By the time you read this, Julen Lopetegui has been fired as manager of Real Madrid, and the joke will be that he and Florentino Perez managed to screw up both Spain’s World Cup and the first half of Real Madrid’s campaign, all in less than five months. It’s cruel, sure. But also in some ways, it’s apt given the clunky way in which his appointment was announced and the way the past few months have unfolded.
There’s a basic axiom that every club ought to follow but often doesn’t, because clubs are run by humans and humans are run by emotions: you don’t sack or retain a manager based on the result of a single game. Not only are results of individual prone to luck and happenstance, but if you think he has the tools to succeed, a bad result isn’t going to change that. Nor will a good result suddenly right the ship if you think it’s sinking.
But the Clasico has its own rules and so too does Florentino’s mind. Barcelona road-graded Real Madrid in the first 45 minutes (sack him!). They were 2-0 up but it could well have been twice as many, given the way Jordi Alba was torturing Nacho, the way Luis Suarez was carrying the attack and the manner in which Sergio Busquets was lording over the middle of the park.
Then, for the first half of the second 45, after removing Raphael Varane from his misery (and the pitch) and switching to a back three, they looked like a team that could turn things around. Marcelo, who has scored 75 percent of Madrid’s goals in the past month — reflect on the absurdity of that stat for a minute — pulled one back. Luka Modric sent a chance he ought to have buried off the post instead. Karim Benzema missed a sitter.
For those 25 minutes it looked as if the tide could be turned for Lopetegui and Madrid; Suarez’s header, when he bent the laws of physics to his will thumping an improbably powerful header past Thibaut Courtois, ended all that. Exceptional players do exceptional things that turn games, and Suarez remains an exceptional center-forward even though, to that point, he had scored twice from open play in the previous 15 games.
That was that. At 3-1, they weren’t going to recover. Real Madrid had no choice but to swashbuckle forward in the most desperate, disorganised way, and Barca ran up the score to five, although it could well have been more.
Games hinge on incidents, which is why an analysis has to be based on performance, not result. So too any evaluation of a manager. The mere fact that Modric’s finish hit the post might have been a matter of inches and infinitesimal angles, but it would not have changed some basic facts.
One is that Barcelona finished 17 points ahead of Real Madrid last season for a reason, and stripping them of Lionel Messi and Madrid of Cristiano Ronaldo doesn’t alter the fact that there is a lot of ground to make up. Another is that even if you strip away the last 15 minutes and the three goals Barca scored, they were much the better side for twice as long as Madrid in the rest of the game.
That, ultimately, is why Lopetegui is gone less than 24 hours later.
Lopetegui was recruited with the tag as a “system manager,” a guy who would emphasize possession, team play and creativity, the traits we saw in his Spain team, and that, arguably, hasn’t been a defining characteristic of any Madrid boss since Manuel Pellegrini — some might say even since Jorge Valdano. This was meant to be modern, in keeping with the times.
Real Madrid have been better than their results under Lopetegui — for starters, in all competitions they are underperforming xG (Expected Goals) by seven goals — but the gap is down to individual talent that was already there, not down to his system. And yes, the absence of Isco no doubt slowed his development (although he was a non-factor against Barcelona), but Sergio Ramos’ words after the match spoke volumes.
“Often, managing a dressing room is more important than tactical knowledge,” he said. This, coming from the club captain and the man who was instrumental in bringing Lopetegui to the Bernabeu, showed things are beyond repair.
Barca should be encouraged by romp vs. Real
As for Barca, it’s two wins in two against Inter and Real Madrid without Lionel Messi, with seven goals scored and one conceded. The de facto 4-5-1, with Rafinha and Philippe Coutinho starting wide, gives you plenty of density and comfort on the ball in the middle of the park, and as long as this version of Suarez shows up (or the one we saw against Inter, conjuring up picture-perfect assists), it’s an alternative way of playing.
Down the road, even when Messi returns, you’d imagine Ernesto Valverde will want to find more minutes for Ousmane Dembele, while Coutinho is still far from his ceiling. There’s still work to be done at the back as well. But for now, needless to say, even with the wobbles after the break, this was an important and encouraging win.
Man United have something to build on
You’d imagine Jose Mourinho’s decision to rest Romelu Lukaku was just that: a one-off rest, not some potential redesigning of his ideal United XI. Still, it was nice to see the alternative — a Juan Mata, Marcus Rashford and Anthony Martial front line — at work in the 2-1 win over Everton. There are plenty of kinks to iron out in terms of player chemistry, but it’s something worth seeing again.
The performance itself still had flaws — Chris Smalling being so rash for the penalty, Nemanja Matic struggling defensively, Paul Pogba’s silly run-up for his spot-kick — but the broader and more important point here was the bounce-back after Tuesday night. However fragile and imperfect this team might be right now, there’s something on which to build. If not long-term, there’s at least enough to steer the club to a dignified finish and some knockout round Champions League football.
Juve do just enough but must be careful
Just like they did last weekend against Genoa, Juventus only showed up for a half at Empoli. They went a goal down, deservedly, in the first half and only came to life after the break, first with a penalty converted by Cristiano Ronaldo (of the “seen them given” variety) and then by an absolute long-range screamer from the Portuguese superstar himself.
Max Allegri blamed fatigue after the Manchester United win, and it’s true that Ronaldo is paid a bundle precisely to come up with such highlight reel stuff. And yes, it’s also true that, quite obviously, the Champions League is the club’s priority. Yet the squad is big enough that, you’d imagine, with a bit of rotation sending out an XI that is motivated and relatively fresh should not be that difficult. Let this be a (second) warning sign.
Dortmund drop points but nobody’s worried
Fresh off the 4-0 thumping of Atletico Madrid, it was again showtime at Signal Iduna Park when Borussia Dortmund entertained Hertha Berlin. It finished 2-2, breaking Dortmund’s run of six straight wins, but there was plenty to cheer.
Jadon Sancho scored two goals (making it five in five starts on the season), Achraf Hakimi looked like a Moroccan Roberto Carlos and Mario Gotze, filling in as a “false nine,” showed he still has plenty to give. Dortmund reaped less than they sowed and paid the price for a late mistake by Dan-Axel Zagadou that gave Hertha a late, late penalty. Two points dropped, but no concern over the performance.
Tuchel asserts himself at PSG
So much for the notion that Thomas Tuchel is a soft touch at Paris Saint-Germain, a manager who lets the big stars do as they please. On Sunday PSG traveled to Olympique Marseille, arguably their second-toughest away trip of the season thus far (after Anfield). Already without Thiago Silva at the back and Edinson Cavani up front, not to mention the long-injured Dani Alves, Tuchel benched Adrien Rabiot and Kylian Mbappe for arriving late to a team meeting.
That’s how we ended up with 19-year-old Stanley N’Soki making only his fourth top-flight start and Eric Choupo-Moting, who scored fewer league goals in the past four years than Cavani alone managed last season, in the lineup. After a tight, uninspired hour or so, Mbappe came on to break the deadlock before Draxler made it 2-0 in injury time.
PSG extend their streak to eleven consecutive Ligue 1 victories to start the season, but perhaps as important as the result, Tuchel showed he’s no pushover.
What should Chelsea do with Loftus-Cheek?
Like Allegri and Dortmund’s Lucien Favre, Maurizio Sarri remains unbeaten in all competitions this season after Chelsea’s 4-0 away rout of Burnley. It was very much a team performance in the absence of Eden Hazard, with Ross Barkley and Ruben Loftus-Cheek both getting on the score sheet.
Chelsea have seven central midfielders on their books, and two of them — N’Golo Kante and Jorginho — will start most games. It’s hard to see how Sarri can dole out enough playing time in the other slot to keep everyone happy, meaning you’d expect to see departures in January.
Will Loftus-Cheek be one to head for the exit? I’m not so sure. He’s 22 and undoubtedly gifted, and he showed last season on loan at Crystal Palace that he can carry a side on occasion. But the reality is that wherever he goes, he will be asked to play a very different style than what Sarri plays at Chelsea. So while he may grow in confidence and in terms of market valuation, he’s not necessarily going to become a better fit at Stamford Bridge.
That’s why Loftus-Cheek and Chelsea, if they believe in him long-term, may actually benefit from keeping him around even in a limited role.
Atletico go back to basics
You can tell a lot from the way teams regroup and respond to a rout. Atletico Madrid got thumped 4-0 — the first time in years that a Diego Simeone side gave up four goals — by Borussia Dortmund in the Champions League. So against Real Sociedad, they went back to basics.
They outworked the opposition front to back — with Antoine Griezmann and Diego Costa leading from the front — and scored with their defenders, Diego Godin and Filipe Luis. It wasn’t necessarily pretty, but it was peak Simeone.
Why didn’t Lacazette speak up about handball?
Arsenal’s win streak in all competitions came to an end with a 2-2 draw at Crystal Palace, but one of the key moments came when Alexandre Lacazette handled the ball into the path of Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang for Arsenal’s second. I’ve made this point before — Willy Boly’s goal for Wolves against Manchester City in August comes to mind — but it never ceases to amaze me at how tolerant we are of such incidents.
Lacazette, like any player would, knows the ball struck his hand and he knows full well that a handball should have been called, because his arm was in an unnatural position and because his team gained an advantage from it (the criteria, outlined in the directives given to referees, to help determine whether it’s punishable or not). Yet he says nothing and pretends as if nothing happened because to do otherwise would make him seem foolish and naive.
Weirdly though, when a player is booked for simulation (witness Willian for Chelsea and Aboubakar Kamara for Fulham this past weekend) everyone grows incensed and talks about “shameful behaviour.” As I see it, it’s a very obvious double standard.
Napoli lose ground to Juventus again
Juve’s victory at Empoli meant Napoli needed all three points at home to Roma to keep pace with the champions. Until Dries Mertens’ goal in injury time, they weren’t getting any after falling behind to Stephan El Shaarawy’s strike at the quarter-hour mark.
The 1-1 draw leaves them six points back, but there’s still plenty to be encouraged about. Napoli carved out plenty of chances against an opponent who, possibly with the manager’s job on the line, looked to shut up shop. The equalizer was the least they deserved.
Bayern win but still need a lot of work
It’s three straight wins for Bayern since the debacle against Borussia Moenchengladbach and the wild Uli Hoeness/Karl-Heinz Rummenigge press conference. Three victories but not quite three performances, although right now, you take what you can get.
Mainz, winless since mid-September, were dispatched 2-1 and Bayern did hit the woodwork twice, but it still feels tentative. It’s going to take a while for Nico Kovac to take this team to where he wants it to be, even longer to take them where Hoeness wants them to be.