From Chelsea‘s win over Tottenham to Real Madrid and Atletico Madrid‘s remarkable late comebacks, the European soccer weekend was full of drama. We had redemption for Man United’s Ralf Rangnick, a lucky Liverpool picking up points in the Premier League title race as Manchester City‘s incredible win streak finally came to an end, and we saw Serie A and LaLiga’s both heat up with dropped points by several contenders. And how about Borussia Dortmund, eh?
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It’s Monday, and Gab Marcotti reacts to the biggest moments in the world of football.
Jump to: Chelsea-Spurs lessons | Real Madrid draw | Sloppy, lucky Liverpool | Milan-Juve fallout | Redemption for Rangnick? | De Jong saves Barcelona | Bayern’s new look? | Simeone, Atletico magic | Man City’s streak ends | Verratti isn’t Van Basten | Malen key for Dortmund | Arsenal hurt themselves | Dzeko lifts Inter | Sevilla still in title race | Napoli aren’t finished | And finally…
Conte’s not sending a message at Spurs … and Tuchel searches for a Plan B
Tottenham often lose at Stamford Bridge, so Chelsea’s 2-0 victory isn’t news on its own. In fact, other than Harry Kane‘s disallowed goal, the most interesting takeaways come from the way the two teams set up and what that may (or may not) tell us.
Let’s get Kane’s goal out of the way first, because it incensed Tottenham’s Antonio Conte to the point that he called it “incredible.” Kane gave Thiago Silva a little shove before putting the ball past Kepa Arrizabalaga, which is the sort of foul that might be punished “in Italy … 50-50″ (according to Conte), but not something that gets called in the Premier League.
I think Conte is wrong here, but it basically comes down to whether you believe Kane’s hand caused Silva to go down. If you do, the goal shouldn’t stand. If you don’t — possibly because Kane was just steadying himself in putting on the brakes, and possibly because Thiago knew the cross was a cutback and he was unlikely to get to it, so he let himself fall — then it should stand. More relevant, I think, is Kane raising his arm at all: The cross was behind him; he could easily have used his body to protect the ball as he received it and gotten his shot off.
When Tottenham’s lineup was announced — with a switch to a back four and Sergio Reguilon, Emerson Royal and Lucas Moura all on the bench — some jumped to the conclusion that this was Conte’s way of “sending a message” to sporting director Fabio Paratici and chairman Daniel Levy that his side are weak and it’s time to invest in the team right away. While Conte certainly has a history when it comes to asking his clubs to loosen the purse strings — we’ve seen it at Inter, Chelsea and Juventus, his three previous clubs — this situation is a bit different.
Conte knew what he was getting into when he arrived in north London. He also knows that so much of Spurs’ future is tied to the simple fact of whether Kane stays or goes. That outcome will determine the club’s moves not just in terms of the amount of money to spend, but also the type of players to sign. Plus, Levy isn’t exactly the type to bow to public pressure.
A more plausible explanation is simply that having already played Chelsea twice in the past month with his customary 3-4-2-1 formation, he thought he’d throw Thomas Tuchel a curveball by lining up in a 4-4-2, with, essentially, four central defenders and two wing-backs in midfield. And since neither Sergio Reguilon nor Emerson had lasted 90 minutes in the previous outing against Leicester, he thought he’d give Matt Doherty and Ryan Sessegnon a go.
Conte has done stuff like this before, which makes the notion of wanting to give Tuchel a different look far more believable than some “performative weak lineup “nonsense. In fact, whatever lineup he puts out will, on paper, be weaker than whatever Chelsea offer.
Tuchel, of course, also went with a back four — something we’ve seen in recent outings in part due to the injuries of Reece James and Ben Chilwell. Tactically, it’s an even more radical shift because Malang Sarr and Cesar Azpilicueta (at this stage of his career) are basically central defenders playing wide. It left Chelsea with a fairly conservative back four, Jorginho in front a playmaker, Mason Mount and Mateo Kovacic inside, with Hakim Ziyech and Callum Hudson-Odoi out wide. This was dictated to some extent by injuries — not just the wing-backs, but Andreas Christensen and Trevoh Chalobah, only fit enough for the bench, as well — but was also very much a choice, because he could have inserted Marcos Alonso, not Azpilicueta, as the other wingback and stuck with the 3-4-2-1.
This system however probably suits Romelu Lukaku more as well as many of his attacking players (Ziyech and Hudson-Odoi, but also Christian Pulisic and Timo Werner). You wonder if he’ll be tempted to stick with it as the season progresses: Ziyech, for one, really thrives when he starts from wide areas and comes in, rather than vice-versa.
Real Madrid’s home draw with Elche not as concerning as it may appear
OK, it’s not as concerning first and foremost because Sevilla also drew 2-2 this weekend and missed the chance to make up some ground. But more to the point, Elche managed just two shots on target and scored two goals, while Real Madrid missed a penalty and racked up an xG of 3.39. Even if you’re not into numbers, the dominance and chance creation was more than enough.
Still, they needed the late heroics, and once Karim Benzema (who missed the penalty at the half-hour mark) came off, you would have been forgiven for being a tad worried — particularly as the minutes ticked by and Elche added a second with 15 minutes to go. Yet this is a very resilient Madrid side, one filled with players capable of stepping up when the emotional leader, Benzema, is struck down. Luka Modric‘s penalty and Eder Militao’s injury time header secured the point and softened the blow.
In terms of performance, it was probably better than many games Madrid have won. Football is funny like that.
Liverpool look sloppy, referee looks bad
Janusz Michallik assesses Liverpool’s title chances after winning three valuable points vs. Crystal Palace.
The good news for Jurgen Klopp is that Sunday’s 3-1 win at Crystal Palace cuts Manchester City’s lead in the Premier League to nine points. Throw in Liverpool’s games in hand and the head-to-head — at the Etihad on April 9 — and yes, maybe, just maybe, we’ll still have at title race come April. The not-so-good news is that they were outplayed by Palace for long stretches despite taking an early lead, and two of their goals were a direct result of refereeing errors.
Indeed, take Fabinho‘s penalty and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain‘s goal out of the mix — neither of which, in my opinion, should have stood — and the xG looks 2.17 to 0.78 in Palace’s favor. Only once in the past 11 months has their xG been more than 1.3 goals worse than the opposition. (That was the 2-2 draw with Tottenham.)
And make no mistake about it: Neither goal should have stood. Diogo Jota runs into Vicente Guaita. Referee Kevin Friend may have been far away, but to deem it a penalty after looking at it pitchside is pretty close to grotesque. And Roberto Firmino is clearly interfering by standing in an offside position and going for the header. This ought to have been obvious to the VAR, Craig Pawson, and, if it wasn’t, ought to have been obvious in an on-field review.
It was critical for Jurgen Klopp to get the three points, but in terms of performance, this mini-break can’t come soon enough for Liverpool.
Milan, Juventus deadlock on a horrible pitch
I had to mention the pitch, though it can’t be an excuse. Milan were held to a scoreless draw by Juventus on Sunday: After a lively start, they regressed and offered little as the game wore on. Juve did even less though that seemed by design, given the way Max Allegri was smiling and noting the nine game unbeaten run which has allowed the Bianconeri to creep back up the table.
Milan have an alibi of sorts with fatigue and injuries (Zlatan Ibrahimovic had to come off early as well). Juve seem to be playing to their game plan right now, which is basically two banks of four, Alvaro Morata up front and free-agent-to-be Paulo Dybala asked to “show his worth” (to paraphrase CEO Maurizio Arrivabene).
For Milan, it’s two points dropped and a missed opportunity ahead of the derby. For Juve, it’s a sign of the times: Right now, the mantra is “by any means necessary.”
Rangnick not afraid to roll the dice — or was it just playing the percentages?
Ralf Rangnick may look bookish, but he’s not afraid to take risks — when it’s a calculated risk, at least. United finished the game against West Ham — a match that saw them create very little until the last 15 minutes or so — with Marcus Rashford, Cristiano Ronaldo, Edinson Cavani, Anthony Martial (remember him?) and Bruno Fernandes all on the pitch at the same time. It was Rashford who got the winner in injury time and sure, simply adding forwards at the end of the game is a blunt instrument. Not to mention the fact that if Jarrod Bowen‘s control had been a little better, we might have had an entirely different outcome.
But it was the correct gamble at the correct time. A 0-0 draw would have heightened the negativity around this club, and it would have left them in seventh place … which is exactly where they would have been with a defeat.
Shaka Hislop details Manchester United’s win against West Ham with the late stoppage-time goal from Marcus Rashford.
There’s a time and a place to take risks, and he made the right call here — and that’s before you get to the intangibles of rousing Old Trafford and Rashford’s first goals in back-to-back league games since 2020.
Frenkie De Jong saves Barcelona, but they have a long road ahead
One Spanish pundit said Barcelona looked more like Ronald Koeman’s team than Xavi’s side in Sunday’s 1-0 win over Alaves. That’s a bit unkind. You can see what they’re trying to do and it’s ambitious in keeping with Xavi’s footballing ideas. But equally, when they get stuff done, it’s very much Koeman-esque: ride the stars, take advantage of set pieces and minimise trouble at the back.
The all-important away win came four minutes from time because Jordi Alba dinked the perfect ball to Ferran Torres, who timed his run perfectly and squared it for Frenkie De Jong, who had the awareness and reading of the game to be in the right pace. Fine margins are easier to come by when you’ve got talent.
Craig Burley questions Xavi’s decision to not play Ferran Torres through the middle in Barcelona’s win.
We often talk about the difference between results and performance. Both are important, normally long-term you look more to the latter. In Barca’s case, a top-four finish is paramount for financial reasons and the fact is they’re now a single point behind Atletico Madrid in the chase for fourth (and they play them next at the Camp Nou after the break).
On the pitch though, you’re reminded about how much needs to be improved, particularly in the middle of the park and in wide areas. It’s not about talent, though there’s that, too — it’s about finding the right movements to make all that possession (they had 75 percent against Alaves) meaningful.
Benjamin Pavard and Lucas Hernandez may have won a World Cup playing as full-backs in a back four, but they’re essentially central defenders. So it was interesting to see Julian Nagelsmann try them either side of Niklas Sule in a 3-2-4-1 (or 3-4-2-1) setup, with Leroy Sane operating in central attacking midfield and Kingsley Coman and Serge Gnabry given the freedom of the flanks.
Bayern won 4-1 and could have scored twice as many, but for some questionable finishing and great goalkeeping from Alexander Schwolow (3.80 xG and 30 shots, of which 18 were on target according to StatsBomb, tell their own story). They spent most of the game camped out in the opposition half, so it’s hard to tell just what we learned given the paucity of the opposition.
But Sane through the middle is something worth revisiting, and the back three may be a necessity down the road. Meanwhile, Robert Lewandowski failed to score. These days, that alone is noteworthy in a game like this.
Simeone’s methods may be wearing off, but the magic is still there
Diego Simeone’s Atletico Madrid were 2-0 down at home to Valencia, and he was getting roundly booed by a portion of the Wanda Metropolitano after taking off Joao Felix with just under an hour gone. Defeat would have meant tumbling out of the top four that, for a guy who has only finished in the top three over the past decade, had to hurt. Almost as much as the boos.
Atletico had defended poorly against Valencia’s young guns and, what’s more, Simeone’s tactical tinkering was backfiring badly. They had plenty of the ball and were doing nothing with it. But then Mateus Cunha pulled one back and then, in the 90th minute, Angel Correa popped up to turn in a rebound to make it 2-2. And then, deep in injury time, there was Mario Hermoso, of all people, to score the winner amid pure jubilation at the Wanda.
I’m tempted to point out how dysfunctional Atletico Madrid were, how no team can rely on a wild siege in the final half-hour to get a result, how they’ve lost their defending mojo and gained nothing in terms of attacking mojo. But out of deference for Simeone and what “El Cholo” has achieved, let’s let him and Atletico fans enjoy the win.
This is a team that sometimes defies reality. And yeah, like Cobra Kai, “Cholismo” Never Dies.
Winning streaks end — it’s what they do, and that’s what happened to Man City
Janusz Michallik says Manchester City won’t be worried by dropped points or wasteful finishing vs. Southampton.
It’s a testament to how good Manchester City have looked in taking all 36 of the last 36 league points available before last weekend that, at first glance, a 1-1 draw away to Southampton comes as a shock. After all, Ralph Hasenhuttl’s men had won just twice since the first week in November and they were in that prototypical mid-table comfort zone, the one that suggests — especially before an international break — that it’s OK to take your foot off the gas against the league leaders.
But Hasenhuttl’s teams tend not to do that. On the day, he switched to a back four, focused on clogging spaces and committing men on the break with mile-a-minute speed and intensity. Twenty-seven percent possession tells its own story; then again, if you don’t try to keep the ball when you have it, you don’t need to worry about City’s press.
Southampton’s strategy to stop City wasn’t innovative or revolutionary; it was simply well-executed. Pep Guardiola knows this, and it’s likely why he’s not overly concerned. Not many teams can play like this as well as Southampton and, more importantly, late in the game and throughout the final half-hour, City had the chances to win.
Winning streaks come and go. Performances matter.
Verratti powers PSG, but go easy with the Van Basten comparisons
Paris Saint-Germain swatted away Reims 4-0 this weekend, which isn’t really a surprise. In fact, maybe the surprise is that neither Kylian Mbappe (who started) nor Lionel Messi (who came on for 28 minutes, his first club action of 2022) found the net. Instead, we got to see the first Sergio Ramos goal of his PSG career and Marco Verratti score a stunner, which French newspaper L’Equipe compared to Marco Van Basten’s famous goal against the USSR.
That last bit was clearly over the top, but it serves as a reminder of what Verratti can do when unleashed and in form. When Neymar returns from injury and the “MNM” is reassembled, you suspect the rest of the guys will need to focus on the grunt work, so we may not see this from him again. But knowing it’s a possibility and that he has it in his locker is important down the stretch.
Malen shows up as Dortmund win at Hoffenheim
It’s obviously been a tough campaign for Donyell Malen: big transfer fee after moving from PSV Eindhoven, uncertainty about his role in the attack and the formation and, yeah, some turgid performances. But Malen came through in Saturday’s 3-2 victory against Hoffenheim, setting up Erling Haaland‘s opener, Marco Reus‘ run to make it 2-1 and delivering the cross that David Raum turned into his own net. It helped that Marco Rose’s team was in a more rational 4-3-3 and he was able to link with Raphael Guerreiro behind him. If you’re going to invest resources on players, put them in positions where they can do their job.
Defensively, of course, it was the usual mess, though, at least with Manuel Akanji in there, Dortmund had a bit more mobility. But they still look like a side with an appetite for self-destruction at the back, which just means they need to make their talent count at the other end of the pitch that much more.
Arsenal feel like their own worst enemies
Janusz Michallik feels inexperience and a lack of a goal scorer cost Arsenal in their 0-0 draw with Burnley.
Playing Burnley, bottom of the Premier League and shorn of their star striker, Chris Wood, should have been the perfect tonic. Instead, the Gunners couldn’t get more than a scoreless draw, which leaves them sixth and treading water. They looked lethargic and even Mikel Arteta’s top-heavy 4-1-4-1 formation struggled to make inroads against the usual deep-lying Burnley defence.
Credit Burnley, sure, but it might have been a different story if Arsenal hadn’t been forced to play that 4-1-4-1 out of necessity, with 22-year-old Albert Sambi Lokonga the only viable central midfielder. Mohamed Elneny is on international duty (obviously can’t help that) and Ainsley Maitland-Niles was loaned to Roma (fine). But Thomas Partey? Suspended for two silly yellows in the League Cup (for which he apologized). Granit Xhaka? Also suspended (and at the center of an FA probe into betting and intentional yellow cards).
These are your leaders. Xhaka is a former Arsenal captain, and one who was given a big contract extension at the start of the season. Partey is the man whom many wanted to be the new Arsenal captain. As for the current Arsenal captain? Why, that’s Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang, who hasn’t played in a month after Arteta put him on the naughty step.
Sure, blame Arteta and blame the guys on the pitch. But surely there’s something dysfunctional than runs much deeper.
Dzeko pushes Inter past Venezia in injury time
Sometimes a last-ditch winner means something. And sometimes, it means nothing other than the fact that you get three points. Edin Dzeko scored his first goal in six weeks with a late header to down Venezia 2-1 and extend Inter’s lead at the top. But this was fully deserved and, if anything, it’s a surprise that it didn’t come earlier.
After a going a goal down, Simone Inzaghi threw everything he had at the position — including a triple substitution — and was rewarded. It’s a very Inzaghi style of win: Stay tight, stay relentless, use your bench and wait for something to break your way. And on a day of half-chances and missed opportunities, Inter finally got what they deserved.
If they hang on to win Serie A again this season, games like this one — in which they kept going even when it didn’t look to be their day, on a horrendous pitch to boot — will likely make all the difference.
Don’t be too negative: Sevilla‘s draw shows they’re still alive in title race
Ordinarily, being held at home 2-2 when you’re chasing the league leaders would be cause for consternation. But if you’re of a sunnier disposition, you might appreciate the fight-back Sevilla displayed against Celta Vigo.
Julen Lopetegui made the right changes, Papu Gomez scored a stunner and they even had chances to win it at the end. These guys may be battle-weary and worn, but they’re not about to throw in the towel just yet. And if karma is a thing, the fact that Madrid were held to a draw by Elche the following day was their reward.
Napoli aren’t going away in the Serie A title race
Napoli have had key absences for so long, it’s easy to forget them about them. You certainly wouldn’t have noticed that Kalidou Koulibaly and Andre-Frank Zambo Anguissa weren’t there against Salernitana, or that Victor Osimhen was only fit enough for the bench. Part of that is that Salernitana — as we saw in Napoli’s 4-1 win — aren’t particularly good. But it also may be that this Napoli side are simply streaky.
They took 31 of their first 33 available points, then won just two of the following nine games, and have now rattled off three wins in a row. And they managed to leapfrog Milan into second place. Now they’ll be interested spectators when Milan and Inter square off in the Milan derby on Feb. 6, knowing that they host Inter next.
Whisper it — Neapolitans are notoriously superstitious — but they could be top of the league come Valentine’s Day.
And finally… #BasDostWatch
Bas Dost scored twice for Club Brugge in their 2-2 draw away to Standard Liege. He now has 10 goals in 19 Belgian league appearances and is on pace to score 20 in the league. Overall, he has 12 goals in 26 appearances in all competitions this season.
This concludes the latest instalment of #BasDostWatch.