4:25 PM GMT
Gabriele MarcottiSenior Writer, ESPN FC
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: Messi’s heroics | Give Ljungberg time | Bayern’s bad day | Man United misfire with Mata | Juve still unbeaten | Real Madrid on track? | Liverpool can still get better | Don’t write off Man City yet | Inter’s magic strike duo | Mou must fix Spurs’ defence | Why did Hertha hire Klinsmann? | Leicester game shows VAR works | Napoli’s crisis continues | Bundesliga’s two-horse race
Messi (and ter Stegen) rescue Barcelona again
If the whispers coming out of Barcelona are correct — and let’s face it, given how the title is accompanied by a photo shoot and all sorts of hard-to-miss PR activity, unless you engage in some serious misdirection, they’re bound to be, right? — Lionel Messi is likely to win his sixth Ballon d’Or on Monday. (Though having won the 2019 FC 100 this year, would a Ballon d’Or even matter?)
I’ve shared my feelings about these sorts of awards before and it remains shocking how much importance folks attach to them. You’d think that like phrenology or reading tea leaves, we might have moved out of the dark ages when it comes to these global popularity contests, but since people still seem to care, let’s settle this. Because the Ballon d’Or means different things to do different people, in a year like this you go with what you most value.
You like rewarding guys who won the most silverware? Well, Cristiano Ronaldo is your man: he won the Serie A title and led Portugal to the UEFA Nations League. (He also turned in some huge performances in the Champions League when everybody was watching, which matters because many of these voters only pay attention to the big games.)
Are you the sort of person who perpetually believes defenders are underappreciated and therefore, you have to give it to the inspirational leader of the team that won the biggest prize in the club game and finished second in the biggest league by a single point? OK, then go with Virgil van Dijk and his monster campaign. Though be advised that on a Jenga-like side Liverpool, it’s really hard to argue that Van Dijk is substantially more important than say, Sadio Mane, Roberto Firmino, Alisson, Fabinho or Trent Alexander-Arnold, which means you’re likely to split the vote.
You just want to reward the best player in the world, as in the guy you would most like to add to your team if the genie came out of the bottle and granted you a single wish? In that case, odds are you’d choose Lionel Messi. Or you’d choose someone else and your nose would grow imperceptibly longer.
All Messi did in 2019 was average roughly a goal a game for Barcelona, a side with more holes and practical uses than a wagon wheel of Emmenthal if it was machine-gunned by a Howitzer. As if on cue, he reminded us again of his brilliance on Sunday night, away to Atletico Madrid. Against tightly-wound opposition, after 86 minutes in the driving rain of the Wanda Metropolitano, he did what has become overly familiar, like his goal-scoring numbers. He picks up the ball on the right, converges centrally, plays a wall pass with Suarez, squirts into space like ketchup out of the pouch and produces a surgical side-foot finish that threads the needle through a gang of Atleti defenders. Call it the banality of excellence. You know what’s coming; you just can’t defend it.
The goal, which gave Barcelona a 1-0 win and returned them to the top of La Liga on goal difference, is a reminder of why he’ll likely win Monday night, but it should also be the umpteenth hazard light on Ernesto Valverde’s dashboard. This was a game that could have seen Barcelona three goals down by half-time against a depleted Atletico. That they weren’t is down to the woodwork and some absurd saves from Marc-Andre ter Stegen, who, in terms of Barcelona, is the Omega to Messi’s Alpha.
Atleti away in those conditions is about as fun as a trip to the dentist. But Barca showed their limits in every department, from full-back (where Sergi Roberto remains little more than a patch and Junior Firpo looks as if he’s there by accident), to midfield (these days Ivan Rakitic has the mobility of the suspended Sergio Busquets without his sense of position, while Arthur still looks unfit), to attack (where Luis Suarez did little beyond the wall pass to Messi and Antoine Griezmann, mercilessly booed by the Wanda, shrivelled into dust).
Yes, they’re top, but they’re as Messi- and Marc-Andre-dependent as they’ve been in a long time. If you have faith in Valverde, it’s good news, because at some point the rest will click and they’ll improve exponentially. If you don’t, well, when either of the two next takes a day off you’re going to drop points.
After the match, Diego Simeone again reminded everyone that Atletico were in the midst of a “transition season.” That’s undoubtedly true, but when you’ve won just five of your last 17 games in all competitions, fans get frustrated. They didn’t like Joao Felix coming off (even though he’s 20 years old, the conditions didn’t suit him and he hadn’t played 90 minutes in nearly six weeks), they questioned why, again, they weren’t able to stop Messi’s late shtick. In fact, they were beaten by two superheroes — a tall German and a small Argentine — and sometimes you just have to accept that.
Ljungberg’s new Arsenal needs time to gel
What shall we make of Freddie Ljungberg’s “new” Arsenal? You might think that based on Sunday’s 2-2 draw at Norwich, it’s a lot like the “old” Arsenal, only with more coherent manager comments. Same defensive errors, same chaos in the final third. But in fact, it’s not.
The 4-2-3-1 Ljungberg used is a rational change, even if it means shifting one of the front two wide (Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang, in this case) because it lays the groundwork for Nicolas Pepe. That has to be the starting point: it’s the only formation that allows you to use Pepe and Mesut Ozil. You can quibble about some of the other changes (Shkodran Mustafi for Sokratis Papastathopoulos springs to mind) but it’s worth remembering they’ve basically had one day of full training together. Let’s give Ljungberg and Per Mertesacker some time to work.
Shaka Hislop is left scratching his head at Freddie Ljungberg’s starting XI in Arsenal’s draw at Norwich.
Bayern have a bad day at the office
I wouldn’t be overly concerned by Hansi Flick’s first defeat as Bayern boss. This weekend’s 2-1 home defeat against Bayer Leverkusen was classic defend-and-counter stuff and when you face a guy like Leon Bailey, who is only marginally slower than the speed of sound, in a state of grace, sometimes things don’t work out and you get caught. Bayern dominated, created loads of chances but simply didn’t finish. And yes, that applies to the deadliest finisher of all, Robert Lewandowski, who squandered several chances.
Call it a bad day and move on.
Man United fail to adapt to Mata
Ole Gunnar Solskjaer gambled on a more attacking set-up at home to Aston Villa, dusting off Juan Mata for his first Premier League start in nearly two months and lining him up in the hole in a 4-2-3-1. It finished 2-2 — two points dropped — and you don’t want to be too harsh on Solskjaer given the injury crisis in midfield. But what must have been disappointing is the front three’s failure to adjust to Mata. If you have a guy like him on the pitch offering guile and creativity, but limited mobility, you need to move and find space. You’ve seen napping tabbies with more urgency.
Throw in the fact that they had a full six days to prepare for this game given Solskjaer’s decision to send the kids to Kazakhstan for the Europa League and you hope he’s got one of Sir Alex’s spare hairdryer routines in reserve.
Juve have a horror show, but they’re still undefeated
Juventus served up a veritable defensive horror show in their 2-2 home draw with Sassuolo, which allowed Inter to leapfrog them at the top of Serie A. That second goal in particular featured massive blunders from (in order) Juan Cuadrado, Matthijs de Ligt and Gigi Buffon. Meanwhile, at the other end, an 18 year old third-choice keeper named Stefano Turati, who later admitted he was “shaking with fear” throughout the match, saved shot after shot. And one shot he wasn’t getting to was saved (unwittingly) by none other than Cristiano Ronaldo, who got in the way of Paulo Dybala‘s effort.
It’s tempting to look at it, count up the chances and conclude that Juve should have won while reminding yourself that these grotesque defensive blunders are unlikely to happen again. Fine. But it’s also true that Juve are still neither cohesive nor effective, and they rely far too much on individuals. The fact that they’re still the only side in the “Big Five” leagues who are still undefeated in all competitions speaks more to their quality than how they’ve played thus far.
Real Madrid showing the right spirit
Zinedine Zidane is like the kid with all the best toys who is trying to decide which ones give him the most happiness. That he’s deciding while grinding out results is undoubtedly a positive. Away to Alaves, we saw Gareth Bale make his first start in two months and Isco join Karim Benzema in the front three. Bale was ineffective, Isco did his drift inside schtick with limited success, but then the weather conditions helped neither. What made the difference was Madrid’s determination and blue-collar cohesion in what could easily have been a banana skin of a game.
Zidane may still be looking for the winning recipe, but his players (ingredients?) are all showing the right spirit (even, in his own way, Bale). Competition for places can be a double-edged sword. From what we saw against Alaves, it’s being channelled in the right way.
Liverpool can still improve
Virgil van Dijk’s two goals from Trent Alexander-Arnold assists sent Liverpool on their way to a 2-1 victory over Brighton that was more laboured than it ought to have been and not just because of Alisson’s red card with 15 minutes left. That doesn’t take away from the simple effectiveness of the TAA-VVD set-piece combination: when you have a guy who can put the ball just about anywhere he wants and another guy who is bigger, stronger and a tremendous jumper, you have a frightening additional weapon in your arsenal. But Van Dijk is right: Liverpool can still improve by at least another 10 percent.
We’ve seen them go through a run of games where they haven’t dominated but still won. Maybe it’s Jurgen Klopp and his fitness team pacing them so they’re fresh for the insanely congested fixture list coming up. Maybe it’s that some guys have dropped off or are going through a rough patch. Either way, even with their eight-point lead in the Premier League, they can’t sit on their laurels.
Steve Nicol says Liverpool are so good they win despite not playing as well as years past.
Don’t write off Man City just yet
The 2-2 draw at Newcastle leaves Manchester City 11 points back. Cue folks writing them off in 3, 2, 1… That’s premature. There are 24 games to go. It’s unlikely that we’ll get the head-to-head down-to-the-wire race we had last season, but there is little question City aren’t where they were. It’s not Saturday’s draw — they could easily have won that game — but rather the fact that they’re starting the price for injuries and absentees. Gabriel Jesus is an outstanding centre-forward (maybe even as good as Guardiola suggests) but his runs are very different to the injured Sergio Aguero‘s. Benjamin Mendy isn’t an auxiliary wide playmaker like Oleg Zinchenko was last season. Riyad Mahrez has ups and downs: a fit Leroy Sane would have been a plus. And, of course, Aymeric Laporte was the best stopper-not-named-Virgil in the league and, whoever plays in his absence is several notches below.
City are different this year and that’s your reason.
Strikers lead Inter to the top of Serie A
Very few top teams play a genuine front two and that may be why Antonio Conte is getting so much out of his Lautaro Martinez and Romelu Lukaku partnership: teams are just not accustomed to playing against strike tandems. Or, more likely, it’s that both are intelligent, unselfish strikers who are just as happy with an assist as they are a goal. Their understanding is beginning to border on the telepathic and their goal total (23 between them in 2019-20) reflects this.
This weekend, Lautaro sent Inter on their way to a 2-1 win over Spal that sees them recapture the top of the table. That they were able to do this without two-thirds of their starting midfield (Stefano Sensi and Nicola Barella, who were seen as essential not that long ago, were both out) is a testament to how front-wheel-drive this Inter side is becoming.
Mourinho has Spurs firing … now to plug the defence
It’s three wins out of three for Jose Mourinho as Tottenham beat Bournemouth, 3-2, on Saturday. When he was appointed, there was a sense that he had changed: he projected as being less sour, more smiley and more empathetic (to use one of his words). There’s no question Tottenham have had a lift since his appointment and his tendency to be more direct (witness the Toby Alderweireld to Dele Alli connection) is one of those solutions that seems obvious now but which Mauricio Pochettino rarely exploited.
That said, what’s most unlike Mourinho is the leaky defence. Six goals conceded in three games is not what we’re accustomed to. Expect that to change.
Will Klinsmann succeed at Hertha?
It was a bitter return to club management for Jurgen Klinsmann at Hertha Berlin, as they fell at home to Borussia Dortmund, 2-1. Obviously Dortmund — even this weakened, star-crossed version with Lucien Favre teetering on the edge of the sack — is going to be a tall order for anyone, but it’s still hard to see what the club saw in Klinsmann other than a big name. Yes, Hertha have some big investors behind them now and we can probably expect some spending in January, not least because they’re on the edge of automatic relegation. But the fact is Klinsmann hasn’t worked in three years (since getting sacked by the United States) and he hasn’t actually coached a club side in a decade (that was Bayern and that didn’t end well either).
It does feel as though Hertha’s decision makers were seduced by a big name rather than a concrete plan.
Leicester game proves VAR works
Video Assistant Referees (VAR) continue to get little love in some quarters, but games like Leicester City vs. Everton on Sunday might convince a few in England that, without it, we might be worse off. First, VAR overturned a penalty awarded by referee Graham Scott for a blatant Ben Chilwell dive. And then, deep in injury time, it overruled the assistant referee who had flagged Kelechi Iheanacho‘s winner offside. Both decisions were clear and correct. This is how it’s supposed to work, folks. This is why it’s there. And this is why Leicester, deservedly, are second in the table, eight points behind Liverpool.
Are you sure you want to go back?
Gab Marcotti breaks down Napoli’s struggles and what Carlo Ancelotti can do to fix them.
Napoli need to figure it out … and fast
Napoli were booed off the pitch after losing at home to Bologna, 2-1. Given they’d just held the European champions to a draw at Anfield, the letdown was understandable. Particularly since some (including me) had them challenging for the title this season, while instead they’re now seventh, 17 points off the pace. For his part, Carlo Ancelotti owned the situation, saying: “It’s normal for a manager to take responsibility. I think at lot of this is down to me and my decisions, but not all of it. But it’s up to me to fix it. I’ll sit down with the players Monday and they’ll help me figure it out. And if they can’t, I’ll decide what to do.”
His decision? Another “ritiro“: the antediluvian Italian custom of locking teams up in training camp, making them sleep at the club HQ to “prepare” the next match. This, you’ll recall, was what set in motion the malaise in the first place, as well as the fines to the mutineers who refused to return to the “ritiro” after the Champions’ League game against Salzburg. It had better work this time.
It’s a two-horse race in Germany
Yup, we got a two-horse race in the Bundesliga. And while it’s not the two teams most were expecting (many were looking forward to a Bayern vs. Borussia blockbuster) it’s the two sides with the most interesting managers: Julian Nagelsmann’s Leipzig and Marco Rose’s Borussia Monchengladbach. The former won away at Paderborn, 3-2 (though after racing to a 3-0 lead inside half an hour, things got nervy at the end) while the latter overcame Freiburg, 4-2. Gladbach will find out just how “for real” they are next week, when they host Bayern.