Could this be a breakthrough victory for Man United?


Manchester United fought back for a big win, Chelsea and Tottenham played it safe in the Premier League’s game of the weekend and Napoli showed their Serie A title credentials, while Real Madrid, Arsenal, PSG, Juventus and Bayern all failed to impress.

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

Jump to: Man United joy | Real, Zidane a mess | Napoli’s title credentials | Time for head injury subs | Arsenal regress | Milan keep winning | Lessons from Chelsea, Spurs | Tuchel blasts PSG | Bayern look tired | Barca’s big win | Juve’s slow progress | Dortmund woes on Favre | Conte keeps complaining | Mahrez steps up for Man City | “Atletico 2.0” win

Has Solskjaer figured out the “right” way for Man United to play?

Edinson Cavani‘s two-goal, second-half performance will get the headlines from Sunday’s 3-2 come-from-behind win, but that should not detract from the fact that Manchester United played well throughout the 90 minutes against Southampton, even when they went two goals down in the first half.

— Report: Southampton 2, Man United 3
— Ratings: Cavani 9/10 in United comeback
Cavani apologizes for social media post

Without Paul Pogba and Anthony Martial, Ole Gunnar Solskjaer opted for the diamond with the addition of Donny van de Beek, while up front, Mason Greenwood got his first start since November 1. It wasn’t perfect, but it showed that the set-up could work and it gave United a platform to play through Southampton’s aggressive press that, lest we forget, was a big part in ensuring Ralf Hasenhuttl’s crew had been undefeated since week two of the season.

Greenwood struggled somewhat, but it’s important for Solskjaer to get him back on the pitch and to get him minutes. He only turned 19 in October; this is how you grow. And he got to witness a master class in the performance of Cavani, the man who replaced him. The Uruguayan set up Bruno Fernandes‘ goal, came close once and then bagged both the equaliser and the injury time winner. Just as important, he showed you how playing a front two doesn’t mean you necessarily sacrifice width: if you have the movement and the energy, you can stretch any defensive line.

Diamond midfield or wingers? The dilemma will likely accompany Solskjaer all season long, but for me, there is no argument. Unless you have some sophisticated, hyper-efficient tactical system that befuddles opponents (and United most definitely do not), you’re better off getting your most gifted players on the pitch. That means going with a diamond.

You can figure out what combination of Martial, Rashford, Cavani and Greenwood play in the front two. None of them are bona fide wingers anyway. You can find ways to make up for Aaron Wan-Bissaka‘s lack of attacking output. (I’d consider seeing if he can play center-back and look around for a more offensively minded full-back.) You can, against many opponents, squeeze your three most technical midfielders — Pogba, Van de Beek and Fernandes — in the lineup. It needs to be worked on, sure, but that’s what Solskjaer is there for.

Real Madrid, Zidane, can’t just blame injuries for poor form



Julien Laurens feels Real Madrid defender Marcelo is no longer good enough to play for the club.

You know things are bad when your only November wins come against Inter Milan, and Real Madrid’s 2-1 loss to Alaves offers up few alibis. Yeah, you can parse the game and leave yourself with a bunch of “ifs” — if Thibaut Courtois hadn’t made that silly mistake, if Toni Kroos had finished better, if that hair pull on Marcelo had been seen by the VAR cameras, if Isco’s shot had been a smidgen to the left — but there’s no escaping the fact that Alaves’ press wreaked havoc with Madrid’s build-up play or that the front three achieved little or nothing, other than the Eden Hazard run that saw him get hurt.

— Real ratings: Casemiro 7/10 in defeat
— Barcelona 5, Real Madrid 0 in 2010: Where are they now?

Hazard was hugely durable at Chelsea and now appears made of glass. That’s just one of Zinedine Zidane’s concerns right now. The absences of Sergio Ramos and Dani Carvajal at the back, Fede Valverde in midfield and Karim Benzema up front weigh heavily, but they can’t explain being outwitted by a team that had won three of their previous 19 games. That’s on Zidane. He’s got mitigating circumstances, but this team has to step on the pitch fully prepared and has to at least try to impose their game on opponents of Alaves’ standard.

Napoli have what it takes to contend for Serie A



Gab Marcotti breaks down how Gennaro Gattuso and Napoli were able to demolish Roma in a 4-0 victory.

Napoli’s 4-0 win over Roma wiped away some of the controversy of the past week (following the Milan loss) and reminded us what this team can achieve. That they did it on such an emotional night — their first Serie A game since Diego Maradona’s passing — and without Victor Osimhen only adds another layer to the fact that Rino Gattuso may well have the most gifted squad in Serie A, with the exception of Juventus.

Roma, littered with half-fit players, didn’t put up much of a fight, but it was hard not to be moved when Lorenzo Insigne, Napoli-born, bred and buttered opened the scoring with a free kick, ran to the sidelines and kissed the Maradona jersey at the side of the pitch.

It’s not lost on anybody that without the forfeited game against Juventus (and ensuing one-point penalty) this team would be second in the table. That’s the belief and energy Gattuso has to channel if they’re going to challenge for the title. The pieces are all in place.

Jimenez, Luiz incident shows need for head injury substitutions



Gab Marcotti thinks football should allow temporary substitutions when players are being treated for a head injury.

The collision between David Luiz and Raul Jimenez at the Emirates on Sunday was a frightening moment. It resulted in Jimenez losing consciousness and being taken to the hospital with a fractured skull. David Luiz played on with a bad cut, blood seeping through his bandaged head, until he too was finally substituted.

Jimenez suffers fractured skull vs. Arsenal

It seems pretty evident something is wrong here. Both medical staffs no doubt followed protocol, but it seems foolish that in 2020 we have to see the game interrupted and players lying on the pitch while doctors feverishly decide what to do and patch their players back up.

The logical thing to do is to allow temporary substitutions for head injuries. It would have allowed the game to continue 11 vs.11 while doctors calmly assessed the players. In David Luiz’s case, presumably, it would have given them time to properly bandage his head so he wouldn’t look like a Brazilian Terry Butcher. Or, better yet, it would have given them time to realize that he couldn’t continue.

The counterargument has always been that allowing temporary substitutions might lead teams to “game the system” by having players fake injury so they can come off. This is simply idiotic. Head injuries (thankfully) are rare, and even if you believe that somebody is going to gain a huge advantage with an extra substitution, it’s a small price to pay for player safety.

Arsenal are regressing, which is bad news for Arteta



Frank Leboeuf questions what’s going on behind the scenes at Arsenal after their 2-1 defeat to Wolves.

Arsenal have taken four of a possible 24 points from their last six Premier League outings. They’ve scored one goal from open play in that time frame. In each of those six games, they lost the Expected Goals battle, too.

You can’t help but feel Mikel Arteta is sliding backwards.

— Ogden: Where have Arsenal’s goals gone?

Yes, Thomas Partey is injured, but he can’t suddenly be the answer to all their problems. This team is getting overrun in midfield while creating little up front. Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang is a shadow of the player he was, and Alexandre Lacazette can’t get on the pitch except for cameo appearances.

Arteta, evidently, recognises this and is working on it, hence the switch to the back four (though it didn’t really help matters on Sunday). I go back to this, but giving Aubameyang and Willian enormous contracts is what you do when you’re ready to double-down and go for silverware, not when you’re rebuilding. They’re now locked into these players and Arteta needs to reach them to make a difference. It’s a situation that’s only made his job that much more difficult.

Milan win again despite key absences



Janusz Michallik was impressed with how Milan handled the pressure of facing Fiorentina without Ibrahimovic.

Milan extended their lead at the top of Serie A with a 2-0 win over Fiorentina despite three high-profile absences: Zlatan Ibrahimovic, Stefano Pioli and Ismael Bennacer. Obviously the focus will be on the former (when is it not?), but in some ways Bennacer’s was more significant. He’s been Milan’s leader in midfield and the metronome who keeps things ticking over. The fact that he was seamlessly replaced by Sandro Tonali is a reminder of the club’s depth and quality in that position.

The win takes the Rossoneri‘s unbeaten streak to 21 games in Serie A, dating back to March 8. In all competitions since lockdown, they’ve lost just once. They continue to grow and, while Zlatan obviously helps, they’re increasingly proving they can succeed without him too.

Lessons learned from Chelsea 0-0 Tottenham



Stewart Robson believes Jose Mourinho must change tactics if Tottenham are to win the league.

Chelsea’s scoreless draw with Tottenham on Sunday means Spurs stay top of the table. It also revealed how, deep down, both managers likely felt the damage of a defeat outweighed the benefits of a victory.

Chelsea need more from summer signings Werner, Havertz

Spurs played on the counter and were effective in shutting out Chelsea, primarily in the first half. The way Moussa Sissoko and Pierre-Emile Hojbjerg occasionally dropped into the backline between central defender and full-back, as needed, blunted Chelsea’s attacking impetus and were evidence that when it comes to defensive shape and tactics, Jose Mourinho knows what he’s doing.

Could Tottenham have done more to try to win? Sure. But this was the right approach. Mourinho knows all too well that sometimes you have to take what the opposition gives you. Chelsea didn’t give them much, and so he got little.

As for Frank Lampard, this set-up — with Tammy Abraham up front and Mason Mount in midfield — has given him stability (they had won six in a row before Sunday) and a platform on which to improve. Within this framework, you can make tweaks — like the returning Christian Pulisic for Timo Werner, who isn’t going through a great spell, Olivier Giroud for Abraham, or Jorginho for Mateo Kovacic — but this is likely the way forward. Chelsea could have been a bit more adventurous, but again, they could have done it within this framework. (And, even then, Giroud had the best chance of the game at the very end.)

Where does this leave Kai Havertz? Not in the starting XI right now, and that’s not a tragedy. He’s supremely gifted, but he’s 21 and in a new league and he arrived late, without the benefit of a preseason. There is no reason to shoehorn him into the lineup until he’s ready.

Things going from bad to worse for Tuchel, PSG



Julien Laurens breaks downs PSG’s “strange” performance in the 2-2 draw with Bordeaux.

Thomas Tuchel knows all too well that despite reaching the Champions League final last season and delivering two Ligue 1 titles (on a relative shoestring budget, no less), he likely won’t be around next season. But if he’s going down, he’s going down swinging.

Tuchel read Paris Saint-Germain the riot act after a lackadaisical second half performance that allowed Bordeaux to get back into the game and hold them to a 2-2 draw. PSG still top the table, but Lille, Lyon, Monaco and Montpellier are all just two points behind them and if Marseille win their two games in hand, they’d go top.

PSG are in a Champions League dogfight with Manchester United and Leipzig in Group H, they’ve had injuries and no preseason. There are mitigating circumstances, sure, but the worst thing they can do right now is be so focused on Europe that they take the league for granted. It’s all hands on deck.

Will Bayern’s magic run out as injuries pile up?

Bayern are a team running on fumes right now. They beat Pellegrino Matarazzo’s bright young Stuttgart side, 3-1, to remain top of the Bundesliga, but don’t let the scoreline fool you. Their goals are coming either from long-range (note Robert Lewandowski‘s screamer) or in transition. Defensively, they continue to concede: without Manuel Neuer‘s heroics and with better finishing from Stuttgart, they could have conceded three or four.

Bayern are winning right now because they have (far) better players than most of their opponents and, especially, guys who can create out of nothing. The absence of Joshua Kimmich (and the departure of Thiago Alcantara) means it’s tougher for them to dominate and create in possession. Hansi Flick’s high-intensity style has been toned down to accommodate for the fatigue and injuries. That was a necessary step, but it has also made them less effective off the ball.

It’s a tough period, and one they need to weather until the injured stars return.

Barcelona take pressure off with big win



Shaka Hislop says Lionel Messi’s Maradona tribute was a touching tribute to his fellow countryman.

You don’t want to read too much into beating Osasuna 4-0 because, well, it’s Osasuna, but Barcelona’s win at least keeps the demons and controversy at bay for a few more days. And there are plenty of positive takeaways. Oscar Mingueza looks like he can hold his own at this level (which is especially important since Clement Lenglet had to come off injured as well). Antoine Griezmann scored a stunning goal and delivered perhaps his best performance of the season. Philippe Coutinho, the forgotten man, got on the scoresheet.

Messi honors Maradona in big Barca win

And then, of course, there was Lionel Messi. He scored the fourth goal, and it was highlight-reel stuff. When he then removed his jersey to reveal the Newell’s Old Boys vintage kit Diego Maradona wore when he returned to Argentina, you couldn’t help but get goosebumps. And when you saw this video comparing Messi’s strike with Maradona’s for Newell’s, you’d need to be pretty hard-hearted not to be fully moved.

At least for a few days, the narrative at the Camp Nou won’t be about crisis, but rather about honouring Maradona in the most fitting way.

Juventus progressing slower than Pirlo would like



Gab Marcotti urges patience with Andrea Pirlo as he tries to steer Juventus in a different direction.

Juventus have played 12 games this season (not counting the 3-0 forfeit win over Napoli because, well, they didn’t actually play). With Cristiano Ronaldo on the pitch, they won five of seven. Without him, they’ve won one of five, including Saturday’s 1-1 draw with newly promoted Benevento.

The classic knee-jerk reaction is that Juve are over-reliant on Ronaldo and struggle without him. Leaving aside the obvious point — any team will be worse off without their best player — I’m not sure to what degree it’s true. Juve’s underlying numbers, from Expected Goals difference (1.1 with him, 1.0 without him) to shots on goal, are comparable. Some of the metrics Andrea Pirlo values, like recoveries in the opposition half, are actually better without him.

The reality is that after a decent first half, they took their foot off the gas against Benevento. Paulo Dybala, arguably last season’s MVP, had another poor game. They lacked intensity and, perhaps, they lacked leadership, only here it’s not down to Ronaldo; guys like Leo Bonucci and Giorgio Chielini were also out.

This team is not Ronaldo-dependent, but they do remain a work in progress. And progress is slower than Pirlo would like.

Dortmund drop more points and this time, it’s on Favre

Considering the run of play, Borussia Dortmund were the better team and should have beaten Cologne. Consider reality and mental errors and tactical flaws, and they fully deserved to get beaten by their opponents, who hadn’t won in 18 Bundesliga games. Bonehead moves on set pieces, the sort where the same guy is totally unmarked at the far post twice, are so egregious that you don’t deserve to win.

What’s disappointing here is that for all Dortmund’s youth, those goals were on the defensive leaders — Mats Hummels, Axel Witsel and Emre Can — all of whom are highly experienced veterans. Erling Haaland did miss a late sitter to make it 2-2, which may draw the headlines and the clips. But equally, Dortmund were let down in their build-up for much of the game as both Jadon Sancho and Julian Brandt had off-days and Lucien Favre’s team were predictable and one-paced.

Hate to say it (again), but while it’s the players who make mistakes, the buck stops with him.

Conte’s complaining isn’t distracting from Inter’s inconsistency



ESPN FC’s Gab Marcotti delves deeper into Antonio Conte’s tactics in Inter’s 3-0 win over Sassuolo.

Inter bounced back from their Champions League debacle against Real Madrid to beat Sassuolo 3-0. They played well with Lautaro Martinez and Alexis Sanchez leading the line, though it’s obviously a whole heck of a lot easier to look good when the opposition gifts you two goals inside the opening 15 minutes.

Antonio Conte was beating the “club under siege” drum, talking about how promoting negativity about his team helps the media (read: TV and newspapers) make money. Whatever works for him, I guess, and if his players buy it and they play better, great! But let’s be clear. Newspaper sales and media revenues go up when a team is doing well. If there’s negativity around his team, it’s because they’ve won two of their past seven games, they are dead last in their Champions League group and because they looked better a year ago. It’s not because there’s a vast profit-driven media conspiracy against him.

Is it Mahrez’s turn to lead Man City while other stars find form?

Given Manchester City‘s recent record against Burnley, perhaps the fact they won 5-0 (again) shouldn’t tell you that much. In fact, I think it provides a bit of a platform on which to build. For a start, this is as many goals as City have scored as they managed in all their Premier League games since September combined. For a side that were shooting plenty but not finishing, it’s a confidence boost.

Is this the big win to get Man City going in the league?

Riyad Mahrez‘s hat trick matters too. Apart from Kevin De Bruyne, City’s creative forces have stuttered this season, for different reasons, whether it’s Bernardo Silva or Raheem Sterling. Somebody needs to take some of the load off De Bruyne and sometimes, the benefit of having a deep and talented squad is that different players can get hot for you and pop up at the right time. Knowing which ones to trust (and when) is going to be key for Guardiola. Maybe it’s Mahrez’s turn to help carry this side while others regain their mojo.

Another winning weekend for “Atletico 2.0”



Gab Marcotti and Julien Laurens say a switch of formation has Atletico Madrid flying ahead of facing Bayern.

The difference against a young Valencia side was an own goal, but Atletico Madrid nevertheless made it six wins in a row in La Liga. They’re now second, a single point behind Real Sociedad, but with two games in hand. And for the past three-and-a-half weeks, they’ve been without Luis Suarez.

Diego Simeone’s de facto shift to a back three has given him a a platform that does exactly what tactics should do: get the best out of the personnel at hand. The extra spot at the back allows him to play Mario Hermoso, who has been a revelation, while freeing the wing-backs — Kieran Trippier on the right and either Renan Lodi or Yannick Carrasco on the left — to stretch opponents and deliver chances from wide areas. There’s no natural holding midfielder, which is fine because you have the extra central defender and because Saul, Koke (who is having his best season in yeas) and Marcos Llorente are all hard workers. That trio also allows you to emphasize possession far more than Atletico did in years past, while the natural width offered by the wing-backs gives the likes of Angel Correa and Joao Felix freedom to operate inside or outside as they see fit.

Plenty has been said about Diego Simeone’s shift to “Cholismo 2.0” and a more forward-thinking Atleti. The shift in formation, at least in certain games, looks like it’s going to be a key to this transition.

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