We were expecting entertainment but got very little. Still, you don’t need to spin too much for both Jurgen Klopp and Pep Guardiola to turn the scoreless draw at Anfield into a positive.
Klopp can say the result, after a very poor performance in Naples, shows his side have the mental strength to bounce back. And being on 20 points after eight games — including matches against Chelsea and Spurs away, plus City at home — is not a bad place to be. Particularly when you consider they’re also in a tough Champions League group.
Equally, Pep can say they avoided defeat (unlike last year) and that had Riyad Mahrez not skied his penalty over the bar, they’d have taken three points. (Incidentally, for all the criticism over Mahrez’s choice as penalty-taker, it’s worth noting that his record, three in seven, was marginally better than that of Gabriel Jesus, one in three, among those on the pitch. David Silva had also taken a penalty six years ago and missed it.)
Both are right, and the only losers are neutral fans who wanted more entertainment. That said, I’d suggest Guardiola is slightly better off right now than Klopp.
Roberto Firmino had a difficult game, and when that happens, the whole front three tends to falter. And given the lack of creativity in midfield, that becomes a problem against teams who sit deep. Whether it’s getting the best out of Naby Keita, using Xherdan Shaqiri in certain situations or maybe getting a boost when Adam Lallana returns, Klopp will want to find a Plan B that can offer a bit more invention.
As for City, it felt as if there were times in the first half when Bernardo and David Silva were playing alongside Fernandinho, who himself was just a few yards ahead of the center-backs. The “central density” worked, bottling up Firmino and severely limiting Liverpool’s attacking output. If you can do this without packing your lineup with goons and holding midfielders, it’s a huge asset, one we perhaps didn’t see often enough from City last season, particularly in Europe. It speaks to the ability to defend leads and be patient, as well as varying your style of play without having to resort to substitutions.
It’s not fun to watch, but there will be certain matches when it’s an invaluable quality.
Kovac needs to fix Bayern quickly
Saturday’s horror show — a 3-0 home pasting at the hands of Borussia Monchengladbach — makes it four games on the bounce without a win for Nico Kovac’s Bayern. This is where you get to point out that after seven Bundesliga games, they are sixth, four points off the top of the table, with 13 points, 12 goals scored and eight conceded. A year ago, Carlo Ancelotti had played six Bundesliga games when he got fired. He also had 13 points (in one fewer match), had scored 14 and given up five. Oh, and they were third at the time, just three points off the top.
Will Kovac suffer the same fate? My sense is “no,” not now anyway. Sacking a coach after 11 games would be a serious humiliation for the folks who appointed him, but it’s obvious that something needs to change. Kovac’s version of 4-1-4-1 with Thiago Alcantara(!) as the lone holding midfielder only works if the four attacking midfielders run themselves into the ground and work hard. That’s a huge ask when your four are Arjen Robben, Thomas Mueller, Leon Goretzka and James Rodriguez. Anything less than high energy and synchronised movements and your back four gets exposed, which happened time and again this weekend.
Kovac needs to rethink this or Bayern will rethink it for him — with a different boss.
Mourinho isn’t “safe” because of Saturday’s win
I don’t buy the narrative that Jose Mourinho “saved his job” because Manchester United came back to win 3-2 on Saturday. You would hope that in a grownup organization, decisions aren’t made based on the latest result. If you believe Mourinho is progressing this United team — or even if you just want to buy yourself time while you find a replacement — you keep him regardless of the result. If you think things are beyond repair, you get rid of him.
Certainly a chaotic performance in which you go 2-0 down in the opening 10 minutes, see your experienced (but out-of-position) right-back make two crucial errors, substitute a center-back after 19 minutes (and replace him with a midfielder), give up a whole gaggle of chances and only win because you have superior firepower and you’re playing United is not something that inspires confidence.
Nor do I buy Mourinho’s postmatch implication that the “manhunting” caused his players to be scared and unsettled, or his complaints about “wickedness” in football. You’re the manager of Manchester United, you’ve managed equally big clubs before, you know full well that part of the reason you get paid close to $25 million a year is because folks think you are better at shouldering the responsibility when your team — the one you assembled, the one you work with every day, the one you pick and instruct — underachieves.
The worst things people have said about Mourinho’s United tenure is that he made mistakes, plays bad football and gets poor results. You can agree or disagree, citing all the mitigating factors he might bring up when he gets sacked (“wicked players, wicked Woodward, wicked referees, wicked media, wicked Glazers”), but the bottom line is that this does not amount to “wickedness.”
How did Newcastle not get a penalty?
Here’s a detail from that United game that may have gotten lost. With five minutes to go in the first half and Manchester United 2-0 down, Jonjo Shelvey’s indirect free kick hits Ashley Young (who was in the wall) in the arm. It may or may not have been a penalty (a classic “I’ve seen them given” situation) but what’s extraordinary is that referee Anthony Taylor does not even give a corner kick.
Unless he thinks Shelvey is so bad at striking a dead ball that he actually shanked it wide, some 10 yards before the near post, there’s only one possible explanation for this: Taylor was looking elsewhere, most likely in the box, trying to spot shirt-pulling or fouls.
Surely referees are equipped for these situations, perhaps taking up positions where they have a better vantage point? And surely, their three assistants (the two linesmen and the fourth official) are paying enough attention that they can see a free kick hit a wall and go out for a corner?
What were those other three guys doing?
Real Madrid will be fine when Isco returns
I argued that there was no need for Real Madrid to panic after the CSKA Moscow defeat in midweek. I’m not going to change my tune after they fell to Alaves on Saturday despite the gaudy stat whereby only twice in their 116-year history have they gone this long without scoring.
Real weren’t great, but Alaves are a tough out: they’re level on points, two off the top. Julen Lopetegui didn’t help matters with the four-man midfield and the Karim Benzema-Gareth Bale partnership up front, but the injuries at full-back still hurt, as does the absence of Isco. He’s the key to what Lopetegui wants to do.
Mbappe, PSG look like a team
The headlines belong to Kylian Mbappe after Paris Saint-Germain’s 5-0 thrashing of Lyon, and that’s fair enough when you score four goals in 13 minutes, bringing your seasonal total to 10, and haven’t even celebrated your 20th birthday yet. Truth be told, Mbappe could have had six or seven against Olympique Lyonnais: that’s how out-of-control dominant he was.
But equally significant, I think, is that once again PSG looked like a team. Not just any team, a Thomas Tuchel team. And they did it against OL, probably the toughest opponent (Liverpool aside) they’ve faced thus far, and while going down to 10 men in the first half.
PSG are already eight points clear at the top. The home-and-away clash with Napoli and the rematch with Liverpool will tell us whether they’re for real or not.
Barcelona’s biggest worry? Dependence on Messi
Barcelona have their own streak of futility — four league games without a win — broken up only by victory at Wembley in the Champions League against an injury-riddled Tottenham side. You don’t want to exaggerate the significance of the draw at the Mestalla — Valencia away, despite the gaudy “one-win-in-eight-La-Liga-games” stat, is a tough opponent — but equally there is plenty for Ernesto Valverde to work on.
Luis Suarez has gone more than 500 minutes without scoring and more importantly, he looks well below form. The focus is on defending — since September, Barca have kept one clean sheet in eight games — and sure, Gerard Pique hasn’t been good while Tomas Vermaelen is what he is: Barca’s fourth-best center-back.
I’d be more concerned with how ponderous and Messi-dependent they are at the other end.
Alcacer shows why Dortmund brought him in
Borussia Dortmund maintained their lead atop of the Bundesliga table in the most dramatic way possible. For once, Lucien Favre’s master plan wasn’t working. With an hour gone, they were a goal down at home to Augsburg who had, for much of the game, outplayed them. Favre sent on Paco Alcacer, who immediately pulled one back, only for Augsburg to take the lead again through Alfred Finnbogason.
Then things got really wild. Alcacer grabbed another and Dortmund took the lead through Mario Gotze, another sub who was playing his first Bundesliga minutes of the season. It would have been a wonderful feel-good story after what he’s been through, but no, Augsburg equalised through the big man, Michael Gregoritsch. Then, in the sixth minute of injury time, Alcacer notched the winner.
That’s seven goals in 174 minutes this season for the former Barcelona forward. My guess is he gets a start next game.
Juve are dominant right now
Juventus’ perfect start (on the pitch anyway) to the season continued as they made it 10 out of 10 in all competitions with an easy 2-0 win away to Udinese. Their opponents focused on shutting up shop, but this is a Juve side that can break you down physically as well and they rode the muscle of Rodrigo Bentancur and Cristiano Ronaldo to a straightforward win.
Bentancur showed he deserves to be part of the midfield rotation, Dybala was effective in the hole and Joao Cancelo continues to go from strength to strength at right-back. They’re making the transition from merely winning to dominating sooner than many expected.
Arsenal make it nine in a row
It’s now nine wins in a row in all competitions for Arsenal after the 5-1 drubbing of Fulham. Granted, they haven’t exactly played top competition in that stretch, nor have they played particularly well. But there were moments in that second half when they were simply dazzling, none more so than for Aaron Ramsey’s goal.
Unai Emery’s project is still a long way from fruition, but days like these give you the confidence to build and make tough decisions — something he’ll need to do.
Praise for league-leading Sevilla
Few would have expected Sevilla, of all clubs, to sit at the top of the Liga standings. Not after a summer that saw them lose Clement Lenglet and Steven Nzonzi with their four biggest signings (Quincy Promes, Ibrahim Amadou, Joris Gnagnon and Aleix Vidal) starting just three Liga games between them.
But the 2-1 win over Celta makes it four in a row (with 14 goals scored to boot) and enabled them to jump to the top of La Liga. Pablo Machin is living up to the hype he generated at Girona and seems totally unfazed by the size of the job. At this rate, expect him to get the “next big thing” tag real soon.
Inter reaping the benefits of Spalletti
Mauro Icardi’s two goals gave Inter the win at SPAL, making it six in a row in all competitions for Luciano Spalletti’s crew. It wasn’t perfect — Miranda looked shaky at the back, without Marcelo Brozovic this team struggles to create, Ivan Perisic was his usual up-and-down self — but there are two key takeaways that bode well.
One is that the players evidently buy what Spalletti is selling. The character and unity they showed are not qualities you take for granted in an Inter side (or any team, for that matter). The other is that Spalletti still has the old magic whereby he throws a tactical curveball when chasing a game, as he did by sending on Lautaro Martinez late and switching to a 4-2-4.
There’s room for improvement, but the building blocks are there. Roll on the derby…
Atletico Madrid are back on track
Perhaps there’s no team in football as good at winning ugly than Atletico Madrid. Except that when they do it, it’s often by design and Diego Simeone can see the beauty in it more than most. On Sunday, they asphyxiated Quique Setien’s Betis and it didn’t matter that they didn’t create much either: the difference in the end was Angel Correa’s long-range strike.
Nikola Kalinic, replacing the injured Diego Costa, did his part and the Wanda crowd did theirs. After the poor start to the season, they are very much in the mix, one point off the top. “Cholismo” is alive and well.