Liverpool, Man City clash; super-sub Messi saves Barcelona; Kimmich injury hurts Bayern

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Liverpool and Man City showed their weaknesses, Arsenal were beaten by Aston Villa, Bayern Munich beat Borussia Dortmund but have an unwelcome injury to contend with, while Barcelona were saved by super-sub Lionel Messi.

It’s Monday, and Gab Marcotti reacts to the biggest moments in the sport of football from the past week.

Jump to: City-Liverpool thoughts | Messi the super sub? | Dybala struggles but Juve have bigger issues | Lazio’s COVID-19 tests | Real’s defensive crisis | Man United’s inconsistency | Kimmich injury hurts Bayern | Spurs a title contender? | A new kind of Atletico | Milan rescued by Ibra | Ziyech brings balance to Chelsea | Don’t sleep on Leicester | Kean thriving at PSG | Conte, Inter misery | Arsenal collapse | Angelino key to Leipzig | Napoli hold on

Man City, Liverpool entertain before running out of steam

Manchester City and Liverpool have defined elite Premier League football over the past couple of seasons and, at least in the first half of Sunday’s encounter, they held true to that legacy.

Missing key pieces at the back and in midfield, Jurgen Klopp unveiled a de facto 4-2-4 formation with the addition of Diogo Jota“>Jota and the move inside of Mohamed Salah. Pep Guardiola countered by welcoming Gabriel Jesus back into the starting lineup, showing faith in Ferran Torres wide and, a few minutes into the game, pushing Kevin De Bruyne forward, almost mirroring Klopp’s set-up.

It was a reminder that part of what makes Klopp and Guardiola the best in the business is that there is a continuous adjustment and evolution to their football. Yes, they have deep-rooted principles, and most of their work centers on getting their players to metabolize their concepts and execute them better and better each week. But within that framework is an ability to improvise and, when necessary, to offer a different look.

That improvisation is what made Sunday’s first half so interesting. Break the game down to the goal-scoring incidents and it was fairly dull and predicated on errors, happenstance and luck. Liverpool converted a penalty after a soft, but clumsy, challenge from Kyle Walker on Sadio Mane. Then City got a penalty for one of those “natural silhouette” handballs.

For what it’s worth, I appreciate that the arm will be away from the body when you’re sprinting. Equally, I felt that by the time the ball hit Joe Gomez, he was slowing down and at this level, you expect a professional athlete to be able to exercise enough body control to pull his arm closer to his body, which, incidentally, is what Gomez was trying to do — it simply didn’t happen quickly enough. Intent is no longer an issue here; players need to adjust.

As for City’s equalizer, part of me likes to think that Gabriel Jesus channelled his inner Romario and pulled off a brilliant turn. But I’ll defer to the likes of Alan Shearer (and my own ESPN colleague, and former striker, Ale Moreno) who assure me there was a big chunk of luck in what he did.

But there’s more to a game than that, and for the first 45 minutes, I found it enthralling with, perhaps, City just shading it. Then came the break and after it, a very obvious and evident drop-off in both tempo and intent. It felt as if both teams figured out that the damage of a defeat outweighed the benefit of a win, especially with fatigue setting in and vitality fading.

Both managers talked about how energy-sapping this congested season is, particularly with no proper training camp, and the madness of the Premier League not allowing five substitutions, as is the case around Europe and in UEFA competitions. (Personally, I’m in favour of five subs — and we’ve been through this before, no, they don’t necessarily favour big clubs — but Guardiola’s actions do rather undermine his argument when you consider that he’s used all his subs just twice in seven league games this season.)

– Dawson: Man City, Liverpool show flaws and fatigue
– Ratings: Gabriel Jesus hits 7/10 for Manchester City
– Ratings: Commanding Henderson 8/10 for Liverpool

I suspect we’ll just need to get used to this: teams are running on fumes already and soft tissue injuries are rife. There is no escaping this. Liverpool fell victim to another one of those injuries as Trent Alexander-Arnold went down in the second half. We’ll know more after his scan — obviously, he’ll miss the International break with England — and while perhaps he hasn’t been as critical to Liverpool’s success this season, any sustained layoff would be a major blow considering the injuries they already have.

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Ale Moreno thinks tired legs had a major impact in Manchester City’s 1-1 draw vs. Liverpool.

Speaking of Liverpool, the 4-2-4 yielded results for a while, and you can see how it might be an easier system for the likes to Takumi Minamino, Divock Origi and Xherdan Shaqiri to rotate into, but a two-man midfield probably isn’t sustainable in the long-term. Jordan Henderson and Georginio Wijnaldum can only bring their energy and stamina for so long, while the likes of Curtis Jones, Thiago Alcantara and Naby Keita have different qualities.

As for City, the table says they’re six points back with a game in hand. It’s not where they want to be, of course, but they’re playing better. Ruben Dias and Aymeric Laporte look like they’re forming a reliable defensive partnership. Jesus’ return is big and, assuming he’s fully fit when he’s back, Sergio Aguero’s will be even bigger. But maybe the biggest boost will come if Raheem Sterling, Bernardo Silva and Phil Foden — three players who, for different reasons, haven’t been on top of their game thus far this season — regain their mojo.

Super-sub Messi saves Barcelona

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Shaka Hislop comments on Lionel Messi coming off the bench to make a huge impact in Barcelona’s 5-2 win over Real Betis.

On Saturday against Betis, Ronald Koeman decided to start Lionel Messi from the bench — whether to ensure his “freshness” or whether because he had a pain in his leg, we don’t know: both versions were put out there in the media — before bringing him on at half-time. Whatever the reason, it was a golden opportunity to conduct a highly unscientific experiment over two halves.

– Ratings: Messi earns 9/10 for saving Barcelona

What we learned against a credible opponent like Betis is that without Messi, others take responsibility. Ousmane Dembele scored a peach of a goal; Pedri was alert and industrious; Ansu Fati his usual probing self. As for Antoine Griezmann, he looked bright and free, no longer having to worry about where Messi’s wanderings had taken him.

The flip side is that defensively Barca were a mess, with goalkeeper Marc-Andre ter Stegen once again needing his superman cape. And while they created plenty of chances, the finishing left a lot to be desired, none more so than when Griezmann fluffed his penalty chance.

Messi came on for Fati, who picked up an injury that may keep him out until February, at the half with the score 1-1. The imperious No. 10 didn’t even need to touch the ball with his first contribution: his brilliant dummy set up Griezmann’s goal that made it 2-1. He added two more goals — one from the spot, the other his first from open play this season — and Barca rolled on to a 5-2 win.

What did we learn? Nothing we didn’t know before. Defensively, this team is still in disarray. If anybody ever cracks the Dembele conundrum, they will have got themselves one heck of a player. Griezmann hasn’t yet found himself. And yeah, they’re a different, more grown-up team with Messi on the pitch. In fact, if he can deliver 45 minutes like this every time he plays, maybe Koeman should consider using him exclusively as a super-sub and extend his career twice as long. (Relax, I’m kidding…)

Dybala struggles but Juve have bigger issues

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Gab Marcotti says Juventus’ approach played right into Lazio’s hands in their 1-1 draw at the Olimpico.

Felipe Caicedo‘s last-ditch equaliser against Juventus is a testament to Lazio‘s grit and self-belief — and also a spot of good fortune and a dollop of bad defending as Joaquin Correa ghosted between two opponents. But, inevitably, there will be a single scapegoat for Juve: Paulo Dybala. He’s the guy who came on for a startled Cristiano Ronaldo with half an hour to go; he’s the guy who did little on the pitch and, most of all, the guy who gave away the ball in the dying seconds before Lazio’s leveller.

Dybala is clearly going through a horrid patch right now and, painful as it may be, Andrea Pirlo is probably right to see if he can play his way out of it. He was arguably Juve’s most important player late last season and his contract is up in June 2022. The club have a big call to make and, rightly, they want to see more before they put pen to paper.

More of a concern for Juve in my opinion is the performance on the pitch. In previous outings, they had looked as if they were trying (without much success) to implement Pirlo’s credo of dominating the ball, dominating the space and dominating territory. Against Lazio though, the build-up was painfully slow and laboured, and they looked more comfortable when they played on the counter. Shades of Juventus from yesteryear.

Maybe it’s a one-off and this is not what Pirlo wanted and in the privacy of the dressing room he read them the riot act. But if that wasn’t the case and this approach was planned? Well, there’s no point talking about growth or a change in philosophy. It ends up looking like an ugly version of Maurizo Sarri’s Juve, which itself was a really ugly version of Max Allegri’s Juve.

What happened with Lazio’s COVID-19 tests?

Meanwhile, Lazio are the subject of two investigations — one by the football authorities, one by law enforcement — for the way their testing was handled. Suspicions arose when a number of their players — including Ciro Immobile and Lucas Leiva — seemed to test positive when subjected to UEFA’s testing at a lab in Rome, showed negative results when tested at Lazio’s lab (which, weirdly wasn’t in Rome, but in Avellino, several hundred miles away) and then tested positive again ahead of their Champions League clash against Zenit St. Petersburg last week.

One explanation posited by Lazio president Claudio Lotito is that UEFA’s tests and their tests have different thresholds for what constitutes a positive test. I’m not a virologist — neither is Lotito, by the way — but it seems evident that this sort of testing has to have a single protocol and single standards. You can’t be positive by one measure and negative by another.

Lazio aren’t helped in this matter by their own team doctor, Ivo Pulcini, who has said in the past that people who test positive for COVID-19 but are asymptomatic aren’t contagious.

Pulcini isn’t a virologist either, incidentally. He’s obviously entitled to his medical opinions, but if he’s going to be a club doctor, his main responsibility is to the rules and protocols governing player safety. And those are pretty clear.

Real Madrid’s defensive crisis

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Ale Moreno points the blame at Raphael Varane after Real Madrid’s 4-1 defeat to Valencia.

If you take the lead and then lose 4-1 to Valencia, a team that had won a single point since September and was nearly entirely gutted by player sales in the summer, you’re bound to suffer criticism. Zinedine Zidane knows that. Hopefully, he also knows that the three penalties conceded — the first time in history that Real Madrid conceded three penalties in a single game — are no excuse, because they were all legit. (In fact, Sergio Ramos‘ handball was so blatant and so needless that if there was such a thing as a two-goal penalty in the Laws of the Game, you’d consider applying it.) Presumably he also knows that the COVID-related absences of Eden Hazard and Casemiro offer no mitigating circumstances.

Much has been made about Zidane’s rotation and his search for an effective attacking scheme, and while some of his choices didn’t pay off (Vinicius was especially poor and Asensio really struggled too), you can only fault him so much for trying things out and for giving Toni Kroos a day off. But what’s really baffling is what happened at the back.

Thibaut Courtois apart, this was as bad a performance from a Madrid back line as we’ve seen in a while. Lucas Vazquez — admittedly not a natural defender — gave away a needless penalty and was regularly beaten. Raphael Varane was guilty of an almighty cluster-mess for his own goal and, more worryingly, was out of position most of the game. Though, to be fair, given that this was one of those matches where Ramos goes walk about, physically and mentally — watch his handball again, it deserves a second mention — it’s hard to know where Varane was supposed to stand.

As for Marcelo, the brutal stat says it all: since Zidane’s return, Real Madrid have lost nine games with Marcelo in the starting XI and zero when he’s not there.

Zidane isn’t going to get out of this jam by changing personnel (other than bringing back Ferland Mendy for Marcelo). He’s going to need to coach his way out, figuring out a way to get his defence to operate like a unit once again.

Man United’s win at Everton doesn’t mask consistency issues

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Gab Marcotti reacts to Solskjaer, Klopp and Guardiola’s argument for 5 substitutions in the Premier League.

A sterling performance from Bruno Fernandes propelled Manchester United to a 3-1 win over Everton and ensured therethere won’t be too much extended falllout from the back-to-back defeats against Arsenal and Istanbul Basaksehir. However, manager Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s seat is still hot and will remain that way because, well, he’s the manager of Manchester United and unless your name is Sir Alexander Chapman Ferguson, it never really cools down.

Also because, frankly, the issue is still the same. United’s performances remain a model of inconsistency. Sometimes they’re impressive. Sometimes they’re awful. Sometimes they win while playing poorly because they have better individuals. Sometimes (actually not often) they drop points while playing well because they’re unlucky. A manager’s job, in part, is to ensure consistency of performance and results and Solskjaer isn’t there yet.

Solskjaer also complained long and hard about the fact that United had to play a lunchtime kickoff away on a Saturday following a Champions League away fixture in Turkey on Wednesday. Klopp echoed those thoughts. Why couldn’t they play Sunday, or at least later in the day on Saturday?

Good points, all, but maybe Solskjaer and Klopp can direct their gripes at Ed Woodward and Mike Gordon respectively. They represent their clubs in the Premier League. The Premier League maximises TV money as best they can. Part of that is putting the biggest draws in time slots that best suit the broadcasters who pay for the rights. After all, they have to deliver ratings to advertisers and sponsors (and their bosses).

I’m sure broadcasters would have no problem switching things around in exchange for a discount on the fees they pay; the question is whether clubs would go along with it. My guess is “no.”

Kimmich injury has Bayern considering options

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Jurgen Klinsmann says Dortmund did enough to at least draw Bayern, they just weren’t clinical in the final third.

I wrote about Bayern’s 3-2 win over Borussia Dortmund here, but one huge post-script to the game is obviously Joshua Kimmich‘s injury.

Early indications are that he will require surgery and miss anywhere from eight to 12 weeks. Other than Robert Lewandowski, Kimmich is as irreplaceable as you get at Bayern and his injury underscores, again, how important the Deadline Day shopping spree was, simply in terms of adding bodies. Bayern can get away with some combination of Leon Goretzka and Corentin Tolisso against most opponents, but neither has Kimmich’s passing and creativity; in some games, that will make all the difference.

– Marcotti: Bayern tested by Dortmund, but cement Bundesliga superiority

Broadly, you’d expect Hansi Flick to consider one of two options. One is shifting David Alaba into midfield. He’s an exceptional passer and played there earlier in his career as well as with the Austria national team. That, however, leaves you short-handed at the back, at least for the time being, with Niklas Sule, Alphonso Davies and Benjamin Pavard all sidelined. The other is finding out what Marc Roca can do. He played the Kimmich role for Espanyol, where he was a bona fide starter over the last two campaigns, but he has played just one minute of Bundesliga football this year.

Tottenham right where they want to be in title race

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Steve Nicol explains why Tottenham still have a ways to go to reach Man City or Liverpool’s level of play.

Don’t look now, but Jose Mourinho’s Tottenham are second in the table, following a 1-0 win over West Brom. It took a late Harry Kane goal — his 150th in the top flight — but Spurs got it done, and they did it against the sort of opponent who didn’t let them play on the counter, but rather packed the box and got physical when it mattered.

This game was more open than the scoreline suggests, and also offered plenty of evidence — despite relatively quiet performances from Gareth Bale and Son Heung-Min — that Tottenham are more multi-dimensional than they’re sometimes given credit for. In this wild, COVID-affected season, being able to ride a couple superstars while staying compact and giving up little at the back (Spurs haven’t lost in the league since opening day) might just be a path to victory. Especially with a sage old head at the helm.

A new kind of Atletico

Atletico Madrid pummelled Cadiz 4-0, which achieves a greater significance when you consider two things. First, their opponents may be newly promoted, but they were also coming off five games without a defeat. Second, Atletico took the game to them, creating chances and dominating possession. Not quite Diego Simeone’s famous “Cholismo” is it?

Maybe it’s as simple as the fact that you can’t play on the counter with this 33-year-old version of Luis Suarez. And if you’re going to commit massive wages to him, you may as well hold the ball and keep guys around him, something Joao Felix and Marcos Llorente (and, after he came on, Angel Correa) did very well.

Whatever the case, they have now scored 17 goals in seven Liga matches. Last year, after seven games they had seven goals. And, in fact, they didn’t actually reach the 17 goal mark until their 17th game of the campaign.

Milan waste a big opportunity vs. Verona

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Gab Marcotti credits Zlatan Ibrahimovic for not dwelling on his penalty miss in Milan’s draw vs. Hellas Verona.

Milan go into the break two points clear at the top of Serie A — which is much better than even the rosiest of projections — but they know it could have been more. It took an injury-time equaliser from Zlatan Ibrahimovic to share the spoils against Verona, and that was after he missed a penalty. (It was his third in a row and it was preceded by the opposing keeper Marco Silverstri, who was exceptional, trolling him before the spot kick.)

Ibrahimovic is a convenient lightning rod in good times and bad, but his presence shouldn’t overshadow the fact that even against an underrated Verona team, Milan had enough weapons to win this game. When they fully wean themselves off Ibrahimovic, they’ll be a much better side. He’ll get to be the cherry on top.

Ziyech brings balance to Chelsea

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Jan Aage Fjortoft feels Chelsea will only be truly successful if Frank Lampard can properly balance the midfield.

Frank Lampard called Chelsea’s 4-1 win over Sheffield United their “best performance of the season.” Certainly, it was their most dominant, beyond the scoreline, and a big chunk of credit has to go to Hakim Ziyech.

Injured in preseason, the former Ajax forward has added quality and unpredictability since his arrival. What does it say that, if this was indeed Chelsea’s “best performance,” it came without Christian Pulisic (injured) and Kai Havertz (quarantined after a positive COVID test)? Probably that, for now at least, this side is simply more balanced without them and with a genuine centre-forward like Tammy Abraham.

Havertz may be the most naturally gifted player on this team, but he’s still a rough diamond who still hasn’t found his ideal position or role on this team. Pulisic shares his best position with Timo Werner and when Ziyech is at this level, he’s pretty much unplayable. It doesn’t mean it will stay this way. You assume Lampard will figure out how to accommodate Havertz and Pulisic once they return, but it’s a reminder that there is no escaping the value of balance and experience.

Leicester, Rodgers keeping pressure on at the top

I have no idea if Leicester City will be top of the Premier League come May (I suspect not), but I know they’re there now, despite a string of injuries (Caglar Soyuncu, Timothy Castagne, Wilfried Ndidi) that forced Brendan Rodgers to play both a teenager (Luke Thomas) and a guy old enough to (nearly) be his dad (Christian Fuchs) in the starting XI against Wolves.

Sunday’s 1-0 victory makes it six wins in a row in all competitions for the Foxes — yes, they have the added burden of the Europa League too — and it’s a testament to Rodgers’ ability. Against Wolves, he won the tactical battle, starving supply to the front men and, after Adama Traore came on in the last half-hour, conjuring up a bespoke treatment to deal with his trademark runs.

Rodgers has made mistakes in the past, mostly off the pitch, but when it comes strictly to coaching, he’s right up there with the best in the Premier League. And if he’s learned from errors of the past, he’ll only get better.

Kean is finding form at PSG

Without Neymar and Kylian Mbappe (and Mauro Icardi too), Paris Saint-Germain rolled to a 3-0 win over injury-weakened Rennes. It was Moise Kean who broke the ice with his fifth goal in five games, before the old head, Angel Di Maria, added another two.

Kean has had a number of false dawns already in his young career. There’s a certain irony to the fact that he appears as if he’s finding the tranquillity and environment to grow and mature as a player at PSG, of all places, a club that so often feels like a tinder box and where, in the media at least, his sporting director (Leonardo) and coach (Thomas Tuchel) appear perpetually at odds.

Conte blames Inter players for more dropped points

This weekend marked two more points dropped for Inter after dominating much of the game, and more annoyance for Antonio Conte afterwards. Commenting on the 1-1 draw with Atalanta, he said he can only give his players so much instruction and that eventually, they need to make the right decisions on the pitch.

Some saw it as Conte throwing his players under the bus (it wouldn’t be the first time). I saw it more as the team making individual errors — both on the attacking end and, certainly, defensively — which lead to wins turning into draws and draws into defeats. Is there such as a thing as overcoaching? Sometimes when you give such continuous, specific instruction some of your players lose the ability to think for themselves.

Arsenal’s approach falls well short vs. Aston Villa

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Steve Nicol lays into Arsenal after their humbling 3-0 defeat to Aston Villa at the Emirates.

Following Arsenal’s 3-0 defeat to Aston Villa, Mikel Arteta said this was the “worst performance” he’s seen all season from the Gunners and that it was “his fault.” I think there’s enough blame to be shared around, but fundamentally, I’m not going to argue.

Most curious, against a team like Dean Smith’s Villa that like to press and counter well, was the decision of playing the same XI we saw against Manchester United, with Thomas Partey and Mohamed Elneny in midfield. As we noted last week, that works well against teams who play a certain way, emphasising possession the way United did (or tried to do) against Arsenal. It works less well when you have to try to play through the opposition press with Partey and Elneny. The game called for extra passers in midfield and Dani Ceballos only came on at half-time (and, possibly, because Partey was injured).

Throw in a lacklustre performance from the front three, some blunders at the back and an impressive performance from the likes of Jack Grealish and Ross Barkley — who were made to look a little too good — and there was no coming back.

Angelino key to Leipzig

RB Leipzig downed Freiburg 3-0 to remain two points behind Bayern at the top of the Bundesliga table. It wasn’t quite as dominant a performance as the scoreline might suggest, but Freiburg are always an awkward opponent. The third goal, however, was as brilliant a free kick as you’re likely to see.

Angelino’s ballistic prowess was a sight to behold, but beyond that, the Spaniard’s importance to Julian Nagelsmann’s crew continues to grow. He’s now up to five goals in all competitions and, when you consider Manchester City’s revolving door at left-back, you wonder if perhaps he might not stick around at the Etihad once this loan ends.

The knock on him was that he’s not a great defender and more of a natural wing-back. Fine. But it’s not as if the likes of Joao Cancelo or Oleksandr Zinchenko (to name but two who have played there for Pep Guardiola) are the second coming of Bobby Moore, either.

Napoli hold on but Gattuso unhappy

Napoli dominated the first 70 minutes of their game against Bologna, with Victor Osimhen and Hirving “Chucky” Lozano stealing the show. It was the classic match where they could have scored three or four by half-time, but ended up hanging on for the win as Bologna wasted a clear-cut opportunity for the equaliser in the dying minutes.

A different coach would praise his team’s performance and talk about how they should have buried their chances. Not Gennaro Gattuso. He was grumpier than usual for the late opportunity conceded. Reality is that this Napoli team isn’t built to shut up shop. If they stick to what they do well however — creating at the attacking end — they’ll go far.