The weekend in European soccer was full of talking points as per usual: Manchester United’s latest defeat led to the long-awaited exit of Ole Gunnar Solskjaer, Xavi’s official debut as Barcelona manager was a winning one, and Liverpool shrugged off a red-hot Arsenal team with ease at Anfield. There were lessons learned for Inter Milan, Real Madrid and Chelsea, and Lionel Messi finally scored his first goal in Ligue 1 for Paris Saint-Germain.
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It’s Monday, and Gab Marcotti reacts to the biggest moments in the world of football.
Jump to: Man United’s plan | Inter are for real | Xavi, Barca win | Liverpool thump Arsenal | Messi scores in Ligue 1 | Palmer stars for Man City | Real Madrid perform | Spurs, Conte get lucky | Milan stunned | Dortmund close gap | Chelsea excel | Juve go “old school” | Atletico win ugly | … And finally
With Solskjaer gone, Man United have a plan (of sorts) … but it’s all down to the execution
The 4-1 humiliation away to Claudio Ranieri’s Watford — coupled with previous months of futility — eventually cost Ole Gunnar Solskjaer his job at Manchester United. I’m not sure there’s much to say about Solskjaer; he’s a nice fellow, smiles a lot, seemed to be genuinely liked as a person by his players. He’s a company man.
The fact that so many felt the need to inject terms like “club legend” and “United DNA” when discussing him tells you a lot about his performance in the job he was paid nearly $10m a year to do: managing the club. If he was up to the task of getting his players to perform to their ability (and wages), making the whole greater than the sum of its parts and getting tangible results, we wouldn’t need to be consistently reminded of how much he loves the club.
The simple fact is that this is one of the biggest jobs in club football, and he’s had it for nearly three seasons. United are floundering, there are no signs of forward progress. It’s time to give somebody else a go. Is it difficult to compete against Jurgen Klopp’s Liverpool, Thomas Tuchel’s Chelsea and Pep Guardiola’s Manchester City? Yes, it most certainly is. Just because there isn’t necessarily shame in coming up short doesn’t mean United should accept the status quo.
Early indications after his departure on Sunday were that the club would hire a caretaker, followed by an interim coach to see them through the end of the season, and then get the transformational A-lister they want in June. It’s a logical approach: they need a warm body to take charge of the squad straightaway because they’re playing Villarreal in a crucial Champions League match on Tuesday (and they found one in Michael Carrick). Trying to get your long-term boss in place in midseason is, frankly, difficult and expensive and much easier to do in the summer.
Funnily enough, that was the original plan with Solskjaer, as you may recall. He was only supposed to keep the seat warm after Jose Mourinho’s sacking, but because he won 14 of his first 16 games — including a much mythologized 3-1 win over Paris Saint-Germain in the Champions League that sent them through on the away goals rule — United decided to ditch their plan and make him the permanent manager (or, about as permanent as managers get).
Julien Laurens explains his reservations about how Mauricio Pochettino would do at Manchester United.
Incidentally, that game was decided by a 94th-minute handball penalty converted by Marcus Rashford … not necessarily the sort of thing you would credit the manager for. But United got caught up in the emotion and put pen to paper. There was no reason to do it at that time; they could have waited until the end of the season. If they had, they may have noticed that Solskjaer won just two of his last 12 games, and that maybe sticking to their original plan was a better choice.
But that’s hindsight, and we’re in the present. And after being briefed on the caretaker-to-interim-to-permanent process, Mauricio Pochettino’s people let it be known that, yes, he’d be ready to walk out on Paris Saint-Germain (and Neymar, Kylian Mbappe and Lionel Messi) for the United job in midseason.
I have no idea if it’s true, or if it’s just Pochettino’s camp looking for a way to get some more leverage over PSG, where he’s been in the job less than a year. I was a huge fan of his work at Tottenham, and United did pursue him in the past, but to even consider this right now seems like the sort of ill-advised knee-jerk decision that led to Solskjaer becoming the permanent manager three months after he was made the interim manager.
United’s dysfunction runs deep when it comes to making decisions. Ultimately, it comes down to Joel Glazer and chief executive Ed Woodward talking on the phone. The former is the guy who thought the Super League would be well received by supporters; the latter is leaving the club in a few months and has been the poster boy for on-field underachievement since Sir Alex left. You don’t need a Harvard MBA to figure out that the best decisions come when there’s accountability, and leaving this one to a guy who doesn’t care and a guy who will be gone in a few months isn’t the most clever thing to do. And that’s before you get into all the practical difficulties of securing Pochettino in midseason.
It’s not so much that PSG wouldn’t let him go if he said he wanted to leave. Let’s face it: they may be top of Ligue 1, but they didn’t win it last season. But they can make you pay through the nose to release him. If PSG turn it into a point of pride, their stubbornness (and financial means) knows few limits, as Real Madrid found out over the summer when they opted to lose Mbappe as a free agent rather than take €180 million now. How a long and public — and it would be public, because everything is when it comes to PSG — negotiation would be beneficial to United is anyone’s guess.
The best solution? Stick to Sunday’s plan. Go with Carrick, find an interim guy to keep the seat warm and try to get things right in the summer with the right long-term appointment (whether Pochettino or somebody else). Have a proper search. Heck, given how poorly the in-house guys have fared, the Glazers might want to hire an external company to do it.
What’s the worst that happens? Man United fail to make the Champions League? Sure, that would be a blow financially, but one they can take. Lest we forget, they finished sixth at the end of Solskjaer’s first season, which is exactly where they were when Mourinho was fired. As long as there’s perceived progress and no impending financial doom, getting things right in the long term is worth a year without the Champions League, if indeed it does come to that.
Inter Milan aren’t solid, but they show they’re for real in beating Napoli
There’s a certain fragility to Simone Inzaghi’s Inter, one that’s more in keeping with this club’s history than it is with last season under Antonio Conte. Against Napoli, they went a goal down, but showed guts and character and outplayed the opposition most of the rest of the way, settling into a 3-1 lead with half an hour to go.
But then, it nearly all collapsed. Inter managed just one shot the rest of the way, Luciano Spalletti sent on Elif Elmas and Dries Mertens, and they were mercilessly pinned back. Mertens pulled one back, Samir Handanovic (and his lucky star) conjured up a miracle off Mario Rui and then Mertens himself fluffed a sitter that would have made it 3-3.
You don’t want to be too hard after a team plays as well for an hour or so (and with poor old Andrea Ranocchia, all 6-foot-5 of him, pitted against Victor Osimhen’s pace), but you suspect they would have been hammered if they’d given up the draw. This is a team with characters and match-winners, which means they remain in the hunt. And that was far from a given when Inzaghi was appointed.
As for Napoli, it’s their first defeat of the Serie A campaign. Milan’s loss to Fiorentina on Saturday night mitigates the damage somewhat — Napoli are still joint-top — though Osimhen’s fractured cheekbone is a worry, not just for Napoli, who will lose him for a month, but for Nigeria ahead of the Africa Cup of Nations as well. They’ve weathered storms without Osimhen before, and you wouldn’t bet against them doing it again.
Debut derby win for Xavi a reminder of how much work needs to be done
The good news is that his mere presence energized Camp Nou. Xavi replacing Ronald Koeman isn’t just one club legend replacing another at Barcelona; it’s the promise of change, made possible, too, by the fact that Xavi’s body of work (a couple of successful seasons in Qatar) is far more limited. And with Koeman, familiarity, frankly, bred contempt.
Xavi did things in an almost stereotypical Barca way against Espanyol, placing his faith in the La Masia products Nico and Gavi, as well as giving a debut to another homegrown kid, Ilias Akhomach (and another, Abde Ezzalzouli, during the game). He kept the wingers wide, but with licence to converge, like Johan Cruyff used to do. And, of course, he preached possession.
He came away with a 1-0 win and three points, which could easily have been zero. The penalty that Memphis Depay won (and converted) was somewhere between the generous and the imaginary. Espanyol hit the woodwork twice with Raul De Tomas and Landry Dimata missed a sitter. It’s a reminder of how much ground Barca have to make up, but maybe the three points are also a good omen. This fan base is due a bit of luck.
Liverpool thump Arsenal, reminding Arteta of the long road ahead
Janusz Michallik says Liverpool did not look themselves before the managers clashed on the touchlines.
It was overshadowed by events at Vicarage Road and, later, Old Trafford, but Liverpool’s 4-0 win over Arsenal was as impressive as they come. It arrived after a defeat to West Ham and an international break, without Andy Robertson and Jordan Henderson, after a half-hour in which they were matched blow for blow by Arsenal and against an opponent who had gone unbeaten in ten games and crept up to fifth in the table.
Some have identified the row between Mikel Arteta and Jurgen Klopp as the turning point, and they may be right: certainly it lifted Anfield, and Liverpool consolidated their dominance after the first 30 minutes. Whatever the case, with Thiago Alcantara back on form, Arsenal had no answers once Klopp’s men turned the screws, with the Gunners managing a single shot on goal in the second half.
As for Arteta, it’s a reminder of how much work remains to be done. The 4-2-3-1 formation did offer dividends in the recent run, but it’s not a long-term solution — at least not with Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang and Alexandre Lacazette up front. And this team still needs to grow at breaking the press and getting out of their own half, especially against quality opponents.
Messi scores first Ligue 1 goal as PSG overcome attempt at self-destruction
You don’t want to be too harsh as it’s the first game back after the November international break, but against Nantes, Paris Saint-Germain were heading for a nightmare few days ahead of their potentially decisive Champions League clash with Manchester City on Wednesday.
They took the lead early with Kylian Mbappe (after some good work from Neymar), wasted several clear chances with Lionel Messi, saw their goalkeeper Keylor Navas get himself foolishly sent off (and had no Gigio Donnarumma on the bench) and then gave up the equalizer. And with Neymar looking grumpy as he came on to make way for the third keeper, Sergio Rico, you wondered what was going through Mauricio Pochettino’s mind.
Then, his fellow “Rosarino” secured the three points. Messi forced an own goal and then opened his Ligue 1 account, with the kind of right-to-left movement and finish that’s been his trademark over the years.
This is not quite a PSG “team” yet, but with so much talent, in many games it won’t matter.
Guardiola finds a new center-forward in win over Everton
Janusz Michallik says Pep Guardiola’s tough love has helped Raheem Sterling and Bernardo Silva to shine.
Sometimes it’s hard to take the player out of the system. I genuinely haven’t seen enough of Cole Palmer, the 19-year-old who made his Premier League debut in Manchester City’s 3-0 win over Everton on Sunday, to know if he has a future at the club. What’s evident though is that he has a present. He showed this by dropping in seamlessly into the “false nine” role (or whatever you want to call what Pep does up front) moving with precision, interchanging with Ilkay Gundogan and generally giving Everton’s central defenders fits.
When Phil Foden or Kevin De Bruyne do it, we marvel at their quality. Palmer may not be in the same conversation technically, but truth be told, it matters little when he can slot this seamlessly into the team. Throw in Joao Cancelo’s highlight-reel pass, and Rodri’s long-distance heat seeker, and it was another 90 minutes of ordinary brilliance for Man City.
Real Madrid go top and — crucially — get the performance they wanted
Real Madrid put in one of their most convincing performances of the campaign in the 4-1 win over Granada and returned to the top of LaLiga. Stick Eder Militao in for Nacho at center-back, and this could be pretty much their base XI, which means if they can play consistently at this level, they can go places. And yes: that means Marco Asensio out wide instead of Eden Hazard (still on the longest road back ever), Gareth Bale (enough said) and Rodrygo (still just 20 years old). Asensio has had a stop-start time at the Bernabeu, but his skills probably complement Karim Benzema and Vinicius better than any other option.
Carlo Ancelotti was full of praise for his veteran midfield and, on the day, they dominated. The trio of Toni Kroos, Luka Modric and Casemiro do have a lot of miles on the clock, though, and a lot will depend not so much on how good they are at staying fit and available, but also at how well Fede Valverde and Eduardo Camavinga do when they are called into the fray. Still, when they’re in this kind of form, they can compete with just about anyone.
Tottenham’s growing pains are evident, but good fortune smiles on Conte
Janusz Michallik says Spurs need several components before truly playing like Antonio Conte wants.
Tottenham lived down to every stereotype in a first half against Leeds United that saw them fortunate to be only 1-0 down. So much so that you almost wondered if somebody was playing a practical joke on Antonio Conte, by doing all the things he hates. There was little intensity from the front three. Emerson was getting bullied on his flank, Harry Winks was ethereal and the back three looked as if they’d picked up their defensive movements from a children’s coaching manual.
It all changed after the break and while a spot of good luck played a part in the goals, Tottenham nevertheless deserved their 2-1 win. We probably shouldn’t be surprised, and not just because of the many absentees in midfield and at the back. Conte gets his results not just by shouting and dialing up the pressure, but by working on the training pitch. Working long and hard, often on boring, repetitive things. This takes time, and it’s no coincidence that his start at Chelsea (when he missed a chunk of preseason having taken charge of Italy at Euro 2016) was awful too.
With the international break, he simply hasn’t had the time to do it yet at Tottenham. It’s tough to know how much better they’ll be once they put the hours in (after all, it will be the same group of players until January, at least), but what you can safely expect is a bit more tactical coherence.
Vlahovic and individual errors stun Milan at Fiorentina
Other than the fact that they’re both tall, technically gifted center-forwards of Slavic descent, Zlatan Ibrahimovic and Dusan Vlahovic have little in common. But it’s hard to resist drawing a parallel when they bagged two goals each in Fiorentina’s epic 4-3 win over Milan. Vlahovic showed again why he’s the best young powerhouse center-forward not named Erling, and there was plenty of early Zlatan in his performance Saturday night.
As for late Zlatan, aka present day Zlatan, he notched the two goals that took Milan back to 3-2 after some woeful individual errors (not just goalkeeper Ciprian Tatarusanu, but Matteo Gabbia at the back) had left them in a three-goal hole.
If Milan look past the doom and gloom, they’ll see that they showed plenty of fight and character in reopening the game, but also that if they’re going to win Serie A, they need to limit the individual mistakes against teams like Fiorentina, who boast the quality to make you pay. This may be a side filled with talented youngsters, but not to the degree that they can afford to take their foot off the gas.
Reus to the rescue as Dortmund, despite usual flaws, pull within one point of Bayern
At the risk of stating the blindingly obvious, if you’re going to play poorly and have a bunch of key players out or just returning from injury, it’s best to win games while doing so. That’s sort of where Marco Rose and Borussia Dortmund find themselves.
Dortmund beat Stuttgart 2-1 on Saturday, showing the customary defensive frailties, but snatching a winner courtesy of a late goal from Marco Reus. Coupled with Bayern losing to Augsburg on Friday, it leaves them a point off the top of the table, which is rather remarkable when you consider the injury list and how uneven their performances have been. Heck, even the much-maligned Donyell Malen finally got on the scoreboard.
Rose knows he’ll sink or swim based on what happens when Erling Haaland returns. But rising to the top — or, at least, not sinking to the bottom — will be a lot more straightforward with all these points they’re accumulating by hook or by crook.
More than the win, Chelsea get a performance vs. Leicester
Steve Nicol says Chelsea have solidified their spot as Premier League favourites by winning big vs. Leicester.
Chelsea’s 3-0 victory away to Leicester on Saturday was important not because of the quality of the opposition — Leicester do have plenty of quality, but they also have a number of injuries and have been on the slide, winless in nearly a month — but because for the first time in a while, everything clicked for Thomas Tuchel. The goals came early and Chelsea continued to be relentless throughout, moving the ball and creating chances with fluidity and precision. And they’re doing it without Romelu Lukaku, and with Jorginho pulling the strings as if his nightmarish international break with Italy had never happened.
Assuming Leicester wasn’t a (positive) blip, it looks as if Tuchel has found a chemistry without Chelsea’s record signing. If he can maintain it once Lukaku returns, they’ll be in very good shape.
Juventus go ‘old-school’ in Lazio win … maybe the trick is adapting to the opposition
It’s almost too easy to say Max Allegri turned back the clock against Lazio. Maurizio Sarri took the game to the opposition, Juventus absorbed the pressure and took the three points thanks to two penalties converted by Leo Bonucci: one was as soft as they get, the other was after a brain fart from Pepe Reina, but that’s what matters to them.
Did Allegri get the performance he wanted? Yes and no. He got the right performance against a side like Lazio — especially when they have to play Pedro at center-forward because of Ciro Immobile’s injury — they looked organised, but they also didn’t dominate the play like Allegri says he wants them to do (and like what is probably necessary in the modern game).
Juve did have players unavailable (though, perhaps, missing Paulo Dybala isn’t a big deal in games like these) but you wonder if, right now, a pragmatic approach isn’t the way to go. Not pragmatic in terms of simply playing on the counterattack, but rather picking your spots.
You can play this way against Sarri’s Lazio, but you can’t do it against most clubs and that part is still something they need to work on. But they did get it right at the Stadio Olimpico, recorded an away win and moved back up into sixth place. That’s not insignificant.
Atletico Madrid win the sort of game you need to win in order to win LaLiga
Playing Osasuna — a team not shy about putting five guys across the back and shutting up shop — is rarely fun. It’s even less fun when it comes sandwiched between an international break and a crucial Champions League clash vs. Milan, and some of your guys are missing while others are there in body only.
Diego Simeone’s crew had to summon up the old “Cholo Mojo” to get this done, grinding until the very end and being rewarded by Felipe’s late, late header to win 1-0. They had plenty of the ball, as often happens in these situations, but Antoine Griezmann and Angel Correa didn’t get the service they would have liked. And so this time game gets logged in the “ugly wins” category.
Simeone doesn’t mind. It’s still three points.
And finally… #BasDostWatch
Bas Dost scored for Club Brugge in their 1-2 away defeat to Standard Liege. He now has five goals in 12 Belgian league appearances and is on pace to score 11 in the league. Overall, he has seven goals in 16 appearances in all competitions this season.
This concludes the latest instalment of #BasDostWatch.