Chelsea and Graham Potter reality check against Brighton
Well, Europe’s big leagues gave us another big batch of talking points lot to enjoy, dissect and digest this weekend! From Chelsea‘s and Liverpool‘s chastening defeats — though for different reasons — to Napoli‘s latest big win and Barcelona‘s great escape against Valencia, and from Real Madrid‘s shocking 1-1 draw with lowly Girona to mighty Bayern Munich‘s 6-2 win that didn’t put them top of the Bundesliga, the weekend had it all.
Elsewhere, there was lots for Man United, Arsenal, Juventus and PSG fans to process.
– Stream on ESPN+: LaLiga, Bundesliga, MLS, more (U.S.)
It’s Monday, and Gab Marcotti reacts to the biggest moments in the world of football.
Chelsea reality check as Potter’s side thrashed at Brighton
Let’s remind ourselves that Graham Potter has been in charge for less than two months, that he has his own approach to the game, and while he’s closer to his predecessor, Thomas Tuchel, than, say, Sean Dyche or Diego Simeone in terms of his football philosophy, he’s not particularly close and it was never going to be a seamless transition. That he walked into Chelsea in September without the benefits of a preseason, without a technical director, without a recruitment guy, without a number of scouts — all positions the club is working to fill — and with a club engulfed in the sort of transition that happens when there’s an ownership change after nearly two decades. That the previous summer’s recruitment with an “interim sporting director” who is not a sporting director and comes from a wholly different sport.
Remind yourself of all that, and maybe Saturday’s 4-1 trouncing away to Brighton isn’t that surprising. Potter blamed unforced errors and sure, that played a part, but it doesn’t fully explain Chelsea’s wretched performance.
The fact of the matter is that since Potter took over, Chelsea have ranked below the league average in categories such as shots, expected goals and expected goals conceded. In other words, they haven’t been particularly good. And while there has been an ever-so-slight improvement in results (both Tuchel and Potter were in charge for six league games, with Tuchel gaining 10 points and Potter gaining 11), that’s also offset by the fact that, other than Manchester United (which finished in a draw), Chelsea haven’t faced any top sides.
So where are we? We have the textbook definition of a “team in transition,” hence why Chelsea seem to change formation and personnel almost every week.
Potter has explained that the concepts remain the same, but they are testing different set-ups. Fine. It’s what you would normally do in preseason and at the training ground, but he has the luxury of neither: He was appointed in September and Chelsea’s demented fixture list means he gets very few training sessions to actually work with the players, something he had at his previous gig since Brighton didn’t play in Europe.
Potter experimented further against Roberto De Zerbi’s press on Saturday, deploying Raheem Sterling and Christian Pulisic as wing-backs, with a “box” midfield of Ruben Loftus-Cheek and Mateo Kovacic behind Mason Mount and Conor Gallagher. We’d seen the previous two as wing-backs against Salzburg (with mixed results), we hadn’t seen this version of the ‘box” (not with this personnel anyway). It didn’t work in a first half that saw them go 3-0 down, though Potter said it worked better after the break, which may explain why he didn’t make any changes until after the hour mark.
I don’t have an issue with him trying things out and sure, the injuries, especially at the back (Reece James, Wesley Fofana and Kalidou Koulibaly were all sidelined) forced his hand a little, but right now it’s extremely difficult to assess what kind of progress Chelsea are making. (I’m saying that based on what we see in the games, as training may be another matter). And when progress on the pitch isn’t evident, all you have left are results, which haven’t been scintillating.
I still think Potter, while a gamble, was an intelligent gamble, but he needs time — and lots of it — to get to where he wants to be. And my concern would be the patience of an ownership group that is diffuse and whose moves thus far don’t exactly fill you with confidence. Having committed to Potter, you need to stick Potter even if it means, maybe, not returning to the Champions League next season.
As for Brighton, this was De Zerbi’s first win, and he was beaming like a little boy at the end. He’s not a carbon copy of Potter, but as Brighton pointed out when they appointed him, he was a very natural fit with what Potter tried to do and a better fit with the squad he inherited. Certainly more so than the grab-bag of talent that landed at Stamford Bridge last summer.
The penalty against Real Madrid was bogus, but Ancelotti is right: it’s not a good moment
Janusz Michallik wonders if the decision to award Girona a late penalty vs. Real Madrid was the right one.
Just a few days after losing their undefeated record against RB Leipzig, Real Madrid were held 1-1 at home by Girona, who had taken just three of 21 points in the previous seven games. The visitors equalised on a penalty converted by Christian Stuani for handball by Marcos Asensio that Real Madrid boss Carlo Ancelotti called “invented.” Referee Mario Melero Lopez was called to the pitch side monitor by VAR and frankly, I’m still not sure what they saw, because I couldn’t find an image that definitively shows the ball hitting Asensio’s arm (and we can then debate whether it was in a natural position).
– Ancelotti fumes at ‘invented’ penalty
– Highlights: Real Madrid 1-1 Girona (U.S. only)
– Reaction: VAR takes center stage as Madrid stumble
That said, the controversial call can’t be an excuse (bad calls are part of the game), nor can the absence of Karim Benzema (guess what? He’s 35 in December). Real Madrid should be flattening sides like Girona at home, and Ancelotti is right: this is a tough time for the club. The best thing to do is try to ensure they stay top come the break and spend the time off figuring out as much as they can. They may need some help in the transfer market this January.
Liverpool lose league match at Anfield for the first time since April 2017
Steve Nicol reacts to a shock home defeat for Liverpool against Leeds United.
The thing about Leeds United‘s 2-1 win at Anfield — the first home defeat in the Premier League in 5½ years — is that it wasn’t a smash-and-grab. The winner came late and it was prompted by defensive errors, but it wasn’t undeserved either. Liverpool were wanting defensively and in terms of intensity too.
– Klopp blames Liverpool struggles on injury problems
– Reaction: Leeds’ shock win eases pressure on Marsch, deepens woe for Klopp
– Alexander-Arnold: Something’s clearly not going right
Jurgen Klopp is running out of things to say, but he has no choice but to appear in the media and speak postgame. I suspect he’d rather say nothing and simply continue working to make the current shell of a Liverpool side look more like a Klopp team. Managers leave “fingerprints” on teams: right now, this looks nothing like a Klopp side, even the underachieving Klopp sides of the past. Fourth spot is already eight points away (though they do have a game in hand), and it’s only Halloween.
Formation, personnel, injuries, fatigue all play a part: there are plenty of fingers to be pointed, but finding the solution is more important.
Napoli bandwagon keeps on rolling as Osimhen bags hat trick
Julien Laurens reflects on Napoli’s dominant run of matches lately.
Victor Osimhen scored a hat-trick in the 4-0 thumping of Sassuolo to become the joint leading goalscorer in Serie A, despite the fact that he has started just over half of Napoli’s games this season. And yet, Napoli score more in games where he’s not involved (3.1 goals per game) than the ones in which he plays (2.8). So maybe they should bench him?
I’m kidding of course. Osimhen is in the form of his life, which is good news not just for Napoli, but for Nigeria fans too. And the fact that there is so much depth on the bench (Giovanni Simeone, Jack Raspadori, Mattia Politano) that they can continue to score buckets without him bodes well over a long season. The gap is five points and Napoli fans are notoriously superstitious. I’ll just leave at that …
Union Berlin stay top in their own inimitable way
On Sunday, it looked as if the fairytale was going to end. Union Berlin were a goal down against Borussia Moenchengladbach and Bayern had beaten up Mainz the day before to move ahead in the Bundesliga table. But then Kevin Behrens pulled one back and in the seventh minute of injury time (which was kind of odd, since the graphic on my TV suggested there was only a single minute to be played), Danilho Doekhi, of all people, chose this moment to grab an improbable headed winner.
The fairy tale will end at some point. It has to. This defies logic. But it didn’t happen on Sunday, and long may it continue.
De Gea comes up big to save three points for uninspired Man United
Erik Ten Hag made a big call in dropping Antony to the stands and Jadon Sancho to the bench against West Ham, as Cristiano Ronaldo was restored to the starting lineup in the Premier League. The resulting 1-0 win against West Ham raises more questions than answers because after a solid first half, things got rather jittery towards the end and David De Gea had to make some big saves off Kurt Zouma and Declan Rice to preserve the win.
It suggests several things. First, that United struggle to put in a 90-minute performance when they’re not at full-strength. (There were bright spots, like Casemiro, Lisandro Martinez and Marcus Rashford, who scored his 100th goal for the club, but that second half was a tough watch.)
– Rashford focusing on top four chase, not World Cup
– Ten Hag: Man United to assess De Gea’s contract during World Cup
– Reaction: Man United look like a contender again
Second, that Ronaldo, at this stage of his career, needs not just a certain type of service, but regular playing time to get the best out of him. Otherwise, you start to get diminishing returns. It’s further evidence that it may be best for all if he can find a new home come January.
Bayern Munich hitting stride in 6-2 win, but it’s about the back four
Bayern Munich are on one of those runs that mean we end up taking them for granted. Six wins in a row in all competitions and 25 goals scored says it all. No, they’re not top of the table — thank you, Union Berlin, for retaining first place with a last-gasp win over Borussia Monchengladbach — but it feels like only a matter of time.
Saturday’s 6-2 win over Mainz saw them display quality all over the pitch: the exception, maybe, was goalkeeper Sven Ulreich, deputising for Manuel Neuer, though he did save a penalty. Sadio Mane was devastating out wide, Serge Gnabry showed he was on his way back, Jamal Musiala keeps going from strength to strength and Eric-Maxim Choupo-Moting scored in his fifth consecutive game. But, for me, what could be most significant is that Julian Nagelsmann has found his defensive balance, with Noussair Mazraoui and Alphonso Davies shining out wide and the Dayot Upamecano-Mathijs De Ligt tandem continuing to build chemistry.
Arsenal needed a big win … and they got it
Janusz Michallik thinks Arsenal’s big score line win against Nottingham Forest is exactly what Mikel Arteta needs after the midweek loss to PSV.
Arsenal, of course, have been on fire this season, but there have been road bumps of late. A distinctly unimpressive draw with Southampton. Defeat to PSV Eindhoven on Thursday. And even before that, they hadn’t won by more than a single goal since early October.
That’s why the 5-0 hammering of Nottingham Forest is such a psychological lift. Sometimes, you need a day to remind yourself of what you’re capable of.
– Reaction: Arsenal on top, Nelson stars after Saka injury
The only downside was the injury to Bukayo Saka. His replacement, Reiss Nelson, did bag two goals, but don’t expect him to do that every week. City remain clear favourites in the eyes of most people and, sure, that make sense. Better players, better manager, more experience, Erling Haaland, whatever.
But the fact of the matter is that if Arsenal can navigate their way past Chelsea at Stamford Bridge without dropping points, there’s a very good chance they’ll be joint-top at worst at Christmas (their final game before the World Cup break is against Wolves). A year ago, at Christmas, they were 12 points back …
Barcelona evade Valencia trap with late Lewandowski winner
Valencia away was the classic “trap game” for Xavi and Barcelona. Rocked by Champions League elimination and financial uncertainty (Joan Laporta only has so many levers left) in midweek, they traveled to take on Valencia at Mestalla.
Already without some key players at the back, with 15 minutes to go it was still 0-0 and they had lost both central defenders (Jules Kounde and Eric Garcia) to injury. They’d had bad luck (hitting the woodwork) and good luck (Marcos Andre’s marginal handball in the build-up caused Samuel Lino‘s goal to be disallowed), but you could feel the fear setting in, before Robert Lewandowski‘s 93rd minute winner led to a huge collective sigh of relief.
– Highlights: Lewandowski lifts Barcelona to late win (U.S. only)
– Reaction: Barcelona move on from Champions League fiasco with big victory
I thought Barcelona played reasonably well throughout the game, and the xG (1.80 to 0.10) bore this out. Ansu Fati, getting the nod down the left, showed why he may be the most exciting teenager around, albeit missing a couple gilt-edged chances. Barca showed initiative and drive, albeit mixed in with a bit of chaos and insecurity. Still, Xavi got the reaction he wanted and they got the points too. And now they’re a single point off the league lead.
Defensive woes cost Milan as they fall to Torino and slip to third
We may have seen Milan’s worst performance of the season against Torino (worse still than the debacle against Chelsea). It finished 2-1 thanks to some craven defensive errors, but Torino could have scored more (and Junior Messias‘ goal probably should not have stood).
The old trick of making wholesale changes after the break to turn a game around didn’t quite work this time either, and Stefano Pioli has to take it on the chin. Are they running out of steam? Were they looking ahead to the crucial Champions League clash with Salzburg? Or was it just a wretched day at the office? I’d lean towards the latter, but Stefano Pioli is best placed to figure this out and take the appropriate steps. Whatever the case, a few more performances like this and top four becomes a question mark as well…
No, Man City are not dependent on Erling Haaland … chill out
Janusz Michallik reacts to Man City’s performance without Erling Haaland in their 1-0 win vs. Leicester.
I’ll admit it: I’ve become very accustomed to seeing Erling Haaland up front for Manchester City, so much so that it feels weird when, like Saturday away to Leicester City, he’s not there. And I can understand how, after needing a prodigious Kevin De Bruyne free-kick to beat Leicester, some might suggest that Pep Guardiola has become Haaland-dependent: Julian Alvarez simply plays the game differently.
– Guardiola: Haaland won’t be risked against Sevilla
But let’s not overreact either. City struggled because Leicester sat deep and hung on for dear life until 20 minutes from time, when Brendan Rodgers sent on Patson Daka and Kelechi Iheanacho and they pushed forward in search of the equalizer. Could City have done a better job defending in the last 20 minutes? Sure, though lest we forget, they didn’t concede. Could they have done a better job scoring form open play in the previous 70 minutes? Of course.
But that doesn’t make them Haaland-dependent: it just means they were subpar on the day. And the victory, incidentally, keeps them just two points behind Arsenal. Just remember, there’s a reason this team won four Premier League titles in the past five seasons… without Haaland.
Plenty of offense, not much defense as PSG beat Troyes
Julien Laurens reacts to reports suggesting that talks between Inter Miami and Lionel Messi are advancing.
Paris Saint-Germain‘s 4-3 win over Troyes was almost cartoonish in the way they dazzled at one end of the pitch (Neymar, Lionel Messi and Kylian Mbappe all got on the scoresheet) and stunk it up at the other. Troyes had three goals of their own and could have had more and they’re 12th in the table. With your grown-up hat on, you’re tempted to say: “If they defend like that in the Champions League, their journey ends at the round of 16.” With your fanboy hat on, you loved it.
– Transfer Talk: Inter Milan confident of signing Messi next summer?
Incidentally, Antony — who was savaged for his spin move against FC Sheriff in the Europa League — may want to take a lesson from Neymar. Not only was his showboat moment (the spin and no-look assist for Mbappe) legitimately difficult to pull off (unlike Antony’s, which anybody could do), it had a purpose to it, whereas Antony’s did not.
For once, luck’s on Dortmund’s side… and the referee admits his mistake!
Borussia Dortmund got a huge 2-1 win away to Eintracht Frankfurt and yes, there was a huge slice of luck about it. Edin Terzic’s crew were outplayed for long stretches, goalkeeper Gregor Kobel made some massive (and improbable) saves, and referee Sascha Stegemann admitted afterwards that Eintracht should have had a penalty when Karim Adeyemi felled Jesper Lindstrom.
Stegemann’s admission is a sign of transparency and being a grown-up: after all, people make mistakes. He said it looked one way to him on the pitch, but watching the replay he realized he should have called the penalty. So where was VAR? Well, Stegemann was in contact with them and he reckons that they didn’t feel it was a “clear and obvious error.” That’s not much consolation to Eintracht fans. And — I say this as a massive VAR proponent — it highlights one of the central issues with VAR.
The “clear and obvious error” standard is one thing, but if you suspect the referee would change his mind if he saw it again, should you not be compelled to let him take a look?
Youth powers Juventus to bounce-back win against Lecce
It’s something you never thought you’d read, right? Certainly not as long as Max Allegri — the man who likes to put players in “categories” like superstars, stars, squad players, second division players, youngsters, raw youngsters, etc. — is in charge. But yes, out of necessity Juventus started two 19-year-olds (Fabio Miretti and Matias Soule) away to Lecce and won the game with a wonder-goal from a 21-year-old (Nicolo’ Fagioli) on an assist from a different 19-year-old (Samuel Iling Junior).
I’m not sure any sort of light bulb has gone off in his head following this result, but the principle of “if you’re good enough, you’re old enough” ought to apply here, because many on this Juve team aren’t good enough or, at least, are no better than the guys Allegri has been starting.
– McKennie injury adds to USMNT’s World Cup concerns
Fagioli is a case in point. He’s an Under 21 international who played a big part in Cremonese‘s promotion from Serie B to Serie A last season. Before Saturday, he had played barely an hour this season. At other clubs, especially in other leagues, kids that age are given chances. At Juve, Allegri seemed to believe they were better off with Leandro Paredes(!) or moving Manuel Locatelli into the playmaking spot (and then lambasting him when he doesn’t perform like a deep-lying playmaker).
Hopefully Allegri learned a thing or two and those lessons will stick.
Tottenham’s fightback bodes well: Now it’s time for some consistency
Julien Laurens and Craig Burley preview the Champions League matchup between Tottenham and Marseille.
Tottenham went into Sunday’s trip to Bournemouth under a cloud. Back-to-back defeats in the Premier League and that home draw with Sporting (which did feature a late, disallowed Harry Kane winner, but also worrying long sterile spells) put both their top four status and their Champions League survival at risk. We’ll see how the latter works out in midweek away to Marseille, but in the former they remain in third place thanks to an improbable comeback from two goals down to win 3-2.
It was the sort of game Antonio Conte must have hated. Tottenham were dull in the first half, but found themselves 2-0 down just after the break thanks to two defensive blunders. Conte sent on the cavalry in the form of Rodrigo Bentancur, Eric Dier, Ivan Perisic and Lucas Moura (presumably rested ahead of Marseille) and they turned it around, capitalising with Bentancur’s injury-time winner.
The question has to be why they can’t do it for 90 minutes. It’s not just a question of the substitutes having more quality, it’s also one of mindset. If you’re going to play like this — keep it tight at the back, risk little, and rely on counters, set-pieces and sporadic flurries to get you goals — you have to be water-tight defensively. Spurs simply aren’t, so why not attack like they did after the break?
That may well be the path to the consistency Conte craves so much, at least against most teams.
Atletico are beaten in a distinctly un-Atletico way
You always wondered how Atletico Madrid were going to react to their elimination from the Champions League. When they went a goal down inside of 30 seconds away to Celta and Alvaro Morata had to come off injured 10 minutes later, it looked bleak. And it got bleaker still when they went 2-0 down with nine minutes to go. But then Joao Felix — the oft-criticised (often by me) Joao Feliz — who had come on at the hour mark, got them back into it. First by forcing an own goal with a spectacular overhead kick and then by unleashing a long-range rocket to make it 2-2 in the 89th minute.
Old Atleti might have lived to fight another day, figuring a point on the road wasn’t so bad, or tried to nick something on the counter or on the set-piece. This Atleti, however, streamed forward, getting caught on the break and conceding the goal that gave Cadiz the win in the ninth minute of injury time when Ruben Sobrino deflected in Ivan Alejo‘s goal with his belly. When it rains, it pours.
So where does Diego Simeone go from here? Well, there’s a Europa League to play for and, maybe, this was a turning point for Joao Felix (or maybe the umpteenth false dawn). But most of all, there’s a whole lot of thinking and reflecting to do.
Inter Milan make it four wins in a row, but ‘ultras’ shenanigans leave sour taste
Inter made quick work of Sampdoria, beating them 3-0 and looking impressive in all areas. With Nicolo’ Barella playing some of the best football in his career (and scoring spectacular goals), qualification attained to the knockout round in the Champions League and Romelu Lukaku on his way back to full fitness, they’re in a good place right now ahead of next weekend’s huge game against Juventus.
But the sour taste came at half-time, when Inter’s ultras ordered that their section of the ground be evacuated as a sign of respect after the death of a former ultras leader, Vittorio Boiocchi, who was 69, was shot dead an hour or so before kickoff in an incident authorities say was unrelated to football. (He had a string of criminal convictions and had spent a total of 16 years in prison for various crimes.)
Ultras, like “civilian” supporters, ought to be free to mourn whoever they like whichever way they like as long as it does not impinge in the rights of others. And on this occasion, it did. According to reports, they forced everyone who was in their section, to leave the ground, many of them people who had no idea who Boiocchi was. And, to compound matters, police and steward did not re-seat them elsewhere at the San Siro.
An investigation has been opened. Maybe Inter should consider issuing a few bans, just so some people can see what it feels like to be told you can’t watch and cheer on the team you support (and for whose game you bought a ticket).