When news came out that Arsene Wenger had dropped Alexis Sanchez to the bench at Anfield, it was explained away as a tactical gambit. Arsenal wanted to play more directly so they could bypass the Liverpool press in midfield. That’s why Olivier Giroud was up front, supported by the fleet-footed Danny Welbeck and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain.
With hindsight, we should have suspected that this theory was silly. First of all, Wenger rarely messes with exotic set-ups and surprise lineup moves. Second, and more important: If you wanted to be direct, why wouldn’t you want a guy like Sanchez on the pitch? Not surprisingly, perhaps, it backfired badly. Liverpool took a 2-0 lead, Sanchez came on at half-time and Arsenal pulled one back before Georginio Wijnaldum fixed the final score at 3-1.
We later found out what was described as a contributing factor to Sanchez’s being dropped. A few days earlier, he’d had a bust-up with a teammate in training and walked out. And this, according to multiple reports, was the culmination of a pattern of behaviour that was seen as selfish and not constructive by Wenger.
It’s worth pointing out that when a story like this appears concurrently in a half dozen media outlets, it’s likely not the result of a leak by one person. If it were, it would probably be an exclusive somewhere. More likely, this story was the result of a background briefing conducted by someone, and odds are, Wenger won’t mind that it came out.
Why? Because it shifts the blame onto the Chilean, who is made to seem like a bad egg who hasn’t had a chance to put his side of the story across. It distracts attention from the fact that Arsenal have lost four of their past six games, and one of those that they didn’t lose was against a non-league club. It also establishes a narrative where we can spout platitudes about teamwork, respect and greedy players — except there’s a problem here.
If Sanchez really is a disruptive influence who walks out on training, then you really have two options. You either punish him by leaving him out of the matchday squad (as Chelsea did with Diego Costa), or you conclude that he’s so important and you play him anyway because, to paraphrase George Orwell, “Everyone is created equal, but some are more equal than others.”
(I know that some might be horrified at the prospect of a manager letting a player get away with such training-ground tantrums, but in fact, Wenger isn’t there to teach family values. He’s there to win, and so are most of his players. It’s a safe bet they’d rather play with Sanchez than without him, because it gives them a better chance to win. That’s why star players in pretty much every team sport have sometimes been given more latitude than grunts. The trick is knowing when to do it and, similarly, when someone goes too far.)
Wenger chose neither path. He chose a weird half-measure by leaving Sanchez on the bench, neither a proper punishment nor a form of forgiveness. And it could have backfired badly if, say, Sanchez had come on and scored a hat trick, thereby fueling the theory that Arsenal need him at all costs.
Bubbling in the background is the contract situation. Sanchez’s deal expires in June 2018, and he’s sitting on an offer of around $11 million a season. He hasn’t signed, and therefore some are calling him greedy, suggesting he’s angling for a move to Juventus or Paris Saint-Germain (both of which appear a bit far-fetched for different reasons). The notion that he hasn’t extended because he might like to know who will be managing the club next year before committing is given short shrift because it doesn’t fit the narrative.
Of course, knowing who will be in charge next season would require that other open contract to be signed, the one the club have offered Wenger. And if he’s in no hurry to put pen to paper, why should Sanchez be?
As for Liverpool, it was encouraging to see them bounce back after the pounding they suffered at Leicester. They denied Arsenal where it mattered, they offered plenty of energy, and the front three did their thing with plenty of help from a beast mode Adam Lallana.
It’s the age-old thing for Jurgen Klopp, though. They’ve taken more points in games against Manchester United, Manchester City, Chelsea, Arsenal and Tottenham than they have against the bottom five. That needs to change, although you suppose that it’s better this way than the other way around.
Barca thrive as Messi moves into midfield
There’s no second-semester-senior vibe surrounding Luis Enrique’s final months as Barcelona boss. On the contrary: You sort of expect him to work his butt off until the last minute of the last day and then put on his running shoes and disappear on some desert marathon.
You’d also think this would be no time for experiments except when strictly necessary, but against Celta on Saturday, he again lined up in a 3-4-3 and came away with arguably Barcelona’s best performance in months.
If you haven’t seen highlights of the goals, hunt them down on the web: Some are truly special. More telling, though, is the formation, predicated upon a diamond in midfield with Sergio Busquets at the bottom (duh), Lionel Messi at the top and Rafinha joining Luis Suarez and Neymar in the front three. The goal is to get Messi on the ball with the opportunity to make things happen, and with three guys ahead of him, it serves the purpose.
On paper, there are flaws, of course. It’s a big ask of Ivan Rakitic and Sergi Roberto to patrol the flanks on their own, and they’re bound to be outnumbered. Jordi Alba at centre-back is also a stretch. It’s not clear where Andres Iniesta fits in, if at all, except maybe in the Rafinha role.
Either way, it’s an interesting twist, and you wonder whether this is where Messi’s future lies. His athleticism will necessarily decline, but his creativity and unpredictability will likely be the last things he’ll lose. Maybe deploying him deeper will extend his career.
Then again, Messi has 38 goals in 37 starts in all competitions this year. If that’s decline, it’s the sort that most can only fantasize about.
Napoli show what they’re capable of
Some thought Napoli had gone off the rails, and the magnificent machine Maurizio Sarri had built was lethally damaged by the club’s ceaseless capacity for self-harm. You could even pinpoint the beginning of the end: the last 70 minutes or so against Real Madrid, when they lost their 1-0 lead and limply fell 3-1. Then came president Aurelio De Laurentiis’ inane criticism of Sarri, when he said, “I won’t say anything, but …” and then went on to question his manager’s decisions in public.
This was followed by a “dead cat bounce” win over Chievo, a home defeat against Atalanta and a brutal setback against Juventus in the Coppa Italia, with the epic post-match rant at the refereeing crew and, weirdly, the commentators.
Nope, this did not feel like a grown-up bunch. It felt like a tumbling house of cards. And that’s what made the 2-1 win at second-place Roma so sweet.
Saturday’s victory was unexpected, particularly the performance. Napoli were aggressive, committed and full of quality — precisely what was missing in Madrid. Dries Mertens (up to 22 goals this season) scored twice to send them on their way, and despite a nervy ending marked by a crucial Pepe Reina save, they hung on.
It wasn’t all smooth sailing (Sarri got himself sent off from the bench), but for an hour or so, Napoli were devastating in a way only they can be. Serie A is likely too far gone, but maybe they can still shock a few people, starting with their illustrious opponents in the Coppa Italia (Juve) and Champions League (Real Madrid). Maybe not enough to overturn the 3-1 deficits, but enough to remind themselves what they’re capable of doing.
Ibra’s stupidity could be costly for Man Utd
Zlatan Ibrahimovic had a day to forget against Bournemouth on Saturday. He missed a penalty, which, as it turned out, would have seen Manchester United pull within one point of the Champions League spots with a game in hand. And, of course, his tête-a-tête with Tyrone Mings is likely to result in a three-match ban (or worse) for both. (The FA announced on Monday that they’d both been charged with alleged violent conduct.)
The pair had been at each other for much of the game. Mings stamped on the side of Ibrahimovic’s head after a hard tackle. Not long thereafter, Ibrahimovic caught Mings with a nasty elbow to the head. You can see how the referee might have missed the former, but it’s frankly incomprehensible how the officials didn’t notice the latter. Yet both players now face retroactive action.
Some have pointed out that only Ibrahimovic and Mings know whether what they did was intentional, and so, supposedly, it’s hard to ban them, because you can’t be sure that the stamp or the elbow were accidental. That’s nonsense. You don’t need to be 100 percent certain; you just need to be certain on the balance of probabilities. And that’s what the tribunal has done in finding both guilty.
Back to Ibrahimovic. At 35, you’d think he’d know better. He’s had 13 red cards in his career, and some of them, when you’re a big, physical target, are inevitable. But some are also the result of bad judgement, and that’s what Saturday’s was. This was not a rush of blood to the head or some instant reaction to being stepped on. If it had been, it would have been instantaneous, and odds are, Mings would be in a fair bit of pain right now.
No: This was a case of revenge being a dish best served cold and Ibrahimovic thinking he’d be so clever that he could whack Mings and get away with it. It’s 2017. With cameras everywhere, that wasn’t going to happen.
If, as expected, he gets a three-game ban, he’ll miss the FA Cup quarterfinal with Chelsea plus two Premier League matches. In other words, it could cost United a shot at another domestic trophy as well as a place in the top four. And that, in turn, translates into lost revenue and another setback on Jose Mourinho’s road to making United great again.
That’s a hefty price to pay for some on-the-pitch retribution.
Bayern take no chances ahead of Arsenal clash
You’d think a 5-1 first-leg lead might make you feel relatively safe, but Carlo Ancelotti is presumably not taking chances before Tuesday’s trip to the Emirates to take on Arsenal. Away to Cologne, currently seventh in the Bundesliga, he nevertheless lined up without Franck Ribery, Xabi Alonso, Joshua Kimmich, Arjen Robben and Mats Hummels.
Bayern responded with one of their better performances this season, spanking the opposition 3-0, although the game might have taken a different turn if not for Manuel Neuer’s absurd save to deny Yuya Osako with the score at 0-0. With Leipzig held to a 2-2 draw by Augsburg on Friday, the lead is up to seven points with 11 games to go, and Bayern are still alive on three fronts. Not a bad place to be.
Sane is proving critics wrong for Man City
OK, I’ll admit it: I was one of those guys who was skeptical about Manchester City’s signing of Leroy Sane. Not because he wasn’t a gifted, excited player, but because I couldn’t tell where he fit in and thought the money ($45m rising to a possible $57m) could have been better spent elsewhere, like at the full-back and centre-back positions.
I stand by the second part, but Pep Guardiola has answered the first part for me. Sure, City could get by against most opponents with Nolito or even Jesus Navas in that role, and a guy like Kevin De Bruyne was left on the bench against Sunderland on Sunday. But after spending the first part of the campaign as a substitute, Sane is now showing just how devastating he can be. Someone went so far as to compare him to Gareth Bale. That’s a stretch (for now), but his elegant, hard running and change of pace fits this version of City perfectly.
The 2-0 win helps cement their top-four credentials and marks their ninth consecutive game without defeat. The gap with Chelsea may be too big, but their October wobble now seems forgotten.
Benzema steps up for Madrid
Real Madrid’s trip to face Eibar should have been a banana skin. Their teeny tiny opponents have been punching way above their weight this season: They’re currently eighth in La Liga and have been beaten only by Atletico Madrid, Sevilla and Barcelona in the past four months.
What’s more, Zinedine Zidane’s advance troops were decimated. Gareth Bale and Alvaro Morata were suspended, Cristiano Ronaldo was a precautionary scratch and Toni Kroos was on the bench. But not to worry, as this was the day on which Karim Benzema stepped up and fired back at the critics. The Frenchman was exceptional leading the line with Lucas Vazquez, James Rodriguez and Marco Asensio (read “the JV”) in support. He closed out the game with two goals in the first half hour and then had a hand in another two in the 4-1 win.
At this stage of his career, Benzema will necessarily divide opinion. He isn’t scoring much — he’s on pace to score 11 Liga goals this year, which would match his lowest total since arriving at the Bernabeu in 2009-10 — and some of his bad decisions involving dubious friendships and blackmail remind you that his judgement off the pitch isn’t always sound.
But he has the humility to play a supporting role and often do the running for Ronaldo and Bale. And when it matters, he has the skill to step up in their place.
Monaco’s Mbappe is the real deal
All three title contenders won in Ligue 1 this past weekend, although each with a different set of challenges. Nice toughed it out against struggling Lyon on Saturday, while Paris Saint-Germain had to huff and puff to break down another relegation-threatened side, Nancy. Indeed, it took a rather generous penalty converted by Edinson Cavani to overcome the opposition.
Not much in terms of performance, perhaps, but that didn’t mean Monaco were under any less pressure the following day when they hosted Nantes without their top goal scorer, Radamel Falcao. But no “Tigre,” no problem, because Kylian Mbappe, as he has done so many times this season, calmly stepped up, scoring twice on the way to a 4-0 thumping.
You can see just why scouts are salivating over Mbappe. He turned 18 just three months ago and already has 15 goals this season in all competitions. In Ligue 1, where has already scored nine times, he’s averaging a goal every 89 minutes. And, no, this isn’t just the athletic kid racing past everybody on a free-scoring team to score in garbage time. (We’ve seen that before.) Mbappe is intelligent and unselfish, as evidenced by the fact that he also has five assists this season.
Kane is a top-10 striker in Europe
Harry Kane’s two goals in Tottenham’s 3-2 win over Everton saw Spurs rise to second in the table, one point ahead of Manchester City (who have a game in hand). Mauricio Pochettino insists that his crew will be ready should league-leading Chelsea falter.
Kane is now up to 19 goals in the Premier League (24 overall) this season. It’s pretty remarkable when you consider that just three years ago, he was considered little more than Europa League fodder, a guy who had been on loan just about everywhere without impressing and who looked set to be off-loaded. Since then, he has scored two goals every three games.
Somebody asked us on FC TV last night whether Kane was in the top five of European center-forwards. You can debate this endlessly, but I’d imagine most might take Robert Lewandowski, Luis Suarez, Sergio Aguero and Zlatan Ibrahimovic ahead of him. And then you get into personal taste and preference, whether it be Edinson Cavani, Mauro Icardi, Karim Benzema, Diego Costa, Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang, Gonzalo Higuain or somebody else I might be forgetting.
The point is that if Kane isn’t in the top five, he’s certainly in the top 10.
Why Schmidt was fired by Leverkusen
Borussia Dortmund’s 6-2 pounding of Bayer Leverkusen on Saturday was the sort of game with far-reaching implications. Leverkusen boss Roger Schmidt was fired afterward, and while you can’t assume it was on the back of a single result, the way his team shrank at the end certainly did him no favors.
Thomas Tuchel could probably relate. After a Valentine’s Day defeat at Benfica in the Champions League, he was embroiled in a run that saw his team win just two of 10 games in all competitions. Some folks began to wonder whether his high-energy style, continuous rotation and over-reliance on youngsters was costing the club dearly. After all, what some see as flexibility, others chalk up to a manager not knowing his favoured lineup and not thinking clearly. Three wins — and 12 goals — in three games fixed that.
As for Schmidt, it wasn’t that long ago that he was celebrated as one of the most innovative managers around. Everybody loved him when he was at Salzburg, and he looked to be making progress in his first two seasons at Leverkusen, finishing fourth and third, respectively. But his high-pressing game became predictable, he never quite seemed to get the defensive side right, and losing Hakan Calhanoglu in January didn’t help matters, even though the slide had begun well before that.
Schmidt will, no doubt, be back. Hopefully he will treat this past season as a learning opportunity.
Juve still on top, but will Bonucci stay?
It was a weird weekend for Juventus. Away to Udinese, the “five-star” setup tanked badly, resulting in one of their worst performances of the season. And yet, their gap at the top grew, with the 1-1 draw seeing the margin over second-place Roma stretch to eight points.
Max Allegri put a positive spin on things, though: more than the point, the positives came from Leo Bonucci’s post-game comments. “If I had wanted to leave, I could have done it last summer,” he said, presumably referring to interest from Chelsea and Manchester City. “I consider myself an asset for this club through 2021 [when my contract expires].”
Bonucci turns 30 in May and is one of the very best centre-backs in the world. That he would come out and repeat this is a boost for Juve, as is the fact that the dispute with Allegri seems to be behind him. But equally, (almost) everyone has a price. The fact of the matter is that Allegri — assuming he stays, but that’s a whole other story — increasingly likes to play four at the back. Even if Medhi Benatia doesn’t stick around next season, Juventus will have five top-drawer centre-backs: Bonucci, Giorgio Chiellini, Andrea Barzagli, Daniele Rugani and Mattia Caldara.
Barzagli will have one year left on his deal and will be 36 in May. Might as well keep him around. But Caldara and Rugani will both be 23, and yes, they’re ready to step up. That leaves Chiellini (33 next year) and Bonucci.
Chiellini’s age and the fact that his deal will be up in 2018 means he’s not really an asset who can be sold. The one guy Juve could cash in on, if they choose, is Bonucci. As with everyone, there’s a number at which it makes sense to do so.
Gabriele Marcotti is a Senior Writer for ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @Marcotti.