Welcome to 2020! Missed any of the action around Europe this weekend? Have no fear: Gab Marcotti is here to catch you up with all the talking points in the latest Monday Musings.
Jump to: Another wake-up call for Barca | Everton humiliated | Balotelli abused again | Fede Valverde the key for Real | Solskjaer shows spine | Roma’s luck runs out | Son must seize chance for Spurs | Atleti still work in progress | Cup magic in France
Alarm bells should be ringing at Barcelona
Barcelona’s 2-2 away draw to Espanyol ought to be the umpteenth wake-up call for Ernesto Valverde. It’s not just the fact that they failed to beat a team that are dead last in the table and have not won at home in La Liga since last season. It’s the listlessness of their play, the way they only come to life for brief moments and only down to individual quality rather than sustained buildup.
Usually, it’s Lionel Messi; on Saturday it was mostly Luis Suarez and, after coming on, Arturo Vidal. The fact that the Chilean midfielder has started just four league matches all season and still has managed to score more than the rest of the midfielders combined is one of those Camp Nou mysteries. Yes, he’s streaky and at times undisciplined, yet even the latter is overblown to the point that you wonder if a different haircut might lead Valverde to view him differently: His disciplinary record this season is better than that of Frenkie de Jong (who was sent off on Saturday) or Sergio Busquets.
But it’s not as if Valverde is keeping Vidal out of the side because he’s got Xavi and Andres Iniesta running the show. He has de Jong, who is still a work in progress, and Ivan Rakitic, whose limitations are evident. With Arthur sidelined since early December, Carles Alena now on loan at Real Betis, and Busquets not getting any more mobile, you’d think Vidal might squeeze onto the pitch a little more often, particularly because (and this is the real issue) Barca simply create very little. They have scored 46 open-play goals off of an open-play xG of 28.98. Expected goals only tell part of the story, of course, and superstars like Messi tend to outperform xG, but that’s still an enormous gap of the sort you expect to regress over the season.
– Barca ratings: De Jong 4/10 in woeful team effort
Vidal remains the subject of transfer rumours, too, which is doubly disconcerting. Unless they’re planning to bring somebody in this January (and, if so, they’re keeping it uncharacteristically quiet), you simply don’t have enough bodies to let him go. It’s easy to take potshots at Valverde, but it feels increasingly as if he’s bringing it upon himself. And while the focus remains on defensive issues and how Antoine Griezmann hasn’t yet lived up to his billing (or his price tag), the main issue is a midfield that simply doesn’t create enough for the front three. Well, along with Barcelona’s recent addiction that is only deepening: Messi-dependency.
Cup humiliation for Everton
The FA Cup is chock-full of upsets, especially in the third round: That’s a big part of the appeal and mythology of the competition. We’ve had lower-league and non-league sides upsetting higher-ranked opposition and it has been great. But what to make of Liverpool’s 1-0 win over Everton?
Whoever those guys in red were, they’re not the European champions — not as we know them, anyway. A total of zero players who started for Liverpool also started the Champions League final. Adrian had the most league starts (eight) in Sunday’s lineup, but that’s only because he’s the reserve keeper and Alisson was injured earlier this year. James Milner is next up in terms of playing time this season, but his game lasted all of eight minutes before an injury, which leaves Joe Gomez, Adam Lallana and Divock Origi as the most established outfield players. The rest had a grand total of 16 Premier League minutes under their belts this season.
That’s who defeated Everton. A bunch of kids, a couple second-stringers and Takumi Minamino, who was making his club debut. If you want to play the wage-bill game, it’s probably safe to say Liverpool’s XI after Milner went off earned perhaps a tenth as much as their opponents.
For Everton, that’s what you call a psychological blow, the kind that, if not addressed immediately, requires serious therapy. They had started well, created three decent chances and then simply melted away in the second half, like snowflakes on the hood of a warm car. It’s now up to Ancelotti to sort it out and, as I’ve written before, this will be an entirely new challenge.
Mark Ogden on the Gab + Juls podcast suggested that Klopp’s decision to play the kids was consistent with his attitude on the FA Cup, meaning he’s got bigger fish to fry. They have a huge lead in the Premier League, but can still go undefeated (and break the 100-point barrier), and are chasing a repeat in the Champions League. Something’s got to give and maybe he wouldn’t have minded going out in the FA Cup.
But this is even better. He can send the kids out again in the next round, arguing that they earned the right to do so and nobody will bat an eyelid. Or, if the domestic lead remains this big by next month, he can rest guys in the Premier League to keep them fresh for Europe and the FA Cup. The world is his oyster right now.
A final thought for Curtis Jones, whose stunning, curling strike (the finish itself reminded me of this Alessandro Del Piero goal…) gave Liverpool the win. I had never heard the guy speak, but I was struck by his confidence and the fact that postgame he talked about wanting more playing time. It’s not what you often hear from an 18-year-old.
It can mean one of two things. Either he’s a deluded big-head who had best learn some humility in double-quick time. Or he’s cocky in a good way, confident in his ability and willing to do what it takes to give Klopp a selection dilemma.
Racism the topic again in Serie A
Lazio’s 2-1 win away to Brescia ought to be all about Ciro Immobile’s prodigious goal scoring — he’s up to 19 for the season — and whether they can turn Serie A into a three-way title dance. Instead, it was overshadowed by the racist abuse directed at Mario Balotelli by a portion of the Lazio support.
It was encouraging that the referee immediately stopped the game in accordance with the Serie A protocol, making it clear that if it did not cease immediately, the match would be abandoned. But now you need follow-up.
Lazio condemned the abuse, but that can only be a starting point. It would be helpful if they took steps to help identify those responsible. Relations between the club and the main Ultras groups are awful and have been for a long time, which is why Lazio president Claudio Lotito travels with bodyguards, but the fact that it was a minority and not a coordinated action by the Ultras could work to their advantage. Lazio’s Ultras have no interest in having their stand shut down or being banned from away travel. It needs to be made clear to them that they either cooperate or they’ll be watching on TV.
As for Balotelli, kudos for the goal, kudos for speaking out (not everybody is comfortable enough to do so, which means it’s important that those who are, do) and kudos for taking the message to social media. The issue is now quickly becoming more about those who run the game than those who racially abuse, and that’s not a bad thing if you want lasting change.
Fede Valverde the key for Real Madrid
It took Real Madrid a while — and some big Thibaut Courtois saves — to get the better of Getafe on their way to a 3-0 win that was less comfortable than the scoreline suggests. It’s simply further evidence that this is a work in progress, though there are two elements that augur well.
– Real ratings: Varane 9/10 in impressive win
One is that Federico Valverde is arguably Real Madrid’s most important midfielder. His absence was certainly felt in terms of keeping the ball and recirculating it. Not coincidentally, Madrid looked a lot better after he came on, and the good news is that he’s still just 21.
The other is that for all the difficulties Real’s front men encountered on Planet Bordalas, it’s worth reminding ourselves that they’re still without their record summer signing. In other words, they’re nowhere near their ceiling and if Zidane can get Eden Hazard back, with Valverde running the middle of the park, business will pick up very quickly.
Solskjaer shows spine in United’s 0-0 draw
That stat about how Manchester United failed to register a single shot on target against Wolves in Sunday’s FA Cup third-round 0-0 draw — the last time that happened was five years and two managers ago — is somewhat overblown. Marcus Rashford did hit the crossbar and as chances go, it’s a better indicator than some tame long-range effort that is easily collected by the keeper. Yet it doesn’t mean that there’s much to cheer in the Ole Gunnar Solskjaer household. Nemanja Matic showed why he probably shouldn’t be starting three games in seven days (and arguably shouldn’t be starting at all), Tahith Chong showed he’s still green and Juan Mata showed that without the right pieces around him, he can only do so much.
Where does it leave Solskjaer? Those who see him as too much of a “nice guy” will be encouraged by his spat with Robin Van Persie. After the Dutchman criticised him for “smiling too much” after the Arsenal game, he said: “I don’t know Robin and Robin doesn’t know me. He probably doesn’t have the right to criticise my management style and I won’t change.”
Bickering with Van Persie is largely irrelevant to United’s fortunes but for the record, he has every right to criticize Solskjaer’s management style, as does anyone. And no, it doesn’t matter if he “knows” Solskjaer or if Solskjaer knows him.
That said, Solskjaer is right when it comes to management styles. You have to be true to yourself. Some use a stick, some use a carrot. Some rant and rave, some smile away, at least in public. How Solskjaer presents himself to the outside world is nearly entirely irrelevant to United’s plight right now.
Luck goes against AS Roma
When you go unbeaten for nine games, grabbing 22 of a possible 29 points and flying up the table into fourth place, expectations tend to rise. So it’s not surprising that Roma’s 2-0 defeat at home to Torino was a bit of a body blow.
It really shouldn’t be. Luck and moments of brilliance sometimes go against you. Roma created plenty of chances, went a goal down to a wonder goal from Andrea Belotti and then conceded again following one of those handball decisions that continue to flummox observers.
The ball hits Chris Smalling’s arm when it is directly alongside his body, which suggest it shouldn’t be a handball. But his instinctive reaction as the ball hits him is for his arm to shoot out to his side and that carries the ball away from him. Simply put, you can’t do that. This is where, as I see it, a bit more discretion for referees wouldn’t be a bad thing. Unless you believe Smalling is so sneaky and devious that he faked it all to get the ball to safety, there’s no way this handball is intentional.
Spurs need the most out of Son
Win if you can or lose if you must, but whatever happens, you have to avoid a replay. I’d imagine that was Jose Mourinho’s thinking away to Middlesbrough. He put out a strong lineup — the injured Harry Kane was one of the few notable omissions — but had to settle for a 1-1 draw. That means replay, and with an already congested fixture list and a number of players in the “red zone” physically, he needs it like a hole in the head.
While Kane is out, the focus has to be on ensuring Son gets the right service up front. He has played that position before but will inevitably interpret it differently than Kane. Some players thrive when given more responsibility. Others wilt. Time for Son to Carpe Diem.
Atletico still a work in progress
Atletico Madrid’s 2-1 win over Levante was more laboured than it should have been and, again, required some Jan Oblak heroics to secure the three points. The conventional wisdom is that Diego Simeone needs another striker and the Edinson Cavani rumour mill continues unabated, but frankly, I’m unconvinced. With Angel Correa, Joao Felix and Alvaro Morata (plus Diego Costa, who should return as early as next month) you should have enough fire power.
What they need right now is for someone to take Thomas Lemar off their hands (to free up capital) and time for the aforementioned trio to build further chemistry.
And finally… cup magic in France
The best piece of cup magic came not from the FA Cup this past weekend, but rather from across the channel in France. Saint Pierroise, a team from Reunion Island in the Indian Ocean, upset second-division Niort to reach the last 32 of the competition.
It’s one of the quirks of the French Cup to include teams from the country’s overseas territories and the islanders made a 6,000-mile round trip. They are only the second club from an overseas territory to make it this far. I just hope they get drawn against Marseille at home in the next round. Not only would it be a homecoming for Dimitri Payet, who used to play for them, but it might be a big enough story to persuade my boss to send me over there to get some winter sun.