The FA Cup semifinals produced two great games (and one unlikely finalist), while La Liga ended its season with a new mark for Lionel Messi and a league title for Real Madrid. It’s Monday, so Gab Marcotti reacts to the weekend’s biggest moments.
Jump to: Man United’s De Gea problem | Inter’s meltdown | Zidane’s best work yet | A big step forward for Arteta, Arsenal | Kane still magic | Messi’s latest record | Do Milan need Rangnick? | Home field edge still exists
Man United’s De Gea problem
Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s lineup when Manchester United faced Chelsea told you all you need to know about his priorities. When you take the field without Paul Pogba, Anthony Martial and Mason Greenwood — all of whom have been key performers in recent games — it’s pretty evident that you’re getting them rest so they can be ready for the final two games of the season and the ascent to the Champions League.
And that’s fine. I have no problem with it. Silverware is important, of course, and United won three major trophies a few years ago (FA Cup, League Cup and Europa League) and it did their managers no favors. The benchmark is league progression, and given how they’d been playing, it’s only right that Solskjaer prioritizes that.
In the end, Solskjaer’s selections were overshadowed by David de Gea’s performance between the sticks. Chelsea outplayed United and might have won anyway, but the Spaniard played a part in each of the Blues’ three goals. Some pinpoint the start of the slide at the 2018 World Cup, others before that, but either way it’s not hard to see that he’s been on a descending arc for some time.
The tough question is what to do. He’s obviously not what he was and he’s clearly not living up to his salary, which makes him the highest-paid keeper in the world. The call to make is whether to let him play his way out of the funk or whether to drop him, give Sergio Romero or (from next season) Dean Henderson space and see if that jolts him to life. It’s not an easy decision and, like many involving goalkeepers, probably isn’t even one for Solskjaer as much as it is his coaching staff. You have to know the individual and know how he’s going to respond, as well as being able to judge each of his errors technically.
While they assess De Gea, they might also wish to assess how they got into this position, because this was a case of United painting themselves into a corner some 12 months ago when they gave him a new mega deal that runs through 2023, with the option of another season. United gave him this extension in September 2019, following arguably his worst campaign at the club. The logic was that it was difficult to sell De Gea, because only top European clubs could afford his wages and most were happy with their goalkeeping situation. And given that a top keeper like, say, Jan Oblak, was going to cost north of €70 million ($75m) anyway, it was better to simply extend De Gea rather than having leave on a free transfer this summer.
I don’t fault the logic, but what’s questionable is the questionable is the terms. De Gea got himself a huge raise, owing to the fact that he was less than a year away from free agency. Hindsight is 20/20 of course, but I suspect it would have made a lot more sense to hard-ball him and stick to a more manageable wage, effectively daring him to find himself another club without taking a pay cut. It’s true that you would have run the risk of losing him on a free transfer, but given he wasn’t performing like the wages on his old contract — let alone the new — you would have had a nice fat salary with which to lure another keeper. The best-case scenario is that you would have locked him up long term at a more reasonable price, thereby making him easier to shift.
If De Gea’s problems run deeper than just simple errors, a lucrative long-term contract rarely motivates a player going through tough times to suddenly live up to his paycheck. If they’re technical, it’s not going to make a jot of difference.
Inter only have themselves to blame
Inter’s 2-2 draw with Roma this weekend in all likelihood means the Serie A title race is over. Even if Juventus lose to an injury-ravaged Lazio side Monday night, the gap will still be five points with four games left, and that is a hill too far.
Inter can point to the supposed foul in the build-up to Leonardo Spinazzola‘s equaliser — VAR called for an on-field review, the referee stuck to his guns — but, really, who are we kidding? The fact is they took the lead, let it slip (that’s now 22 points they’ve lost from leading positions this season) and only equalised due to a gargantuan screw-up by Spinazzola himself in conceding a late penalty.
And, more importantly, they did not play well.
Manager Antonio Conte, who had been on his best behaviour for most of the season, blew his top after the game. “Our fixture list is crazy; it seems it has been drawn up with the intent of hurting us. We always face teams who have had an extra day’s rest, we’re always playing in the late game … whenever somebody needs to be get slapped down, it’s always us,” he fumed.
Playing the conspiracy card is an old favorite in Italian football and, of course, Conte knows it all too well from all those years he was at Juventus as a player and a manager. (Of course, back then, from his perspective, it was just whinging and whining.) Inter are a part of Serie A and, as such, helped draw up this congested calendar before the restart. If the club, or Conte, felt they were being “slapped around” and penalised, they’ve had weeks to voice their concerns. Waiting now smacks of being uber-sore losers.
Let’s make this a little easier, shall we? Since the restart, Inter conceded an 89th minute equaliser to Sassuolo, missed a penalty, squandered a lead and lost the game against 10-man Bologna, and gave up an 86th minute equalizer against Verona. Instead of nine points against those mid-table sides with nothing to play for, they managed just two. Even with the Roma draw, they’d be top of the table right now.
Inter have progressed this season and Conte has helped to change the culture, but they’re not yet where he wants them to be. Some of that is down to injuries, some of that is down to poor decisions, some of that is simply down to not yet being a finished product. Blaming the calendar is simply a craven attempt to deflect from all that.
Why winning La Liga is Zidane’s best work yet at Madrid
Julien Laurens says Zinedine Zidane got the best of out of his defence on their way to the La Liga title.
Real Madrid secured the Spanish title on Thursday night, rendering their final game of the season on Sunday, a 2-2 draw with Leganes, largely meaningless. Zinedine Zidane had said restoring the Liga crown to the Bernabeu was his priority, and he delivered. This title feels different from his previous campaigns at the club in three key aspects.
First off, Karim Benzema. When Zidane worked with him before, he was the workhorse who enabled Cristiano Ronaldo and Gareth Bale to strut their stuff. With Ronaldo now at Juventus and Bale now on the naughty step, Benzema has blossomed into a leader and a goal scorer.
Second, Zidane was able to cope with the injury that robbed him of Madrid’s star signing, Eden Hazard, for much of the season, while intelligently getting the best out of his corps of wide players. Sure, he had tons of depth — from Vinicius to Isco, from Lucas Vazquez to Marco Asensio, from Bale to Hazard — but being able to use the right guys at the right time in the right context, while also keeping everybody happy and on-message, is a skill too. He rotated very little in his previous stint; this past season, much of the midfield and attack was a revolving door.
Third, he turned Real Madrid into a formidable defensive unit. They didn’t just have the stingiest defence in the league, they were also the best by non-penalty Expected Goals. Thibaut Courtois bounced back big time after an indifferent first campaign at the Bernabeu, Ferland Mendy was a massive defensive upgrade on the flank, Raphael Varane stayed fit and productive all year, Casemiro was tremendously effective in shielding the back four and, as for Sergio Ramos, anything I say has been said and written a million times.
This may be a bigger feat for Zidane than anything he has achieved thus far as a manager.
A turning point for Arteta at Arsenal?
Steve Nicol lays into Manchester City’s performance, while praising Arsenal’s defence in their surprise 2-0 win.
Since the restart, Mikel Arteta’s Arsenal have felt part-science lab (experimenting with schemes and personnel) and part-casting session (there are big calls to make down the road), which perhaps explains some of the inconsistent results. But Saturday’s win over Manchester City in the FA Cup semifinal mattered, because it’s not just about the future, it’s also about gaining the credibility and political capital that allow you to rebuild things your way. And when you’re 180 minutes away from winning your first major trophy, you’re duty-bound to give it a go.
This was an altogether different performance than the recent win over Liverpool, which was made possible by two colossal blunders. This was Arsenal executing well defensively, blunting City’s attacking impetus and countering with precision and accuracy. It also speaks volumes about Arteta that some of his most criticised players — David Luiz, Shkodran Mustafi and Granit Xhaka — were among his best performers on the day.
It’s a journey for him and the jury is still out, but this may well be remembered as a key staging point along the way.
Kane shows he’s still the main man for Spurs
Steve Nicol feels Leicester will have a tough time getting in the top four after struggling since the restart.
Tottenham Hotspur‘s resounding 3-0 win over free-falling Leicester City on Sunday underscored what Jose Mourinho does very well. He shuts up shop and then breaks with precision and ruthlessness, giving his biggest gun (Harry Kane in this case) the best opportunity to fire. (It’s not all Mourinho does well, of course, but that ruthlessness is definitely a hallmark.)
We still need to see Spurs add another dimension to their game, and this remains a work in progress. But it’s a reminder that if you can harness Kane and put him in a position to do damage, he rarely disappoints.
Another personal record for Messi
Lionel Messi scored two goals and notched an assist in Barcelona‘s 5-0 win away to Alaves on Sunday. He finishes the season as La Liga’s Pichichi (or top goal scorer) for the seventh time, eclipsing the legendary Telmo Zarra, who did it six times in the 1940s and early 1950s. He also finishes as La Liga’s top assist provider, and perhaps that’s a bit of a clue to his future.
Purely in terms of goals scored, this will likely be Messi’s worst campaign in 12 years. He has 30 goals in all competitions and while, sure, he could go on a tear in the Champions League and score nine goals in four games — you’re not going to put anything past him — realistically it’s not going to happen. Messi hasn’t been helped by the fact that this is a weaker Barcelona squad changing managers in midseason. At the same time, like great players do, he has reinvented himself becoming even more of a provider.
Do Milan really need to change managers?
Milan keep rolling along nicely, beating up Bologna 5-1 over the weekend. Stefano Pioli is drawing plaudits left, right and center and folks are asking themselves whether it’s really necessary to ax him in a few weeks to bring in Ralf Rangnick.
The German wants to come in as an old-school manager, in charge of both recruitment (he did a stellar job for the Red Bull group over the past few years) and coaching (here, the record, while still good, is a little more mixed). I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again, for good measure: unless it’s some kind of deal-breaker, having Pioli stick around to work under Rangnick might be the most logical decision.
Pioli doesn’t have much of an ego; he’s a tremendous tactical coach who has employed all sorts of systems (including the ones Rangnick favors) in his career. He turns 55 in October and while he’s done very well, it’s not as if there’s a battery of super clubs beating a path to his door. Whether Rangnick is OK with it is another matter, but it’s something the ownership might want to strongly consider.
Home advantage is not dead without fans
Remember when the Bundesliga returned, we saw all those away wins and all sorts of football folks scratched their chins and offered up psychobabble about the impact of fans in affecting results and how, now that we were behind closed doors, there was no such thing as home advantage?
Well, the Financial Times has analysed this and what they found was that it’s kinda hogwash. Or, rather, it varies from league to league: in the Premier League and Serie A it’s generally unchanged, while La Liga and the Bundesliga are a somewhat different matter.
Where it does appear to have, possibly, had an impact is on officiating, given that away teams suddenly receive fewer yellow and red cards than home teams in Spain, Germany and Italy. Maybe that’s one you can chalk up to screaming fans unconsciously influencing match officials after a foul. More broadly though, it’s a cautionary tale of drawing broad conclusions based on a limited sample size. We really should know better.