Defensive problems for Guardiola

After a hot start to the season, Man City find themselves quickly dropping points, the FC crew look at what’s gone wrong.

Fans love storylines. Just ask Rafa Benitez, who has been haunted by the “facts!” incident to this day. The idea of managers figuratively naked in front of the cameras coming across as bizarre or unhinged is a popular one, and it provides a neat explanation for future results going all the way back to Kevin Keegan.

Those incidents came to mind watching Pep Guardiola’s postgame reaction after Manchester City’s stunning 4-2 capitulation at Leicester. He was asked whether the defensive issues — especially the way Jamie Vardy Co. ripped his back three apart on the counter — was down to tactics, and he said no. If it’s not down to tactics, then is it down to personnel? Again, he said no.

So what is it? And to that point, he said something about football being a game with mistakes, stressing that he won’t ever complain about his players and needing to look inside himself to analyze the reasons for their problems.

You don’t blame him for not wanting to single out individuals. And OK, you don’t want to admit that leaving a back three of Aleksandar Kolarov, John Stones and Bacary Sagna isolated in space against Leicester’s speedy counter is not a good idea. Fine. But surely you need to come up with something — like, maybe a stock managerial cliche? “We are all responsible, we win and lose as a team…” or “We weren’t great, but you have to give credit to Leicester, who were outstanding…” or whatever. (The managers’ manual is very thick in this regard.)

Instead, we got this, which amounts to “stuff happens.” He then took it to a whole new level when he talked about the English game being all about “second balls” and adding “I’m not coaching tackles… I’m not training for tackles… what’s tackles?”

The Exploding Heads review another happening weekend of Premier League action, including Joe Hart’s secret appearance!

I think it’s safe to say we shouldn’t take him literally. Because the game that defines him — high pressing, more than possession — is all about tackling and intensity and winning the ball back high up the pitch. So, yeah, assuming he does train pressing, and he trains tackles, too. Perhaps more so than most managers.

Did he mean that winning tackles and second balls is down to desire and hunger and that’s something you can’t train or teach? Maybe. That seems more plausible. But then it amounts to criticising your own team, which he said he does not do.

Pep can and should — to some degree — ignore the commentariat chatter, like the one coming from Peter Schmeichel He knows what’s doing; his track record speaks to this. If he gets results to go with his performances, folks won’t remember days like Saturday.

But he should also be aware that players talk and murmur. And if they lose faith and confidence in what he’s asking them to do, his system won’t work. And the more they hear criticism coupled with bizarre explanations like the one Guardiola offered on Saturday, the closer they get to that turning point.

From my perspective, the defensive woes were not dissimilar to what we saw against Chelsea the week before. This was a back three that was exposed, in part for being too far up the pitch, in part because the defensive movements to stop a counter aren’t as effective as they should be (Steve Nicol, speaking on the show, said they looked like a team that had not worked on this) and in part because the individuals aren’t talented or athletic enough to make up for it. This is something he needs to address, and while he’s at it, somebody internally should question why he and Txiki Begiristain underestimated this in the summer.

As for Leicester, the Premier League has to be the priority at this point (at least until mid-February when the Champions League returns) and this victory is a big morale booster. Jamie Vardy breaking his duck was huge, as was the performance of Islam Slimani, who is finally hitting his stride.

Zidane gets lucky with rotated Real vs. Depor

Zinedine Zidane rested several key players against Deportivo, which saw them nearly lose, the FC panel discuss his tactics.

Say this for Zinedine Zidane. He’s obviously not obsessed with seeing his name in the record books. Or, as someone once observed, records get broken. It’s trophies that are forever.

If Zidane cared deeply about going 35 games unbeaten and beating the mark set by Leo Beenhakker back in 1988-89, he wouldn’t have put out the XI he did against Deportivo La Coruna on Saturday. Namely, a lineup with Cristiano Ronaldo, Karim Benzema and Luka Madrid rested in the stands and Marcelo, Dani Carvajal, Mateo Kovacic, Lucas Vazquez, Raphael Varane and Marcelo on the bench.

The plan was to rotate players ahead of the Club World Cup and the long trip to Japan — they face Club America in Yokohama on Thursday — and it’s likely that the challenge posed by Depor, who are teetering on the edge of the relegation zone, was underestimated.

Celso Borges gave Real a scare in the first half, but when Alvaro Morata put them ahead after the break, all seemed fine. But then Joselu scored twice in three minutes and suddenly Zidane was staring disaster in the eye. Mariano, who had played just 19 minutes of Liga football to that point, came off the bench to level the score at 2-2.

What followed was a nervy finale with plenty of scuffles, appeals to the referee and general bundle-of-nerves type stuff. But just like last week’s Clasico, the final act was provided by Sergio Ramos, the goal-scoring center-back. As happened at the Camp Nou, he found a free lane in the box to attack and steered his header past the keeper for a last-ditch winner.

It was heady stuff, only reinforcing the notion that some kind of mystical force envelops Ramos in these situations. But it was also a reminder to Zidane: Your bench isn’t quite as good as you think it is. And contrary to popular belief, there may well be fewer gimmes in La Liga than many think.

Mkhitaryan, Man United making genuine progress

Henrikh Mkhitaryan had a superb showing for Man United, Gab Marcotti addresses what took so long for Mourinho to play him.

Jose Mourinho was always going to gloat a little after winning his first league home game in five opportunities. Particularly since in at least three of those matches that turned into draws, Manchester United had the upper hand and were legitimately unlucky to drop points.

More tellingly, they looked genuinely good in Sunday’s 1-0 win against Tottenham Hotspur and crucially, Henrikh Mkhitaryan showed just why his bit part until now has been one of those head-scratching Mourinho mysteries. It took a while, but there has been genuine progress over the past month.

The top of the table is still far, far away. But a run on the top four is manageable, provided Mourinho can keep this newfound balance intact.

PSG keep Ligue 1 race going with comeback vs. Nice

That old cliche “a game of two halves” seemed to apply Sunday night when league-leading Nice (goodness, it still feels weird to write that) traveled to the Parc des Princes to take on Paris Saint-Germain. For 48 minutes (including time added on, which is when Alassane Plea notched the visitors’ second goal to make it 0-2), PSG banged their collective heads against Lucien Favre’s well-constructed barricade and suffered tremendously in transition.

Unai Emery’s game plan fell flat — in particular the idea of putting Blaise Matuidi as some kind of hole-puncher and Grezgorz Krychowiak in front of the back four. With the former Sevilla coach already under fire, you wondered if this could be a proverbial nail in the coffin.

He was bailed out by his half-time fix (Krychowiak out, Lucas Moura in, Matuidi back in the middle), which gave PSG more verve and creativity, and by the fact that Edinson Cavani went into overdrive. If you break down the chances, PSG might even have nicked it, though the 2-2 draw was a fair result.

Nice hang on at the top, galvanised and with renewed confidence, though Monaco’s 4-0 trouncing of Bordeaux means they are now a single point back. For PSG, it’s back to the drawing board. But for now, at least Emery has a board on which to draw.

Chelsea’s win shows their versatility

The FC crew debate if Chelsea’s top table spot makes them the best team, or if Arsenal deserves to be in the conversation.

Chelsea’s 1-0 victory over West Bromwich Albion was laboured and grueling, though ultimately deserved. What stood out (other than Diego Costa’s utter ferocity) was how this team can match up against different opponents in different ways.

Against Manchester City, they defended stoutly and blitzed the visitors’ defensive line on the counter. Against West Brom, who placed a forest of bodies in front of Ben Foster, they resorted to quick one-twos, aerial bombardment and intermittent pressing, all while switching formations to get another passer like Cesc Fabregas on the pitch.

It’s now nine victories in a row — the record, in case you’re wondering, is 14 — and a lot of it has to do with the team’s versatility. Expect more changes in personnel and formation in coming weeks as Conte tries to stay ahead of the curve and keep his edge.

Have Bayern finally turned a corner?

Bayern needed a bounce, and they got it in the past week, beating Atletico Madrid in the Champions League and thrashing Wolfsburg on Saturday. It’s not the result that provided the bounce — a win over Wolfsburg was par for the course — but the way they played.

They looked more dominant and less reliant on individuals. And deploying Thomas Mueller behind Robert Lewandowski worked not just in a team sense, but for the star-crossed German star as well. His goal in the 5-0 rout was his first in the Bundesliga since last April.

As for Wolfsburg, the Julian Draxler affair weighs heavy. The 23-year-old winger wanted a move in the summer and didn’t get it; from there, relations took a bad turn. The club have apparently decided he won’t play for them again. This is problematic when you have a contract through 2020. Given his age and skill set, he’s bound to be a hot item this January, and it’s hard to see Wolfsburg having the leverage to demand anything close to fair market value.

This might be a “different” Arsenal after all

ESPN’s correspondents report on another thrilling weekend of Premier League action.

Forget for a minute whether Granit Xhaka’s elbow on Joe Allen was a penalty and red card, a penalty or not even a foul. Focus instead on what happened after and these words from Theo Walcott after Arsenal’s 3-1 win over Stoke.

“I think we would have felt sorry for ourselves in the past and said it was not a penalty,” he said. “But we started the second half well. We don’t normally do that but there was something about us.”

For his part, Arsene Wenger cited the fact that it was the sixth time this season that Arsenal came from behind to get points from a game, suggesting there was a mental toughness there now that maybe wasn’t present in years past.

We’ve had so many false dawns, there’s no point getting excited. And, as Wenger himself noted, the “fighting spirit” can be fragile. But Arsenal do indeed feel different this year.

Barcelona finally get it going vs. Osasuna

Barcelona were held to a scoreless draw at half-time by cellar-dwelling Osasuna and the spectre of a fourth straight Liga draw spooked many a cule. But it was in fact a classic case of Barca dominating, creating chances and not converting.

Even without Neymar (suspended) and Ivan Rakitic (on the bench), Barca had more than enough to bury the opposition. It just happened a little later than expected, with Lionel Messi bagging two goals and Luis Suarez scoring another.

Juventus pass a major test vs. Torino

FC’s Gab Marcotti recaps the Turin derby, which saw Juve win 3-1, and star men Gonzalo Higuain and Andrea Belotti deliver.

The Turin derby was another classic trap game for Juventus. They had been convincing the week before against Atalanta, they had sealed the deal in the Champions’ League against Dinamo Zagreb and now they traveled away in a tricky derby against a hometown rival who had won four of their past five in all competitions. And while some of their injured guys were starting to come back (Paulo Dybala started on the bench), they were still without the likes of Leo Bonucci, Dani Alves and Andrea Barzagli.

And when they went down to a tremendous goal from Andrea Belotti — one of the hottest young strikers in Europe, fresh off a new contract with $115 million release clause — you wondered if this was going to be one of those days.

But Juventus pulled out two characteristics that win you games: character and quality. Character because despite the atmosphere and despite the environment, they did not lose their heads. And quality which is something they have in spades but which sometimes goes missing. Two goals from Gonzalo Higuain — who typically missed easy chances only to bury difficult ones — sent them on their way before Miralem Pjanic added a third.

There’s still plenty to work on, but when you have quality and character, you’re well on your way.

Liverpool’s problems go beyond Karius

Loris Karius was the scapegoat for many in Liverpool’s draw with West Ham, but the FC panel say that blame may be misplaced.

Liverpool’s draw against West Ham felt like two points dropped because frankly, it was. These are matches you expect Jurgen Klopp’s side to win if they are going to challenge for the top of the table. The fact that for the second consecutive week, goalkeeper Loris Karius was (to varying degrees) to blame for the opposing goals shifts the spotlight further on the young German.

His decision to call out one of his critics, Gary Neville, probably wasn’t the wisest as it led to a pile-on involving the other Neville, Phil, and Klopp himself.

(To be fair — and to prove this isn’t a Liverpool vs. Manchester diatribe — Jamie Carragher has also weighed in saying: “My advice would be to just shut up and do your job.”)

It’s a gigantic distraction that Karius doesn’t need unless he’s the sort of guy who is motivated to work even harder as a result. I don’t know, I’ve never met him. But hitting back at criticism can be as much as sign of self-assurance as it can be of speaking out of turn. If you’re a Liverpool fan, you hope it’s the former.

One other point on Karius, flagged up by my colleague Mike Goodman. I looked at the numbers, and Liverpool are conceding chances with an expected goals per shot value of 0.130. As Goodman points out, that’s far more than any other team in the league, including those at the bottom. Look at the rest of the top four and you’ll find Chelsea at 0.087, Manchester City at 0.094 and Arsenal at 0.098).

This does suggest that Liverpool’s defensive issues go well beyond Karius.

Mertens solves Napoli’s striker woes — for now

ESPN FC’s Gab Marcotti hails Napoli’s recent victories with Dries Mertens scoring for fun up front.

When Arkadiusz Milik went down injured in September, many feared for Napoli’s title challenge. And when his in-house replacement Manolo Gabbiadini blew hot and cold, many were convinced the season was over unless some juggernaut center-forward arrived in January.

But maybe the answer was right there on their doorstep all along. Dries Mertens isn’t a traditional center-forward: He’s short, slight and has played out wide for most of his career. In fact, he wasn’t even a projected starter this season, with the flanks belonging to Jose Callejon and Lorenzo Insigne. Yet when deployed at center-forward in Maurizio Sarri’s system, Mertens has proved extraordinarily effective. And on Sunday, leading the line against Cagliari, he notched a hat trick as Napoli rumbled to a 5-0 away win.

Mertens is up to 10 goals in all competitions this year. Given that he’s not a striker and has only started 13 games, it’s extraordinarily impressive. It also means we’ve heard plenty of this.

More importantly, Napoli are now just a point off third place. Maybe they do have something to play for this year after all.

How will RB Leipzig respond following defeat?

There’s a school of thought that maintains “mega-upsets” only occur in certain leagues. Cleverer folks than me can tell you mathematically whether it’s true or not, though anecdotally, I rather think it’s nonsense.

The Bundesliga delivered one such extreme upset on Saturday. RB Leipzig, top of the league and the only team not named Real Madrid to be undefeated in all competitions this season, traveled to take on Ingolstadt, rooted to the bottom of the table. Ingolstadt had won once this season and hadn’t enjoyed a home win since Apr. 9.

What happened? Well, naturally, Ingolstadt took the lead, clogged the middle of the park and rattled RB Leipzig who grew impatient, nervy and undisciplined — much to the irritation of Leipzig boss Ralf Hasenhuttl, who happened to be the Ingolstadt manager until last season.

It’s a bruise and no more, but it comes on the back of last week’s performance against Schalke, which was also hardly dominant. How Leipzig reacts to these past two outings — now that Bayern have drawn level on points — will give a fair indication of whether we really do have a title race on our hands.

And finally… Bas Dost

Bas Dost scored in a losing effort as Sporting fell 2-1 away to Benfica, passing up the chance to leapfrog to the top of the table. The big man now has 10 goals in 18 appearances this season in all competitions. In the Portuguese league, he’s averaging a goal every 104 minutes.

This concludes this installment of #basdostwatch.

Gabriele Marcotti is a Senior Writer for ESPN FC, The Times and Corriere dello Sport. Follow him on Twitter @Marcotti.

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