Spain defeating Italy 3-0 at the Bernabeu on Saturday was not the surprise. It was the extent of the demolition.
Unless you’ve been living under a rock, you’ll know that the old Catenaccio, defend-and-counter stereotype hasn’t really applied to the Azzurri for a long time. Still, conceding three goals like that (and it could have been more) while being methodically wiped off the pitch is still jarring. It does not — and should not — happen to big teams.
Blame it on the coming together of two factors, each pushing in opposite directions. Spain are a more talented side and a more experienced side. Nine of their starting XI have played in a Champions League final: the two who have not are named David De Gea and David Silva, hardly two chumps. Meanwhile, Italy’s starters featured two guys, Matteo Darmian and Leonardo Spinazzola, who have played exactly zero minutes of league football since May.
Throw in Isco’s performance — even Italy boss Giampiero Ventura said he felt like “jumping up on his feet and applauding him” — and it was only ever going to go one way.
Truth be told, Spain are a team, a genuine unit, one perhaps riven by club rivalries but able to put all of that aside for 90 minutes to act as one and do so with purpose. Gerard Pique may have been booed by a portion of the Bernabeu crowd early on but club loyalties were quickly put aside. As Andres Iniesta put it before the game, “for tonight, the Bernabeu is my home.” Not just this home, but that of Sergio Busquets, Jordi Alba and yes, Pique’s too. (And no, not just because Pique’s mother’s maiden name is Bernabeu.)
That cohesion, and their ability to keep the ball away from the opposition and find seams in their defensive lines, made all the difference. Their job was made easier by Ventura’s colossal gamble on a 4-2-4 formation.
There was a logic behind it: Italy and Spain were level on points, but La Roja had a better goal difference and that was unlikely to change in the final games. So, in Ventura’s mind, Italy had nothing to lose: it was win or prepare for the playoffs. He figured Spain’s central defenders would not be used to facing a front four with two genuine centre-forwards like Ciro Immobile and Andrea Belotti. And he assumed the wingers, Antonio Candreva and Lorenzo Insigne, could do enough to pin down Spain’s full-backs, driving Sergio Busquets deeper as a result.
Nice plan and all, but it didn’t work. Mainly because it meant leaving Marco Verratti and Daniele De Rossi on their own against Isco, David Silva and Koke. To be fair, on a night like this, it could have been Godzilla, Conor McGregor and the aggregate cast of the Expendables 1, 2 and 3, fully-armed, and it wouldn’t have much of a difference. De Rossi and Verratti in particular were crushed underfoot, repeatedly.
It’s a humiliation, yes, and it’s mostly on Ventura. Hindsight being 20-20, of course, he could have taken a page out of Antonio Conte’s playbook at Euro 2016 when Italy eliminated Spain, stiffening up the midfield and trying to press the life out of them in the middle of the park. Of course, had he done that, Spain might have just passed the ball sideways endlessly and settled for a draw, and Italy would still be heading to the playoffs.
As for Spain, sure, you can poke holes if you like. Maybe there isn’t as much depth off the bench at the back as you would like. Or, indeed, up front, assuming Marco Asensio’s “false nine” routine doesn’t work. But when you consider that if every Spanish midfielder who started this game was kidnapped by aliens they could still line up with Saul, Thiago Alcantara and Ander Herrera, you can only tip your hat to them. And to Julen Lopetegui as well, who has come in and dealt with youngsters and veterans (some of whom have won everything there is to win and appear as insatiable as ever) with unflappable aplomb.
Should Real be worried about losing Isco?
Speaking of Isco, it has sort of flown under the radar, but he becomes a free agent on June 30, 2018. Real Madrid insist there is nothing to worry about, that his contract is all but signed and it’s just a formality. Maybe so. But if you’re Isco and you look around your team, you might just wonder where you fit. Particularly with Gareth Bale fit (and going nowhere, apparently), Marco Asensio emerging as yet another terrifying talent and, in midfield, Luka Modric and Toni Kroos firmly ensconced in their roles.
All of the above have long-term contracts, too.
The funny thing about Isco is that on the one hand, his expiring contract gives him tremendous leverage. On the other hand, for all his ability, he’s not guaranteed a starting spot at the club and in some ways might even be expendable. Real Madrid can give him tons of money, put perhaps the reason behind the delay in extending his deal is that what he really craves is playing time and a team built around him.
Right now, that’s something Madrid can’t give him.
Ozil shouldn’t criticise the critics
Fans and media love their scapegoats, and a quiet foreign player on a big salary, who sometimes appears as if he’s not doing much — though weirdly remains a stalwart for his national side, who are the current world champions, in a role in which he faces plenty competition — is bound to get stick. Mesut Ozil gets plenty, and the fact that he has yet to commit to a new deal at Arsenal doesn’t help matters.
In that sense, I have some sympathy for him. He gets a rougher ride than most sometimes. That said, he’s way off base when, speaking of former Arsenal legends who criticise him, he says he expects “legends to behave like legends” and adds that “my advice to these former Gunners is stop talking and start supporting.”
Whether he’s talking about Martin Keown or Ian Wright or Thierry Henry makes no difference. These guys may be Arsenal through and through, but they are employed to give their opinions and call it as they see it. This is how they make a living now. Not only are they entitled (just like every Arsenal supporter) to voice their opinion, but they’re contractually obligated to do it in the most honest way possible.
It doesn’t mean they’re automatically right when they criticise, of course. It means they’re doing their jobs. These guys played for Arsenal; they haven’t been inducted in a cult and they live in a country where they’re free to speak their minds.
Ozil ought to respect that.
France’s stunning draw vs. Luxembourg
UEFA’s World Cup qualifying Group A is turning into a mind-bender. How about a little rewind?
So Sweden, who were leading the group, contrived to lose 3-2 to Bulgaria, who then got thumped by the Dutch 3-1, who in turn were beaten up 4-0 by France who, on Sunday night, wandered down the rabbit hole and were held to a scoreless draw by Luxembourg, a team they last failed to beat 103 years ago.
Yes: Luxembourg, who are ranked 48th of 54 nations in UEFA. It’s a really big deal.
Before you get a little too carried away, consider the fact that France had 34 shots on goal and the entire Grand Duchy seemed to line up inside the 6-yard box. It wasn’t necessarily pretty unless sieges are your thing. On the other hand, when you’re a nation of less than 600,000 people taking on an opponent 100 times as large, what else are you supposed to do?
Truth be told — and it may be a cliche — it felt as if Les Bleus wholly underestimated the opposition, especially in the first 45 minutes. They looked disjointed and a little too loose, as if it was a training ground exercise and they knew they were going to score at some point anyway.
It shouldn’t have been like that. Luxembourg are still Luxembourg, but they’re also a nation that had won a game in each of their last three World Cup qualifying campaigns. They scored against France in the reverse fixture, lost only 1-0 to Sweden and put three past Bulgaria.
Yes, it’s a low-scoring game, and if France scored in the first half, Luxembourg would then chase the game and maybe this ends 6-0 instead. But that’s the nature of football, and Sunday’s result will go down in Luxembourg lore.
As for France, it should — and will — be forgotten. Unless, of course, it ends up costing them first place, they end up in the playoffs and something horrible happens. Like this.
Who’s to blame for Barca’s botched transfers?
First things first: Credit to Barcelona for sending their directors out to face the music. After one of the worst and most demoralising summers in recent club history, they could have done what other (well, most) clubs do and simply refuse to talk about transfers, what went right and went wrong. Instead, Albert Soler and Robert Fernandez held a news conference, and yes, they get points for showing up. Not much else, though.
At one point, Soler started talking about the departure of “Lionel Messi” until Fernandez reminded him that he actually meant Neymar. Messi is thankfully still around and Soler trotted out the line that his contract was all agreed but it was simply a matter of finding the right time to put pen to paper. (Messi, of course, becomes a free agent at the end of June.)
What was interesting, however, was that he blamed Barcelona’s lack of signings late in the window on exorbitant asking prices. Specifically, that Paris Saint-Germain wanted €75 million ($89m) for Angel Di Maria and Liverpool reportedly demanded €200m ($238m) for Philippe Coutinho. Liverpool dispute this and sources familiar with the club say they simply stuck to their statement that he wasn’t for sale, never wavered and never set a price. As for PSG, asking €75m from a club to whom you have just given €222m is far from unreasonable.
Soler tried to turn it into a bit of a morality tale, citing clubs “playing by different rules.” It might be fair enough … until you remember how Neymar got to Barcelona in the first place. Also, it doesn’t explain the absolute mess that was their summer transfer window once they realized he was going. Sure, many might reasonably have judged Liverpool’s statement as a negotiating ploy and that if the price went high enough, they’d relent. (Heck, I know I did.) But that doesn’t mean you don’t but together a Plan B. A real one, too — not some last-ditch call to Jorge Mendes so he can try to get you Di Maria.
Soler shouldn’t get all the blame for Barcelona’s failings this summer. Indeed, the fact that there were half a dozen guys involved in transfers may have been part of the problem. But he should definitely be part of the inquest.
Why did Liverpool stick with Coutinho?
As for Coutinho, I was surprised that Liverpool stuck to their guns. Once the price moves beyond a certain point — in this case, for me, €100m ($119m), though Barca went substantially higher — continuing to say “no” made little sense. Evidently, Liverpool and Jurgen Klopp value him higher than I do. (Either that, or they wanted to make some kind of moral statement.)
I don’t think there’s going to be a problem reintegrating Coutinho into the squad. He’s a professional, he has not created problems in the past, he wanted a move, he committed to it fully — using the tools which, whether we like them or not, players use these days — and now that the window is shut, he’ll be back and should fight for his place in the side.
The more interesting issue to me is what happens in the long term. That front three of Mohamed Salah, Sadio Mane and Roberto Firmino have looked pretty good so far this season. Daniel Sturridge, Dominic Solanke, Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain (should he go back to his winger days, which might not be a bad idea), Adam Lallana (when he’s back from injury) and maybe even Ben Woodburn offer a whole range of valid alternatives.
Does Klopp see Coutinho back in midfield? Maybe. But then, with Naby Keita on his way next summer, what’s the thinking there? And is having that option really worth turning down more than €100m, particularly when they still look undermanned at centre-back?
(And, no, it’s not as simple as ditching Coutinho to sign Virgil Van Dijk. Southampton seemed as resolute about not selling him as Liverpool were with Coutinho, but there are other central defenders out there, and the fact of the matter is that right now Ragnar Klavan is Liverpool’s first option off the bench.)
Selling Coutinho would have left Liverpool with a transfer surplus of some €60m-plus this summer and freed up a big salary slot. In an age of Financial Fair Play, that’s a major fungible asset, especially since there’s no guarantee anybody will offer you that sort of money for Coutinho next season, and you’ll start the summer €60m in the hole from the Keita deal.
You hope the decision not to go down that route is down to Klopp having total faith in Coutinho and his ability to make him once again a key productive part of this side, rather than someone else not wanting to send some sort of message to the world that you’re not a “selling club.”
Gabriele Marcotti is a Senior Writer for ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @Marcotti.