Manchester City’s 1-1 draw with Liverpool was hailed as a great advertisement for the Premier League. It was breathless; it was end-to-end and it featured tons of chances and incidents. It also saw a horrific number of individual errors — referee Michael Oliver, regarding James Milner on Raheem Sterling and Yaya Toure on Emre Can, wasn’t immune either — and two badly exposed back fours.
To some, it was a very “English” game in the sense that it conformed to a certain set of stereotypes: high tempo, tactical looseness and mistakes brought on by frenzy. But that’s a bit of a tired cliche, and with just five English players among the 25 who stepped on the pitch and two foreign managers, pushing the “Anglo” angle seems a bit lazy.
A more apt interpretation might be that this game was an excellent reflection of how these two managers view football. This is how City wanted to play, and this is how Jurgen Klopp, given the injuries and a half-fit Philippe Coutinho, felt his team needed to play.
Pep Guardiola said after the match that it was one of the proudest moments of his coaching career. Given the 22 trophies he won as a manager, that cooment raised more than a few eyebrows. Had it come from somebody else (like, say, his counterpart in the red half of Manchester), you might have written it off as some kind of mind game/motivational technique. Coming from Guardiola, you’re not so sure.
Can a 1-1 home draw which could easily have finished 4-4 but for better finishing and more alert officiating really be one of you proudest moments? We’ll let Pep be the judge of that. Suffice to say he waxed lyrical about the way his team attacked and the chances he created. He was hugely excited, as if it had suddenly all come together for his team.
To his critics, that’s precisely the problem. A conventional manager can’t be pleased when his team gives up as many chances as City conceded against Liverpool. He’d be concerned about balance, about keeping the right line, about not leaving his center-backs exposed. Evidently Guardiola doesn’t think that way.
“It’s not easy to play central defender [for me],” he said, during a postgame lionizing of John Stones. “You have to defend 40 meters behind [you] and make the build-up. That’s why I admire a lot my central defenders.”
He’s right that playing in the system requires a certain fortitude. Indeed, his center-backs would be less exposed and look a whole lot better if they played for, say, Juventus. It’s an article of faith at this point, but as he has pointed out many times before, he doesn’t do this because he’s philosophically wedded to it. He does it because he thinks it gives his teams the best possible chance of winning.
The problem with this approach is that creating chances is difficult but converting them is even harder. There’s a certain randomness to it, and Guardiola not only recognizes this, but says there’s little he can do to change it.
“In my career, I was a football player 11 years, and I scored 11 goals [Actually, it’s 16 years and 26 goals, unless he’s decided to wipe Roma, Brescia, Al-Ahli and Dorados from his memory],” he said. “[That’s] one goal a year! So you can imagine what advice I can say to Sergio [Aguero] and the other guys about scoring goals? I don’t think so!”
He’s walking a fine line here. Guardiola can’t help his forwards score, other than creating chances for them, and he puts his defenders under enormous amounts of stress. It’s not exactly something you’d put on your resume — unless, of course, you’re Guardiola and it’s there alongside the six league titles and two European Cups.
As for Liverpool, you felt that missed chances aside, this is about as much as he can squeeze out of this group of players right now. The poor defending that yielded so many chances isn’t systemic as much as it is qualitative. James Milner is still a 31-year-old midfielder playing left-back. Ragnar Klavan is what he is. Without Jordan Henderson in midfield, you’re putting a square peg in a round hole to replace him.
For Klopp, this is about all he can do right now, but there will be work to do under the hood in the summer. This is unlike Pep’s attitude, where it feels as if it’s just a case of waiting for his forwards to convert chances.
Barca win but still lack balance
Luis Enrique had one of those “glass half-empty, glass half-full days” with Sunday’s 4-2 win against Valencia.
The good news? Lionel Messi is in beast mode, scoring twice to take his seasonal total to 41 for the eighth consecutive year. Given that Barcelona will play a minimum of 13 and a maximum of 16 games the rest of the campaign, it’s entirely possible he’ll break the 50-goal mark for the fifth time in his career. And those, ladies and gentlemen, are PlayStation numbers.
And it’s not just Messi. Luis Suarez, Andres Iniesta and Neymar all looked sharp in the 3-4-3, and truth be told, Barca could have scored many more goals. If your big guns are firing this time of year, you have reason to be optimistic.
On the flip side, the latest iteration of the back three proved to be disastrous defensively against a Valencia side that had taken four of a possible 12 points in its past four outings. Barca dominated possession (they ended up on 73 percent), but it felt as if every time they turned the ball over, it only took a couple passes for somebody to pop up in front of Marc-Andre ter Stegen. Part of it was an off day for Sergio Busquets, but a lot of it has to with the setup and personnel.
In a 3-4-3, it’s essential that the wingers work with the side of the diamond to take turns tracking back and helping on the counter. Otherwise, one of your center-backs gets pulled wide, opening up space inside for others to exploit. Against Valencia, the Ivan Rakitic-Rafinha and Iniesta-Neymar combinations didn’t quite work as effectively off the ball as you’d hoped.
Luis Enrique will no doubt get criticism this week for the 3-4-3, not least because it means a popular international like Jordi Alba doesn’t get on the pitch. Given that it’s been barely month since he brought in this system, I don’t think it’s worth giving up just yet. But Barca will need to improve in terms of execution and, perhaps, make a tough decision in terms of personnel to maintain a modicum of balance against counterattacking sides.
Zidane’s Real “suffer” but beat Bilbao
Sometimes managers like talking about “knowing how to suffer.” To some, it’s a throwaway phrase; with others, you sort of understand.
Zinedine Zidane said Real Madrid “suffered tremendously” against Athletic Bilbao but still came away with the 2-1 victory because they showed “personality.” If you watched the game, you know what he means.
Things got tough and then they got ugly, and still Real Madrid hung in there.They did it against an opponent that was roared on by a partisan crowd that treated the game like a combination Champions League final/Hunger Games round. They did it with Luka Modric looking pedestrian and Gareth Bale looking ethereal.
But Keylor Navas bounced back after a week of criticism. Cristiano Ronaldo did his job and more. Casemiro offered his N’Golo Kante impression (and scored, too). And Karim Benzema showed why — regardless of whether he gets on the score sheet or not, and he did at Nuevo San Mames — he is so important to this team.
Looking at the fixture list, this looked like the toughest Liga road trip between now and the end of the season, and they passed this test as well.
Suffering? Yeah, that’s what champions know how to do.
Wenger’s uncertainty is clearly hurting Arsenal
After the last poor Arsenal performance, we were distracted by GIFs of Alexis Sanchez supposedly smirking on the bench and dubious “distance covered” numbers suggesting that he might not be the Energizer bunny some make him out to be. This time, after a 3-1 hiding at West Brom, the distraction comes from Arsene Wenger himself, who announced that his mind was made up.
“I know what I will do in the future,” he said. “You will know soon. Very soon. You will see.”
Cue 48 hours of speculation about what might be going through the Arsenal manager’s mind, with some outlets reporting that he had decided to stay and others citing “insiders” insisting no final decision has been made. You kind of wish they’d get their story straight. Wenger says he knows what he’ll do, but “insiders” (presumably, Arsenal sources and not voices in Wenger’s head) say no decision has been taken.
This situation benefits nobody. Particularly not with the thorny issue of contract extensions for Mesut Ozil and Sanchez still on the table.
Logic would suggest that this is where Wenger’s employers turn to him and politely ask: “Erm, Arsene, we understand you said you had made up your mind. Can you please tell us one way or another so we can actually plan this club’s future, with or without you?”
In case they hadn’t noticed, Arsenal have crashed out of the Champions League and slipped from second to sixth in the table since Feb. 1. Clearly, this uncertainty isn’t helping.
As for what Wenger will do (or whether he even has truly made up his mind), I have no particular inside knowledge now. But if I had to speculate, my guess is he’ll want to return. Nobody wants to leave on a low — not if they don’t have to, anyway.
Muller breaks seemingly infinite goal drought
Other than the three points, perhaps the best piece of news to come out of Bayern’s 1-0 win at Borussia Monchengladbach is the fact that Thomas Muller got on the score sheet. It’s his second league goal of the season, his sixth overall. By comparison, last year he notched his sixth in September, the year before, it came in October and the one before that in September again. And now we’re in March.
Muller’s game isn’t defined by goals, and Ancelotti himself told me that even during the slump, the striker’s positivity was astounding. But it’s pretty obvious that having him chip in regularly takes pressure off the likes of Robert Lewandowski and Arjen Robben, which could be critical down the stretch.
Buffon breaks another record
Juventus won 1-0 away at Sampdoria in a match that left Max Allegri fuming at the final whistle. The Juve boss didn’t like the way that after an exceptional first half, his side conceded chances after the break rather than simply administering the lead and remaining watertight. I thought his criticism was a bit over the top, but you can see why he fears complacency.
Meanwhile, Gigi Buffon broke Giampiero Boniperti’s record for Serie A minutes played in a Juventus jersey. It’s one of those marks that seems a bit artificial, but given his longevity and performances, it was inevitable that it would fall. So too, barring injury, will Paolo Maldini’s mark for most Serie A appearances (647): Buffon is 33 short. If he’s the starter next year (and he will be), it should be in the bag.
A more interesting question perhaps is whether he goes on to break Ale Del Piero’s mark of 705 Juve appearances. At his current pace, he’d need to play on until the end of the 2018-19 campaign, when he’ll be 41. It seems like a big ask, but given that it’s Buffon we’re talking about, you reckon anything is possible.
If Buffon gets a game against Germany and/or Albania during this international break, he’ll also set a new mark for most international caps by a UEFA player with 168. The world record, held by Egypt’s Ahmed Hassan, is 184, which may or may not be out of reach.
One more Buffon factoid, since we’re on a roll: he’s 39, which makes him two years older than the combined age of the two other keepers called up by Italy: Gigi Donnarumma (18) and Alex Meret (19).
Man United’s top four hunt alive and well
Jose Mourinho was grumpy all week long, complaining about the midday Sunday kickoff against Middlesbrough. It’s a fair question to ask: Why couldn’t they play at, say, 6.30 p.m.? Ask the Premier League that question, and they’ll probably mumble stuff about traveling fans needing to get back home (apparently the 110 miles between Middlesbrough and Greater Manchester become difficult to cover after a certain hour on Sundays) or policing issues (were it up to the police alone, you feel every game would kick off at 8 a.m., to help cut down on prematch boozing).
He has a point, but it will likely soon be forgotten after the 3-1 victory that lifts United into fifth place. With two games in hand over Liverpool in fourth, that four-point gap doesn’t seem so big. And when Zlatan Ibrahimovic and Paul Pogba return, you can expect the hunt for a Champions League spot to pick up in earnest.
Sarri rants after Napoli hang on for win
Napoli boss Maurizio Sarri was equally grouchy over kickoff times, saying that “nobody likes” the 12.30 p.m. Sunday start in Serie A. Maybe he was in an especially bad mood as Napoli only won 3-2 away to Empoli after rushing out to a 3-0 first half lead.
Whatever the case, you wish he could move with the times. It’s as early a kickoff for Napoli as it is for their opponents. The occasional lunchtime kickoff brings plenty benefit to supporters, especially families. This conservatism is reminiscent of when Serie A introduced evening kickoffs nearly 25 years ago, and some folks thought the world was coming to an end.
Suck it up and focus on catching Roma in second place instead.
Fairytale Leipzig fading from view
It does feel as if fatigue and the waning of the novelty factor are starting to cost Leipzig right now. I tend to buy that more than the alternative theory posited by some that God is punishing them for being, well, Leipzig.
They were hammered 3-0 by Werder Bremen and fell to their second consecutive defeat. Since the start of February, they’ve taken seven of a possible 21 points and seen the gap with Bayern balloon from three to 13 points.
You can talk about injuries and inexperience, but you can’t help but wonder: If they’re struggling to maintain consistency this season, with no European football, how are they going to cope next year when they won’t have the luxury of a week off between games?
Win at Stoke defines Chelsea’s title charge
If Chelsea go on and win the Premier League this season — their lead stands at 10 points with 10 games to go — the title will be marked by games like their trip to Stoke on Saturday. It was the sort of game where they could (some might even say should) have coasted. Mark Hughes’ crew are in ninth place with nothing to play for. The conventional wisdom playbook would have argued for slowing the tempo, taking the sting out of the game, avoiding injury and cards and settling for a point.
Instead, Chelsea matched Stoke in terms of intensity and physicality. They actually seemed to relish it, and despite a few wobbles from Diego Costa and Marcos Alonso, they fought to a 2-1 win and hit the woodwork twice.
Conte’s fingerprints are all over this team, in case you hadn’t noticed.
Ligue 1 going down to the wire
The race continues in Ligue 1. On Sunday afternoon, Monaco beat up Caen away from home, 3-0, with teenage sensation Kylian Mbappe once again stealing the show. That’s now seven goals in his past five games — 13 since the start of February — for the 18-year-old.
But PSG aren’t going away and showed plenty of character against Lyon on their return to the Parc des Princes after the 6-1 Champions League nightmare against Barcelona. Despite going a goal down, they roared back with goals from Adrien Rabiot and Julian Draxler to keep themselves three points behind Leonardo Jardim’s crew.
These two teams meet in the French League Cup final on April Fools’ Day. No points will be at stake, but you get the feeling it will impact the run-in given that Monaco are still in Europe whereas PSG will get most midweeks off between now and the end of the season.
Where do Atletico, Sevilla go from here?
The spotlight was firmly on the two managers when Atletico Madrid squared off with Sevilla in a prize fight to be La Liga’s third wheel. Diego Simeone’s passion and intensity in the dugout is well-documented, but Jorge Sampaoli was challenging his crown as the most tightly wound and explosive coach in the Spanish game.
As different as their respective brands of football are, these two go into each game as if they were heading into the Thunderdome: “Two men enter, one man leaves.” But three things helped Atletico to a 3-1 victory on Saturday.
The first is that for all the rage, Simeone’s aggression is controlled and channelled and is reflected in his team. You believe in your game plan and stick to it, with every setback spurring you to go further. Not so for Sampaoli. His game plan is ever-changing, and while it helps keep the opposition off balance, it also can create confusion (witness Gabriel Mercado’s defending) and result in wasted energy.
Another is that while some very clever people argue that there is no such thing as momentum in sports, there is such a thing as a self-fulfilling prophecy. And this game capped a horrendous week for Sevilla, which began with a disappointing home draw with Leganes and continued with the loss at Leicester City that knocked them out of the Champions’ League. Contrast this with Atletico Madrid, who haven’t lost to a team not named Barcelona since December.
The third point is Antoine Griezmann. When you have a guy who is head and shoulders above everybody else on the pitch and can produce free kicks like the one we saw at the hour mark, you’re always going to have an edge.
Now, it becomes a question of how Sevilla (and Atletico) react. With the latter, you sort of know. With the former, we’re in uncharted territory.
Bas Dost scored both goals in Sporting Lisbon’s 2-0 victory over Nacional. This takes his season total to 27 and, crucially, his league total to 24. That means he’s up to second in the European “Golden Shoe” ranking, with a score of 48, because the Portuguese league has a coefficient of 2.0.
(Brief detour here. This award used to be known as the “Golden Boot,” and I have no idea why they changed the name. Maybe because while we commonly refer to players’ footwear as “boots,” they’re not really boots. They’re shoes.)
Dost faces some stiff competition. The guy ahead of him, on 50 points, is some dude named Lionel Messi, who has already won this award three times. Just behind him are Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang (46), Andrea Belotti and Anthony Modeste (44) and Robert Lewandowski, Luis Suarez and Romelu Lukaku (42).
I’ll let others debate where this is a real award or whether a goal in Portugal ought to be worth as much as a goal in Germany, Spain or England (and 33 percent more than one in France: Edinson Cavani has 27, but Ligue 1’s co-efficient is 1.5 as it’s sixth in the UEFA rankings). Suffice to say, Dost is in some pretty exalted company.
This concludes the latest installment of #DostWatch.
Gabriele Marcotti is a Senior Writer for ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @Marcotti.