Jose Mourinho became the first Manchester United coach in history to win a major trophy in his first season in charge. (I found it hard to believe too, until I remembered that United haven’t had that many managers in their history.) And Zlatan Ibrahimovic pointed out that he’s now won 32 trophies in his career: he may be counting Super Cups, Community Shields and the two Serie A titles that were revoked, but he’s not wrong.
The emphasis on winning and silverware was clear in the postgame comments at Wembley following the League Cup final, and with them, a desire for United to get back to the winning ways of the Sir Alex era.
Back then, you often got results and performances. For much of this season, Mourinho has arguably delivered better performances than results. On Sunday, it was back to the reverse: substance over style. Indeed, Mourinho himself said that Southampton deserved the draw and to be playing extra time. He’s right. Manolo Gabbiadini should have had a hat-trick and would have if not for a blown call from the referee’s assistant in the first half.
More than that, though, United struggled early against a side devoid of its best defensive (and maybe best overall) player, Virgil van Dijk. There was no Michael Carrick in Mourinho’s 4-2-3-1, which meant Ander Herrera and Paul Pogba were under more pressure than usual. It resulted in a foul-prone match for the former and a more blue-collar effort for the latter.
United’s two goals in the first half were more a function of individuals (Ibrahimovic’s free kick, which got a little bit of help from Fraser Forster, and some poor defending on Jesse Lingard’s striker) than coherent play. Mourinho addressed it at half-time by sending on Carrick for Juan Mata. United looked happier and more solid, though Gabbiadini found the equalizer to make it 2-2 and for a spell of 20-25 minutes, it looked as if Southampton were in the ascendancy and might well grab the trophy. A thumping Ibrahimovic header was ultimately the difference between the two sides.
Mourinho looked poker-faced, even dejected afterwards. Was it because his game plan did not work and he had to rely on the individual brilliance of a 35-year-old? Was it because this was the League Cup, after all, and he cares more about the two remaining trophies? Was he just drawing attention to himself, the old lightning rod routine (he said he was “happy” without smiling no fewer than five times in an eight-minute press conference)? Was it just misread body language?
In some ways, it’s not as important as the bigger picture. The silverware conveyor belt is rolling again for United, going back to last season’s FA Cup. Ibrahimovic and Pogba, the two biggest stars to arrive in the summer, were jubilant. Mourinho is playing arguably the most attacking football of his career, people say he “gets” what United are all about and he’s likely to have more power over the next transfer window than his two immediate predecessors.
In other words, he’s on the right track, though there’s a long road ahead. And you can also read his behaviour and his words as a sign that he is fixated on the ultimate prize (which sure as heck isn’t the League Cup).
“I don’t look at it as a platform [for future success],” he said. “It’s something that happened. It’s one less competition that we delete from our minds. It has been in our minds for a month. It’s finished. It’s a sense of relief.”
Relief that he’s moving in the right direction because it’s a process for him too. And it’s going to take a heck of a lot more than a domestic cup or even a Europa League to truly make him happy.
Don’t celebrate Real’s comeback too fiercely
If your glass is regularly half-full and you’re a Real Madrid fan, you won’t see Sunday night’s 3-2 comeback win against Villarreal as some kind of warning sign but, rather, you’ll take faith in the fact that this team has plenty of solutions and can turn it on at any time.
If you’re more of a Negative Nelly? Well, you count your blessings. Like the fact that you were gifted a penalty and had a massive stroke of good fortune when Sergio Asenjo had to be replaced between the sticks by Andres Fernandez, who spilled the winner into his own net.
The upshot is that for 24 minutes, Real Madrid were on their way to their second straight defeat, a victim of goals from the excellent Manu Trigueros and Cedric Bakambu and some rather dubious defending before Gareth Bale pulled one back. Cristiano Ronaldo made it 2-2 from the spot thanks to the sort of dubious decision that sows controversy.
Toni Kroos’ shot was deflected off Victor Ruiz and onto Bruno’s arm. Stray arms are punished more regularly with handballs in La Liga than other top leagues, but even this was extreme given the force of Kroos’ shot, the deflection and the close distance. Not surprising that again, the conspiracy theorists are out in force. A brilliant counter from Marcelo for substitute Alvaro Morata and Andres Fernandez’s fluff did the rest.
And so, Real’s lead at the top stays at four points with a game in hand, and the upshot is that Real scored three times against the stingiest defence in La Liga. Zinedine Zidane’s ability to call upon a creator like Isco and a finisher like Morata changed the game and is a luxury few teams in the world enjoy. At the same time, though, there were warning signs with what we saw in the first hour or so. And they are to be ignored at Real’s peril.
Ancelotti’s 1,000th game brings a massive win
Carlo Ancelotti couldn’t have celebrated his 1,000th game as a manager any better. Hamburg may be on the cusp of the relegation zone, but Ancelotti took no chances against a side that had taken 10 of a possible 12 points in their last four outings, including a 3-0 away win against Leipzig. He played a full-strength lineup and was amply rewarded.
The 8-0 pounding of Hamburg was reminiscent of some matches in the Pep Guardiola era. Robert Lewandowski’s hat-trick took his seasonal total to 28, confirming his status as one of the most prolific frontmen in Europe, while Kingsley Coman (who will likely come in handy down the stretch) came off the bench to bag his first two goals of the campaign.
The only blot, maybe, was that Thomas Muller couldn’t get on the scoresheet despite playing 90 minutes: he remains stuck at one in the league this year. But if you buy Ancelotti’s argument that Muller is that rare player who doesn’t need goals to gain confidence, then it’s not big deal.
Enrique gets it right vs. Atletico
Whatever else you may think of Luis Enrique, you can’t accuse him of being complacent.
Atletico Madrid away was very much a trap game. Stumble and Real Madrid could go four points clear with the game in hand and the Clasico at the Bernabeu. Barca had beaten Atletico only once in their last four encounters. Last week’s boos against Leganes must have been fresh in everyone’s minds, as fresh in fact as the 4-0 thumping against Paris Saint-Germain in the Champions League.
In short, there was no room for missteps and substance over style wasn’t just OK; it was mandatory. They had to out-Simeone Diego Simeone and they did it, winning 2-1, with a mixture of grit and ingenuity.
The switch to a de facto 3-4-3 — Enrique said it was a “a 3-4-3 diamond” in possession and a “4-4-2” when defending — was designed to befuddle Atleti. It’s not what won Barca the game (indeed, it took awhile for Enrique’s XI to settle into it) but it was a contributing factor — as was, above all, the dead-eye seriousness and intensity with which they played. It was sort of their own riff on Atleti’s style of play: lots of breakdowns, plenty of fouls on each side, Yannick Carrasco and Antoine Griezmann bottled up.
Critics say the tactical change was meant to free up Andres Iniesta and Lionel Messi, but in fact both were less involved than usual. I’m not sure that was the objective, or that it matters that much even if it was. Messi and Iniesta will always command attention and if they’re not getting service, it usually means others are seeing enough of the ball. And when you have as many weapons as Barca, you can get by.
In any case, it was Messi who bailed them out with his 20th league goal of the season. It’s the ninth straight season in which he’s has reached that mark. Find your own superlatives.
Ninja Nainggolan keeps Roma flying high
Roma could not have hoped for a better 72 hours. First, after it appeared everything was lost, the bureaucrats finally gave them the green light to build their much-needed new stadium. They’d been working on it for years and now they hope to move in by 2020, a necessary step towards turning them into a grown-up club capable of competing at the highest level.
Things got better on Sunday when they traveled away to Inter and snatched a 3-1 win fuelled by a terrifying performance from Radja Nainggolan. The man some call the Ninja scored two goals, drove a short-handed midfield (Roma had three to Inter’s four and it still didn’t matter) and played with a Hurricane-like ubiquitous fury.
(Let others decide which goal was better. Me? I love the second one: he won the ball from Roberto Gagliardini, raced 60 meters up the pitch and then uncorked a 60 mph missile.
Stefano Pioli, who was missing Miranda at the back, hoped to throw Roma off with a virtual 3-6-1 formation, with Antonio Candreva and Ivan Perisic wide and four men in the middle to control play. He gets points for effort — necessity is the mother of invention — but it simply didn’t work against Luciano Spalletti’s trademark movements and Nainggolan’s intensity.
If you’re Inter, you just have to accept that right now Roma are a rung above, but with Pioli you’re on the right track. As for the giallorossi, the gap between them and Juve is seven points, but they have nine more than they did at this stage last season, and crucially, they simply look like more of a team. They’re also still in the running for the Europa League and Coppa Italia.
Things are looking up for Roma, especially with the Belgian Ninja running rampant.
Patient Fabregas takes his chance
Premier League leaders Chelsea dispatched Swansea 3-1 on Saturday though the visitors had a fairly cast-iron penalty shout turned down when Cesar Azpilicueta handled the ball. Antonio Conte gave Cesc Fabregas his second straight start and the Spaniard scored a goal and set up another.
Fabregas’ skill set is obviously entirely different to that of Nemanja Matic, the guy he replaced. And that means Chelsea will play differently when he’s on the pitch. The trick for Conte is making sure it’s the sort of “different” that maintains his side’s defensive solidity while also creating chances.
We don’t know what Chelsea will do in the summer in terms of transfers (neither do they at the moment), but over time you imagine a guy like Cesc who can unlock massed defences will come in handy and that this will outweigh whatever defensive shortcomings he may have vis-a-vis Matic.
It’s a credit to Fabregas that he’s had the humility to bide his time and wait for his opportunity rather than demanding a move in January, which he could easily have done due to not being cup-tied in Europe.
PSG swat Marseille aside
The rivalry between Paris Saint-Germain and Olympique Marseille burns bright as ever. And given that when these two met at the Parc des Princes an undermanned Marseille held out for a scoreless draw, there were plenty in the south of France (read: Monaco and Nice) who hoped lightning would strike again.
Instead, PSG blitzed Rudi Garcia’s crew early and often on the way to a 5-1 win, with Marco Verratti masterful in midfield. Unai Emery now has another valuable alternative in Javier Pastore, who hadn’t started since September but can add quality and creativity. With the trio of Adrien Rabiot, Blaise Matuidi and Verratti playing the way they did against Barcelona, Pastore in the front three becomes an option, not a luxury.
The gap to Monaco stays at three points and Nice, who also won, aren’t going away either. But PSG are clearly ready for any sort of misstep from Leonardo Jardim’s crew.
Sevilla take to the air vs. Betis
Regular readers will know that I’m a “mark” (to use a wrestling term) for Jorge Sampaoli. Still, I expected that as the season wore on, opposing sides would figure him out. The weekend derby with Betis seemed like the ideal situation for Sevilla to drop points.
Betis hadn’t actually lost at home since October and in the cauldron they call the Villamarin, you expected the going would get tough. Sevilla were coming off the Champions League and they had started to show signs of fatigue. They also went a goal down. But then the goals came from a most unexpected source: two in-swinging free kicks, two headers won and a 2-1 victory.
The aerial attack is not a dimension you normally associate with Sampaoli teams (maybe it’s a function of coaching Chile and all their diminutive guys), but the introduction of the hulking Vicente Iborra made all the difference. It will serve them well as a Plan B (or C or D) not just in La Liga but in Europe as well.
Allegri’s latest successful experiment involves Mandzukic
Max Allegri continues his experiments at Juventus, mixing and matching personnel and formations whenever he can, ignoring rumours over his future and fallout from internal diatribes (just ask Leo Bonucci). Sunday’s 2-0 victory over Empoli marked the bianconeri‘s 30th consecutive home win in the league, and while they only scored in the second half, it never really looked in doubt.
The interesting thing, again, was Allegri’s use of Mario Mandzukic. He put the big man out on the wing but with licence to cut inside, create mismatches and wreak havoc. The target man-as-winger isn’t an entirely new thing, but you don’t often see it these days. You’ll lose something when it comes to running at opponents one-on-one, but you’ll (presumably) win cross-field high balls and make things very uncomfortable when he cuts inside.
It’s a neat wrinkle, and it takes somebody with his prodigious work rate to make it happen.
Liverpool’s weird lack of late goals
Sometimes you come across stats and you’re not sure how to interpret them. Liverpool have scored 54 Premier League goals this season, second best after Chelsea’s 55 (though Antonio Conte’s crew have played one more game). The odd thing is that just 9.3 percent of their goals have come in the final 15 minutes. That’s by far the lowest percentage of any team in the Premier League’s top seven: Tottenham have the next-lowest proportion at 21.7 percent.
The knee-jerk reaction is that you suspect it might have something to do with Liverpool getting tired at the end of games. Or maybe it’s just a statistical quirk. Leave your theories in the comments, please.
Talented Atalanta keep proving the critics wrong
Atalanta are up to fourth place in Serie A following their shock 2-0 away win to Napoli. Those of us who figured they’d fall away after the sale of Roberto Gagliardini to Inter in January are being proven wrong as one of the best youth academies in Europe continues to shine through the likes of Mattia Caldara and Andrea Conti (plus, I guess the immense Franck Kessie is an academy product as well).
While Atalanta regularly feature alongside mega-clubs like Real Madrid, Barcelona and Manchester United for the sheer number of players they contribute to Europe’s top leagues, the vast majority have ranged from serviceable pros to decent internationals. Without wishing to disrespect guys like Riccardo Montolivo, Giacomo Bonaventura and Manolo Gabbiadini, the last superstar was probably Roberto Donadoni in the 1980s.
Watching Caldara play against Napoli, in particular the ease with which he transitioned from defence to attack, you wonder if he’s going to change that. Caldara is a centre-back who runs and strikes the ball with the ease of a midfielder. It’s a rare combination.
And finally … Bas Dost
Bas Dost scored in Sporting’s 2-0 away victory over Estoril. With Porto and Benfica also winning, Sporting remain in third place, 10 points behind the league leaders. Dost is now up to 21 goals for the season and is averaging one goal every 127 minutes in all competitions.
This concludes the latest instalment of #BasDostWatch.
Gabriele Marcotti is a Senior Writer for ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @Marcotti.