Jose Mourinho is right. Games start at 0-0. Manchester United’s trip to Stamford Bridge effectively began with Chelsea a goal up, a function of some absurd collective defending from David De Gea, Chris Smalling and Daley Blind. (For De Gea, such a mental error was hugely uncharacteristic. For the other two, not so much.) Implied in this is that United had to chase the game, and that’s always hard to do away from home, especially when Chelsea could then sit back, defend and counter.
It’s a nice narrative, but it’s inaccurate and incomplete.
Chelsea did not sit back and defend at 1-0 up. Indeed, they had the bulk of the possession for the first 35 minutes, by which point they had scored a second. That second goal came on a set-piece, which has nothing to do with counterattacking. Chelsea were able to hit on the break in the second half as United had to try to get back into the game and yes, Eden Hazard’s goal was a world-beater and N’Golo Kante took his very well. But, equally, it was Kante racing through United’s midfield like a toddler skipping past garden furniture.
What the last hour of the game revealed is that United are not particularly good at chasing games. There are both individual deficiencies and systemic ones; the two are distinct but linked. You can point to Zlatan Ibrahimovic, Marouane Fellaini, Blind, Smalling and Jesse Lingard being underwhelming. And they were. But at what point are they just not good enough vs. having an off day, and at what point are their shortcomings magnified by the manager?
As I see it, there’s no reason for Fellaini to be involved in a game like this. Yes, he clogs space and is a legitimate threat on set pieces at either end. Beyond that, if you’re going to play this system with Paul Pogba in the hole, having someone who can get him the ball might not be a bad idea.
If you want to start Lingard and Marcus Rashford out wide, fine. But against a back three, you’d have thought pushing them on might have helped pin back Chelsea’s wing-backs. And given that Ibrahimovic was coming short, it could have given you the chance for some neat movement in the opposing final third, with the wingers cutting inside to fill the space vacated by the Big Swede. Instead, it felt as if they spent the first half doubling back to chase Victor Moses and Marcos Alonso.
Managers get things wrong in big games all the time, even very good managers like Mourinho. Then they go away, look at what happened and come up with countermeasures. But the thing about United this year is that it’s difficult to figure out where Mourinho is going with this team. And the usual lack of transparency from the club when it comes to injuries leaves you scratching your head even further.
We were told that Wayne Rooney missed the trip because of a thigh injury, which he “hid.”
(A 31-year-old captain “hides” injuries? Really? It’s a sign of Rooney’s place in the United pecking order than folks aren’t making a bigger deal of this.) Luke Shaw apparently traveled to London but didn’t make the matchday squad. Antony Martial, who this time a year ago was the next big thing, was on the bench — he’s started one game since August). And, of course Henrikh Mkhitaryan was back in Manchester, possibly hanging out on the naughty step with Bastian Schweinsteiger and Morgan Schneiderlin.
The good news? Despite all this, United are still just six points off the top of the table and Mourinho has plenty of options in midfield and attack. (There are fewer options at the back, of course, and he needed Eric Bailly’s injury like he needed a hole in the head.) Still, you’d imagine Mourinho, of all people, can find the right combination. The question is whether he can do it quickly enough for United to be competitive this season.
What Mourinho said to Conte
Nobody has come out and said it explicitly, but we’re pretty sure what Mourinho said to Antonio Conte at the final whistle. Part of it is audible and intelligible — if you speak Italian — but the rest becomes obvious when you amplify the sound, as Sky Italia did. And it’s telling that when it was put to Conte, he didn’t deny it but simply replied that he did not wish to disrespect anyone; he simply tried to whip up the Stamford Bridge crowd because they had gone quiet and he wanted his players to experience their applause.
Mourinho was apparently unhappy that Conte did that with the score at 4-0. He said it calmly (“it’s just my opinion”) but firmly. You can do it at 1-0, but you don’t do it at 4-0 because it’s humiliating.
When it came out on social media, many said it was a case of the pot calling the kettle black and indeed, Mourinho’s pitchside antics are in a class of their own. Though, to be fair (I could be wrong and am happy to be corrected) I don’t recall Mourinho doing it with his team three or four goals up.
Some, like Steve Nicol on last night’s show, said they could see Mourinho’s point. There’s no reason to play to the crowd like that when you’ve won the game. I can see where he’s coming from, but I can also see how a guy like Conte would feel justified in calling out his own supporters who, at that stage, were being out-sung by the visiting United fans.
There more you think about it, in some ways the folks who ought to feel humiliated by Conte’s actions are the Chelsea supporters, not Mourinho.
Barca get toughest win of the season at a cost
Valencia hosting Barcelona was bound to be an ill-tempered affair. Things are testy at the Mestalla and with good reason. They’re on their fourth manager in less than a year, they started the campaign with four straight defeats, they’re still owned by Peter Lim and there are still more questions than answers about their transfers. And, of course, the sight of Barca rolling into town is a red cape to the Valencia faithful.
Throw in a referee who managed to displease both sides (this was not Alberto Undiano Mallenco’s finest work) and they’ll be talking about this game for a while, though not for the right reasons.
Andres Iniesta’s injury looked horrendous but with hindsight, it turned out to be less serious than originally thought: He’ll be out six to eight weeks, though the way he looked on the pitch, many were fearing it was an ACL tear.
Lionel Messi’s opener should have been disallowed: Luis Suarez was in an offside position and clearly interfering even though he didn’t touch the ball. Some of Valencia’s tackling got out of hand and could have been punished more severely. You wonder if Sergio Busquets might not have got a second yellow if the referee had not already booked him.
Diego Alves kept Valencia in the game in the first half with his customary string of miracle saves before Munir (who, for obvious reasons, did not celebrate) and Rodrigo turned the game on its head. Thus began Barca’s furious final assault. Suarez equalized and Barca went for the winner. It came very, very late, with none other than Messi converting from the spot deep in injury time.
Given Messi’s spotty record on penalties and Alves’ heroics in saving them, you would not have been surprised if the Valencia keeper had pulled off one last miracle. But Messi hit it hard and true — no trickery here — and Barca earned the toughest three points they’ve had thus far. The celebration was spoiled by the idiot who chucked a full water bottle from the stands on to the Barca players, for which sanctions could be on their way.
But above all, Barcelona showed a grit they have not had to display in a while. And they did it in a veritable cauldron. Valencia can moan about the officiating (Barca have their recriminations too) but they also blew a couple clear-cut counterattacks in the second half. And that’s something Cesare Prandelli won’t be happy with.
Still, there are plenty of positives here for both teams. If Valencia show even a fraction of what they displayed, they’ll be just fine. As for Barca, they can cope without Iniesta for two months. This was far from easy. And if they win La Liga, it will be thanks to performances like this one.
Don’t expect Pep to stop tweaking at Man City
Sunday’s 1-1 draw with Southampton marked the fifth consecutive game without a win for Pep Guardiola, which ties the worst run of his career. If Manchester City don’t beat United in the League Cup — yep, that counts too, I guess? — on Wednesday he’ll be in uncharted territory.
I get that results matter, but performances tell a far more complete story. During that winless run he’s had games where he’s been comprehensively and thoroughly outplayed (Tottenham and Barcelona away) and games in which City played poorly but in normal circumstances would have won (Celtic) or where City did more than enough to win handily but were somewhat unfortunate (Everton).
Southampton was a bit different. City weren’t poor, though they made a colossal defensive blunder to gift Southampton the lead. Rather it was a case of Claude Puel winning the tactical battle. The visitors were fully prepared and executed perfectly, making life hugely difficult for City.
Of course, City seemed to make life difficult for themselves, too. Guardiola’s back three — the fact that he’s experimenting with this suggests he’s not happy with what he’s seen — did not seem to work, at least not in Vincent Kompany’s first game back. Maybe it will improve — Kompany is a legend, but he too needs time to adapt — but even if it does, it’s hard to see it working unless the wingers drop deep to provide an outlet. Against Southampton, Leroy Sane and Raheem Sterling stayed high up the pitch, which meant the back three had to play through Southampton’s congested middle.
It feels as if the way Pep is portrayed follows a feast or famine cycle. He’s either a genius who is reinventing football or a stubborn ideologue who sacrifices results for his own tactical daydreams. In fact, he’s been very clear about this: He plays this way because he thinks it affords his team the best possible chance of winning. And, if it doesn’t, he’s prepared to tweak it.
Expect him to do more tweaking in the coming matches.
Milan’s young squad grabs a massive win
We’ve talked about Milan’s youngsters before, and on Saturday night it all came together for them. They beat Juventus 1-0 to move within two points of the top of Serie A. And they did it in the most dramatic fashion, with an absolute screamer of a goal from midfielder Manuel Locatelli, who is just 18 years old.
Credit Vincenzo Montella for believing in the kids and rejecting what had become the club’s transfer mantra — foreign veterans and retreads (Kevin-Prince Boateng, Alex, Fernando Torres, Adil Rami, Cristian Zapata, Michael Essien, Kaka, Pablo Armero) — in recent years. This may explain why we’ve seen little of Jose Sosa and none of Leonel Vangioni. He’s giving the kids a chance, and he’s being repaid handsomely, not just with performances on the pitch but with enthusiasm in the stands.
Juventus are right in saying that Miralem Pjanic’s goal should have stood. But that doesn’t take away from Milan’s performance and what Montella and the kids have managed to achieve.
What happens next will be absolutely critical. A Chinese investment group have agreed to buy the club for dollar;800 million and have paid a nonrefundable deposit of dollar;110m. You hope that when — OK, if, because with Silvio Berlusconi you just never know — they take over, they’ll recognize what they have.
Sampaoli takes down Atletico
Whether Jorge Sampaoli’s brand of football could translate to the European club game was one of the great question marks of the summer. It began with hammerings in the various Super Cups (Spanish and European), but that was against Real Madrid and Barcelona. On Sunday, they faced their first real Liga test and passed with flying colors. And they did it against Atletico Madrid, a side who, on paper at least, were ideally suited to crash his festival of attacking football.
Instead, Sampaoli conjured up a 3-4-3, kept his center-backs narrow and matched Atletico for grit, intensity and spirit, which is saying something. The 1-0 victory — in the driving rain — was well-deserved. The upshot is that Sevilla are now second in the table, one point behind Real Madrid and joint top of their Champions League group. Yes, genius does travel. Rather well, actually.
Liverpool’s Sturridge dilemma
To Daniel Sturridge or not to Daniel Sturridge, that is the question. Whether ’tis nobler in the mind to suffer the slings and arrows of his disjointed runs and the perpetual threat that he’ll be injured again. Or to take arms with three men who aren’t real strikers but whose collective effort, creativity and work rate unleash a sea of troubles on the opposition. And, in so doing, leaving your best center-forward on the bench.
Sturridge’s last Premier League goal came back in April. The impression is that Liverpool simply play better without him than when he’s on the pitch and the front men have to adjust their game and, crucially, their high press to his movements.
Jurgen Klopp has a dilemma. There is no doubting Sturridge’s quality as a finisher and the perception that teams must have a prolific center-forward remains strong (if unproven). Yet equally, for now at least, Klopp’s football works best without him. And Liverpool are joint top of the table.
Inter shouldn’t bail on De Boer yet
Every once in a while you have illusions that Inter might grow up and turn into a “normal” club. And then you come crashing back to Earth.
On Sunday, they were beaten 2-1 at Atalanta. It’s their third straight defeat in Serie A, and they now sit 14th in the table. In the Europa League, they lost their first two group games before (barely) defeating Southampton 1-0.
These are obviously poor results, and Frank De Boer needs to shoulder some responsibility. Or even a lot of it, in fact. But the knee-jerk stories emanating from around the club on Sunday night do nobody any favors. Especially the ones whereby he needs a result against Torino in midweek to save his job.
I don’t get it. If De Boer is bad and Inter are better off replacing him, what difference does it make if he beats Torino? And if De Boer is worth sticking with, why would a defeat in midweek change that?
De Boer would not have been my choice for the job, but once you’ve committed to him, you need to give him a chance to work. As bad as Inter have been, they’re still five points clear of relegation and four points away from a European place. The damage is not irreparable. Nowhere near it.
Tweaked Bayern look impressive
Carlo Ancelotti made four changes from the Bayern side that beat PSV in midweek (and finally looked convincing) before facing Borussia Monchengladbach on Saturday. And not just any four changes, but Jerome Boateng, Phillip Lahm, Josh Kimmich and Thomas Mueller, which, put another way, amounts to his best defender, his charismatic captain, his second top-scorer (Kimmich, yes, really) and his resident icon.
Make that many changes, have them blow up in your face and all of a sudden, you’re courting trouble. Instead, Bayern turned in arguably their best half of the season in the first 45 minutes, during which they raced to a 2-0 lead through Arturo Vidal and Douglas Costa. Obviously, Boateng, Kimmich, Mueller and Lahm will be back. But in the meantime, Bayern kept their first clean sheet in more than a month.
Ancelotti won’t be successful by aping his predecessor, Pep Guardiola. He’s not Pep, and his football isn’t Pep’s football. The challenge is to build on what came before while incorporating his own strengths and concepts. Saturday was a step in that direction.
Hail the Premier League’s current suspense at the top
The fact that Arsenal and Tottenham were held to uninspiring scoreless draws, coupled with City’s home draw, means there are now five teams divided by a single point at the top of the Premier League table.
If you’re a neutral, you’re loving this. Any one of those five could be top next weekend and truth be told, Everton, Manchester United and Southampton are not that far behind.
Long may it continue.
Dortmund keep making it harder for themselves
Set-pieces: the scourge of many a manager. There’s no rational reason why Borussia Dortmund should have come within seconds of losing to Ingolstadt, a team that had not actually won a Bundesliga game since April. None apart from the fact that Dortmund’s defending, particularly off dead balls, was horrendous on Saturday. Thomas Tuchel’s crew went down 2-0 and then 3-1 before a furious finish saw U.S. teenage wunderkind Christian Pulisic grab a late, late, late equalizer.
This isn’t about praising Dortmund’s fighting spirit; really, they should never have been in this situation.
Dortmund may well be the second most talented team in the Bundesliga. But if they keep dropping points against inferior teams, they won’t come anywhere near the title. What’s more, their inability to dial it down on a notch makes you wonder what condition they’ll be in physically come the spring, even with Tuchel’s continuous rotation.
Gabriele Marcotti is a columnist for ESPN FC, The Times and Corriere dello Sport. Follow him on Twitter @Marcotti.