The European soccer weekend was its usual wild and wonderful self: Manchester United have their new manager (and completed a dull draw at Chelsea), Real Madrid shrugged off their most credible challenger to date in LaLiga’s title race, and Juventus suffered on-pitch woe against Atalanta to go with the police investigation off it. Elsewhere, we learned more about Bayern Munich‘s strength in depth, Napoli‘s brilliance in Serie A, Liverpool‘s latest record in England, and Arsenal‘s progress under Mikel Arteta.
It’s Monday, and Gab Marcotti reacts to the biggest moments in the world of football.
Jump to: Rangnick at Man United | Juventus trouble | Real Madrid soar | Lucky Barcelona | Man City’s snow game | Dortmund’s character | Liverpool’s record | Napoli channel Maradona | Bayern’s late win | Inter Milan’s depth | Questions around Arsenal | PSG’s mixed weekend | Milan’s blip | Atletico turn on the style
Chelsea, Man United share spoils as Rangnick era begins for United
Technically, you don’t expect it to be an “era” since Ralf Rangnick (who was officially announced on Monday) will be Manchester United’s manager through the end of the season, before assuming some sort of consultant role. But when you appoint someone like Rangnick, it’s clearly with a long-term view and — you assume — the hope is that his consultant role will be a meaningful one, helping to reshape the club in its hunt to return to the big time.
There was plenty of speculation (denied, obviously) that Michael Carrick’s set-up at Stamford Bridge was influenced by Rangnick. The diamond midfield formation with two quick, mobile front men (Jadon Sancho and Marcus Rashford) seemed out of the Rangnick playbook, and dropping Cristiano Ronaldo looked like the sort emphatic choice a new boss, sure of himself and his ideas, would make to establish authority.
I’m not buying it — I think that’s simply overcomplicating matters. United were missing three-fourths of their starting defence and they were always going to sit and play on the counter, particularly with three defensive midfielders. So at that point, you either play Ronaldo and leave him to fend for himself against three centre-backs, or you just put a couple fast guys up front and hope for the best. Carrick chose the latter option, knowing that he could bring Ronaldo off the bench (which he did) and knowing that he has played every minute bar one of his last six games for club and country.
As much as it’s (rightly) a story when Ronaldo doesn’t start, I don’t necessarily see the link between this and Rangnick’s arrival. Yes, it’s true that Rangnick usually preaches speedy, mobile forwards as part of his pressing game, but it’s also true that if you combine possession and pressing, it’s nowhere near as physically taxing. If you have a good coach who can prepare teams tactically and press efficiently, there’s no reason to think Ronaldo can do it.
More importantly — at the risk of giving Manchester United’s leadership too much credit here — you imagine that one of the first things they asked Rangnick was this: “We’ve committed some $100 million over two seasons to Ronaldo, who also happens to be our best player… if we hire you, you’ll have a plan that incorporates him, right? Right?” And you assume Rangnick said: “Yes, of course. And this is what it is…”
The basic premise of Rangnick for six months and then, if things work out, letting him play a role in deciding the next manager, makes sense provided United follow through and do things properly. But there are concerns.
Rangnick was heavily linked with the Milan job two years ago. Part of the reason it didn’t happen was that he wanted to coach; he didn’t want to be some sort of strategic overseer type/head of football type. Milan’s owners were still tempted, but ultimately Stefano Pioli did extremely well, some senior figures at the club insisted on sticking with him and Rangnick wasn’t interested in a strategic role (though he did take that role later at Lokomotiv Moscow).
This naturally raises the question of what happens if Rangnick does well, wins a bunch of games and decides he wants to be the permanent manager. Because let’s face it: we’ve been here before, with the previous manager in fact: Ole Gunnar Solskjaer was supposed to be interim as well and United were going to make a decision at the end of the campaign… instead, they gave him a fat new contract in March.
Would it be such a bad thing if Rangnick were permanent manager? Well, he’s probably better than the guy he’s replacing, but the fact is he simply hasn’t managed very often of late.
In fact, he’s had just two seasons as a manager in the past decade — both were at Leipzig, sandwiched around executive roles with the Red Bull football group. In 2015-16, they won promotion to the Bundesliga from the German second division and in 2018-19, they finished third in the Bundesliga and lost the German Cup final, while getting knocked out of the Europa League in the group stages. Other than that, he has had front-office jobs for the past decade.
And, of course, most of his career has taken place away from the limelight. He’s never worked at a club anywhere near the size of United; the closest he has come is Schalke, where he had two stints over 22 months and won the German Cup, his only major piece of silverware to date.
Janusz Michallik is critical of Manchester United despite their 1-1 draw away at Chelsea.
This is not to say it can’t or won’t work. Just that Rangnick’s history is more that of a big-picture/long-term guy than a quick fix/instant-results guy. And when you take someone who — apart from his few months at Lokomotiv Moscow and his turbulent stints at Schalke — has only ever worked at lower-profile clubs in Germany and Austria and parachute him in the Old Trafford goldfish bowl, you have to factor in the risk.
As for the game itself, while United earned plaudits in some quarters for the point, I saw little beyond bus parking. And, in fact, with better finishing from Chelsea (above all, Timo Werner), this game would not have been close. It’s not just me saying it, it’s the numbers too: Chelsea had 65% possession, outshot United 24 to 3 and won the xG battle 2.88 to 0.69.
(In fact, of United’s three shots, one was the ridiculous Fred “pass” to Edouard Mendy after the keeper’s miscue late in the game, the other was Jadon Sancho’s goal after Jorginho gave the ball away. Without them, United’s xG would have been 0.02).
Whichever way you slice it, there’s plenty of work for Rangnick to do. Whether between now and the end of the season, or between now and 2024, remains to be seen.
Storm clouds over Juventus, on and off the pitch
Janusz Michallik explains how the absences of Weston McKennie and Federico Chiesa could hurt Juventus this season.
Juve’s home defeat against Atalanta leaves them sixth in the table with 27 points, six fewer than they had last season under the much maligned Andrea Pirlo. Sure, Pirlo had the benefit of one Cristiano Ronaldo, and Max Allegri does not. Maybe with Ronaldo, Allegri would be further up the table, but we’d still be talking about papering over cracks.
Atalanta were not on their game on Saturday and still, Juventus were poor, particularly when it comes to creating quality chances: 15 shots on goal and just one, Federico Chiesa‘s chance in the first half, with an xG over 0.09 tell their own story. However, the issues on the pitch risk paling by comparison by those off it.
Juventus’ offices were raided on Saturday by law enforcement, who have opened an inquiry into the club for false accounting — among the officials being investigated are Fabio Paratici, now at Tottenham, and Andrea Agnelli, the club president. This comes about a month after the Italian FA’s regulatory body opened a similar investigation. The main difference between the two is that law enforcement has the power to issue subpoenas and tap phones.
Juventus aren’t the only club being investigated, of course, and they issued a statement insisting they’re cooperating with investigators and have always operated within the rules. We don’t have the exact charges, but early indications are that they stand accused of manipulating accounting rules to inflate paper profits.
In total, 42 deals are being investigated, the vast majority involving young players you’ve likely never heard of, and many involving the same clubs over and over again. Juventus are by no means the only culprits, though they’re easily the most high-profile and, according to investigators, generated some €280m of paper profits this way.
The issue here is one of “spirit vs. letter of the law.” Player valuations are subjective. If you want to argue that a 30-year-old Miralem Pjanic with a year left on his contract is worth €60m and can find somebody willing to pay that (on paper), it can be hard for a court to argue you’re breaking the rules even though, quite clearly, it doesn’t pass the smell test. The obvious consideration here is that these accounting principles, as they’re written, aren’t fit for purpose. But can you blame Juve for that? It’s tough to say.
What’s evident is that between this investigation, the aborted Super League led by Andrea Agnelli and the Luis Suarez fake passport case, the club has done itself plenty of reputational damage over the past 18 months. In the end, that may matter even more than what Allegri does (or does not do) with the team on the pitch.
Vinicius Jr. and Courtois push Real Madrid past Sevilla and clear at LaLiga summit
On the pitch, Real Madrid took a step back against Sevilla on Sunday night. Sevilla boss Julen Lopetegui — who maybe had an ax or two to grind at the Bernabeu — enjoyed the upper hand over Carlo Ancelotti for much of the game, effectively breaking Madrid’s press and popping up in the final third far too often, thanks in large part to a resurgent Ivan Rakitic. It wasn’t so much Real Madrid being poor though (other than, perhaps, some individuals) as it was Sevilla getting everything right.
Sevilla took the lead through Rafa Mir and could have added to it, were it not for some stellar Thibaut Courtois saves, but were pegged back when Yassine Bounou fluffed his save from Eder Militao‘s shot, allowing Karim Benzema to notch the equalizer. Vinicius, increasingly Madrid’s key man in the key moments, came up big with a stellar winner, as superstars tend to do out of nothing — and, yes, he has superstar status, which is why Ancelotti joked before the game that if Kylian Mbappe does arrive next season, he’ll have to adapt to Vinicius and not the other way around.
Sevilla still had a late chance, but again, a combination of a stellar Courtois save and Bounou’s slow feet (he was up for the corner) denied them the equalizer. Lopetegui was angry, but he should take heart from his team’s performance: they showed they can more than hang with the cream of LaLiga. As for Real Madrid, they won’t play Sevilla every week, which is good news. Even better news is knowing you have superstars who can come to the rescue (and regularly do) when things aren’t working out.
Barca get Xavi’s first away win, with a bit of luck (and a bit of non-VAR)
Xavi compared the 3-1 away victory against Villarreal to “holy water,” and you can see his point. It wasn’t just his first away win as Barca manager — it was Barca’s first away victory in LaLiga and three points that keep them within a couple of games of the top four. But there were at least two very strong penalty claims for Villarreal — Gerard Pique‘s handball, and Eric Garcia wrestling Raul Albiol to the ground — for which VAR did not even intervene.
You suspect that had it been the other way around, we’d never hear the end of it from the Catalan press. And while it finished 3-1 Barca, it’s worth noting that the game was in the balance until two minutes from time, when Pervis Estupinan‘s errant pass allowed Memphis Depay to make it 2-1 before Philippe Coutinho added a third, via the penalty spot, in added time.
In terms of performance, Xavi stuck with the kids — Abdi and Gavi out wide, Nico in midfield — and, of course, he has the usual alibi of the unavailable (Sergino Dest, Ansu Fati, Pedri), but once again it did feel like this is a side that runs out of the gas in the second half. Defensively, Garcia at right-back is not something we need to see again: whether the result of a botched man-marking job on Moi Gomez or simply bad reading of the game, whatever Xavi was trying to do didn’t quite work.
Take the three points and move on, knowing there’s still a mountain to climb, on the pitch and off it.
Man City show they can play in a blizzard too…
Janusz Michallik explains why Manchester City’s 2-1 victory over West Ham could be vital to their season’s ambitions.
It was a classic “trap game” for Manchester City.
West Ham had lost just once on the road all season and were three points behind Pep Guardiola’s crew. They’re the sort of team that can defend and get physical while punishing you on the counter or from a set-piece. And, of course, the Etihad was hit by blizzard-like conditions of the sort that, you’d think, would hurt more technically gifted, passing-oriented sides. But City went out there and dominated even as the snow slowed down the slick passing, and even as the gap remained a single goal until late in the second half when Fernandinho made it 2-0, before Manuel Lanzini‘s late wonder strike.
We’ve said it before: sometimes Guardiola gets carried away in praising his team’s fight, heart and collective ethos. On this occasion though, he wasn’t laying it on thick. At all.
Dortmund show usual flaws, but unusual character in win over Wolfsburg as Haaland returns
Janusz Michallik looks at Erling Haaland’s performance after he came off the bench to score in a 3-1 win for Dortmund vs. Wolfsburg.
When you get knocked out (and humiliated) in the Champions League and then go a goal down within two minutes, it’s easy to lose the plot. Especially if you’re Borussia Dortmund and there isn’t much of a plot at the best of times. But at least there’s character. And fight. And Marco Reus to win penalties. And Donyell Malen to make you think that maybe he’s not a bust. And, most of all, Erling Haaland to come off the bench after his long injury and score to seal the 3-1 win over Wolfsburg.
This is a team still beset by injuries — Jude Bellingham and Raphael Guerreiro continue to be huge misses — and defensive frailties (Wolfsburg could have had three or four themselves). But at least Haaland is back, and at least three points are in the bag, which means next weekend, if they beat Bayern, they go top. Given how they’ve played and what they’ve been through, that’s something.
Liverpool’s everyday excellence yields a 4-0 win and another record
Mark Donaldson and Janusz Michallik discuss who out of Liverpool, Chelsea and Manchester City are favourites for the Premier League title.
It had been 94 years (when Sunderland did it, during the Calvin Coolidge presidency) since an English side had scored two or more goals in 17 competitive games in all competitions. Liverpool matched that mark on Saturday in their 4-0 annihilation of Southampton, to help them cut the gap separating them from Chelsea at the top of the table.
I feel like Chicken Little, fretting in past columns about the fact that Georginio Wijnaldum left and wasn’t replaced, and the price they’d pay for injuries in the middle of the park. Well, Jurgen Klopp is weathering that storm in style. And yes, the midfield is a key part, because while the forwards are phenomenal — the big three is now firmly a big four with the addition of Diogo Jota, who bagged two on Saturday — so much of Liverpool’s attacking output comes in transition, and you can only do that when the midfield is performing. He did have his first choice trio (Fabinho and Jordan Henderson joined by Thiago Alcantara, who was exceptional), but that’s been a rare occurrence this season.
Klopp has been serving this up regularly for the past couple years, and it’s easy to forget just how remarkable it is.
Maradona wasn’t just on Napoli’s shirt in their rout of Lazio
You couldn’t have set it up better. On the night that Napoli chose to pay tribute to their favourite adopted son — there was a goosebumps-inducing prematch ceremony and commemorative jerseys with his face on them — they turned in one of their best performances of the campaign, racing out to a 3-0 early lead over Lazio and never looking back. And they did it without two of their key men, Andre-Frank Zambo Anguissa and, of course, Victor Osimhen.
It was hard not to be moved. And watching Dries Mertens, Napoli’s other illustrious “DM” who happened to score in the 10th minute, fill in for Osimhen and notch two goals (albeit in a very different way from the Nigerian) was almost supernatural.
Milan’s defeat allows Napoli to extend their lead at the top and, if they’re going to hold on, Mertens is bound to play a key role in Osimhen’s absence, which, between the injury and the Africa Cup of Nations, could extend to two months. At 34, Mertens probably can’t do it all season long, but Napoli only need him to do it until Osimhen’s return.
Bayern Munich leave it late, but still dominate
Don’t let the fact that it was 0-0 until 20 minutes to go fool you into thinking that without Joshua Kimmich (who tested positive for the coronavirus), Bayern suddenly crumbled against little Arminia Bielefeld. This was pretty much a beat-down, and the fact that the visitors didn’t concede until Leroy Sane‘s second-half strike was simply down to a standout performance from keep Stefan Ortega.
Beyond the result — which means Bayern stay a point ahead of Dortmund going into their head-to-head clash next weekend — Alphonso Davies provided another standout performance down the left, the kind that further vindicates Julian Nagelsmann’s “back 3.5” set-up. Nobody said formations need to be symmetrical. And since Bayern can’t find a viable right-back, they might as well play Benjamin Pavard there — really, a central defender masquerading as a full-back — and let Davies run rampant down the other side, sliding across to a back three when they’re on the ball.
It’s not rocket science, but you need to execute it well. And Bayern are growing by the week in that department.
Inter shed their fragility, lay claim to title hunt and discover depth
Don’t look now, but the critics who bemoan Inter’s fragility (including yours truly) might need to think again. They’re unbeaten in nine games and, in fact, they’ve lost just twice in all competitions all season. They’re creating plenty of scoring chances and, at least against Venezia in Saturday’s 2-0 away win, showed the ability to shut up shop as well.
Manager Simone Inzaghi’s plan is coming together and, in some ways, the fact that there is no obvious standout (other than Nicolo Barella) possibly makes them even more dangerous. You feel like there’s a different guy to pop up in each game, whether it’s Ivan Perisic or Edin Dzeko or Marcelo Brozovic or, as happened this weekend, Hakan Calhanoglou. When that happens, it matters less when others have off-days (like Lautaro Martinez or Joaquin Correa, both of whom were quiet in Venice).
It feels very different from last year’s version, but what this Inter side lacks in solidity and quality it makes up for in being better-rounded and less predictable.
Arsenal resume run against Newcastle and are up to fourth… but questions remain
Janusz Michallik praises Mikel Arteta and Arsenal for turning their season around after a very poor start.
There are three outstanding sides in the Premier League — the top three — and then there’s a group vying for best of the rest. The fact that Arsenal are among them — they’re fourth, alongside West Ham — is remarkable when you consider that this was meant to be a transition season and how resoundingly they were beaten by Liverpool a week ago. But that defeat can be explained by a simple lack in relative quality, and it’s best that Mikel Arteta focus simply on vacuuming up points against the rest of the league, like his team did against Newcastle on Saturday.
It’s true that Newcastle had some valid recriminations over the officiating, but frankly, when you look at performance, it was no contest. And this is relevant because 10 out of 11 players in Mikel Arteta’s lineup and formation — the 4-2-3-1 with Martin Odegaard in the hole — are pretty much what he’s building for. (You can put Kieran Tierney in for Nuno Tavares if you like and, since they gave Granit Xhaka that big contract, you assume he’ll be in there too.) The one exception is up front, where Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang isn’t getting younger and Alexandre Lacazette becomes a free agent in June.
Finishing in the top four would obviously be an achievement, providing confidence and revenue, but the most important thing Arsenal can do now is to continue to grow, as per Arteta’s vision. The second-most important is finding a solution to lead the line post-Aubameyang. Could it be Gabriel Martinelli? Possibly. But you’d want to hedge your bets by bringing somebody in.
PSG come from behind, Messi bags a hat-trick of assists, Neymar gets hurt
Julien Laurens explains why Messi is reported to win his seventh Ballon d’Or, despite the hopes that someone else might have won this year.
Paris Saint-Germain continue to grind out the results in Ligue 1 where they have a healthy lead, but it feels as if nothing is ever straight-forward for Mauricio Pochettino’s crew. Against Saint-Etienne, they went a goal down before equalising at half-time and then scoring twice in the final 10 minutes. Lionel Messi set up all three goals (and didn’t do too much else), while Sergio Ramos finally made his debut and Angel Di Maria looked sharp throughout in the 4-2-3-1 formation.
The big talking point was Neymar’s injury, two minutes from time, when he appeared to roll his ankle and had to be stretchered off. Early indications suggest a six- to eight-week layoff. No injury is pleasant, but in the grand scheme of things, it’s the sort of absence PSG can weather, given their 12-point lead in Ligue 1 and the fact that they’re through in the Champions League. It gives Pochettino the opportunity to try different solutions in his absence, and the Brazil star may even come back fresher in the new year.
Milan lose to Sassuolo, though it’s less of a concern than it appears
OK, so that’s two straight defeats in Serie A for Milan, sandwiched around the win against Atletico Madrid in the Champions League. Obviously, that’s not good. But break down Milan’s 3-1 defeat against Sassuolo and perhaps the sky isn’t falling just yet.
Milan took the lead and were beaten by a wonder goal from Gianluca Scamacca, a fortuitous own goal, when Mike Maignan‘s parry hit Simon Kjaer, and a Domenico Berardi individual goal. The last one was enabled by some horrid defending from Alessio Romagnoli, who would get himself sent off shortly thereafter.
It’s obviously suboptimal, but there’s always a danger in reading too much into individuals, good or bad. This is a team game and even while not playing particularly well, Milan created chances, which is what they’re supposed to do. They paid a high price for Fikayo Tomori‘s absence (and, let’s face it, Romagnoli’s presence) and, credit where credit is due, Sassuolo were very impressive. But there’s no reason this should be seen as the beginning of a negative trend.
Griezmann and Lemar power Atletico to a big bounce-back win
Watching Atletico Madrid pick apart Cadiz, you can’t help but wonder why they can’t play like this all the time. Sure, the easy answer is that Cadiz aren’t good, and it’s a heck of a lot easier to beat them 4-1 than most opponents, but it goes beyond that. Atletico played with courage and personality and took the game to the opposition, with Thomas Lemar linking well with Antoine Griezmann in the creative role, and Marcos Llorente and Yannick Carrasco wreaking havoc down the flanks.
It’s a mindset, and Diego Simeone has talked about wanting to approach more games like this one, rather than the old “Cholista” style that won them success, but now feels obsolete (witness the home defeat to Milan in the Champions League). They certainly have the players to do it, too.