Pep Guardiola and Arsene Wenger are both managers who say they value performance and process as much as (if not more than) results and outcome. There’s no reason to doubt them, so you can only imagine that postgame platitudes aside, neither was happy with this multi-car pileup of a game.
Focus only on the result, and you might conclude that Sunday’s 2-2 draw suited both sides. Arsenal didn’t end the game empty-handed, something that had happened just once in the previous seven games in league and European play. Manchester City, who also had a late penalty claim turned down, extend their unbeaten run to nine games, and they do it against another top-six club.
Spin it anyway you like: it won’t change the fact that this was a sloppy, messy game, and you don’t have to be a purist to see that.
There were mis-hit passes and fumbled chances. There were players wandering into wrong positions and making bad decisions. And while it was played at an open, high tempo, the bulk of these mistakes weren’t forced errors, either. Both teams displayed little chemistry and even less in the way of execution. What quality was on display was down to the fact that both boast some hugely gifted footballers, but that’s it.
“We didn’t play in the first half; after the goal we forgot to play, the desire went,” said Guardiola. “In the second half, we played more.” More, though only marginally better and substantially worse in set-piece defending, witnessed by Shkodran Mustafi’s goal.
Wenger echoed those sentiments, noting they were under pressure and played with the “handbrake on,” although again, you’d think pressure might make you a bit more conservative and concentrated. Instead, they were slapdash and chaotic, in particular for both of City’s goals, when nobody stepped into the space vacated by Mustafi’s clearing header for the first goal and when nobody came within 10 yards of Sergio Aguero for the second.
Sure, there are explanations and mitigating factors. The match came right after an international break, which means players are fatigued and preparation time is limited. Guardiola experimented with Jesus Navas at full-back. Arsenal are a club divided off the pitch — there were reportedly fights in the stands between the pro- and anti-Wenger brigade — while on the pitch, there are guys like Mesut Ozil and Alexis Sanchez left in limbo over their futures.
That can only explain so much. Both clubs were a letdown on Sunday, and that includes players and, frankly, managers, since it’s their job to get their teams playing. The best you can take from this game for either side is that a defeat would have been worse, and that’s not much at all. Both managers must know they need to kick it up several notches if they don’t want their seasons to simply peter out. And they must understand just how high the stakes are. Wenger has his streak of top-four finishes, Guardiola might end up playing on Thursday nights if they continue playing like this.
Come to think of it, the only really good news is that both teams play again in midweek, which means this result won’t linger too long.
Juve play it safe in Napoli
Take the fact that Juventus reshuffled the pack in a decidedly park-the-bus manner for the away trip to face Napoli as a sign of respect. Max Allegri had introduced his “five-star” 4-2-3-1 because he said he believed Juve need to dominate opponents at the attacking end as well if they were to compete with the likes of Barcelona and Bayern in Europe. But in Sunday night’s 1-1 draw, that went out the window.
Paulo Dybala, not fully fit, was on the bench along with Juan Cuadrado. Their places were taken by Claudio Marchisio and Mario Lemina, the latter basically a case of a defensive midfielder being deployed on the wing. On the other flank, Mario Mandzukic played as deep as he has ever played of late. The big story line, Gonzalo Higuain’s return to Naples, was somewhat overshadowed simply because he didn’t actually get to touch the ball in the box.
Juventus scored early with Sami Khedira in a rare sortie forward. The rest of the match was about defending, which they did deeply and stoutly. Napoli created a bunch of chances and got their equaliser but couldn’t push further. They showed, again, that they are fun to watch and creative in possession, but breaking down Juve, especially when they go in lock-down mode, is a tall order.
Allegri probably played it correctly in terms of results. The Lemina gambit didn’t really work, but with Dybala not ready to start and Marko Pjaca injured, he only had so many attacking cards to play. So he went in the opposite direction and came away with a point.
If there is a concern, though, it’s whether Juventus can still play this way regularly and be successful. Being a counterattacking side requires actually getting forward on the break, and Napoli denied them that. Perhaps Allegri is right after all: Juve have evolved into a side that needs to attack and when they go back to being more speculative, they simply aren’t built to do that, particularly when they’re short-handed, too.
What PSG’s French League Cup win means
Paris Saint-Germain won the French League Cup on Saturday night, just as they did last year and the year before that and the year before that. But this one felt different. For the first time in a long while, PSG stepped into a domestic cup final not as overwhelming favorites. That’s because they were taking on Monaco, who are three points clear in Ligue 1 and unlike Unai Emery’s crew, are still alive in the Champions’ League.
It felt from the start that this game mattered more to PSG not because Monaco were disinterested, but because the stakes are higher for the Parisians. Lose this and maybe Emery is one step closer to being out the door. Plus, you end the season empty-handed for the first time since the Qatari takeover.
That didn’t happen because Julian Draxler (possibly offside) put PSG ahead, they weathered the equalizer and took the lead before half-time before going on to win 4-1. Top marks for Marco Verratti, who shone a light in midfield, and Edinson Cavani, who bagged two, taking his seasonal total up to 40. It was a convincing win against a top opponent, albeit one without key players such as Radamel Falcao and Fabinho.
As for Monaco, they battled for an hour or so until they were 3-1 down. Leonardo Jardim’s resources are not endless; if they are going to keep battling (and lest we forget, they’re still in the hunt for the treble which, for a team that hasn’t won silverware in 14 years, isn’t a bad thing) they will have to pick their spots.
This trophy won’t guarantee that Emery will be back next season, but it probably does guarantee that he still has a fighting chance.
No reason for Chelsea to panic
Chelsea threw away an early lead and fell at home to Crystal Palace, 2-1. It was their first defeat at Stamford Bridge since mid-September. Reason for Antonio Conte to worry? Probably not, and that’s without taking anything away from Palace, who seized their chances ruthlessly and defended admirably.
But the fact of the matter is that the home team had a host of chances throughout, and only a spot of good fortune and some stalwart defending kept them out. You will get results like this; it’s the nature of the game. What matters is that they move on quickly. Manchester City on Wednesday, both in terms of style and quality, will be an entirely different proposition.
Real play poorly but still win big
It may have been one of their worst performances in recent months and certainly their worst performance in a 3-0 win. Real Madrid’s victory over Alaves keeps Barcelona at bay, so it’s all good, but Zinedine Zidane’s men appeared to sleepwalk through the match. They took the lead through a dubious Karim Benzema goal, failed to kick it up a notch and then conceded at least two clear-cut chances to the visitors before closing things out late.
Mitigating factors? Sure, Marcelo, Sergio Ramos and Casemiro were unavailable and Raphael Varane went off after 11 minutes. But that’s not enough to explain such an uninspired performance, which is why the Bernabeu crowd did what they (and very few others) do in these circumstances: they booed their own top-of-La-Liga team.
Ungrateful? Some would say so. But perhaps “demanding” is a better word. Zidane has a Clasico, a Madrid derby and two dates with Bayern coming up in the next three weeks. To some Bernabeu die-hards, that’s no excuse. To me, it means they’re allowed a breather and a performance like this one.
More frustration for Man United
Same old, same old for an injury-depleted Manchester United at home to West Brom. They were held to a scoreless draw, making it a total of 19 points dropped at Old Trafford this year. To put it in context: if their home form had been equal to that of the past two seasons under Louis Van Gaal, they would be third with 60 points at this stage of the season.
Mourinho could point to the guys who weren’t there (Ander Herrera, Juan Mata, Paul Pogba, Zlatan Ibrahimovic, Chris Smalling, Phil Jones) but truth be told players such as Wayne Rooney, Matteo Darmian and Daley Blind still couldn’t make the starting XI. It’s not a valid excuse as much as the simpler explanation that they created substantially more but could not finish their chances. It’s frustrating, and it happens — and it has happened — an inordinate amount of times this season.
Maybe that’s why Mourinho was particularly grumpy when discussing Luke Shaw who, despite all the unavailable players, couldn’t make the bench.
“It’s difficult for him to be on the bench because I cannot compare him with Ashley Young or with Matteo Darmian or with Daley Blind,” he said. “I cannot compare the way he trains, the way he commits, the focus, the ambition. I cannot compare. He is a long way behind.”
I’m not at United’s training sessions, so I have no way to judge. But calling out an under-performing fringe player seems an odd motivational tool. And if, as some suggest, Mourinho has already written him off, it seems odder still to go and talk down an asset you’re trying to sell.
Dortmund’s draw — and that mask
It finished 1-1 in the Ruhr Derby in a game that reflected much of Borussia Dortmund’s 2016-17 season. Thomas Tuchel’s side dominated possession, ran themselves ragged, took the lead through Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang but then failed to close out the game. And that, as well as the team’s youth, is a big part of the reason why they’re fourth, 18 points off the pace.
Aubameyang made headlines in other ways when he donned a mask after scoring his goal. Given that he starred in this ad for a sports apparel company — and not the one who happens to sponsor Dortmund, but one of its rivals — there were concerns that it was a publicity stunt, possibly a paid one.
It’s a bit cheesy, but I don’t mind props in celebration, and others have done the mask thing before, including Aubameyang who has worn a Spiderman and a Batman one in the past. That said, doing it with an actual superhero or Lucha Libre mask you pick out is one thing. Doing it with a mask some PR marketing drone picked out for you — if that’s what happened — is decidedly less cool.
The problem with Ross Barkley
Philippe Coutinho starred as Liverpool dispatched Everton 3-1 in an injury-depleted Merseyside derby. It was a comprehensive win, although you do wonder whether it would have been a better spectacle if the two sides had been at full strength. Still, Coutinho, having struggled after his return, is looking super-sharp again, both with Brazil and Liverpool. And that’s critical because an in-form Coutinho can paper over a lot of cracks and be instrumental in the run-in.
Incidentally, the match, as usual, had its share of crunching tackles and hard fouls, with one particularly nasty clash involving Ross Barkley and Dejan Lovren.
Barkley is at the age (23), where he will to need to figure out what sort of player he wants to be. Very few in the history of the game have been both exquisitely talented attacking midfielders and unreconstructed hard men (Graeme Souness is the first one who comes to mind). English football loves passion and commitment, and you don’t want to curb that, but intelligence also comes into it. Unless Barkley gets a little more clever with his tackles, he’ll start to pick up injuries and suspensions. Or, perhaps worse, he’ll run into some goon hatchet man who gets him back.
There’s a role for crunching tackles, and because he’s a strong, muscular player, Barkley will always pack a punch. But you don’t want his focus to stray in that direction, not if you think he has the skill set to develop into a special attacking midfielder.
Rafinha injury could hurt Barca’s title push
Barcelona kept pace with Real Madrid, winning 4-1 away to Granada and doing it without Lionel Messi. Luis Enrique ditched the back three on this occasion, opting instead for the old-school 4-3-3, and it was an efficient performance against an opponent that’s in the relegation zone for a reason. Luis Suarez and Neymar showed that when you’re on form, transatlantic international break travel isn’t much of a problem.
The one concern is the knee injury to Rafinha. We’ll know more soon, but tactically the Brazilian is a key element in the 3-diamond-3, should Luis Enrique wheel it out again (and you’d expect he’d like the option of doing so).
Spurs impress in win at Burnley
We’ll have a better idea after Wednesday night whether we actually have a title race on our hands in the Premier League, but Tottenham are doing their best to make it so, even in the face of adversity. Winning 2-0 away to Burnley marked their fourth consecutive league win, and it came with Eric Dier, who hadn’t scored a league goal in some 18 months, breaking the ice.
Already without Harry Kane, Spurs lost both Victor Wanyama and Harry Winks, the starting tandem in central midfield, before the end of the first half. Mauricio Pochettino reacted by sending on Mousa Dembele and switching Dier from center-back into the middle of the park, renewing last season’s successful Dier-Dembele partnership. Given that Burnley had won every single league home game since November, winning at Turf Moor and cutting Chelsea’s lead to seven points is no small achievement.
Muller’s form coming at right time for Bayern
Carlo Ancelotti likes to say that you can’t be at 100 percent over a full season, so teams ideally would peak physically and emotionally in November and April. November wasn’t great for Bayern, featuring losses to Borussia Dortmund and Rostov in the Champions’ League. But they got off on the right foot in April with a resounding 6-0 win over Augsburg, their seventh in a row in all competitions.
Robert Lewandowski bagged a hat-trick to take his seasonal total to 36. It’s the second-highest of his career: another six between now and the end of the season and he’ll set a new mark. Thiago Alcantara was again magnificent and has blossomed into one of the best midfield generals in Europe. But, again, the good news comes on the Thomas Muller front. He scored twice and hit the woodwork twice. The challenge for Ancelotti is now fitting him into the Bayern starting XI just as he hits top form.
It’s not a bad headache to have, truth be told.
Dzeko’s monster season continues
What a difference a year makes. Edin Dzeko had something of a rough ride in his first season as a Roma player. He managed just eight goals and was often criticised in part because strikers with his skill set (big, technical, but not necessarily the quickest) tend to look worse than they are when things aren’t going right. Part of it, no doubt, was down to him, but part of it was also down to a system that simply did not suit him.
This year Luciano Spalletti went all-in, making him the centre-piece of Roma’s attack and building the side around him. Including the two goals in the 2-0 win over Empoli Saturday, Dzeko now has a whopping 33 for the season, joint-top in Serie A with the “Rooster,” Andrea Belotti. It’s a new seasonal record for a Roma player, and he’s a big reason they still are nursing an outside shot at the title. (Incidentally, Pedro Manfredini technically scored 34 in the 1960-61 season, but two of them came in the two-legged final of the Fairs’ Cup (the predecessor of the Europa League), which was actually played in the autumn of 1961.)
Gabriele Marcotti is a Senior Writer for ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @Marcotti.