Just about everybody who sticks around long enough at some point gets booed at the Bernabeu. Well, maybe Alfredo Di Stefano never got booed by his home support, but then, he’s Di Stefano. So the fact that the likes of Gareth Bale and Sergio Ramos got a barracking from their own fans during the 2-0 win over Valladolid isn’t surprising, particularly when you consider that until seven minutes from time, it was scoreless, and the visitors had hit the woodwork twice.
It’s not a function of Real Madrid fans as much as it is a function of the Bernabeu crowd, or at least a significant portion. Their standards are higher than anywhere else and the second you fall beneath them, even if it’s temporary, you get an earful — even when you’ve won three straight Champions League crowns.
Yet in some ways, Saturday felt different.
After a decent start, Real Madrid played with fear and it was palpable. When that happens, you expect your stars to do something. Bale is Real Madrid’s most expensive player; Ramos is the club captain, dressing room leader and resident lightning rod. And they were AWOL for much of the match.
You can find mitigating factors for Real Madrid’s form this season — from injuries like Isco’s during the Julen Lopetegui regime, to the fact that three-quarters of the back four were missing against Valladolid — but they don’t explain performances like this one and the fact they were ultimately saved by a teenage substitute, Vinicius Jr., who was supposed to spend the season at Castilla in the third tier.
Bale was angry at being substituted and appeared to reject Santiago Solari’s handshake. Casemiro wasn’t pleased when he came off, either. Toni Kroos pushed out this tweet, which lends itself to so many interpretations but ultimately underscores his malaise. Ramos says he’s willing to carry the burden — “I’m proud of the fact that people load my backpack with stones” — and that it’s up to the players to turn things around.
The overall snapshot is of a decidedly unhappy bunch. The question is where they channel that unhappiness. If it turns into finger-pointing and bad chemistry, they will implode. If they use it to stoke their inner fires and remember the unity they showed last season, then there’s plenty they can still salvage, but it has to come from them.
A guy like Bale has to understand that his behaviour matters. Maybe he did the best he could on the pitch and the fact that he endured a stinker is beyond his control. But what he could control was his reaction coming off the pitch, especially after the post-Champions League song and dance about wanting to leave if he didn’t get more playing time; now that he’s got it, he needs to show he deserves it.
It can’t come from the manager. Solari, especially as long as he has the interim tag, can only do so much in the time allotted to him. The most you can hope from him is to foster the right environment for his players to do a 180, although until the managerial situation is resolved, that won’t change.
For all his faults, Ramos isn’t hiding. It would be helpful if others followed his lead.
Praise for Emery’s remarkable job at Arsenal
Having lost their first two matches of the season, Arsenal are creeping up on the Premier League contenders, and it’s becoming very evident what Unai Emery is trying to do tactically. We saw it in Saturday’s 1-1 draw with Liverpool, which was one of those matches where both teams played with quality (there were glaring errors, but they were sprinkled amidst intensity and tactical sophistication).
Arsenal may see it as two points dropped, but in fact they ought to see it as evidence they can cross swords with the league’s elite and more than hold their own. The remarkable thing here is that nine of Emery’s starting XI were players he inherited, guys who were schooled in Arsene Wenger’s rather different brand of football.
In other words he’s doing it with guys like Rob Holding, who had started just 18 league games the past two seasons, Sead Kolasinac, starting his first league match of the campaign, and Alexandre Lacazette, who looked to many like a pricey mistake late last season. The one outfield newcomer, Lucas Torreira, has quickly stamped his authority on the middle of the park with substantial playmaking duties, leaving the side less reliant on the front four.
All of which points to a manager who is not just doing his job, but is doing it well.
Tuchel has PSG looking dangerous
Paris Saint-Germain’s 2-1 victory over Lille means they became the first team from one of Europe’s “Big Five” to win their opening 12 league matches. It was hardly straightforward, as PSG only broke the ice halfway through the second half with one of those Kylian Mbappe specials. You expect him to take another touch, because that’s what humans do from that position, but instead he opens his body and strokes the ball past the keeper. Neymar added a second late on before Nicolas Pepe, one of the most unorthodox — but exciting — players you’re likely to see this year, pulled one back.
Folks may turn up their nose at the achievement since it’s “only” Ligue 1. But what struck you is that once again, they looked like a team out there against an opponent who is gunning for the Champions’ League this year. They may not press and work like a typical Thomas Tuchel team, but when they turn it up, everyone is switched on, even Neymar.
It’s Man City’s title to lose again
Manchester City put on quite a show against Southampton on Sunday, going 3-0 up inside 20 minutes on their way to a 6-1 victory. You can point to Southampton’s deficiencies, and that’s certainly fair. But that doesn’t make it any less impressive, especially when juxtaposed with where they are in the table relative to last year. City have two fewer points and their goal difference is +29, rather than +31. You can let that slide when you consider that their best player, Kevin De Bruyne, has been on the pitch for just 84 league minutes this year.
Most striking, perhaps, is how individual players appear to have improved. Raheem Sterling is the obvious one, but you can add Bernardo Silva, John Stones and Kyle Walker to the list. It’s still tight at the top, with Liverpool and Chelsea just two points back, but you already have the sense it’s going to take either a sudden collapse or a superhuman effort by one of the two chasing sides for us to have a legitimate title race this season.
The silver lining for Barcelona
Maybe it was a Clasico hangover manifesting itself six days later. Maybe it was just the fact this Barcelona without Lionel Messi can only pop so many times. Away to Rayo Vallecano — who, lest we forget, are second-bottom and have won just once this season — they scored first and did little to manage the lead, simply churning out a ton of sterile possessions, save for Luis Suarez hitting the woodwork. Rayo equalized and then took the lead in the second half as the game became increasingly chaotic.
It took a superb finish from Ousmane Dembele three minutes from time and a stoppage-time winner from Suarez to turn it around, but performances matter, and this one was not good. Dembele, goal apart, contributed little, and Philippe Coutinho also had an off day. The fact that Ernesto Valverde had to turn to the perennial Plan B — Gerard Pique at center-forward! — tells you all you need to know.
Suarez blamed “overconfidence.” You hope it’s that and not something more serious. The good news? Another three points and the fact that Messi will be along for the Inter game in midweek. Now that’s something to cheer.
Man United’s midfield is their biggest problem
Manchester United’s first half away to Bournemouth was so poor that even Jose Mourinho said he felt like “the luckiest manager in the Premier League.” Plenty will focus on the defensive shortcomings — and admittedly Chris Smalling and Victor Lindelof are what they are, especially when not properly shielded — but to me the issue was in midfield. Fred struggled (again) and Nemanja Matic looks a shadow of his former self.
The pair weren’t able to disrupt Bournemouth’s sharp passing or provide enough of a base in transition to keep danger up at the other end of the pitch. The fact that United turned it around to some degree in the second half — and took three points via Marcus Rashford — is a positive reminder of the quality in the side, but it doesn’t change the fact that United need to play for 90 minutes. With better finishing from the Cherries, they would have been buried by half-time, and that’s a concern for a side that had shown baby steps of improvement of late.
Things could get bad for Bayern
Bayern were held at home by Freiburg, a result that leaves them four behind Borussia Dortmund and adds a whole other layer of spice to next weekend’s clash at the Westfalenstadion. Needless to say, the prospect of being seven back in mid-November is very real. Freiburg set up to defend, and what struck you was just how frustrating they made things for the home side. Maybe most worrying is that even after Bayern took the lead through Serge Gnabry late on, they failed to protect it as Lucas Hoeler popped up between Nicolas Sule and Jerome Boateng to equalize in injury time.
More worrying perhaps is that just as happened last year, there are veteran superstars who appear to be grumbling. Nico Kovac left out the likes of Mats Hummels, Franck Ribery, Thomas Muller and Leon Goretzka. You make calls like that and you had better win or at least be strong. Muller’s wife taking to social media to have a go at Kovac didn’t help matters either.
A bad result next week and the wheels risk coming off.
Juventus win again but Allegri won’t be happy
Weirdly, Juventus are turning into a side that seems to struggle more in Serie A against smaller teams than in the Champions League. (No surprise for guessing what their priority is this season.) That was the case in the past few weeks; against Cagliari, it was tighter than it needed it to be in what turned out to be a strange match.
Juve took the lead straight away with Paulo Dybala and then seemed to wilt. They traded goals with the opposition — although theirs was an absolute gift from Filip Bradaric — and then scored a third on a counter with Cagliari chasing the equaliser. They seem intent on doing just enough and no more.
The upshot? They have gained 31 of a possible 33 points, equalling their best-ever start. Only a perfectionist like Max Allegri would quibble with that. But be sure about the fact that he is, indeed, quibbling.
Dortmund continue to get it done
Borussia Dortmund dialled it down a gear away to Wolfsburg on Saturday. They may be one of the most exciting teams in Europe to watch, but they showed they can also win wars of attrition. That’s what Lucien Favre can bring to the table. The difference between the two was Marco Reus’ first-half header; the rest was about control.
Credit Wolfbsurg’s intensity, but also credit Dortmund for adjusting. Having two veteran no-nonsense holding midfielders like Axel Witsel and Thomas Delaney — two guys who weren’t there last year — gives you the option of going old-school when you need to. It’s not something you want to see every week, but at certain times it can certainly come in handy.
Beware the red-hot Inter
In terms of results Inter are on a roll, with nine wins in their past 10 games in all competitions, although not all wins are created equal. The early part of the run was marked by subpar performances and healthy doses of luck. The latter part — especially the wins over Milan and Lazio — were the real thing.
Inter kept things ticking over against Genoa, winning 5-0, but here’s the thing: Luciano Spalletti dug deep into his squad and made plenty of changes, resting Mauro Icardi and Matias Vecino and resurrecting the likes of Dalbert, Roberto Gagliardini and, for the second game running, Joao Mario.
All three performed way above expectations. It won’t be quite enough to give him a selection headache, but it’s nice to know that guys can be rehabilitated. Even better news: Marcelo Brozovic continues to sparkle in the middle of the park, and Radja Nainggolan is back from injury.
Maybe, just maybe, Spalletti has tamed the beast.
Bas Dost scored for Sporting in their 2-1 victory away to Santa Clara. They are third in the table, two points behind joint leaders Braga and Porto. Having missed 10 weeks of the season, he nevertheless has three goals in four league appearances. Overall, he has three in five games in all competitions.
This concludes the latest installment of #BasDostWatch.