Missed any 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: Manchester derby lessons | City handle Fred abuse | Juve finally lose in Serie A | Bayern undone by 'Gladbach | Messi, Suarez magical | Liverpool keep winning | Leicester still chasing LFC | PSG are rolling | Super Son, Spurs smash Burnley | Can anyone stop Leipzig? | Real rotate, win again | Praise for Joaquin | Napoli mess continues | Are Dortmund "back?" | Tough decisions for Lampard, Chelsea | Milan comeback is on | Villas-Boas impresses
Man United keep it simple to down Man City
We knew Manchester United had pacy, clever strikers and could counterattack very effectively. We knew they were coming off a confidence-building win over Tottenham Hotspur, too; that would matter less at some clubs, but with this manager and this group of younger players, it matters a lot. We knew that Manchester City had blown hot and cold of late, and we knew about their injuries (Leroy Sane, Aymeric Laporte, Sergio Aguero to name but three). But few would have predicted what we saw particularly in the first 45 minutes, when United created a host of chances against an opponent that looked shell-shocked for long stretches.
Ole Gunnar Solskjaer wasn't particularly sophisticated in Saturday's 2-1 win mainly because he has rather limited options. But then, he didn't need to be. A simple plan, well-executed, can be just as effective as the most innovative tactical blueprint. Having a striker like Marcus Rashford, who only turned 22 on Halloween but plays with intelligence and selflessness (to go with his physical and technical gifts) as well as the maturity that comes from taking on responsibility, makes things a heck of a whole lot easier. This is a different Rashford from the one we saw a few years ago. That one was a kid who thrived as a third or fourth option. This one is carrying the load.
Fred's performance in the middle of the park should also serve as a reminder that rarely do players simply "turn bad." The amount of abuse and criticism he received until recently may have been warranted by his performances, but it was unlikely that there was an absence of quality inside him, quality that in the right circumstances could be unlocked.
As for Manchester City, it's pretty evident that some things aren't quite right. The point made all year -- not replacing Vincent Kompany with a live body was a mistake -- still stands. When Laporte got hurt, there was no insurance policy, which means more stress and strain on Nicolas Otamendi, John Stones and Fernandinho. Also, more vulnerability on set pieces and counterattacks.
The injury to Sane, while mentioned less often, has also had a knock-on effect. It means Bernardo Silva having to play wide more regularly which, in turn, means more minutes for Kevin De Bruyne and David Silva in the middle. And that, in turn, means more fatigue, wear and tear and performances like the ones we saw Saturday.
You can poke other holes too (the left-back situation, the fact that Gabriel Jesus' movement is very different from Sergio Aguero's) but perhaps what was most disappointing about Sunday was Pep Guardiola's inability to change things around in the second half. Riyad Mahrez for Bernardo Silva with 25 minutes to go and Ilkay Gundogan for Rodri in the final minutes aren't exactly bold moves. If anything, it felt like he was sending a message to his players: you got yourselves into this, you get yourselves out of it.
It's not a tragedy, it's not a crisis and it doesn't mean City need a massive summer rebuild, as some have suggested. It does mean Guardiola would be wise to make tweaks and figure things out. It's what he did at Barcelona and at Bayern, and it's what made him what he is today.
Credit to Man City for handling Fred abuse quickly
The racist abuse directed at Fred and the missiles thrown on to the pitch were a nasty reminder of what is still out there. What's encouraging is how quickly Manchester City took responsibility, issuing a strongly worded statement minutes after the final whistle, and how quickly the offender was dealt with. Arrested, named, shamed and suspended by his employer within 36 hours. A number of other countries could learn from this.
The objects thrown on the pitch (including the lighter that struck Fred) have received less attention. In fact, they ought to serve as a reminder for the price we pay for the sort of grounds we have in the Premier League. You're close to the action, there are no barriers, it looks wonderful on television and even better in person: equally, you're vulnerable and at the mercy of the occasional pond scum in the stands.
You hope that with all the CCTV and technology in modern grounds, those responsible are identified and punished. After all, if you throw a rock or a bottle at a random guy on the street, you get charged with assault. There's no reason this should be any different.
As for racist abuse, the way to deal with it (and the way many countries deal with it) is to punish the club. Closing that section of the stand for a game would send a message while providing the right incentives, both to City (to ensure their stewards have control) and to supporters in that stand (to help identify those responsible). Mark Ogden suggested on the Gab & Juls podcast that it was unlikely, since the Premier League was wary of showing empty sections of a ground on TV. I hope he's wrong.
Juventus finally exposed in Serie A
It was coming ... and it finally came. If you believe performances are predictors of future results, then Juve's Saturday night horror away to Lazio was no surprise.
The game finished 3-1 to Lazio and that was with Ciro Immobile missing a penalty. Juventus actually played better for long stretches of the first half, took the lead through Cristiano Ronaldo and came close to scoring on several occasions. But then Rodrigo Bentancur got injured, Emre Can came in and the lights went out. Lazio equalised just before half-time and, after the break, it felt as if Juve had stayed in the dressing room. Juan Cuadrado got sent off trying to disrupt a counterattack. A sumptuous pass from Luis Alberto (who also assisted on the first goal and has more assists than anyone in Europe's Big Five this season) found Sergej Milinkovic-Savic to make it 2-1. Joaquin Correa won a penalty, which Wojciech Szczesny saved, and Felipe Caicedo added a third for good measure.
Juve's second-half meltdown is particularly disconcerting because it highlights how this team seems to have inherited the bad traits of last year's squad, but without the good traits. After being appointed as manager, Maurizio Sarri said that you wouldn't necessarily be seeing the style of play we witnessed at Napoli and, for most of the season, at Chelsea, because this was a different group of players. But what he has served up thus far is an off-brand version of latter-day Max Allegri, albeit without the cohesion and the mental toughness: unimaginative play, stodginess in midfield and goals that came via individual brilliance and set pieces.
That has to change. Juventus didn't appoint Sarri just to get a bad version of Allegri. They did it to change their style. Sarri isn't doing that and to make matters worse, it's hard to build chemistry when your midfield is a revolving door.
As for Lazio, they're third in Serie A, something few would have expected. At the heart of their success is a front four that is as balanced and versatile as you're likely to find: the presence of Milinkovic-Savic, the delicate passing of Luis Alberto, the trickery of Correa and the goals of Immobile. They have the best attack in Serie A and the second best defense, and they are one of the best counter-attacking sides around.
They're for real.
Gladbach take advantage of Bayern meltdown
Here's a reminder that there's some truth in the old cliche about how football is a game played with the brain as much as the feet. Bayern battered Borussia Moenchengladbach on the road and still emerged with a 2-1 defeat that leaves them seventh in the table, seven points off the top. Only once in the previous two decades have they been this low at this stage of the season.
So is it time for Bayern to panic? Not quite, because when it comes to actually playing football, they were the better side and could have been 3-0 up inside half an hour. Thomas Muller contrived to miss a sitter, Robert Lewandowski came close and Joshua Kimmich had a goal denied by goal-line technology that, to the naked eye, was in. They eventually took the lead in the second half, but that's when things began to unravel: Ramy Bensebaini's wide-open header levelled the score late on. Whether someone forgot their marking assignments or simply fell asleep is hard to discern. And then, in injury time, the most boneheaded of tackles from Javi Martinez (a guy who, at his age, should know better than to go to ground with a covering teammate right there) gave Gladbach a penalty that Bensebaini converted for the winner.
Up until the equalizer, Bayern had done most things right. They had generated chances despite leaving Serge Gnabry (not fully fit) on the bench. They had snuffed out the threat of the counter, which had driven them bananas the previous week against Bayer Leverkusen. And they had the confidence and self-assuredness of champions.
But then it all crumbled. Hansi Flick complained that it was a rerun of the previous week vs. Bayer Leverkusen and in some ways, it was. But equally, if a tad of nonchalance against Peter Bosz's crew is understandable (not justifiable), this was Gladbach. This was top-of-the-table stuff.
As for Gladbach, manager Marco Rose deserves credit for his change at the hour mark when Breel Embolo came on for Laszlo Benes, giving his team extra oomph on the counter. But, really, this was about Bayern throwing it away, and sometimes you need days like these if you're going to win a title as Gladbach, improbably, hope to do.
Messi, Suarez dazzle for Barcelona
Lionel Messi paraded his newly won Ballon d'Or (only his sixth) around the Camp Nou and scored a hat trick in Barcelona's 5-2 win vs. Mallorca, but the highlight belonged to Luis Suarez on Saturday night. It's not just the goal, it's the absurd build-up play. But to have the creativity to finish like that -- and let's face it, risk ridicule because misstruck backheel chips look really silly -- speaks to what makes Suarez special. His technique isn't always the cleanest, age is catching up, but the combination of rabid hunger, intelligence and imagination is as alive as ever.
Barcelona scored five but they could have managed a lot more. Messi has 14 goals in his last nine games (incidentally, his second, the standard right-to-left shift and pinpoint finish from outside the box was remarkable too, it's just that we've become desensitised to its brilliance) and Antoine Griezmann is on a nice bounce as well. Pretty much what you want ahead of the rescheduled Dec. 18 Clasico, not least because it's at home, where they've generally looked better.
Liverpool keep rotating -- and keep winning
Jurgen Klopp is clearly hunkering down for the storm, squirrelling away his acorns by rotating where possible and trying to conserve energy for the barrage of fixtures and travel that awaits his rampant Liverpool team. Thing is, the personnel may change, but results don't. After putting five past Everton in the derby in midweek, they hammered Bournemouth on the road, 3-0.
Liverpool ratings: Salah 8/10 in emphatic road victory
As I see it, it's a necessity given that in certain key positions, Liverpool either have very little cover or cover that's several notches down from first choice. It's not a knock as most teams are like this: lose a starter, especially one who is particularly gifted or whose skill set is particularly hard to replace, and you pay a price.The interesting dynamic, I think, will come if they advance from their Champions' League group this week.
We know the Premier League is the priority for many fans, but if the lead remains huge into the new year, this will enable Klopp to ratchet things up a notch in Europe and go for the repeat win as well.
Leicester still on Liverpool's heels
Leicester City are second in the table with a whopping 16 points more than they had at this stage last season. They've won eight straight Premier League games, which has also coincided with Jamie Vardy scoring in each of those eight victories. Inevitably, you wonder whether they can challenge Liverpool for the title -- Klopp's crew are eight points clear, so probably not -- and whether they can sustain if not second place, at least a top-four finish.
If you're of an analytical bent, the fact that Leicester are wildly outperforming xG both in attack (10 goals over) and defence (6 under) suggests, all things being equal (and it's football so often they're not), a regression to the mean. But don't discount the Brendan Rodgers factor. Some managers on a good run simply keep formation and personnel unchanged, operating under the "if it ain't broke, don't fix it" model. Not Rodgers. He has used three different formations in the past three games (most recently a diamond midfield in the 4-1 win away to Aston Villa), evidence that he continues to look for an edge -- and avoid complacency -- any which way he can.
PSG struck by injuries in latest win
Paris Saint-Germain came from behind to win at Montpellier, 3-1, in a game that also saw Keylor Navas hit by an object thrown from the stands. PSG took a while to come to life, but a stunning Neymar free kick 15 minutes from time sent them on their way, before goals from Kylian Mbappe and Mauro Icardi.
In some ways, it was a pyrrhic victory as they lost Idrissa Gueye and Presnel Kimpembe to injuries in the first half. It continues to be a stop-start campaign for Thomas Tuche,l but judge him (and PSG) in the spring, just like we always do.
Son sensational as Spurs smash Burnley
Tottenham Hotspur bounced back from their midweek defeat at Old Trafford by smacking Burnley around, 5-0. The fact that they recovered so quickly from defeat and avoided conceding two goals for the first time since Jose Mourinho took over was in this case overshadowed by the football, which is both not a bad thing and wholly understandable.
Meanwhile, Heung-Min Son's coast-to-coast run and finish is the sort of goal that will live on for a long time. Like George Weah's goal in the mid-90s, if anything, Son's was even more of an athletic feat (and less of a technical feat, but we quibble) simply because his acceleration was so extreme that he didn't have that many defenders to beat. He just soared past them.
Can Leipzig win the Bundesliga? Maybe ...
Julian Nagelsmann served up an old-fashioned demolition against his old club, Hoffenheim. Leipzig won, 3-1 but it could have been a bigger margin. This is a team playing with an energy and an intensity few in Europe can match right now. Witness the 32 goals they've scored in their past eight outings in all competitions. It helps too that Timo Werner (up to 17 goals this season) is on fire, with nine in his past five Bundesliga outings.
You feel that only two things can stop them: running out of gas (though the endless German winter break is coming up, which allows for a recharge of the batteries) or sheer dumb bad luck (like against Benfica, when they were dominant but needed injury-time goals to avoid defeat).
Real rotate and keep rolling
No Gareth Bale (who, as the always alert Spanish media pointed out, left the ground with 10 minutes to go) and no Eden Hazard for Real Madrid, but no real problems against Espanyol either. Zinedine Zidane put the teenagers (Vinicius Jr. and Rodrygo, 37 years old combined) on either side of the old head (Karim Benzema) and Real Madrid rolled to a 2-0 win.
Real Madrid ratings: Benzema 8/10 in classy display
Real Madrid have so many different looks and lineups (Isco and Luka Jovic were unused subs to boot) that it could almost be a double-edged sword. Sometimes when you have too many options, you end up with trial-and-error and pay a natural price in terms of chemistry. Still, it's a problem most managers would love to have, relative to the alternative.
Praise for the ageless Joaquin
Joaquin became the oldest player in the history of La Liga to score a hat trick (38 years young, eclipsing the legendary Alfredo Di Stefano) on Sunday. That he did it in a mere 20 minutes is remarkable; that it was also his first treble in two decades as a professional footballer equally so.
His story has all the romanticism that the modern game sometimes lacks. He has 51 caps for Spain yet last played for the national team at the age of 26. He was -- scratch that, he is -- the prototypical winger in a game that no longer harbours old-school wide men hugging the sidelines. His touch, elegance and hypnotic dribbles down the flank are the stuff that makes you fall in love with the game. You don't want it to end.
Napoli's crisis continues but Ancelotti is safe (for now)
It's now nine games without a win for Carlo Ancelotti's Napoli, following the 1-1 draw away to Udinese. There are a ton of mitigating circumstances here -- regular readers will know what they are -- and as long as they avoid defeat to Genk in midweek, they'll qualify for the Champions League knockout phase.
However, this may well be the longest winless streak of Ancelotti's career. The fact that he's still in a job speaks to the credit he's built up over the years (and the hefty payout he'd get if he was fired) rather than the future prospects of this team (or, indeed, club president Aurelio De Laurentiis' patience). Right now, there appears to be virtually zero chance of him coming back next season.
Finally, we're seeing the Dortmund we expected to see
Are they back? It wasn't that long ago that Lucien Favre's future at Borussia Dortmund was hanging by a thread. Back-to-back wins -- including Saturday's 5-0 shellacking of Fortuna Dusseldorf -- and suddenly, they're up to third.
Dusseldorf aren't much of a test, but the emphatic win (with Marco Reus and Jadon Sancho each bagging two goals) is particularly significant when you consider the performance (dominant) and the Champions League (imminent). Dortmund need to do better at home to Slavia Prague than Inter at home to an already-qualified Barcelona on Tuesday. That they weren't thinking ahead but focusing on the task at hand is significant given what this team has been through.
Lampard has tough choices to make at Chelsea
I touched upon this last week, but Saturday's 3-1 defeat away to Everton, which makes it one win in five for Chelsea, means Frank Lampard will have some decisions to make. There's no question he's way ahead of the curve, but the reality is that he has a squad filled with gifted players many of whom are of comparable level.
Assessing the form, finding the right mix for the opponent, knowing who to bet on and when isn't easy, but it's part of the growth of any manager. That said, the sooner Antonio Rudiger comes back to full fitness, the better.
Bonaventura returns and Milan click into winning gear
Stefano Pioli's Milan won back-to-back games for the first time as the rossoneri took three points from Bologna, 3-2, this weekend. Performances had improved under Pioli quicker than the results, so perhaps it's not surprising. But two factors stood out that bode well for the future.
One is the return of "Jack," aka Giacomo Bonaventura, who isn't just a cult hero but is arguably Milan's best two-way midfielder. He gives the team a lift and is willing to take chances to a degree that some of his teammates often are not. The other is the performance of Krzysztof Piatek. Regular readers will know I find him somewhat limited, but given Pioli's options (or lack thereof), he's going to start (at least for now). And that's why it's hugely encouraging that he showed confidence and self-belief in winning, and then converting, the opening penalty.
Piatek probably isn't the long-term answer but Milan need the version on display in Bologna if they're going to get something out of this campaign.
And finally... Villas-Boas continues to impress
One of the big knocks on Andre Villas-Boas during his time at Chelsea and Tottenham were his man-management skills. His tactical nous, though often outside-the-box, was fine, but there was a sense that he failed to connect with certain players and couldn't get the best out of them. Yet his season at Olympique Marseille thus far suggests that he has grown tremendously (either that or the previous criticism was unfounded).
OM beat Bordeaux 3-1 to make it six straight wins in Ligue 1 and they're second in the table. All this after a summer that, because of Financial Fair Play, saw them add just three players and with Florent Thauvin (arguably their MVP last year) having played just 11 minutes. AVB's stock is very much on the rise again... and he's only 42.