Maybe the best compliment you can give Tottenham after Sunday’s 2-0 win over Manchester City is that they made it look both hard and easy.
Hard because pressing high up the pitch with the concentration and intensity with which Mauricio Pochettino’s men showed requires tremendous energy, both physical and mental. In fact, it was exhausting just to watch them. Easy because the game plan was staggeringly effective in its simplicity.
You’re going to play out of the back with Pablo Zabaleta, Nicolas Otamendi and Fernando while making Claudio Bravo do this “sweeper-keeper” nonsense? Really? Fine. Then we’ll send Heung-Min Son, Moussa Sissoko, Dele Alli and Erik Lamela to hunt you down relentlessly in your own half. The efficiency and ruthlessness that Tottenham displayed was breathtaking at times. The fact that they did it without Eric Dier (he hadn’t played in two weeks and only came on in the final 20 minutes) and the injured Harry Kane only made it more impressive.
Of course, Pep Guardiola, had important absentees of his own — Kevin De Bruyne is the obvious one, but Nolito was suspended and Vincent Kompany is still sidelined — but you nevertheless expected more of a reaction than what City were able to muster.
Hindsight being 20/20, you feel that opting for an extra defensive midfielder — Fernando, who slotted alongside Fernandinho — suggested he misjudged how Tottenham were likely to play. Fernando might have made sense to help break up play against a Tottenham side that sat deeper off the ball or if City had opted to play on the break. Instead, with Spurs effectively man-marking all over the pitch, an extra ball-playing spark who could help break the press would have come in handy. Someone like, say, Ilkay Gundogan, who only came on in the second half.
The interesting question is whether other clubs can follow Tottenham’s blueprint when facing City. Probably not. For a start, it’s fundamentally a high-risk/reward situation. When you press that high, it only takes one mistake to give your opponents a run on goal, and given City’s quality, a run on goal usually equals a gilt-edge chance. Spurs were able to do it because Toby Alderweireld and Jan Vertonghen were magnificent defensively and because Victor Wanyama was a monster in the middle of the park. Most teams don’t have that level of defensive cover.
From Tottenham’s perspective, though, it scarcely matters. They don’t need to play like this because most opponents they’ll face don’t play like City. But in terms of confidence, it’s a tremendous boost. And you’re especially pleased for Son, a guy who many were skeptical about after his first season. Instead, on this form, he’s a more than worthy substitute for Kane.
Man City remain in first place with a one point lead, so there’s no need to batten down the hatches just yet. But there are a few warning signs for Guardiola to consider. Playing out of the back to this degree (as we saw in the Manchester derby as well) can bring with it an unnecessary level of risk. Whether it’s Zabaleta or Bacary Sagna at right-back, neither is Dani Alves in terms of passing or dribbling. And the sooner Leroy Sane does enough to merit a spot in the starting lineup — or at least the rotation — the better it will be. He’s just as fast as Jesus Navas and Nolito (if not faster) and has more quality than both. He just needs to find his role in the system.
Barca’s defeat not connected to Messi’s absence
If you watch the highlights of Celta Vigo’s 4-3 win over Barcelona, you’ll note a staggering string of individual errors, from Marc-Andre ter Stegen to Sergio Busquets to Jeremy Mathieu. And you might conclude that there’s not much Luis Enrique could have done in these circumstances. After all, managers can’t legislate for bonehead plays; besides that, he didn’t have Lionel Messi.
You’d be wrong. First and foremost, Lionel Messi’s absence can’t be an alibi for going 3-0 down at half-time. More importantly, Luis Enrique lost this game tactically and he did it against his old club and against a manager, Eduardo Berizzo, who also put four goals past him last season while following a very similar blueprint.
Folks may criticize Barca for the squad rotation — Andres Iniesta, Javier Mascherano and Ivan Rakitic were all on the bench — and they may have been better with their strongest XI, but there still was more than enough talent out there to get the job done. The real issue was a game plan that blew up in Luis Enrique’s face against Berizzo’s high press.
In the first half at least, the tactic seemed to be to simply bypass the press and get the ball quickly into the final third, where he’d fielded a trio of attacking midfielders (Andre Gomes, Arda Turan, Rafinha) to support Luis Suarez and Neymar. The problem is that this left the center-backs and Busquets stranded, with ter Stegen trying to break Berizzo’s aggressive and coordinated press. An extra ball-player further back would have made things a heck of a lot easier when it comes to getting it out of their half. Either that or don’t trust Mathieu with the ball and tell ter Stegen to limit his shenanigans.
Luis Enrique would probably say that he wants to show faith in his players, especially the ones who aren’t bona fide regulars. That’s fine, but if you’re going to do that, you need to play to their strengths. And definitely don’t put them in a situation where they’re more likely than not to fail.
Why did Swansea change managers now?
There’s a good way to change managers — and there’s a less good way.
In January 2016, Swansea City appointed Francesco Guidolin as manager and gave him a deal through the end of the season. It made sense not to commit long-term: The club were one point above the relegation zone and, if they did go down, Swansea wouldn’t be locked into it a pricey multi-year deal. On May 11, the club announced that they had extended his deal for another two seasons, through 2018. At that point, they had moved from 17th to 11th in the table.
OK, you’d assume he had convinced them enough to get a permanent deal. Then, in July, Swansea got new American majority owners. Since takeovers generally don’t happen overnight, you might even assume that they were aware of Guidolin’s contract extension and possibly even signed off on it. Either way, they were now in charge.
On Monday, they parted ways with Guidolin and appointed Bob Bradley to replace him. Swansea are (again) 17th and what’s more, have lost three straight Premier League games.
This isn’t about whether Guidolin deserved to go, though for what it’s worth, Swansea played relatively well against Manchester City and Liverpool, the two most recent outings. Rather, it’s about the way it call came to pass.
Reportedly, Swansea interviewed Bradley, former Villarreal boss Marcelino and former Manchester United icon Ryan Giggs. Unless they spoke to all three between Saturday evening and Monday lunchtime, it’s a safe bet they were reaching out for replacements while Guidolin was still there. Sometimes, of course, you have no choice but here, entering a two week international break, they did.
What’s more, Bradley actually had a job. The former U.S. national team coach was managing Le Havre in the French second division. In fact, he’s still managing them: He takes charge of their game against Sochaux Monday night.
You presume Bradley had permission from Le Havre to interview for the job and the club’s protestations that he was going nowhere are just part of the game. Fine. But the question is: Couldn’t Swansea have sacked Guidolin on Saturday night and appointed Bradley tomorrow? Wouldn’t that have been a slightly classier move? And heck, while we’re at it, if they liked Bradley so much, why not just go and appoint him in the summer? Or did Guidolin show some major flaw in the first seven weeks of the Premier League that convinced them to do a 180-degree turn?
Why Bradley’s performance matters
As for whether Bradley can keep Swansea in the Premier League — you assume that’s the objective — the sooner the novelty of being a U.S. manager wears off and people just think of him as a manager, the better.
He’s obviously vastly experienced at the national level with the U.S. and Egypt and at club level in Major League Soccer, Norway and Ligue 2. People talk about coaching in the Premier League as if it were some kind of entirely different animal, but I’m not sure that’s the case. If he does succeed, it may prompt some decision-makers into being a little less insular and a little more open-minded when it comes to evaluating coaching talent.
Real Madrid must use the break wisely
Maybe it’s a coincidence and nothing more, but the last game Casemiro played was also the last one Real Madrid actually won. Since then it’s been a winless streak of four matches, culminating in Sunday’s 1-1 home draw with Eibar. You have to go back more than 10 years, to the car crash that was the 2005-06 Real Madrid season (the one which began with Vanderlei Luxemburgo and ended with Juan Ramon Lopez Caro) to find their last run of four games without a victory.
It’s an age-old chestnut. The Brazilian, barely tolerated by some purists, offers a physicality and a balance that others on this team do not. You can ask Toni Kroos or Mateo Kovacic to fill his boots and, on occasion, they’ll get it done, particularly when Real Madrid take an early lead. And in other games, the sheer amount of attacking firepower will generate enough goals to paper over whatever cracks appear in the middle of the park.
Against Eibar, however, Luka Modric and Marcelo were unavailable and Sergio Ramos was rested. On top of that, Cristiano Ronaldo (assist aside) and Karim Benzema were disappointing. It turned into one of those games where Madrid rely on individuals and to be fair, Gareth Bale hit the post.
But it’s more than fair to demand more of this team and no, the blame can’t all fall on Zinedine Zidane either. The good news is that they’re still undefeated, joint-top in the table and, most of all, there’s an international break coming up to freshen the mind and get some of the injured guys back. Let’s hope they use it well to figure out a thing or two.
Is that really Man United’s best performance?
Jose Mourinho said his Manchester United side turned in their best performance of the season against Stoke City. If you simply watch a series of highlights, you’d be tempted to agree. Only a string of superb saves by Stoke keeper Lee Grant and the woodwork kept United from getting more than the 1-1 draw they eventually got.
But there was also a period towards the end of the first half, and at the start of the second, when Stoke were on the ascendancy. And that’s not what you expect to see from a Mourinho team at home.
Unlucky not to get three points? Sure. Best performance of the season? If that’s the case, this team still has a very high ceiling.
Ancelotti must figure out what Bayern want to be
Bayern Munich followed defeat at Atletico Madrid in the Champions League with a nerve-wracking home draw with Cologne that saw the visitors come close to the winner in injury time. Carlo Ancelotti overhauled the team with Manuel Neuer, Javi Martinez, Xabi Alonso and Robert Lewandowski the only holdovers from midweek, but to no avail.
Ancelotti could have hid behind the fact that Bayern hit the woodwork three times and that Neuer was far from perfect on Anthony Modeste’s goal for Cologne. But he didn’t.
“We played badly against Atletico and we again played badly against Cologne,” he said. “Some of our guys were tired, so I rotated a bit. It obviously did not work.”
Needless to say, the international break comes at the right time for Bayern too. After starting the campaign with eight wins on the bounce, they need to regain their mojo. Most of all, Ancelotti needs to figure out the kind of side he wants them to be. Thus far, too many of their victories have come as a result of having better players than the opposition rather than actually outplaying them.
Edin Dzeko will be vital for Roma
It’s perhaps a sign of how far Edin Dzeko has come that Sunday night, without irony, folks on Italian TV were comparing the Roma center-forward to Marco Van Basten (“But Van Basten had a nasty streak and could be a mean S.O.B. when he needed to,” said Gianluca Vialli.)
If you remember Van Basten, comparing anyone to him is akin to blasphemy, but what they were referring to was his elegance and his combination of size and technique. (Nope, it’s still a blasphemous comparison, but bear with me).
Dzeko was devastating and unselfish in Roma’s 2-1 win over Inter Sunday night. He’s up to five goals in Serie A (last year, he only reached that mark in February) and if he can be the goal scorer Roma expect him to be, then the giallorossi can challenge for a top three finish and maybe more.
As for Inter, we’ve seen them play worse in the Frank De Boer era (just a few days ago in fact), though this time, the manger needs to shoulder some of the blame. Possession is great, but it needs to be turned into quality chances (no, that does not mean aimless long-distance shots), and the underlying fragility of this team remains worrying. Still, the squad seem to be with him. And that’s more than you can say for his predecessor.
Dortmund defeat not a long-term concern
So maybe that’s the recipe to derail Borussia Dortmund: out-Dortmund them. After falling to RB Leipzig, they again slip up against one of those 1,000 mph teams that the hipsters love. Kind of like a less-gifted version of themselves.
To be fair to Bayer Leverkusen, Roger Schmidt set them up beautifully, particularly on the defensive end, ensuring that Dortmund could create little until late in the game. The likes of Christian Pulisic and Gonzalo Castro offered little and neither did the usually effective Raphael Guerreiro, not until he was shifted back to the flank and Thomas Tuchel ditched the tactical hocus-pocus.
Dortmund looked overworked while Leverkusen looked better than their league position suggests. Expect them to creep back up the table.
Young Milan side finally having fun
This Milan side may not be good, but they’re fun, young and fearless enough to roar back from a 3-1 deficit to win 4-3 against Sassuolo. The club is still a mess and it’s not clear whether some of these guys are any good, but Vincenzo Montella is playing attractive football and doing it with homegrown kids. Gigi Donnarumma, still just 17, made one of the best saves you’ll see all year off Matteo Politano, and 18-year-old Manuel Locatelli came on and scored a screamer.
There’s no guarantee this will translate into long-term success — though, frankly, the future for the likes of Donnarumma, Locatelli and Alessio Romagnoli looks pretty bright — but for now it’s quite a ride. And it’s enough to keep the fans interested and engaged.
Atletico find another way to win
They just keep coming. Atletico Madrid’s 2-0 win at Valencia was another exercise in relentlessness. Even after Diego Alves saved two penalties, Atleti never lost belief and eventually cruised to three points that put them joint-top of La Liga. At this rate, it doesn’t matter if Antoine Griezmann misses penalties because they’ll just figure out another way to score.
As for Valencia, new boss Cesare Prandelli was in the stands, no doubt reflecting on the task ahead. Despite Valencia showing more fight than in previous outings this season, it’s pretty obvious there is a ton of work to do.
Hard to deny Balotelli’s renaissance
This one’s too easy: Why always him?
Mario Balotelli scored a stunning late goal to propel Nice to a 2-1 win over Lorient on Sunday, helping them stay atop Ligue 1. Mario being Mario, his shirtless goal celebration earned him a yellow card and, a few minutes later, he was sent off after clashing with Steven Moreira.
Before we get too carried away, however, it’s worth noting that the second yellow was dubious at best: Balotelli and Moreira squared off for no more than a second and then each padded away, only to be greeted by the referee’s caution. The fact of the matter is that he has scored six goals in five games in all competitions.
Every long journey begins with a single step. He’s now taken several. This may or may not be a step back.
Gabriele Marcotti is a columnist for ESPN FC, The Times and Corriere dello Sport. Follow him on Twitter @Marcotti.