Missed some of the action around Europe this weekend? Have no fear: Gab Marcotti is here to catch you up with all the talking points in the latest Monday Musings.
Jump to: Lessons from Liverpool vs. Man City | Bayern thrash Dortmund | Juve play poorly, beat Milan | Sarri vs. Ronaldo? | Arsenal, Emery are a mess | Taison abused in Ukraine | Real Madrid win again | PSG should buy Icardi | Man United improving? | More woe for Napoli | Barca aren't playing well | Conte keeps complaining | Chelsea's winning youth movement | Gladbach set pace in Germany
Man City's season is not over, but Liverpool are in control of title race
A nine-point gap in November? Yeah, that's a lot, but most of all, it's a morale boost. So many football folk are, if not outright superstitious, easily convinced that "it's not their year." And you can see how Manchester City might be coming around to that idea. There are the long-standing injuries to Leroy Sane and Aymeric Laporte (the latter, arguably, is City's least replaceable player) and the more recent injuries that kept Ederson in the stands and David Silva on the bench in their biggest game of the season to date. And then there's Sunday's 3-1 defeat to Liverpool, broken down to its component parts, namely the goals that left them 2-0 down inside a quarter of an hour.
Let's clear up the first one. The ball did ricochet off Bernardo Silva's hand, but it's not a punishable handball in any way. Not as deliberate handling (which would have resulted in a Liverpool free-kick) nor as the sort of "accidental handball" that leads directly to a goal, which would disallow the goal (there was no goal, a possible penalty is not a goal).
What about Trent Alexander-Arnold's handball? Contrary to popular belief, it's not black and white. There is still discretion, which is why the new rules use the term "usually." The factors to consider are whether he had the opportunity to get his arm out of the way -- to do this, you look at the speed at which the ball is traveling toward him, whether it was unexpected and the distance traveled -- and whether his arm was in a natural position.
Referee Michael Oliver chose not to give a penalty. With the help of multiple replays I, like many others -- including Pep Guardiola -- disagree. His arm was not in a natural position and the only unexpected mitigating factor to consider was the ricochet off Silva, but that is outweighed by the other factors (distance and speed). So as I see it, it should have been a penalty, which means Fabinho's goal at the other end would have been struck off.
Would Oliver have changed his mind if he had seen the replays, which he's effectively barred from doing because of the Premier League's absurd do-it-yourself version of VAR? We'll never know. Maybe not. But in what was, to me at least, a decision that could easily have gone the other way, I'd have a heck of a lot more faith in it if the guy deemed to be one of England's top referees had seen what the VAR and what hundreds of millions of viewers across the world saw: the replays.
Would it have led to a different outcome in the game itself? Maybe. But it was the sort of decision that leaves you fuming if you're Pep (witness the rabid, sarcastic handshake with the match officials at the end) and if you're a less than steel-minded City player, plants that awful seed of doubt that "this isn't our year."
While we're at it, it's worth mentioning a point Julien Laurens brings up on the Gab & Juls podcast. After the ball strikes Alexander-Arnold's arm, Sergio Aguero stops playing and appeals for the penalty despite the fact that the ball is there at his feet and a wide-open Raheem Sterling is a few yards away. Aguero has been a pro for 15 years: he should know better. A simple square ball for Sterling might have given them a goal anyway. What's more, he ought to know that appeals in an age of VAR serve even less purpose than they did before.
As for the game itself, Liverpool were exceptional for long stretches. The way Andy Robertson and Alexander-Arnold switched play and distributed the ball, especially the latter, was breath-taking at times, as was the speed and intensity displayed. Equally though, if you play at that rate you will inevitably have periods in which you slow down and against technically gifted opponents, you will concede goals, which is what happened. It wasn't enough to turn the game, but it's a reminder that Liverpool probably should save these types of performances for opponents of this caliber. Doing it week in, week out is neither necessary nor wise.
Pep lavished praise on his City side, and it smelled a little bit of misdirection. Whether it was Aguero on the goal, Kyle Walker losing Sadio Mane on Liverpool's third, Ilkay Gundogan letting Fabinho take all the time in the world to shoot on the opener, City failing to counter Liverpool's endless fullback-to-fullback switches ... there are plenty of things they could have done better. Sure, praise them for their belief and hard work until the very end, but frankly, we've come to expect that from City and it really should be a given.
As I see it, despite dropping into fourth place a point behind Chelsea and Leicester, City are still Liverpool's most realistic opponents and it's not over yet. There's the return leg at the Etihad, there's the mad pileup of fixtures caused by the Carabao Cup and FIFA Club World Cup, there's the fact that Liverpool have been relatively fortunate with injuries and certain players (Robertson, Alexander-Arnold, Fabinho, Virgil Van Dijk) are hugely difficult to replace and, more importantly, force you to play differently.
Still, after Sunday, it's another giant step toward what the Anfield faithful have been waiting 30 years to celebrate.
Bayern, post-Kovac, thump Dortmund with ease
With hindsight, maybe it was predictable. The post-Niko Kovac era began with a low-key 2-0 win over Olympiakos and continued with a 4-0 drubbing of Borussia Dortmund. It's too easy to simply say Borussia Dortmund were terrible (they were) or that it was just about Bayern getting rid of Kovac in order to shine. Hans Flick may be an interim manager (for now... it might not be a bad idea to keep around him until the end of the season), but he's not afraid to get under the hood.
Like he did in the Champions League, Flick dropped Philippe Coutinho for Thomas Muller not necessarily because the Brazilian is underperforming, but because in games like this, Muller gives you a lift and enough raw energy to rattle any opposition. The artist formerly known as "Der Raumdeuter" helped pin Dortmund back to the point that they achieved virtually nothing in the final third until a Paco Alcacer chance at the hour mark.
Flick's solution to the injury crisis in the back four was unconventional -- David Alaba and Javi Martinez in the middle, with Benjamin Pavard and Alphonso Davies in the full-back positions -- but it worked, not least because so much of the action was at the other end of the pitch. Whether he appealed to their pride or simply got it right tactically is immaterial: Bayern looked like a side that who suddenly remembered who they were.
As for Dortmund, the second-half comeback against Inter in last week's 3-2 win felt like just a blip. Losing Jadon Sancho to injury in the first half didn't help, but the lack of creativity and inability to get out of their own half, except by mindless long balls for Thorgan Hazard to chase, cost them dearly.
So, if you're Bayern, do you stick with Flick? The impression is that they might well do. The Ralf Rangnick trail seems to have gone cold. Arsene Wenger would have done himself no favours by going on TV and announcing that he had been contacted by Karl-Heinz Rummenigge, despite the club suggesting privately it was the other way around. So if you're going to go with a caretaker, why not Flick?
Juventus do just enough (again) and beat Milan
Juventus looked a lot like an off-brand replica of the Max Allegri version in overcoming Milan 1-0 on Sunday night. It helps when you play poorly and then can chuck on Douglas Costa and Paulo Dybala, with the pair combining to score the winner. Evidently, there's still plenty to work on but this was easily Milan's best performance of the season and Juve's difficulties have a lot to do with the way the opposition played.
Stefano Pioli chucked in the newcomers, Ismael Bennacer (who was outstanding) and Rade Krunic, and for long stretches, Milan had the upper hand. Only Krzysztof Piatek's lost mojo and some great Wojciech Szczesny saves stopped them from scoring. You don't want to get carried away and say Milan have turned a corner, but if Sunday night wasn't a one-off, they won't be dropping too many points between now and the end of the season.
Sarri shows spine with Ronaldo
It speaks volumes about the sort of player Cristiano Ronaldo is and was for much of his career that before Sunday, he'd only been substituted in consecutive games three times in the last decade. (The last time, in the build-up to the 2018 Champions League final, doesn't really count.)
Maurizio Sarri said Ronaldo had a slight niggle that had been dogging him for several weeks. Ronaldo didn't seem to take it well, walking straight down into the tunnel and then, according to local media, showering and leaving the stadium three minutes before the final whistle. Sarri said it was normal for a player to get annoyed when substituted, let alone a competitor like Ronaldo, and it was no big deal. Time will tell, but what's undeniable is that Ronaldo, possibly because of his physical problems, was having a rough night and that Sarri showed backbone.
Arsenal and Emery are regressing in real time
It's pretty much a horror show right now at Arsenal. You can budget for a defeat away to this Leicester City side that is flying right now, but it's difficult to fathom the choices and sense of drift enveloping Unai Emery's side. Switching to a back three (and dropping Sokratis Papastathopoulos, one of the few players with leadership qualities on this team) against the rampaging Ricardo Pereira and Ben Chilwell makes little sense. Playing Alexandre Lacazette and Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang so wide is equally baffling particularly when Mesut Ozil is in the hole. As for Nicolas Pepe, why spend all that money on a guy who doesn't fit into your system?
The result was a single shot on goal and a growing discontent among Arsenal fans, who have seen their side win just two Premier League games since August and just one game of any kind in the past month (and that came only as a result of a last-ditch goal from Pepe).
Emery is idiosyncratic: We get it. Man-management isn't really his thing, so the way he gets buy-in from players is by being smarter than the opposition and getting a tactical edge. When it works, no problem. When it doesn't, things go downhill very fast because he can't rely on his personal charisma to turn it around.
Arsenal insist his job is safe. There's no reason it shouldn't be in terms of results: They're fifth in the Premier League. The problem is the sense of forward progress, or lack thereof. Part of being a successful manager is being able to sell your vision. Right now, nobody is buying.
Taison abused in Ukraine
A week later, it happens again this time in the biggest match in Ukrainian football, Shakhtar Donetsk vs. Dynamo Kyiv. Shakhtar Donetsk's Brazilian midfielder, Taison, had a reaction to racist abuse that eerily mirrored Mario Balotelli's a week ago: the ball punted up into the stands, the incredulous look, the march towards the sideline, teammates and opponents surrounding him, first to try to understand and then to support. What was different here is that having suspended the game and taken the teams off the field in accordance with the protocol, referee Mykola Balakin sent Taison off back in the dressing room, possibly for his reaction to the abuse, which included a raised middle finger.
As we wait for more confirmed facts to emerge (including Balakin's report), early indications are that this was not an impromptu incident but a planned provocation. The fact that some of Dynamo's hard-core supporters showed up with stickers like this one, with its mocking "Like to racism" message rather gives it away. Actions like this aren't just about racist abuse but about certain fans' willingness to test boundaries and the resolve of authorities. As with Serie A and the rest of Europe, the world is watching.
Don't look now, but Real Madrid are finding form
It was less than a month ago, after a 1-0 defeat at Mallorca, that some wondered whether Zinedine Zidane made the second-worst mistake of his life in agreeing to return to the Bernabeu and if the Jose Mourinho bandwagon was picking up steam. Fast-forward and they've taken 13 of a possible 15 points -- and it should be five wins in a row, given how Betis were battered a week ago -- bagging 10 goals in their last two outings.
Eibar may not be much of a test but the way in which Real went 3-0 up inside half an hour, on their way to a 4-0 win, was a statement and a half. Federico Valverde feels necessary in the starting lineup these days, Rodrygo (who sat out Saturday) is an exciting bonus and Karim Benzema, who has 41 goals in 68 games since Cristiano Ronaldo's departure, is proving the haters wrong. Oh, and all this without Toni Kroos, Marco Asensio and Gareth Bale.
If anything, the test will be how Zidane fits the pieces together when everybody is fit, but as they say, it's a good problem to have.
Icardi might be the long-term answer for PSG
Paris Saint-Germain's lead at the top of Ligue 1 stands at eight points and they've virtually won their Champions League group, so you can't really blame Thomas Tuchel for using these games as a chance to assess what he has. At home to Brest, in addition to the injured Kylian Mbappe and Neymar, he left out Marquinhos and Mauro Icardi, giving Edinson Cavani his first start since August. Cavani did hit the post but it was Icardi, the heir apparent, who came on and won the game, grabbing the winner five minutes from time.
Icardi has nine goals in 10 appearances this season, including three in the Champions League. He's on loan and it will take 70 million Euros ($75m) or thereabouts to make his deal permanent. If he keeps this up, PSG will have no choice but to keep him around to fill Cavani's boots.
What we learned from Man United's win (hint: not much)
Ole Gunnar Solskjaer's Manchester United keeps doing this. They tumble close to the edge -- going into the weekend, this was their worst start to the season since the early Sir Alex Ferguson Era -- and then scramble back. This week, it was a 3-1 victory over Brighton that saw Solskjaer field the youngest starting lineup in the Premier League this season.
The thing about days like these is they tell you very little. United scored early and at home, they were able to hit on the counter the rest of the way: Brighton had 57% possession at Old Trafford, which rather confirms this. We know they can counterattack -- with Daniel James, Marcus Rashford and Anthony Martial up front, you'd be shocked if they couldn't -- what's still not clear is what they can do beyond that. Truth be told, we likely won't know until Paul Pogba -- really, the only reliably creative force in midfield -- comes back. Until then, expect more of the same: one step forward, two steps back.
More frustration for Napoli
The most frustrating aspect of Napoli's current plight -- no wins in their last five games, president Aurelio De Laurentiis threatening legal action against players after they refused to be sequestered in training camp for a week, furious fans booing the team and club officials, with coach Carlo Ancelotti caught in the middle of it all -- is how self-inflicted it all is.
De Laurentiis feels, perhaps rightly, that he had built a side that would challenge for Serie A this season and was disappointed by the results. That's true, but it's equally true that making the team stay at the training ground for a week (a practice straight out of the 1970s) is grandstanding and counterproductive. Taking it out on Ancelotti, after he signalled that he didn't believe in such steps is also foolish. You suspect that it's mostly about players' contractual situations and here too, De Laurentiis hasn't helped himself by saying that if the likes of Jose Maria Callejon and Dries Mertens didn't like his offer, they could go "live a crappy life in China" for all he cared.
On Monday, local media was rife with reports of a fire sale, with not just Callejon and Mertens but also Kalidou Koulibaly, Lorenzo Insigne and others leaving the club, driving Ancelotti (who has a hefty contract through 2021) to resign as well. You hope that's not the case. Napoli fans deserve better than De Laurentiis cashing in his chips in what amounts to a sudden about-face after years of good stewardship.
Barca are winning, but not playing well
Barcelona joined Real Madrid at the top of the table with a 4-1 hammering of Celta, but it felt like far more of you-know-who carrying the side. Lionel Messi bagged a hat-trick (two gorgeous free-kick goals and a penalty) and turned in another G.O.A.T. candidate performance. He waited until October to score his first goal of the season but has nine in seven appearances since. And he has scored six of Barcelona's last eight goals.
Another way to look at it, is this team are not playing well. Against a side who had lost four in a row and replaced their manager, they scored once from open play (with Sergio Busquets no less). Antoine Griezmann struggled, Ansu Fati played like what he is (a guy who turned 17 on Halloween), the midfield didn't create and Junior Firpo still looks out of place. Ernesto Valverde has got work to do. Again.
Conte keeps moaning even as Inter win again
In mid-week, Antonio Conte delivered the sort of tantrum that has his loyalists ooh and aah at how badly he wants to win and his critics getting a sense of deja vu, the one where when his team wins, it's down to him and when they lose, it's down to the club not supporting him enough. My colleague James Horncastle summed it up nicely here.
Among his complaints was that while his rivals were lavishing huge amounts on brand-name superstars, he had to make do with guys signed from Sassuolo (Stefano Sensi) and Cagliari (Nicolo Barella). Well, the guy from Sassuolo has been arguably Inter's best player this season and the guy from Cagliari scored a gorgeous winner to overcome Verona and keep Inter in touch with Juve at the top of the table.
Lampard, Chelsea continue to impress
Frank Lampard's Chelsea made it six wins in a row with a 2-0 victory over Crystal Palace on Saturday that could easily have been greater. At the rate he's going in terms of chucking in the kids -- Reece James started his first Premier League match and showed just why folks are so excited by him -- the next challenge will be managing the squad and doling out enough minutes to keep everyone happy.
It's all part of the growth process for a guy who has been a manager for less than 18 months.
Gladbach keep setting the pace in Bundesliga
It looked as if it was going to be a very tight Bundesliga season, with as many as six or seven clubs packed within a few points at the top. Now, you're not so sure. One club is pulling away (and it's not Bayern): Borussia Moenchengladbach have taken 21 of a possible 24 points in their last eight league matches, and they probably should have won the one game they lost as well, against Borussia Dortmund last month.
Marco Rose's side downed Werder Bremen 3-1 at the weekend and while they were the beneficiaries of a missed penalty, they were generally on top throughout. Even in a league accustomed to high press/high intensity play, teams are struggling to come to grips with Rose's approach. And with Bayern and Dortmund having their own problems, you wonder if Gladbach's main rival this season might not end up being Leipzig.