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: Real win Supercopa | Spurs fall flat vs. Liverpool | Juve hang on vs. Roma | Putting Aguero’s goals in context | Mata stands out for Man United | Barca’s awful week | Baby steps for Arteta | Inter lucky vs. Atalanta | PSG vs. Monaco thriller | Hudson-Odoi returns to action | Ibra gives Milan a boost | Are Lazio legit?
Real survive Atleti challenge to win Supercopa
The Spanish Supercopa final saw Atletico Madrid shed whatever Diego Simeone 2.0 pretensions they may have had this season to turn in the sort of retro performance that harked back to the early days of their enigmatic coach. They sat deep, they were gritty, they were tough and they blunted a Real Madrid side already short of attacking oomph (Karim Benzema, Gareth Bale and Eden Hazard were all out), who then proceeded to add a midfielder and leave the fresh legs of Vinicius and Rodrygo on the bench.
To be fair to Atletico, it’s not as if Simeone set out to simply destroy — he did bring on Vitolo for Hector Herrera before the hour mark — it’s just that it’s a DNA thing, especially in finals. As for Zinedine Zidane, hindsight suggests a pacy alternative in the front three might have made sense, especially with Luka Jovic up front, but, heck, it’s a final and you end up deferring to the man who has now won nine of nine.
It was close, though. Real didn’t create much and when they did, Jan Oblak showed just why he’s so special. Atleti hit the post and, in the dying minutes of extra time, had that Alvaro Morata breakaway that ended with a most cynical of open-field take-downs by Federico Valverde. Ugly? Sure. Necessary? Yup. Dirty? Not really: he didn’t set out to injure. It was what you used to call a “professional foul” and most would have done the same with a trophy on the line. To his credit, the Uruguayan midfielder took it on the chin.
In the end, Real Madrid outlasted Atletico on penalties to win their first trophy of the season. They remain an unknown quantity, with Zidane mixing and matching personnel and formations. But they’re top of the league, they’ll be a different team when the front men return and, above all, they very obviously know how to win.
Tottenham fall flat vs. Liverpool
When I saw Tottenham’s lineup against Liverpool on Saturday evening, I told myself: “Hey, maybe Mourinho has something up his sleeve!”
In Christian Eriksen and Harry Winks he had two excellent passers in the middle of the park (Eric Dier was rooted to the bench), Serge Aurier was free to ramp down the flank and there were two quick strikers with a knack for finding space. I imagined possession, control, balls in behind, breaking the press. Instead, they hardly saw the ball, relying on long passes and falling victim to Liverpool’s vicious press, supercharged by the fact that most of Jurgen Klopp’s had not played in nine days.
Yes, Mourinho has a zillion mitigating factors he can cite, from injuries to contractual snafus, but it was still surprising to see a game-plan fall this flat. The fact that they created the odd opportunity at the other end — Son Heung-Min’s miss was particularly egregious — doesn’t change any of this. If he’s going to build something, it won’t happen for a while. He doesn’t have the tools and, for now anyway, doesn’t appear to have the interest either.
As for Liverpool, the 1-0 win means they’ve taken 61 of a possible 63 points this season and unless you’ve been living under a rock, you probably know by now that no club in Europe’s Big Five leagues has ever done better. Chuck whatever superlatives you like at Klopp and his crew, for they deserve them all.
My colleague Dale Johnson published the Premier League table without VAR — it’s not just about adding and deducting goals, but about running simulations based on an algorithm to determine the outcome of games. Whether you love or hate VAR, hopefully you’ll concede that a big part of what it does is right wrongs and correct refereeing errors. The fact that Liverpool would have five fewer points without VAR suggests that, if anything, they haven’t been lucky with on-field decisions, which only makes the whole season more impressive.
Juve hang on to beat Roma
If, in recent outings, we had pointed out how Juventus were now looking a little more like what we imagined Maurizio Sarri wanted them to look like (high press, dominate opponents and the ball), Sunday night against Roma was a step into the past. Of course, it’s a very successful past, one in which the opposition have the upper hand, Juve exploit episodes to score and they ultimately win.
Juventus took an early 2-0 lead thanks to a misjudged cross and a misjudged pass to play out from the back that led to a penalty, and then they weathered Roma’s onslaught. It was messy and perhaps never really that threatening, but it was still closer for comfort than what Sarri wanted to see, especially after Roma pulled one back from the spot. Still, it’s a 2-1 away win, Juve are again “winter champions” (with a two-point lead) and the numbers say only one team have beaten them in all competitions since last season. You’ll take that.
As for Roma, there’s no question they’ve metabolized Paulo Fonseca’s philosophy and continue to grow. They showed pride and confidence, and you feel they’re going in the right direction. That said, Nicolo Zaniolo‘s injury is a body blow to him, to the club and to Italy’s chances at Euro 2020.
Those who point out that Roberto Baggio came back from an ACL injury in just 81 days back in 2002 ignore several things, like the fact that no two injuries are identical, Baggio had an entirely different body type (and, at 35, a Zen-like training regimen) and by that stage of his career, Baggio wasn’t about cutting and acceleration. We likely won’t see Zaniolo until next year, which is tough on him, but he’s only 20: it’s best for him to recover fully in his own time.
Putting Aguero’s remarkable goal scoring in context
Pep Guardiola can read a Premier League table like anybody else: he knows the chances of catching Liverpool are infinitesimal, and so he’s using this stage of the season to try out new things.
Against Manchester United in midweek, he dropped Gabriel Jesus and Sergio Aguero to the bench. Away to Aston Villa Sunday, he played them both together — something we hadn’t seen before from the start — and instead left out Bernardo Silva and Raheem Sterling. City romped to a 6-1 victory, but what’s most telling here is Guardiola’s need to always be tweaking and tinkering and experimenting. It may not be City’s best formation, but it’s one more battle-tested option that may come in handy at some point.
The other headline to come from the game concerned Aguero. His hat-trick means he’s now fourth among goal scorers in the Premier League era, behind Alan Shearer (260), Wayne Rooney (208) and Andy Cole (187). Shearer is out of reach (and really, his total should be higher at 283, since football didn’t actually begin in 1992 and he scored 23 before the Premier League was formed), but if he keeps this up he could well pass the other two. The fact that Aguero had a whole other career for Atletico Madrid — scoring 101 goals — before even coming to England makes it all the more impressive.
Aguero also moved past Thierry Henry, which means he’s also the most prolific overseas player in the Premier League era, and is as good an excuse as any to bring up one of English football’s forgotten heroes. (Well, one of many.) Gordon Hodgson was born in South Africa and played for South Africa before being spotted by Liverpool at the age of 20 and moving to England, where he would go on to score a staggering 288 top-flight goals. He is the most prolific overseas players in the history of English football.
When I pointed this out on Twitter, some pedants got bent out of shape, saying that because Hodgson later played for England, it shouldn’t count. That, of course, was the era when players switched national team allegiances rather freely: for example, the great Alfredo Di Stefano played for Argentina, Colombia and Spain. The fact of the matter is that he was born in a different continent, he was developed as a footballer in a different continent and he played for a different country: just like Aguero.
Mata stands out for Man United
The feast or famine regime continues at Manchester United. They go three games without a win, followed by a resounding 4-0 win at home to Norwich. Marcus Rashford scored two goals but I was most impressed with Juan Mata‘s performance. The Spaniard, who had started just one Premier League game in the past three months, dished out assists and provided creativity, which is exactly what he’s supposed to do.
If Ole Gunnar Solskjaer wants to continue to include Daniel James in a fleet-footed, counterattacking front line against bigger clubs or away from home, that’s fine. But at Old Trafford, against smaller clubs that actively look to congest space, Mata makes a heck of a lot more sense than, say, a guy like Daniel James.
Barca’s awful week capped by Xavi drama
It’s not about the idea, it’s about the execution. Barcelona exploring the option of letting Ernesto Valverde go and replacing him with Xavi wasn’t absurd. The latter is a bright guy, a club legend and the last Barca midfielder from Catalunya to have played in Qatar before being handed the Camp Nou gig worked out rather well. (Hint: he’s now the Manchester City manager.). The problem was the execution.
Having chief executive Oscar Grau and sporting director Eric Abidal travel to Qatar to see Xavi only makes sense if you’re a.) able to do it discreetly, without it being leaked all over the media and b.) if it does get out, you’re willing to own it. Instead, they came up with this story about visiting Ousmane Dembele, who is injured and getting treatment in Doha, adding that it was “already planned.”
The fact here is that it helps to treat folks as grown-ups. Valverde is a big boy. All the club needed to do was tell him: “Look, Ernie, your contract is up in the summer, Oscar and Eric are going to Doha, obviously they’ll talk to Xavi while they’re there because at some point he may want to return and we think he could be an asset to the club.” What’s Valverde going to do? Tantrum? He’s no fool. He knows he’s under pressure, he knows that Barca may not want him next year, he knows they’re going to look at alternatives and he knows that Xavi (and, for that matter, Ronald Koeman) are folks they’ll consider.
The upshot is that Xavi has ruled it out for now, they have egg in their face and Valverde is further undermined in the meantime. And because when it rains it pours, there’s also the Luis Suarez injury, which will keep him out until late April at the earliest. Throw in the embarrassing capitulation against Atletico Madrid last Thursday and it was a week to forget for Barca.
Another promising, but frustrating, result for Arteta at Arsenal
Mikel Arteta’s baby steps continue at Arsenal. As long as Lucas Torreira was on the pitch vs. Crystal Palace, they had a stable, passing base to their midfield. And until Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang was sent off midway through the second half, they had enough thrust to worry their opponents, too. But games last 90 minutes and the reality is that Saturday’s 1-1 draw leaves them 10th, 11 points off the Champions League places.
That said, even after just a few games in charge, you have a clearer sense of what Arteta is trying to do than you had under Unai Emery. Playing your pricey players in their actual positions is a start but as we’ve said before, given the wage packets and the age profiles of many of these guys, whether he succeeds or fails will largely depend on what the club can do for him in the transfer market next summer.
Inter were lucky vs. Atalanta
Look past the names and the history and you’ll soon realize Inter’s home draw with Atalanta is about a point gained rather than two points dropped.
Yes, they were at home, but they were also without arguably their best defender (Milan Skriniar) and best midfielder (Nicolo Barella). And they were facing a team who are fourth in the table, had taken points off Lazio, Roma and Manchester City this season, play some of the best football in Europe and had scored 10 goals in their last two games. So what we got was a re-run of what we’ve seen in other outings. Inter take an early lead and then, as the game wears on, they simply don’t have the legs to defend where Antonio Conte wants them to defend: high up the pitch. Eventually, it fell apart. They drew 1-1 and could easily have lost.
Conte built this team to play a certain way and, generally, it’s hugely effective. But against quality opposition they suffer tremendously if they’re missing key players as the game wears on and legs get heavy. It’s something he’s rightly hoping to address in January, though some of the names with which Inter have been linked (Ashley Young?) are head-scratchers.
Tuchel experiments in PSG, Monaco six-goal thriller
Robert Moreno’s first game in charge for Monaco was something of a baptism of fire, away to Paris Saint-Germain, and the upshot was a 3-3, back-and-forth slug-fest. It was facilitated by Thomas Tuchel trying out a lineup that features Neymar, Kylian Mbappe, Angel Di Maria and Mauro Icardi all on the pitch at the same time. It’s ambitious and it’s going to take time, but it’s something worth trying.
So what did we learn? First and foremost it’s only going to work if the front four work, and that means chasing back, leading the press and helping out behind the ball. Di Maria, of course, has a history of doing it, though he turns 32 next month and there may be only so much you get out of him. Mbappe can run all day, if asked. The issue is whether you can get Neymar and Icardi to do what doesn’t come naturally to them and to do it in a way that makes sense.
That’s a tall order. Then again if Tuchel pulls it off, maybe even just for big games, PSG force their way back into the Champions League conversation. After all, having as many of your most gifted players on the pitch as possible, while maintaining your shape and defensive structure, is the most straightforward way to win games.
Hudson-Odoi’s encouraging return for Chelsea
Callum Hudson-Odoi scored his first league goal as Chelsea rolled to a 3-0 win over Burnley. Given the hype that accompanied his debut last season, it’s encouraging that he’s on the right path. The thing to remember though is that given the nature and severity of the Achilles injury that kept him out for five months, he’s unlikely to truly be back to his full, explosive fitness until next season.
Ibra’s return gives Milan a boost
Zlatan Ibrahimovic‘s goal meant he’ll be the answer to a trivia question for years to come: who has scored a league goal in four different decades? It also meant he gave Milan exactly the sort of lift they were looking for: a guy with presence to lead the line and give Rafael Leao someone to play off. Away to Cagliari, it helped give Milan a 2-0 win, their first victory in a month.
As we’ve said before, Ibrahimovic is obviously not a long-term solution; he’s probably not even a solution past June. But it was critical for the club and their fan base to get a lift because, contrary to popular perception, there’s a quality core of young players here, namely Gigio Donnarumma (20), Theo Hernandez (22), Alessio Romagnoli (25), Franck Kessie (23) and Ismael Bennacer (22). They just need to fix the final third. And that will take time.
Are Lazio for real in Serie A title race?
Lazio coach Simone Inzaghi finally did it: he admitted it’s a three-horse race in Serie A. He’s right, too: if they win their game in hand, they’re one point behind Inter and three behind Juve. Their 1-0 win away to Napoli was their 10th in a row and the fact that it came late, and thanks to a blunder from the opposing keeper, doesn’t make it worth any less.
So are Lazio legit? I still think they’ve gotten a huge series of breaks along the way. That run of 10 victories includes no fewer than four featuring winners scored after the 90th minute, while nearly a third of their goals has come after the 75th minute. Numbers like that tend not to last.