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Friday, December 3, 2021

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Man United’s derby malaise, Milan teams dazzle, Xavi sees Barcelona’s fragility, more

10:01 AM ET

Gabriele MarcottiSenior Writer, ESPN FC

It seems like we say this every weekend, but this weekend’s European soccer slate brought plenty of drama, joy, pain and talking points. Manchester United were woeful against City in the derby, Milan and Inter shared the points in their derby, and there were remarkable comebacks (and lessons) as Barcelona and Atletico Madrid both dropped points via late goals. Elsewhere, Bayern Munich kept rolling (but only just), Arsenal’s magical form continues and two super-clubs (Juventus, PSG) continue to puzzle.

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It’s Monday, and Gab Marcotti reacts to the biggest moments in the world of football.

Jump to: More Man United woe | Magical Milan derby | Barca’s fragility | Alisson hurts Liverpool | Real Madrid’s scare | Juve’s stinker | PSG not a team yet | Nkunku shreds Dortmund | Chelsea shouldn’t worry | Real Sociedad’s fairytale | Freiburg frighten Bayern | Napoli drop points | Arsenal keep winning | Duro hurts Atletico | Conte’s Spurs need work | Mourinho, Roma humbled | Sevilla’s derby win | And finally… Bas Dost

More of the same from Man United in the derbyApologies if it feels like Groundhog Day, but we’ve seen this before from Manchester United at Old Trafford. They turned in an abject, unimaginative performance, with a game plan seemingly solely based on hypertalented individuals doing something special.

Usually, it’s Cristiano Ronaldo, who has scored nine of the 20 goals United have recorded since he signed. Last season, it was Bruno Fernandes. Occasionally, when he’s not suspended or played out of position, or benched or getting sent off, it’s Paul Pogba. On Saturday, it was David De Gea: without his saves, City could well have enjoyed the sort of score line Liverpool notched when they day-tripped to Old Trafford a couple of weeks ago.

The point is, there is very little in the way of patterns of play or even a discernible approach, but you knew that already. Whatever United were building towards last season — and, yes, they did finish second, albeit in a season when most of Liverpool were injured, Chelsea fired their manager and United had the fourth-best non-penalty xG difference (0.33), a fraction better than Brighton’s (0.32) — was blown to smithereens when they signed Ronaldo.

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– Ogden: Man United’s malaise won’t stop until Solskjaer’s out

Once you sign a GOAT candidate, what do you with him? Um… we’ll figure it out later. Well, later is now. They’ve played him at center-forward, which screwed up their pressing game and left them with no threat behind. Then they switched to a 3-5-2 formation so he could have a strike partner, which meant there was no room for Solskjaer’s gaggle of wingers (including Jadon Sancho, the one for whom they paid a nine-figure sum).

Did it at least stiffen them defensively? Sure, it did against Tottenham, who have set a new Premier League record for going the most minutes without a shot on target since Opta started tracking these stats nearly two decades ago. Not so much against Atalanta, who scored twice and came within a Cristiano “worldie” of beating them, nor against City, who (but for De Gea) would have needed an abacus to keep score.

play0:57

Steve Nicol says Manchester United are nowhere near the level of their rivals as Manchester City cruise to victory.

We count goals to keep score and because Ronaldo is one of the greatest goal scorers in history who isn’t even particularly supply-dependent, a ton of cracks get papered over. But make no mistake about it, this team is going backward. And while it may be true that to get the best out of Ronaldo, you need to redraw your tactical blueprint (not Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s forte) and you need the right players around him (which, perhaps, United don’t have), even the pedestrian (by his standards) from Ronaldo will move the needle and turns draws into wins and losses into draws.

That’s why simply looking at results is silly. You have to consider performances, and they’ve mostly been somewhere between the mediocre and the poor. How far back do you have to go to find the last credible 90-minute performance against somebody other than an imploding Tottenham?

You can budget for defeat against City, just like you can budget for defeat against Liverpool. They’re better teams with better managers who play better football. Fine. What you can’t budget for is performances like this.

Solskjaer says criticism only makes him stronger. Great! He must be Thor and Tom Stoltman rolled into one by now.

As for City, it seems churlish to focus so much on United without underscoring how impressive they were. Pep Guardiola won the tactical battle hands down (no surprise), but more than that, he coaxed unreal performances from Joao Cancelo, Kevin De Bruyne (who had been through a rough patch) and, most of all, Bernardo Silva.

To be able to go back out on the pitch in the very next league game after a home defeat, speaks to nearly limitless reserves of confidence and self-belief — and that’s probably just as important as their tactical savvy, workmate and talent.

Entertaining Milan derby ends in a draw full of what might have beenIf you’re a neutral, you couldn’t have asked for much more. Inter and Milan went at it in an intense, open and entertaining clash against the breath-taking backdrop of San Siro, which is pretty much what God intended when he invented derbies.

In a game that had everything, Hakan Calhanoglu staked his claim for center stage. He won a penalty in a tussle with Franck Kessie — in a different, less physical and more whistle-happy Serie A, the referee might have called the foul on Calhanoglu, though I’m glad this one did not — and then demanded to take it instead of Lautaro Martinez, Inter’s designated penalty-taker. He slotted it right down the middle and then celebrated with the classic “I can’t hear you” gesture towards the Milan fans.

Some were incensed by this given that until six months ago, those Milan fans were his supporters. Not me. Calhanoglu had an expiring contract; Milan offered him a new one, he thought he was worth more and got a better deal across town at Inter. They’re entitled to boo him and he’s entitled to react like this. Move on.

A Stefan De Vrij own goal gave Milan the equaliser and still, it looked as if Inter were heading for a second. But they spurned their chances, most of all with Lautaro having a spot-kick saved by Ciprian Tatarusanu and then, after some wise substitutions from Stefano Pioli in the second half, it was Milan in the ascendancy, hitting the post via Alexis Saelemaekers.

Was it a fair result? I think so. But, most of all, a reminder that these are two teams that try to win more than they try to avoid defeat. Neither is perfect — or even complete, and not just because of injuries — but both show effort, spirit and quality. The 1-1 draw shows Inter they have all the tools to defend their title — they play Napoli after the break — and that Calhanoglu, who has been inconsistent, can be a value-add.

It also showed Milan what they already know: they’re deep (though maybe not deep enough to win certain games without Theo Hernandez, who was suspended) and they have enough of a tactical identity that they can change games on the fly with substitutions. Over a long season, that’s invaluable.

Barcelona show new boss Xavi just how fragile they areplay1:03

Stewart Robson explains what Xavi can change to ensure Barcelona don’t blow more points in LaLiga.

Xavi’s return to the Camp Nou was made official in the early hours of Saturday morning. A few hours later, Barcelona took the pitch against Celta Vigo, and he got a flavour of what the interim boss he’ll replace, Sergi Barjuan, has to deal with. Needless to say, it was a different Barca that he left in 2015, shortly after winning his second Treble — this Barca iteration somehow contrived to go 3-0 up by halftime and then concede the 3-3 draw late in injury time.

Frenkie De Jong said they lacked personality, and it’s almost too obvious to point out that a side packed with youngsters (Ansu Fati, Gavi, Nico, Eric Garcia) may suffer in that department and that yes, a guy like Xavi may be the one to provide it. But they lack more than that. Their early three-goal lead wasn’t down to outplaying Celta; it was down to the opposition getting their pressing movements wrong and to Ansu Fati scoring a tremendous individual goal (albeit with a deflection). And so when Celta upped the intensity and precision in the second half — and Iago Aspas chose to remind us just how talented he is — they were always going to be in danger.

This club doesn’t just need confidence, personality and for more regulars to get fit (there are half a dozen senior players out). They need an identity, a game plan that works (and that they can execute) and they need more quality where it matters. That’s a lot of stuff on Xavi’s to-do list.

Alisson’s rough day costs Liverpool away at West Hamplay1:04

Steve Nicol offers his verdict as West Ham end Liverpool’s impressive 25-game unbeaten run.

You can find multiple reasons to explain Liverpool’s 3-2 defeat away to West Ham. That’s the nature of football; sometimes, a number of factors come together and cause that outcome. Like the fact that Aaron Cresswell wasn’t sent off for the challenge on Jordan Henderson (he probably should have been), or the fact that Liverpool switched off defensively for West Ham’s third goal. Or the fact that this midfield still misses the departed Gini Wijnaldum. Or simply the fact that West Ham aren’t pushovers and deserve some respect: they finished sixth last season, they’re stronger this year.

So why the focus on Alisson? Well, because he bears some responsibility for all three goals, and you simply don’t expect that from one of the best keepers in the world. In fact, it’s easy to forget how his presence has papered over cracks on other occasions. If you’re a Liverpool fan, you hope it’s just a blip and he got his quota of errors out of his system in one go.

Another three points for Real Madrid despite a late scareForget the “marathon, not a sprint” cliche. Real Madrid fans have seen their team focus more on results than performances of late, but for the first 70 or so minutes against Rayo Vallecano, they got a performance. Toni Kroos and Karim Benzema put them 2-0 up and they looked to be cruising. With Eduardo Camavinga injecting some urgency into the midfield, Marco Asensio doing a job out wide and Vinicius again dispensing magic, they looked firmly in control.

Then Rayo sent on Bebe and for just 11 minutes, Radamel Falcao and the pair pulled one back and hit the woodwork before “El Tigre” had to bow out to injury. It was against the run of play, but it was also the sort of late lapse that managers hate to see. Real hung on with a bit of help from Thibaut Courtois, and manager Carlo Ancelotti said he was happy after the game.

Maybe as far as the result and the first 70 minutes are concerned, yes, but it’s a safe bet there will be an internal inquest into what happened in the final minutes and why things risked unraveling at the very end.

Cuadrado gets all three points for Juve in another stinkerJuventus remain an enigma. Having been devastating, aggressive and front-foot-forward against Zenit St. Petersburg in midweek, they were limp, fearful and incapable of generating a single shot on target until the last five minutes of the game (when they had a man advantage) against Fiorentina. The team had the same wing-backs, same midfielders and attackers (except for Federico Bernardeschi, replaced by Adrian Rabiot) and turned in not just a different performance, but a different approach and intensity. It’s hard to wrap your head around.

Positives? Well, the three points obviously, which came thanks to a deflected Juan Cuadrado strike from an improbable angle in injury time. And there were some notable individual performances, such as the midfield duo of Manuel Locatelli and Weston McKennie, Matthijs De Ligt dominating Dusan Vlahovic and the usual, indefatigable Federico Chiesa.

But we’re into November now. This Juve side shouldn’t be about individuals. They have neither the consistency of Allegri’s teams of yesteryear, nor the performance levels of where the current Allegri wants them to be. There’s still work to be done.

Neymar and Mbappe drag PSG forward, but this isn’t a team just yetplay1:24

Julien Laurens breaks down PSG’s 3-2 win over Bordeaux, which puts them 10 points clear in Ligue 1.

It’s after Halloween, and Paris Saint-Germain still look like an all-star pickup team. There’s an argument to be made that schemes and tactics tend to stifle individual genius, but I’m not sure that’s what’s happening here. Against a Bordeaux side unable to impose anything but the sort of bland rhythm that favours the uber-gifted, PSG went 3-0 up, with Kylian Mbappe bagging two goals and Neymar getting two assists.

And then it was pretty much game over, with a little more than an hour gone. Bordeaux pulled one back and scored another in injury time, but it never felt like the outcome was in doubt.

Perhaps that’s the most striking difference between this version of PSG and Thomas Tuchel’s side that went to the Champions League final. The latter looked like a team, with coherent patterns of play; this one is nowhere near there yet and while it might not matter against most opponents domestically, it certainly will come the spring in the Champions League knockout rounds.

Manager Mauricio Pochettino does have mitigating circumstances. He’s integrating one more superstar (Lionel Messi, who was unavailable Saturday) and right now, he’s without midfield general Marco Verratti, too. At some point, though, it’s got to start coming together. Pickup teams tend not to beat actual, well-drilled opponents — not when they can match you in terms of quality.

Underrated Nkunku helps Leipzig rip Dortmund to shredsplay1:12

Steve Nicol says Jesse Marsch still has work to do to prove he can win the biggest games with RB Leipzig.

It boggles the mind that Leipzig’s Christopher Nkunku has been capped as many times for France as my podcast co-host Julien Laurens. Maybe Didier Deschamps doesn’t watch much Bundesliga beyond Bayern Munich, or maybe he thinks Nkunku is still the player who left Paris Saint-Germain in 2019: a nice kid who can do a job off the bench.

On Saturday, he ripped through Dortmund, scoring a goal, setting up another and hitting the woodwork. He scores plenty — he’s up to double figures already and has 23 in his career — he works hard, he’s creative and he’s intelligent. And he’s thriving under Jesse Marsch, helping deliver a victory that keeps his side in the top-four race.

As for Dortmund, they didn’t just look bad — Leipzig could have scored five or six — they looked weary, and that’s not a good sign. Like we’ve said before, Marco Rose gets a pass, partly because of results (they’re still second and still alive in the Champions League) and partly because of the injury list: Erling Haaland, Raphael Guerreiro, Gio Reyna, Emre Can, Mahmoud Dahoud and, until this past weekend, Dan-Axel Zagadou. But we’re still waiting to see decent football… and we’re still waiting for summer arrival Donyell Malen to do something.

Chelsea dominate, but are held to a draw… no need to worryplay0:59

Steve Nicol names Burnley goalkeeper Nick Pope as player of the match for frustrating Chelsea.

Sometimes, you just sort of have to accept the randomness of football. Chelsea played very well against Burnley, whether you rely on stats (70% possession, 25 to 5 shots on goal, 2.28 expected goals to 0.95) or the eye test. But Antonio Rudiger failed to step up and play Jay Rodriguez into an offside position at just the same time that Burnley completed their best passing move of the day, which meant Burnley grabbed the late 1-1 draw.

That’s football. Sometimes you run into a standout goalkeeper having a standout day and you make a mistake at the wrong time. More encouraging for Tuchel is that as a unit, they continue to show signs of progress after a period where they were getting impressive results without performances to match.

Real Sociedad’s fairy tale continues with a bit of luck and a lot of gritA lot of stars have to align for a club the size of Real Sociedad to be top of the league. Guess what? They’re doing it without those stars: they’re playing European football on Thursday nights, they’re the youngest team in La Liga and they’re without their best player, Mikel Oyarzabal. And yet here they are, one point clear of Real Madrid and Sevilla.

It’s all thanks to results like Sunday’s, when they gritted their way to a 2-0 win over Osasuna, breaking the ice with a deflected Mikel Merino shot 20 minutes from time. They caught a break and they capitalized, which is what Davids tend to do when they keep up with Goliaths.

Freiburg give Bayern a fright… for a whileCult hero Christian Streich’s Freiburg rattled Bayern — or, more aptly, rattled Bayern about as much as they can be rattled — for an hour or so in an intense, hard-edged game. Of course, “rattled” Bayern still means they were 1-0 up thanks to Leon Goretzka.

It could have been worse if the visitors had converted on Joshua Kimmich’s ill-advised headed back-pass and yes, for long stretches, this game could have gone either way. But it’s worth remembering that when you have a high-energy, high-press side like Freiburg against a big club, it’s often high risk/high reward. If the opposition finds a way to play through, you look silly. Throw in the fact that Freiburg’s goal to make it 2-1 came in garbage time (and courtesy of a favourable deflection to set up a shot), and I don’t think Julian Nagelsmann needs to be overly concerned.

Oh, and for those tracking Robert Lewandowski and wondering whether he can repeat last season’s exploits, he’s now up to 23 goals in 17 games in all competitions, which is simply ridiculous and even better than last season.

Napoli don’t capitalize on derby draw … but that’s OKWith hindsight, given the draw in the Milan derby, you can look at the 1-1 between Napoli and Verona and lament the fact that Luciano Spalletti’s crew failed to go two points clear atop Serie A, or you can accept the following. Verona are a very good side that seems to excel against bigger clubs — they’ve already beaten Roma, Lazio and Juventus — and they have two players, Antonin Barak and Giovanni Simeone, who are on fire. Napoli have won 12 of the 16 games they’ve played this season, they’re top of the heap in the league and in the Europa League, and they hit the woodwork with Victor Osimhen. Days like these happen.

The pressure that builds on this club when they’re doing well has, in the past, been their undoing. It hasn’t happened thus far and it didn’t happen after the draw. That’s an encouraging sign suggesting they’ll be at, or near, the top for some time.

Don’t look now, but Arsenal are fifth despite Watford recriminationplay0:51

Steve Nicol sees improvement in Tottenham’s defending and energy levels after they drew 0-0 away vs. Everton.

What a difference two months make. Arsenal were dead-last at the end of August; now, Mikel Arteta’s crew have won eight of their last 10 in all competitions and they’re two points off of fifth place. More importantly, they seem to have a settled on a system — with Alexandre Lacazette just behind Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang and Bukayo Saka and Emile Smith Rowe wide — that works for them. So much so that, with Thomas Partey and Granit Xhaka unavailable, Arteta had no hesitation in keeping it intact with a midfield duo of Ainsley Maitland-Niles and Albert Lokonga.

That said, it’s not surprising that Watford boss Claudio Ranieri had a bee in his bonnet over Smith Rowe’s goal. Danny Rose had intentionally put the ball out of play when Ozan Tufan went down. It’s true that opinions vary over whether you should give the ball back when an opponent intentionally puts it out of play. But it’s also true that Rose was foolish to put it out where he did, and that Arsenal were a little sneaky in taking advantage from that position.

As for the Maitland-Niles on Ismaila Sarr challenge, it was a full-on body check and a clear foul, which meant the goal should have been disallowed. Maybe referee Kevin Friend missed it, but at a minimum, the VAR (Jarred Gillett) should have asked him to take another look.

Duro’s heroics cost Atletico two big pointsYou like to imagine Valencia reserve center-forward Hugo Duro watching Celta’s comeback against Barcelona the day before and saying: “Hold my beer.” OK, so the comeback was from two goals down rather than three, but it also featured two injury-time strikes from the young forward who’d only come on five minutes from time. His goals gave Valencia a 3-3 draw and nullified a solid performance from Atletico Madrid, which unfortunately lasted only 80 minutes.

Diego Simeone will be angry at the result, but he should be encouraged by the performance. He’s still missing Thomas Lemar and Marcos Llorente, this was right after a serious beatdown against Liverpool in the Champions League and for most of the game, Atleti did everything right. Until they didn’t, of course. The challenge now is channeling all the good stuff from the first 80 minutes — the service to Luis Suarez, the water-tight defending, the wonder goal from Antoine Griezmann — even though it’s one of those draws that feels like a defeat.

No shots on target: Conte era at Spurs begins the way Nuno’s regime endedAfter four days in charge — one of them occupied by Thursday’s UEFA Europa Conference League match against Vitesse Arnhem — Antonio Conte was only going to be able to affect Tottenham in minimal ways. So it’s maybe not a surprise that once again, they managed zero shots on target — just like in Nuno Espirito Santo’s last match in charge, against Manchester United. (They did hit the woodwork with Giovani Lo Celso, but that’s not down to the manager; that’s an individual smacking it from outside the box.)

Everton have major injuries and haven’t been great, but Rafa Benitez knows what he’s doing and it was enough to tie up Spurs. It almost feels like Conte’s approach thus far was “OK, show me what you’ve been doing and then I’ll figure out how to fix it.” Which is fine at the very beginning, and to be fair, you could quite easily spot myriad ways this team can improve. Now it’s up to him — and the players — to deliver. This squad’s ceiling may not be very high, but they’re nowhere near it.

Different Mourinho, same old Roma in defeatRoma’s 3-2 defeat to relegation-threatened Venezia on Sunday means they’ve won just one of their last seven in all competitions. That streak sounds pretty dreadful until you consider that it included games against Juventus, Napoli and Milan, as well as a number of marginal decisions that went against him (nowhere near as many Mourinho claims, but still).

Venezia was different. Mourinho still complained about the Venezia penalty that made it 2-2, but when your opponents hit the woodwork twice and generally outplay you, you can only moan so much.

What’s striking is that this Roma side don’t conform to the Mourinho stereotype his critics saw at United and at Tottenham. This is a team that attacks, often in numbers, and makes brave decisions (he left out Nicolo Zaniolo and Henrikh Mkhitaryan on Sunday and played two up front). What it doesn’t do is defend well. At all. Nor does it beat other big sides (to the three above, add Lazio too). In that sense, it’s a lot like last season’s Roma.

Sevilla win ‘Gran Derbi’ to stay one point off the topJulen Lopetegui’s Sevilla may not be as polished as last season, but they’re a whole heck of a lot more resilient. And sometimes that’s more important.

Coming off a defeat in the Champions League, they were due a slip-up in the derby with Betis; instead, they dominated from the start and, after Guido Rodriguez’s red card at the end of the first half, drove their advantage home even more. Never mind the 2-0 score line or the Hector Bellerin own goal, they were efficient, created plenty throughout and with a touch more sharpness from Rafa Mir, the gap would have been greater.

And finally… #BasDostWatchBas Dost scored for Bruges in their 2-2 home draw with Standard Liege. He now has four goals in 11 Belgian league appearances and is on pace to score 10 in the league. Overall, he has six goals in 15 appearances in all competitions this season.

This concludes the latest instalment of #BasDostWatch.

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