “is not enough” — indeed, only Wolves, Crystal Palace and the four teams at the bottom of the table have scored fewer. Saturday’s winner against Sheffield United came via, of all people, right back Kyle Walker.
— Dawson: Man City fighting to keep Guardiola
It’s almost too easy to point to the absence of Sergio Aguero and Gabriel Jesus. Ferran Torres, who has played wide on the right for most of his career, deputised up front in the last two games, but it’s obviously a crazy ask to expect a 20-year-old to fill Aguero’s shoes. It’s not about talent and physical tools, either; it’s about movement. And, indeed, while City are shooting roughly as much as last season, their xG clearly shows they’re taking worse shots, in part because those intricate passes in the box are enabled (and often finished) by a center-forward.
The good news? Despite all this, they’re grinding out results. If they win their game in hand, they go second in the table, two points behind Liverpool. There’s a long way to go yet and plenty of time to fix things.
Felix hitting stride with Atletico
Having bagged two goals against Salzburg in the Champions League, Joao Felix came back with two more on Saturday in Atletico Madrid’s 3-1 victory at Osasuna. Diego Simeone says he has found consistency to go with the glimpses of sublime talent he showed last year.
Felix is still just 20 years old, and it does feel as if he’s shaking off whatever burden the $150 million price tag might have placed on him last season. You know he can produce in transition, when given space. What’s less clear is whether he can play at the same level in a front two with a guy like Luis Suarez.
Ultimately, the talent is there and the confidence, too. And, like water, when you’ve got both, you usually find a way through.