Where to begin after another big weekend in soccer. Arsenal humbled Spurs in the North London Derby, Real Madrid kept the pressure on Atletico Madrid in La Liga, Inter Milan took another big step towards the Series title in Italy, and Bayern Munich got a little bit of breathing room (thanks to Robert Lewandowski) over their rivals in the Bundesliga. There were also talking points galore around Chelsea, Man United, Cristiano Ronaldo‘s future (Juventus or somewhere else?) and PSG’s slimming hopes of defending their Ligue 1 title.
It’s Monday, and Gab Marcotti reacts to the biggest moments in the world of football from the past week.
Jump to: Arteta’s ‘triple win’ | Real’s late, late win | Greenwood, Shaw impress | Ronaldo to leave Juve? | Tuchel’s work at Chelsea | Inter inching to Serie A title | Lewandowski leads Bayern | Man City rotate, keep winning | Atletico held 0-0 | PSG’s title grip slips | Bellingham stars for Dortmund | Napoli beat Milan | Leipzig draw
Three wins in one for Mikel Arteta: great Arsenal performance, great result, Aubameyang
At this stage of the Premier League season, with 9-10 games remaining, performance has to matter more than results for Arsenal and Mikel Arteta. They’re 10th in the table, 10 points outside the top four. Even a spot in the Europa League for finishing fifth is five points away and, what’s more, there are four clubs they’d need to leapfrog. So the aim has to be to grow, get to know your players better, define the chemistry you want and chase the one trophy you can still win: the Europa League itself.
That said, Arteta got both a result and a performance in the North London Derby against Tottenham. Call it a “Double Win,” which becomes a “Triple Win” when you consider the benching of Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang for a “disciplinary matter,” later widely reported to be showing up late to a team meeting on matchday. That matters too.
It’s not so much the substance of what Arteta did, either. It’s a nice idea to think that all players are treated equal and if you break team rules, you pay the price but, in practice, no manager — heck, no boss or leader of men — consistently acts that way. Stars are treated differently and (often) rightly so, because doing things like this to make a point can end up hurting the entire team. If you do decide to crack down — and evidently, Arteta thought the time was ripe — you have to make sure it doesn’t blow up in your face, which is what could have happened if Arsenal had not won, or if Aubameyang had come on and scored and maybe had a go at his manager.
Disciplining Aubameyang — he’s not just Arsenal’s highest-paid player and last season’s top goalscorer, but also his captain — was a huge call in the moment, and the way it panned out only strengthens him. This matters because viewed from the outside, you wondered if Arteta was a bit of a “soft touch” not just in terms of some of his players, but some of the club’s odd transfers as well. This was a statement.
In terms of performance, Arsenal again shuffled the deck and got top-drawer performances from Kieran Tierney and Emile Smith-Rowe in particular. They dominated Tottenham who, improbable as it sounds, managed just one shot for the first 70 minutes of the game… and that shot happened to be Erik Lamela‘s “rabona” goal. That’s partly down to Tottenham’s deficiencies, and partly down to the way Arsenal kept winning back possession and controlled the middle of the park.
Losing Heung-Min Son to injury in the first half was a blow to Jose Mourinho, but as he himself conceded, it can’t alone justify a stinker of a first half. Indeed, Spurs only came alive at the end once they were down to 10 men (after two quick yellow cards for Lamela) and chasing the game. Too little, too late.
Former Tottenham striker Jurgen Klinsmann is disappointed by Spurs’ lacklustre display vs. Arsenal.
Post-match, Mourinho pointed out the big decision that went against his team, when Davinson Sanchez‘s leg collided with Alexandre Lacazette‘s after the Frenchman whiffed on his shot and referee Michael Oliver awarded a penalty, which Lacazette himself converted. It’s not hard to see why Mourinho was annoyed: there’s a case to be made that Sanchez was going to block the shot and only made contact because Lacazette missed the ball entirely.
Two points to be made here. One is that it’s entirely irrelevant whether Lacazette had a chance to get his shot off or not: it’s not as if a forward can’t be fouled after he takes a shot.
The other is that the Video Assistant Referee, Paul Tierney, did not intervene, presumably because it wasn’t a clear and obvious error. There’s no question that there was contact and if the referee, Oliver, felt he saw it clearly, then it becomes a judgement call and not an error. What we don’t know is exactly what Oliver saw or what he told Tierney — chalk it up as another example where releasing the conversations between VAR and referee would add transparency to the game.
Certainly, if Tierney had asked him to take another look and then Oliver stuck by his decision, few would have had a problem with it. I know I wouldn’t. It’s the classic call that can go either way and is down to a referee’s interpretation, but is easier to accept when you’re sure he has all the facts and all the angles.
Ramos and Hazard are back, but Real Madrid leave it late (again)
Gab Marcotti and Julien Laurens react to Real Madrid’s last-minute win against Elche.
Against relegation-threatened Elche, you got the distinct impression that Zinedine Zidane expected little more than a training match. He played a back three to get Sergio Ramos (returning after a two-month absence) in a back three and allowed him a run-out without overly exerting himself, he gave Toni Kroos and Luka Modric a rest, and we even got to see Eden Hazard for the last 15 minutes (he’d been out since January, though it appears he’s headed to the doctor again after a setback on Monday).
The result was somewhat predictable. Real Madrid created little, failed to capitalise and went a goal down at the hour-mark before Zidane brought on the cavalry in the form of Modric and Kroos. And just as predictably, Karim Benzema bailed them out, scoring the equaliser and then the injury-time winner. (By the way, Benzema passed the legendary Alfredo Di Stefano to become the third leading goalscorer in the club’s history with 269. Only Raul, with 324, and Cristiano Ronaldo, with 450, are ahead of him.)
The dramatic 2-1 win leaves Real Madrid six points behind Atletico but, more importantly, it leaves them where we left them: a team that is hugely dependent on a clutch of players (Thibaut Courtois, Casemiro, Benzea, Modric and Kroos) and that struggles to score. Will Sergio Ramos and Hazard change that? Real Madrid’s season rather depends on an affirmative answer.
Greenwood offers glimpse of what’s to come for Man United
Mark Ogden joins Gab and Juls to debate whether Ole Gunnar Solskjaer can lead Man United back to the top.
If your glass is permanently half-empty, then beyond the result, there’s little to cheer in Manchester United‘s 1-0 win over West Ham. It was a dull game, Marcus Rashford missed a sitter, West Ham had a late chance and the only score came courtesy of a gifted own goal. Yeah, Man United stay second, but only through inertia.
– Dawson: Man United kick off huge week with win
– Fine-tuning, not revolution: Why Man United hired a Director of Football
– Solskjaer: Pogba could return for Europa League tie vs. Milan
Or you could look at it as United playing without Paul Pogba, Anthony Martial and Edinson Cavani, and beating a side that are fifth in the table and had won three of four games prior to Sunday, with their only defeat coming against Manchester City.
The fact is, United’s season is what it is. Judge it by playing style and results, and there’s moderate progress overall — evolution, not revolution, as my colleague Mark Ogden calls it.
Judge it by the growth of individual players, and there’s a bit more to cheer. Luke Shaw and Mason Greenwood are two examples of this. Shaw is a reclamation process after years of injuries and issues with previous managers (one in particular). Greenwood, lest we forget, doesn’t turn 20 until October and has already made 90 appearances for the club. (And, no, his supposed lack of goals isn’t much of an issue to me given he’s played out wide for much of the year and scored 17 last season.)
These are marginal gains, but it’s important, I think, not to lose sight of them. At some point, the next step as I see it is to give Greenwood a run up front, maybe in a front two.
Ronaldo’s perfect hat-trick answers critics, but speculation over his future won’t go away
Gab Marcotti dismisses Cristiano Ronaldo rejoining Real Madrid, but says he could help Manchester United.
Cristiano Ronaldo notched a perfect hat-trick (left foot, right foot, header) as Juventus romped past Cagliari 3-1 Sunday, a perfect riposte to the criticism he received against Porto. Yes, he had one of his worst games in recent memory and Juventus went out of the Champions League, but then his team were abjectly bad for the entire first leg and the first half of the second leg — when that happens, it’s not all down to one guy.
Talk of whether Juventus would be better off without him (and his $60m-plus annual salary) may well have rankled him, and when he collided with Cagliari keeper Alessio Cragno going for the ball, you wondered for a minute if he’d lost control. It was the sort of challenge that could easily have been a red card and was exceedingly dangerous. Ronaldo was likely spared a sending off (he received a caution instead) because he appeared to pull out at the last second, blunting the force of the blow, immediately apologising. Cragno himself seemed fine after. But, in fact, he put on a master class taking his Serie A total to 23 goals, well on track to pass last year’s total of 31.
After the game, Juve sporting director Fabio Paratici reiterated that the club had no plans to shift him, but those remarks won’t stop speculation. Part of the issue here is folks conflating the exit against Porto with the season he’s having and Juve’s broader situation. He’s having a tremendous season (regardless of age) and Juve’s financial situation is poor, exacerbated by the pandemic. Other than the fact that they’ll earn a little less from the Champions League because of the exit, the latter two factors have zero to do with his performance against Porto, which was a one-off.
That doesn’t mean it isn’t legitimate to ask the question: would Juventus be better off letting him go in the summer, making some money back and investing the enormous savings on younger players? Especially if they’re not going to extend his contract, which expires in 2022, which means they’ll lose him for free anyway.
My sense is that, first and foremost, it’s Cristiano’s decision and every indication is that he has no plans to move on. He’s playing his best football under Andrea Pirlo, and free agency in 2022 isn’t necessarily a bad thing (on the contrary). From Juve’s perspective, it makes little sense to usher him out the door. His wages mean the market for him is hugely limited (aside, perhaps from Manchester United in a sort of Edinson Cavani-upgrade role) and not only is he producing on the pitch, he’s also an ideal role model for the youngsters they’re assembling.
It’s best to wait and revisit this in twelve months’ time.
The Tuchel era at Chelsea after 10 games: less in attack, a lot more in defense
Janusz Michallik says Thomas Tuchel will have to address Chelsea’s goal scoring problem in the summer.
One of the remarkable things about Thomas Tuchel’s stint at Chelsea is that only one opposing player (Southampton‘s Takumi Minamino, for those who like their trivia) has scored against them. The only other goal they’ve conceded was this own goal by Antonio Rudiger. Tuchel was credited for settling down Paris Saint-Germain‘s defence when he arrived, but the fewest goals they conceded with him at the helm was 0.58 in the half-season before he was sacked in December. And that was at PSG, whose resources dwarf the opposition domestically — certainly more so than Chelsea. Prior to that, his teams had never conceded less than a goal a game on average.
It’s true that some of it may be down to scheduling: Chelsea haven’t played Manchester City in that run, but they have played Liverpool, Manchester United, Tottenham and Everton, all of whom are in the top eight. And he’s done it while alternating wingbacks (we even got to see Christian Pulisic there on Saturday) and central midfielders, while restoring guys like Antonio Rudiger and Marcos Alonso, who played little under his predecessor, Frank Lampard.
The flip side is that Chelsea are scoring less — 1.1 goals per game, compared to 1.73 with Lampard — and, for what it’s worth, the xG numbers also reflect this, both in attack and defence: the former are down a little, the latter are down a lot.
Is this a reason to worry? Not right now. Settling a defence is easier than sorting out an attack. In Chelsea’s case, they have so many weapons that he’d be foolish not to give everyone a shot, though when you do that, you lose chemistry. Kai Havertz was up this weekend against Leeds, he could have scored (but didn’t) and, obviously, when he plays it’s entirely different than when Timo Werner or Olivier Giroud or Tammy Abraham lead the line.
It feels as if his brief is two-fold: get Chelsea into the top four and figure out what sort of team you want out there next season. The stingy defence and low-scoring attack we’re seeing is a by-product of this. A temporary one, Chelsea hope.
Martinez comes up big for Inter, but you know Conte isn’t relaxing yet
Gab Marcotti says Lautaro Martinez is a player who must stay healthy for Inter Milan to win the Scudetto.
Inter’s 2-1 win over Torino on Sunday, coupled with Milan’s defeat at Napoli, means their lead at the top of Serie A stretches to nine points with 11 games to go. Yet it’s still too early to crown them champions, if only for the fact that you can be sure manager Antonio Conte isn’t ready to do it.
Knowing Conte a little, I can assure you he looks at this weekend’s game and realises that, despite a bright start, Inter were heading towards a 1-1 draw before Lautaro Martinez‘s magisterial header. If you’re a manager — especially if you’re Conte — you know you can’t rely on moments of individual brilliance to win games. If they happen, they’re a bonus and one you’ll happily take, but it’s not your game plan. And if anything, you can bet he’s using that Torino game as a wake-up call.
Lewandowski could have scored five as Bayern power past Werder Bremen
Janusz Michallik questions whether Robert Lewandowski will break Gerd Müller’s record of 40 goals in a season.
They don’t keep accurate historical statistics on the number of times you hit the woodwork (at least as far as I know). Heck, they don’t even count as shots on target for the stat-heads. But anybody who has played, at any level, knows full well how close he came to scoring five goals for Bayern against Werder Bremen as he scored once and hit the woodwork and incredible four times in a 3-1 win.
The shot that did go on in marked his 268th goal, putting him into second place in the all-time Bundesliga scoring table, level with the legendary Klaus Fischer. Of course, it’s taken him just 345 league games to reach that mark, whereas Fischer did it in 535.
Gerd Muller still has a 97-goal lead in first place and with Lewandowski turning 33 in the summer, the all-time record is probably out of reach. What’s entirely in reach, though, is the single-season mark set by (who else?) Muller in 1971-72. Lewandowski needs eight goals to equal it and there are nine games left; but for the woodwork, he would have been a heck of a lot closer after this weekend.
Overall, there were plenty of encouraging signs for Bayern in their victory. Lucas Hernandez slotted nicely into the back line, Jerome Boateng looked solid and Thomas Muller served up two assists, reminding us just why he’s so critical to this team.
Man City are now in “load management” territory as Aguero ponders next steps
Frank Leboeuf calls Manchester City the ultimate machine after their dominant second half vs. Fulham.
Manchester City’s 3-0 win at Fulham wasn’t one of their sterling, dominant performances, but then, it didn’t need to be. They’ve won every single game they’ve played in the past three months, bar one. We’ve entered “load management” territory, where Pep Guardiola can rotate and experiment and pace his squad in their pursuit of the Quadruple (Premier League, FA Cup, Carabao Cup and Champions League), which is still very much alive.
That’s why, against an in-form Fulham, Ilkay Gundogan, Phil Foden, Riyad Mahrez and Kevin De Bruyne were left on the bench, while Raheem Sterling was left at home. Guardiola no doubt has a Best XI in his head, but he’s trying to make it a Best XV or even a Best XX from which he can pick 11 guys based on fitness, fatigue levels and the level of opposition. It’s a luxury, but it’s one City have earned this season.
City’s third goal was a penalty scored by Sergio Aguero, who hadn’t scored a Premier League goal in nearly 14 months. He has obviously had his injuries, but equally, with his contract expiring in the summer (and no indication that he’ll get a new one), you wonder how that has impacted on his playing time. Aguero turns 33 in June; if clubs believe he’s fit, he should have no shortage of offers. It’s worth remembering after all that in the first six months of last season, he scored 21 goals in 23 appearances for City in all competitions. That wasn’t that long ago…
Atletico Madrid frustrated by “old-school” Getafe
Alejandro Moreno says results that had been just enough for Atletico Madrid are not enough now after a draw with Getafe.
It’s easy to lampoon Getafe as some kind of off-brand “Diego Simeone 1.0” anti-football experiment on steroids. Easy, but not entirely inaccurate. Atletico Madrid needed a win against the side that everybody loves to hate and hates to play against. They could have out-worked them and ground out a result, but they chose to try and out-play them.
It worked… to a point. Luis Suarez hit the woodwork, Atletico created more chances (as usually happens against teams coached by Javier Bordalas), though mostly after Allan Nyom was sent off and David Soria did his Jan Oblak impression in the Getafe goal, making at least two huge saves.
On paper, this is a match Atletico should have won, but Getafe don’t play on paper and for a side like Atletico, this was always going to be an awkward match-up. The 0-0 draw shrinks Atletico’s lead by two points over Real Madrid as we wait for Barcelona to play on Monday night. Hey, if it was going to be easy, it wouldn’t be Atletico…
PSG’s night to forget can’t become a habit with big games on the horizon
Julien Laurens recaps a terrible night for Angel Di Maria and Marquinhos, who were robbed during PSG-Nantes.
Because top-of-the-table Lille were held to a scoreless draw by Monaco this weekend, the fact that PSG were horrendous in their home defeat to Nantes means the damage to their Ligue 1 title defense is somewhat limited.
Mauricio Pochettino’s side are three points back now rather than two and the fact that Lyon also drew means they’re still second. But that’s where the good news ends. Two major blunders — one a shocking blind back-pass by Kylian Mbappe (yes, you read that right) — condemned them to a 2-1 defeat against Nantes, a side that had won just one game in the previous four months. (Ironically, they’re managed by former PSG boss, Antoine Kombouare).
This is where the margin for error in Ligue 1 becomes wafer-thin given that their next two games are head-to-heads: away against Lyon and home to Lille. It’s 180 minutes to turn the season around and restore normal service to the French title race.
Bellingham shines again as Dortmund remain in hunt for top-four finish
Don’t let the fact that, against Hertha Berlin, Borussia Dortmund‘s goals consisted of a second half mega-blunder from the keeper (on a shot from a different zip code) and a garbage-time strike by 16-year-old sensation, Youssoufa Moukoko. Dortmund dominated this game and could have been up by several goals earlier.
The guy who made it all click? Jude Bellingham, who is just 17 years of age and who put on a similar master-class against Sevilla in the Champions League a few days earlier. It’s not often that we see players this young make the grade at a top club, and when it happens, it’s usually up front or out wide though rarely in the middle of the park, where personality and tactical nous matter as much as skill and athleticism.
Loss in Naples leaves Milan’s title hopes hanging by a thread
The ESPN FC guys explain the title implications AC Milan’s 1-0 loss vs. Napoli will have on the title race.
“Next Man Up” is a nice slogan, but it can only work so many times. A Milan side exhausted by a late return from the Europa League, missing three of their starting back four (and the fourth, Theo Hernandez, just coming back from injury), as well as their best midfielder (Ismael Bennacer) and some guy named Zlatan up front was always going to struggle against a gifted team like Napoli.
When you’re running on fumes and low on chemistry, you tend to concede more, off-setting the fact that Milan tried to play open football and be positive. Napoli badly needed the points to keep their top four hopes alive and made their superior individual quality count, winning 1-0.
Is the “scudetto” race over? Not just yet, but it obviously got a whole heck of a lot harder for Milan. If they knock out Manchester United on Thursday, they’d be right to prioritise the Europa League, albeit with caution because if Napoli win their game in hand, Milan’s lead over fourth place goes down to just three points. That’s how tight Serie A’s top four race is this year.
RB Leipzig slip four points back of Bundesliga leaders Bayern
In some ways, the best news of the weekend for Bayern Munich came on Sunday, with Leipzig’s 1-1 draw against Eintracht Frankfurt. The gap between first and second is now four points, which means that Bayern can even afford to lose the head-to-head on April 3 with Julian Nagelsmann’s men and stay in front.
It wasn’t a bad performance. Emil Forsberg got the goal and they created plenty of chances against an opponent who, lest we forget, are fourth in the table. Maybe the difference between them and Bayern is that, when Bayern play well, they rarely drop points.