Unpacking Real’s Clasico win vs. Barcelona, Man United and Chelsea play it safe, Pirlo and Juve need time


Real Madrid won their grudge match against Barcelona, Dortmund cruised to a win against their eternal rivals, Schalke, and two of the Premier League’s biggest clubs, Man United and Chelsea, played out a forgettable and needlessly defensive 0-0 draw. All in all, the soccer weekend was full of talking points.

It’s Monday, and Gab Marcotti reacts to the biggest moments in the sport of football from the past week.

Jump to: Lessons from El Clasico | Man United, Chelsea play it safe | Juve, Pirlo need time | Arsenal regress | Was Hakimi OK to play? | David Silva’s still class | Dortmund win derby | Man City stuck in a rut? | Kean on song at PSG | Leipzig top Bundesliga | Liverpool’s versatility | Lewandowski keep scoring | Ajax’s 13-0 win

Lessons learned from Real Madrid’s clasico win

As Clasicos go, the build-up to Saturday’s Real Madrid vs. Barcelona showdown felt more like an opportunity for the two managers — Zinedine Zidane coming off back-to-back defeats, and Ronald Koeman trying to coax consistency from the basket case he inherited at the Camp Nou — to lay down a marker and stave off criticism. In those situations, you can either look to limit damage knowing that a draw buys you time, or you can go for a win (and risk defeat) knowing that, to paraphrase Billy Joel, you’ll “walk away a fool or a king.”

– Report: Barcelona 1, Real Madrid 3

To their credit, both managers chose the latter option. Koeman had the courage to stick with his vision — one that, at the moment, doesn’t include Antoine Griezmann or Ousmane Dembele, but is instead predicated on two 17-year-olds, Pedri and Ansu Fati. Zinedine Zidane avoided the temptation of adding an extra midfielder — some call it “controlling the game,” but it’s really to put more bodies in front of the back four — and instead played Marco Asensio with Karim Benzema and Vinicius.

– Hunter: Zidane wins battle of minds with Koeman
– Real ratings: Kroos, Ramos, Valverde 8/10 in win
– Barca ratings: Dest impresses in clasico defeat

Real Madrid took an early lead via Fede Valverde, Barca equalised with Ansu Fati and, for a minute, it looked as if the plan might work. But this Barca side still hasn’t metabolized what Koeman wants from his front four. It’s no a 4-2-3-1 but rather a 4-2-chaos, which is fine — you can make it work if the genius and football instincts are flowing, and if there’s enough natural chemistry and muscle memory built up over time. Time, however, is something Koeman hasn’t had (and won’t have).



Ale Moreno likes the way Ansu Fati doesn’t always lean on Lionel Messi to make plays for Barcelona.

It’s not just an issue up front, either. Sergio Busquets is increasingly looking like a revolving door in front of the defense and Frenkie de Jong is a shadow of his Ajax self, mainly because he’s being used entirely differently. Again: if Koeman has a plan, it’s either not working or hasn’t yet been taken on board.

The penalty won (and converted) by Sergio Ramos to put Real 2-1 up infuriated Koeman, but the reality is whenever you grab a jersey in the area, whatever the circumstance, you’re in danger of being penalised. It’s as simple as that, and the fact that Ramos fell very obviously to make sure everybody saw his shirt being tugged doesn’t change that.

Even before the goal, Real Madrid were growing and creating chances, which is why it’s remarkable that Koeman waited until eight minutes from the end of the match to make changes. When he did send on Griezmann and Dembele, it felt as if he was doing it out of duty, to save himself being asked why he left them out entirely.

And Lionel Messi? It still speaks volumes about him that he had a relatively quiet game, but still delivered a highlight reel moment — when his feint-and-turn in the box left Ramos rooted to the spot — that could have given Barca the lead, and he set up Jordi Alba‘s assist for Ansu Fati. It’s not a particularly original thought, but yes, Messi’s presence papers over a lot of cracks.

As for Real Madrid, they remain a work in progress. Getting motivated for a Clasico after two horrendous defeats of their own, against Cadiz in La Liga and against Shakhtar Donetsk in their Champions League opener, isn’t much of a feat. Ramos’ return is a huge boost in terms leadership and personality, but we already knew that. It’s still not clear what this team will look like from the waist up, and we’ll see how things evolve when Eden Hazard returns.

Saturday’s 3-1 win leaves Real Madrid one point off the top of the table with a game in hand and the focus now shifts squarely to remedying the Shakhtar defeat last week. It’s far from straight-forward, because both Inter and Borussia Moenchengladbach are the sort of feast-or-famine opponents who, on their day, can inflict serious damage. But the platform is there and once again, Zidane was proved right when he said “the sun will rise tomorrow.”

With so much sporting capital in the bank, it takes far more to plunge him into darkness.

Man United, Chelsea play it safe in dull draw



Julien Laurens feels Man United got their tactics wrong when bringing on Paul Pogba and Edinson Cavani vs. Chelsea.

There was a bit of a parallel to the Clasico when Manchester United hosted Chelsea Saturday in the sense that both managers, Ole Gunnar Solskjaer and Frank Lampard, had more to lose with a defeat than they had to gain with a win. Solskjaer lined up with Juan Mata and Daniel James wide, leaving Paul Pogba, Donny van de Beek and Mason Greenwood on the bench. Lampard played a back three with Christian Pulisic, Timo Werner and Kai Havertz up front.

If felt as if both set-ups were short-term solutions rather than attempts to build towards something and the end result, a dull 0-0 draw, showed that. For Chelsea, the back three is really only going to work with Thiago Silva in there and, at 36, he won’t be playing every game. Equally, Reece James is the only viable attacking wing-back down the right. Havertz, as we’ve said, is still finding his position and dropping deep to collect the ball: you can do it when he’s in the No. 10 hole, but it’s a lot tougher to pull off effectively in a 3-4-3.

As for United, you presume Mata and James aren’t part of the future, for different reasons, yet they’ve started the last two league games unlike Pogba, who hasn’t started since October 4, and Van de Beek, who hasn’t started at all the season (except for the League Cup).

I get that both Lampard and Solskjaer needed a result, but I’d argue they needed a performance and a step in the right direction just as much. Games like these don’t do much for your growth.

– Dawson: Man United, Chelsea won’t contend on this form
– Man United ratings: Fred, Daniel James 4/10
– Chelsea ratings: Thiago Silva 8/10 in scoreless draw

That said, the match itself could have gone either way. How neither the referee nor the VAR felt Harry Maguire‘s headlock on Cesar Azpilicueta wasn’t worthy of a penalty — or, at least, a second look — is beyond me. At some point, this fear of “undermining the referee” has got to end. That was a stone-cold penalty. Equally though, it was United who carved out the better opportunities, thanks in part to a sparkling Marcus Rashford, though he was denied by an equally on-form Edouard Mendy in goal for Chelsea.



Steve Nicol is baffled Chelsea weren’t awarded a penalty in a scoreless draw against Manchester United.

A final point on Van de Beek and Pogba. The latter gets a ton of criticism; the former, evidently, isn’t seen as a must-play by Solskjaer. Fine. But United have a ton of resources tied up in these two players: Pogba’s extension has predictably been activated, and Van de Beek, while not outrageously expensive, is still a 22-year-old £35m signing. Surely there’s a formation that allows you to get one or both on the pitch more often? Surely there’s no clause in Solskjaer’s contract that mandates that he must play with two wide men?

Juve’s rebuild with Pirlo will take time

If you only look at results, there’s a bit of deja vu in Juventus‘ weekend 1-1 draw with Verona: Andrea Pirlo dropping points against an opponent you expect him to beat, just like he did against Crotone the week before. The results-obsessed, “winning-is-the-only-thing” Juve of old would not have stood for this.

But actually I’d be less concerned. Juventus hit the woodwork twice, and had a goal chalked off due to a marginal offside. Verona are a well-coached side who played very well on the night and are awkward for anyone to play against. And, of course, Juventus were spotting the opposition four starters (Cristiano Ronaldo, Alex Sandro, Matthijs De Ligt and Giorgio Chiellini).

Like we said: it will take time.



Ale Moreno says Juve only turned it on when Verona took the lead, which is something to be concerned about.

There were positives too, starting with Dejan Kulusevski‘s impact off the bench or the way Paulo Dybala, who had played 10 minutes all season, looked sharp and hungry. This isn’t to minimise the concerns — Juve really only started playing coherently after the break, Federico Bernardeschi had a stinker, Arthur isn’t yet ready to be a midfield general — but rather to remind everybody Pirlo is doing a U-turn in a Supertanker here.

Back to square one for Arteta, Arsenal

Arsenal fell 1-0 at home vs. Leicester to — surprise! — a Jamie Vardy goal on the counterattack. Beyond the result, what ought to be a concern for Mikel Arteta though is the drop-off from one half to the next.

– Olley: Arsenal’s familiar problems resurface vs. Leicester
– Arsenal ratings: Lacazette 4/10 in dismal defeat

As expected, Brendan Rodgers set up his team to sit and deny space and, until half-time, Arsenal coped with it reasonably well, creating several chances. After the break, it felt as if the light went out. More of a concern is that it felt as if Arteta’s crew drifted out of the game mentally as well, becoming rushed and frenetic after Vardy came off the bench and scored.

At some point, you wonder if Arteta won’t revisit how Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang is used in certain situations. You’d think that somebody who signed such an enormous long-term contract would be central to your way of playing and when he’s positioned out wide, whether left or right, against certain opponents, he becomes marginal.

Hakimi’s COVID-19 tests the talking point after Inter win

Inter beat Genoa on Saturday, 2-0, as Romelu Lukaku once again carried the Nerazzurri, but Antonio Conte was grumpy nonetheless after the game. It’s not hard to see why, and it ought to send alarm bells around Europe.

You may have noticed that Achraf Hakimi played on Saturday just 72 hours after testing positive for COVID-19, a result that kept him out of Inter’s Champions League clash with Borussia Moenchengladbach.

Speedy recovery? Nope: it was most likely a false positive. He had been given the all-clear ahead of the Gladbach game Wednesday morning and spent the day preparing with his teammates. Then, four hours before kickoff, he was told that his sample, had, in fact, turned out positive, albeit with a “weak viral load,” and that meant he had to quarantine, missing out on the game. Except on Thursday he was tested again and, this time, he was negative. Just as he was negative again on Saturday morning.

Obviously something went wrong with the lab that handles UEFA’s tests. Most worrying, perhaps, is the fact that if his initial test on Wednesday morning was, in fact, a “false negative” rather than a true negative, he could have spent the day infecting his teammates.

We’ll never know whether Inter would have beaten Gladbach with Hakimi on board, but we do know there is money — lots of it — at stake in the Champions League and a win over a direct opponent is huge. Chalk it up to an honest error, but use it as a teachable moment: labs have to get this right, within the limits of what is medically possible. The last thing we need is an army of lawyers ready to file lawsuits asking for compensation.

David Silva still has what it takes

David Silva dished out two assists in Real Sociedad‘s 4-1 win over Huesca and left no doubt over the fact that, yes, he can still play. More than that, he can illuminate and create if the right players are around him.

The win enabled La Real to stay top of La Liga, confirming the fact that last season’s sixth-place finish and run to the Copa del Rey final was anything but a fluke. The trick is not running out of gas and coping with European football, which they didn’t have to deal with last season. They lost Martin Odegaard back to Real Madrid, but added Silva and, while Diego Llorente took his talents to Elland Road, they have in-house solutions to fill his shoes too.

This is a talented side that can still count on the likes of Mikel Merino and Mikel Oyarzabal, plus Alexander Isak who might finally harness his abundant gifts. If they’ve learned some of last season’s lessons, they should be able to remain at this altitude for most of the campaign.

Dortmund get easy derby win



Steve Nicol believes Borussia Dortmund’s Erling Haaland’s maturity is “unusual” for a player his age.

Borussia Dortmund took on Schalke in the Revierderby and, like last weekend, it took them a while to break the ice. Unlike last weekend though, they created chances from the start (possibly because, unlike last weekend, Erling Braut Haaland played from the first minute), which is important because the win comes on the heels of the 3-1 defeat against Lazio in the Champions League.

Schalke are awful right now, so more than the 3-0 result, what matters is Dortmund’s execution. They looked solid at the back (despite Emre Can‘s absence) and, significantly, Julian Brandt looked sharp playing in his usual position rather than last weekend’s “false nine” malarkey.

Man City are stuck in a rut



Don Hutchison wonders if signing Harry Kane can fix Manchester City’s problems.

Manchester City put on a clinic of sterile possession in Saturday’s 1-1 draw with West Ham, and I don’t think the reasons why are much of a mystery.

Against well-organized, hard-working opponents who sat deep, Pep Guardiola would rely on David Silva and Kevin De Bruyne to conjure up the killer pass. or Sergio Aguero or Raheem Sterling to make the runs that tore apart defensive shapes. But against David Moyes’ crew, Sterling and Aguero (possibly carrying a knock) were distinctly sub-par, while De Bruyne, returning from injury, only came on in the second half. As for David Silva, of course, he’s now in San Sebastian.

The latter’s heir apparent, Bernardo Silva, has been going through an evident rough patch and was muted on Saturday. As he struggled, so did Man City when it came to their creativity. It’s an issue that will, in part, solve itself once De Bruyne returns from the start and once Bernardo and Sterling regain their mojo. The challenge is continuing to grind out results until that happens.

Moise Kean finding form at PSG

Moise Kean bagged two goals for Paris Saint-Germain in their 4-0 demolition of Dijon on Saturday. That means he’s already equalled his goal total from last season at Everton. He looked like a cheap and cheerful summer loan pick-up, an extra body to eat up some Ligue 1 minutes (sort of like an Italian Eric-Maxim Choupo Moting) and, perhaps, a favour for Mino Raiola too, which never hurts.

But he’s still just 20 years old and there is genuine talent there. He struggled at Everton, and some of the problems were no doubt of his own making. At PSG, he gets to play in the shadow of Kylian Mbappe and Neymar: there’s every chance he can learn a thing or two and relaunch his career.

Leipzig still top of Bundesliga

Julian Nagelsmann’s Leipzig stay top of the Bundesliga with a 2-1 win over Hertha Berlin. Leipzig got a huge boost when Devoyaisio Zeefuik got himself sent off just four minutes after coming at half-time for two bookable offenses, no less, which is quite a feat.

Alexander Sorloth got his first start as Nagelsmann reshuffled his side and showed there’s still work to do. But between him and Yussuf Poulsen, Leipzig should have at least one serviceable front man, which means we likely won’t see the striker-less set-up we witnessed earlier this season.

Liverpool are getting more versatile



Steve Nicol believes not having a crowd is impacting Liverpool’s play despite their 2-1 win vs. Sheffield United.

The addition of Thiago Alcantara in the transfer window gives Liverpool a different dimension: a gifted, creative passer in midfield to unlock opposing defences. What we saw against Sheffield United — a 4-2-3-1 with Diogo Jota wide right and Mohamed Salah through the middle, just ahead of Roberto Firmino — is an attempt by Jurgen Klopp to find yet another one.

Liverpool ratings: Jota 8/10 in comeback win

Liverpool won, 2-1, and Jota played well, though I suspect this system will become a variant rather than a bread-and-butter solution. For a start, it puts your four best forwards on the pitch, leaving you little margin for change and doing nothing for you in terms of load management over the long season. It’s also a system you simply can’t play if Firmino is missing. And, to some degree, it curtails the forwards runs of your fullbacks because inside space is more limited.

That said, against Sheffield United it worked well. Getting Salah in more central positions more often can only be a good thing and Jota, on this form, is hard to leave out. Most important of all, Liverpool are becoming more multifaceted.

Lewandowski continues torrid form for Bayern



Steve Nicol praises Bayern Munich star Robert Lewandowski after his hat trick vs. Eintracht Frankfurt.

You’ve probably heard this one before, but Robert Lewandowski‘s run at the top of the (striking) world continues. He bagged a hat-trick in the 5-0 thrashing of Eintracht Frankfurt, but more than that, he was also provider and leader in the final third. He’s already hit double figures in the Bundesliga, the quickest man to get there (after just five games) in the history of the competition.

Incidentally, Eintracht weren’t one of those cream-puff opponents you expect Bayern to stomp all over. This was their first defeat of the campaign, and looked as if they had found some sort of rhythm. Kingsley Coman was almost as devastating as he was against Atletico Madrid, Leroy Sane scored a goal of the weekend contender and Joshua Kimmich was up to his usual magic in the middle of the park: it’s almost as if he’s been freed up to fill Thiago Alcantara’s big shoes.

On the downside, Alphonso Davies, starting his first game since October 4, came off injured after just two minutes. He’ll be out six to eight weeks. In times like these, you’re glad you have a club record signing like Lucas Hernandez around…

A word about Ajax’ 13-0 win

Ajax beat VVV Venlo 13-0, a record scoreline for Dutch football, and a bigger victory than any margin ever recorded in the “Big Five” European leagues. Watching the highlights is quite an experience and the ineptitude of the VVV defenders will stick with you for some time.

– Is Ajax’s win the biggest ever in a top league?

I get both sides of the “running up the score” debate. In some cultures, it’s considered to be needlessly humiliating your opponents and, frankly, disrespecting them, especially when you score nine of your goals when they’re a man down. In others, this is how you show respect: by going all out until the very end. I trust that Holland falls into the latter category.

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