Another weekend of drama in European soccer brought a crushing defeat for Manchester United at their rivals, Manchester City, but that’s nothing compared to the scenes in Serie A as Milan took down Napoli to seize the league lead and keep the title race buzzing with intensity. There were also statement performances for Real Madrid, Barcelona and Atletico Madrid in LaLiga, some good luck for Liverpool and Juventus, as well as bad fortune/poor performances for Bayern Munich and PSG.
It’s Monday, and Gab Marcotti reacts to the biggest moments in the world of football.
Jump to: Manchester derby lessons | Milan go top of Serie A | Nice beat PSG again | Lucky Liverpool | Bayern woes continues | Camavinga leads Real Madrid | Arsenal into top four | Barca are clicking | Havertz, James shine for Chelsea | How long can Juve’s run last? | Atletico beat Betis, go fourth | And finally…
Man City are in rude health, Man United collapse in second half
If you can separate performance from result, the Manchester derby on Sunday offered a varied landscape.
In the first half, United’s novel 4-2-2-2 formation, with Paul Pogba and Bruno Fernandes through the middle as de facto central forwards, blunted City to some degree and generated a couple of chances in transition. “To some degree” being the operative qualifier here: City still scored twice, took 10 shots on goal and generated an xG of 1.19.
But it was giving United something to work with. Not over the long-term — Ralf Rangnick was forced into this setup because he was missing his three preferred options at center-forward, Cristiano Ronaldo, Edinson Cavani and Mason Greenwood — but in the context of the match, they weren’t getting overrun. This despite (not for the first time) some genuinely abject defending from Aaron Wan-Bissaka and Harry Maguire.
You figured it might get better after the break. You figured Pep Guardiola would try to adjust, sure, but Rangnick might do the same. And maybe we’d have a close game.
City did adjust, sending their central defenders to pick up Bruno and Pogba in deeper areas, denying them the space they enjoyed before the break. Whatever United’s game plan was, we didn’t see it, because they simply stopped pressing, failed to recover the ball with any consistency and did not muster a single shot on goal after half-time.
When Rangnick did make a substitution, it was still 2-1 and yet things seemed to get worse. Jesse Lingard and Marcus Rashford contributed little, settling into the drabness of their teammates rather than lifting them. Riyad Mahrez bagged another two goals, and that was that as City ran out 4-1 winners.
Once again, the United-verse is looking for villains.
Alexis Nunes and Janusz Michallik discuss Manchester United’s devastating loss to Manchester City.
Rangnick is getting less blame than his predecessors in the role, and that’s understandable. He’s an interim manager, he has no real power beyond the tactics (and generally, they haven’t been the problem), he was missing three strikers and half his starting back-four, and you have the distinct impression that the decision-makers at the club don’t listen to him, which may explain why they made zero signings this past January.
So the focus shifts to the players. Not just over quality, but over effort, lack of leadership and the continual drip of leaks from the training ground: who doesn’t like who, who they want as their next manager, how funny it is that Chris Armas sounds like Ted Lasso.
There’s obviously a ton to work on there. Maguire cost a ton of money, wears the armband and is in danger of becoming a punchline of Phil Jones-ian proportions. You either give him the support he needs internally, or you don’t play him. And if he has been getting support and it’s not working? Well, you make a tough decision.
Then there’s Rashford. He’s the homegrown golden boy, a young man who is universally admired for his maturity and intelligence off the pitch, and his willingness to speak out on issues like child poverty as well as address them directly. He should be the face of United; instead, even when three other forwards are out, he can’t get into the starting lineup.
Sure, he was injured early in the season and missing that penalty in the Euro 2020 final was a big psychological blow, but he wasn’t playing at Rashford levels last season either. In fact, he was more productive at 20, 21 years of age than he is now at 24. Getting him back to his levels ought to be a club priority — also because he becomes a free agent in 15 months’ time.
Let’s not forget Ronaldo, either. He missed training on Friday and Saturday with a hip flexor problem, and he wasn’t at the Etihad on Sunday. Some criticised him for not showing up to support his teammates. I have less of a problem with that — not all players get treated equally, he knows his body best and if he feels he can heal better at home, so be it — and more of a problem that, again, United let the story spin out of control. All they had to do is say “Ronaldo has a hip injury, he’s working to recover” and then tell us where he’s recovering, whether that be Manchester, Lisbon, Madeira or Disneyland. They could have left it at that rather than leaving enough room for rumours to be stoked.
There’s plenty more dysfunction here — you could venture into Wan-Bissaka, Victor Lindelof or Scott McTominay territory, but this is enough for now — but the point is that there are issues of harmony and messaging here that need to be fixed, as well as players who need to be nurtured.
United have long operated in the most traditional English manner when it comes to this sort of thing. The manager is the face of the club: we never hear or see the director of football or sporting director or anybody else. But maybe that’s where we ought to be looking for answers, because Rangnick has enough on his plate and his power is dulled anyway by his short-term contract. Never mind job titles — United have a raft of guys in those roles, from Darren Fletcher to Mike Phelan to John Murtough. You’d think some of this would be their job. You’d think somebody would held them to account. Instead, it feels like they’re just counting the days until Rangnick leaves and the next sucker takes the job.
As for City, they made it look easy … again. Kevin De Bruyne and Mahrez took the accolades, but I was hugely impressed by Jack Grealish and Phil Foden. Both have had their issues this year, both were dealt with and reintegrated, and both are now key contributors. And no: while Guardiola no doubt played a big role, it wasn’t entirely down to him. He has people below him, around him and even above him who work on this sort of thing. That’s how you run a successful club.
Milan take three points at Napoli, Serie A gets its third league leader in three days
The stakes were massive at the Stadio Maradona on Sunday night, and both Napoli and Milan were up for it. The difference, as often happens in tight games, is clear-mindedness.
Napoli offered plenty of effort, but not enough lucidity, apart from Victor Osimhen, whose runs gave Milan fits until eventually he too ran out of gas. Milan focused on disciplined pressing, forcing errors and waiting for an opportunity. And when it arrived — Davide Calabria‘s wayward shot/cross popping up for Olivier Giroud to stroke home — they seized it.
It might have been different if Osimhen had been awarded a penalty for contact with Fikayo Tomori, but I thought Milan were worthy winners, on the balance of play, and Stefano Pioli set them up in the right way.
Forgoing a No.10 for a midfield trio of Sandro Tonali, Ismael Bennacer (who was exceptional) and Franck Kessie gave them the necessary platform to withstand Napoli’s quality in the middle of the park. He resisted the temptation to send Zlatan Ibrahimovic (who was returning from injury) in too early, he stuck with Rafael Leao as the “out ball” even when things weren’t clicking, and he believed in defender Pierre Kalulu when others turned their nose up at him.
Inter are two points behind, but they do have the game in hand. Napoli, just three back, aren’t out yet either. Serie A is going down to the wire and for neutrals, it’s a treat.
Nice lean on Thuram Jr, Kluivert Jr to treble over PSG
OK, so now we can safely say that we’ve found Paris Saint-Germain‘s kryptonite: Christophe Galtier. Last season, while coaching Lille, he pipped PSG to the Ligue 1 title. This year, at Nice, he beat them home and away in the league, and he also knocked them out of the French Cup back in January.
Never mind the fact that the winner, courtesy of Andy Delort, came late (the 88th minute). Nice’s 4-4-2 formation outclassed PSG, particularly down the flanks with Justin Kluivert and Khephren Thuram (sons of Patrick and Lilian respectively). Sure, Achraf Hakimi and Kylian Mbappe were unavailable and yes, they’re obviously thinking ahead to the Champions League and Real Madrid. But this was more of what we’ve seen too often: a team that takes the Ligue 1 title for granted and too often mails in performances domestically.
Most disconcerting was Georginio Wijnaldum, who somehow contrived to get just nine touches in the first half. That’s downright hard to do when you’re playing midfield on a team that has the bulk of the possession. Wijnaldum has had a rough time in Paris; it’s hard to believe this is the same guy who was so instrumental for so many years at Anfield.
Liverpool stretched by West Ham, but three points keep them in the title hunt
Jurgen Klopp said it wasn’t Liverpool’s best performance; that was a euphemism. He might have described the 1-0 victory over West Ham as a “dirty win,” to borrow a phrase he used earlier this season. Despite playing without Declan Rice, West Ham created far too many clear-cut chances — the two best fell to Manuel Lanzini and Michail Antonio — for Klopp’s liking. And while Liverpool had their opportunities too, you do wonder whether they’ve lost a bit of the sharpness at the minute. Or, rather, if it’s something they can’t quite wheel out every game.
You can praise them for being determined and tough in the face of adversity and sure, that’s important. But nor have they been consistently dismantling opponents game after game, the way they have done at times in previous seasons. It’s not slowing them down in terms of results — 11 wins in their past 12 across all competitions, 12-for-12 if you count the shootout against Chelsea — but they’ve had to rely on guts and grit more than they’re accustomed to in recent weeks (Norwich, Burnley and Leicester in the Premier League, plus Inter Milan in the Champions League).
There’s no denying the fact that Bayern Munich are going through a rough patch and that the February blues followed them into March, as shown by Saturday’s 1-1 home draw against Bayer Leverkusen. (Last time they played them, they had scored five before half-time.) Folks point a finger at the back three, but I saw more of an issue in midfield where, in the absence of Corentin Tolisso and Leon Goretzka, Julian Nagelsmann has to put square pegs in round holes (the latest being Jamal Musiala).
Still, this was a Bayer Leverkusen side without their top scorer, Patrik Schick, and all it took to befuddle Bayern was to attack via Amine Adli and Mouse Diaby in wide areas and use Florian Wirtz as some sort of withdrawn striker. Wirtz himself had a quiet game, but it was enough to clog the spaces and stop Bayern from creating chances (they actually lost the expected goals battle).
Business will pick up when they get Kimmich help in central midfield, when somebody not named Omar Richards plays down the left and when Manuel Neuer returns between the posts. You wouldn’t ordinarily expect a keeper to have such an impact further up the pitch, but when it’s Neuer and Bayern? That’s a different story. At least that’s what they’re telling themselves.
Camavinga comes of age as Real Madrid extend LaLiga lead
Eduardo Camavinga has basically been a starter since before the pandemic — and that feels like ages ago — so it’s easy to forget he doesn’t even turn 20 until November. So yeah, when you take somebody that young (even a €40m signing) and drop him into a midfield containing Toni Kroos and Luka Modric on the world’s biggest stage, it may well take him a little while to adjust.
Yet the kid showed against Real Sociedad that he belongs. Not just for his stunning equaliser (after Real Sociedad had taken the lead from the penalty spot), but for the maturity and intelligence he showed in replacing the absent Toni Kroos. Another fine goal from Modric immediately after tipped the match Real Madrid’s way and they never looked back, adding two more late to win 4-1 and extend their lead over Sevilla (who were held to a scoreless draw Friday) to eight points with 11 games remaining.
More generally, this was a front-foot Real Madrid: They enjoyed the bulk of possession, pressed high and created chances (while limiting danger at the back; the visitors didn’t have a single shot other than the penalty). It’s exactly what Carlo Ancelotti wants to see ahead of the PSG game on Wednesday, down 1-0 on aggregate heading into their last-16 second leg. They can win on the counter, sure, but they can also take the game to the opposition. That’s a dimension of Madrid we haven’t seen often enough this season, and one we’ll need to see more of if they’re going to succeed in Europe as well.
Arteta vindicated as Arsenal jump into top four
Janusz Michallik is full of praise for Mikel Arteta for how he has turned Arsenal into a team competing for the top-4.
If you were strictly a Mikel Arteta “hater” who insisted on seeing the glass as half-empty — and yeah, I know some Arsenal fans who are like that — you could find fault with some aspects of the team right now even after their 3-2 victory over Watford. The goals were stunning and because they were pretty, you might wonder how much of it is down to patterns of play and chance construction rather than individual quality. And at 3-1 up against a relegation-threatened team, you probably shouldn’t be conceding chances and a late goal to make things nervous.
But this is still a young side, and what we’re seeing is a collective buy-in to what Arteta wants to do. Alexandre Lacazette deserves a big slice of the credit here, too, because he’s playing the center-forward role at the service of the young guns (Martin Odegaard, Gabriel Martinelli and Bukayo Saka) behind him. They’re growing together, which has to be exciting and encouraging. And that won’t change even if they miss out on a top-four spot that, despite the games in hand, remains a possibility.
Barcelona win late and from the penalty spot … but this team is clicking
Stewart Robson and Luis Garcia suggest that Barcelona should be “slightly concerned” by the number of chances Ferran Torres is missing.
If you only watch the highlights, you may get the wrong impression. You might see Barcelona forced to come from behind against little Elche and winning 2-1 thanks to a somewhat contentious handball penalty. (I wouldn’t have given it, for what it’s worth.) But in fact, Barca were dangerous throughout, turning the screws further in a second half that could have seen Ferran Torres bag a hat-trick.
You worry when teams don’t create chances: Barca had plenty, and apart from a few counterattacks in the first half, they looked solid defensively as well. The fact that Xavi has the depth to bring on Ferran Torres and Memphis Depay offers another dimension, but they were in control well before that too.
It’s now four wins — and four performances — on the bounce, and they’re up to third in the table. Just as important, though, are the good vibes the run is generating. Earlier this season, having missed the early chances you could see this team buckle under the pressure and lose its nerve. Not now. They looked confident that the goals would come. Call it the “Xavi Effect.”
Havertz and James shine as Chelsea thump Burnley in second half
It took them a while — it often does against Burnley when they pack the six-yard box — but even though the goals came after the break, Chelsea’s 4-0 win at Turf Moor was fairly comprehensive.
Reece James and Kai Havertz both stood out, too. The former is not a surprise: Despite his injury layoff, he’s been among the best wingbacks in Europe this season. Havertz is more interesting because since his arrival at Stamford Bridge, it has been obvious where he fits in. Havertz is young and, in some ways, raw, but he gives you size, strength and technical ability. Deploying him up front, something Tuchel has done in recent weeks as an alternative to Romelu Lukaku, has given Chelsea plenty of pressing oomph while maintaining a legitimate threat through the middle.
Given the funds Chelsea have committed to Lukaku, I imagine Tuchel will do everything he can to reintegrate him, but Havertz’s emergence does muddy the waters. He too is a long-term asset. You wonder if, in certain games, we might not see the pair together. Havertz is hugely unselfish and Lukaku showed in the past few years that he is more productive in a front two and can also be a consistent assist-man.
Juventus do it their way again, but how much longer can this last?
This weekend’s 1-0 victory — courtesy of an Alvaro Morata goal — made it 14 Serie A games without a defeat for Max Allegri and Juventus. And the gap with the top of the Serie A table narrows again, to seven points. But again, we’re seeing what Sir Alex Ferguson might have called “squeaky bum” performances. Juve hit an early goal and then too many chances to the opposition: until Morata missed the chance to make it 2-0 in injury time, the xG was uncomfortably close.
Sure, there’s half a dozen players missing, including Paulo Dybala, but this is Spezia, a side coming off three straight defeats. And this was at home. Juve haven’t actually beaten anybody by a margin of two goals or more since Feb. 6, when Denis Zakaria and Dusan Vlahovic made their debuts.
I know the ethos of the club is results-driven and it’s all about hanging in there until the end. But it’s one thing to hang in there the way they did in the glory years of Leo Bonucci and Giorgio Chiellini — both of whom were sidelined against Spezia — when they wouldn’t concede a shot, let alone a chance, for entire halves, and quite another to win like this.
Allegri has been riding his luck a little bit: I guess he was due some good fortune. The good news is that he has the quality and the know-how to kick it up a notch. He may need to if Juve are to mount a challenge on the three sides ahead of him or advance in the Champions League.
Atletico Madrid are alive and kicking … and leapfrog Betis in the table
That’s three much-needed wins in a row for Diego Simeone’s Atletico Madrid, and Sunday’s 3-1 victory away to Betis was the most important. It lifted them past Manuel Pellegrini’s side into the top four and, despite a depleted squad, saw them control the game, bar a spell in the first half.
Part of it was Betis simply running out of gas following their Copa del Rey game Thursday night, and part of it was Joao Felix’s early goal. But a big part of it was Atleti playing with confidence on the counter, without the defensive blunders that have marked recent games and with the lightweight front tandem of Joao Felix and Angel Correa offering a continuous threat.
This probably isn’t the Atleti that Simeone had in mind in the summer, but it’s somewhat closer to what Atletico was and may yet need to be to hang on to the top four. With Rodrigo De Paul shining in the middle of the park, you almost don’t notice that Koke has been out since Feb. 19. And we even saw Antoine Griezmann pop up late to set up Thomas Lemar‘s goal: he hasn’t started since 2021, but he might come in handy down the stretch too. Maybe “El Cholo” can end this campaign on a high after all.
And finally… #BasDostWatch
Bas Dost scored for Bruges in their 5-0 win away to Seraing. He now has 12 goals in 23 Belgian league appearances and is on pace to score 19 in the league. Overall, he has 14 goals in 32 appearances in all competitions this season.
This concludes this instalment of #BasDostWatch.