After another action-packed weekend in soccer, Gab Marcotti reflects on the big talking points in his latest edition of Monday Musings.
Jump to: A reckoning for Man United | Barca rest vs. Celta Vigo | LFC won’t give up | Dortmund blow the league | PSG keep spiralling | Sarri a success | Atalanta’s dream continues | Bayern close in on title | Inter are a mess | Real begin prep for next season | Give Pochettino some credit | Quagliarella better with age | Bas Dost Watch
A reckoning ahead for Man United?
It was predictable that there would be apocalyptic reactions to Manchester United’s 1-1 draw with Huddersfield on Sunday. When you have tons at stake and you muddle through a game, dropping points to a team that were relegated a month ago and lost 22 of their previous 24 matches, something is seriously wrong.
The two dropped points mean United can’t qualify for next season’s Champions League and that, reportedly, means across-the-board 25 percent pay cuts for most of the squad. Incidentally, while Ed Woodward has taken a ton of abuse for the way he has run the club, he deserves credit for this wage-reduction clause. Not because it somehow incentivizes the players to do better — obviously, that didn’t work — but because it protects the club against lost Champions League revenue, which could be anywhere between £50-100 million. The automatic reduction should save United around £50m, and that buffer gives you further latitude in the way you operate this summer.
This plays into the narrative whereby United’s players simply aren’t good enough to compete and will be gone, a line Ole Gunnar Solskjaer himself took after the match when he said, “There’s a chance you’ve seen the last of [some] players.”
The problem with that logic is that this is the same group of players that finished second last season under Jose Mourinho, which means either Mourinho was some kind of overachieving genius or dumping everything on the playing squad is a bit unfair. Not to mention the fact that it clashes with the other bit of conventional wisdom, the one whereby Mourinho’s unsmiling negativity ruined an otherwise gifted squad, whereas Solskjaer’s positivity and appreciation for the club’s heritage freed them up and led them to great things, namely 10 wins and a draw in his first 11 games in charge.
Of course, that theory is now being questioned too given that Solskjaer has won just two of his last 11 games and, in fact, hasn’t played well since the 2-0 defeat at Arsenal two months ago. For those keeping track at home, Solskjaer’s record through 28 games — even with the boost of his stellar start — is 16 wins, four draws and eight defeats. That’s only somewhat better than Mourinho’s record through his last 28 games in charge: 11 wins, eight draws, nine defeats.
United, for reasons only they understand, gave Solskjaer a deal through 2022 in April, rather than waiting for the end of the campaign and answering those most basic of questions. Are we moving in the right direction? Is he giving us an identity? Do we have faith he can go to the next level?
Just why they were in such a rush to commit remains a great mystery. Solskjaer has a ton of mitigating factors that he can cite, but what you’re left with is a side that changes regularly in terms of personnel and formation, a place where things seem to be done via trial and error, whether it’s Juan Mata in the hole or the three-man defence.
Maybe Solskjaer will turn it around next year. Maybe the commentariat, in venting their venom on the players, is simply overreacting to a game in which Paul Pogba hit the woodwork twice. Maybe this “burn-it-all-down” attitude is simply a bunch of knees jerking in unison. But you get the increasing impression that Solskjaer might have simply been a short-term, crowd-pleasing gamble. And when folks are done blaming the players, Woodward, Mourinho’s legacy, the Glazers and whoever else, he will be held to account.
Barca phone it in ahead of trip to Anfield
When Jasper Cillessen is your captain and you include, at best, two guys who have a shot at playing in the return leg of the Champions League at Anfield this week, you know it’s not going to be the real thing. Thus a Barcelona side stuffed with youngsters (Carles Alena, Moussa Wague, Jean-Clair Todibo, Riqui Puig) and second-stringers (Malcom, Thomas Vermaelen and, of course, Kevin Prince Boateng) fell 2-0 away to Celta Vigo.
You’d imagine it’s the sort of performance that won’t be appreciated in Valladolid or Girona — clubs who thought they were competing with Celta to avoid the drop — but the reality is that Barcelona earned the right to do this by winning the title with weeks to spare. More of a concern is that one of the two potential starters who was on the pitch, Ousmane Dembele, went down after six minutes. Barcelona say it’s a hamstring injury, which is a greater blow than you might think: Dembele is the one guy to guarantee flat-out pace and directness in their front three.
Liverpool should be proud no matter how season ends
Nevermind the fact that the winner came from a free kick that should never have been given (yes, Fabinho won it through guile, trickery and good old-fashioned throw-yourself-to-the-ground-and-fool-the-ref). Liverpool’s resilience in battling to a 3-2 win over Newcastle to keep the title race alive into the last day of the season is something to behold.
That they are doing this while, in parallel, finding themselves within 90 minutes of a European Cup final is all the more remarkable. It boggles the mind that they may well finish with the third-highest points total in Premier League history and end the campaign empty-handed.
Here’s hoping that if this does come to pass, the “show us your medals” brigade will learn a lesson and shut up. You don’t evaluate a team’s work — nor a manager’s work — just by whether or not they won a title. This held true for Maurizio Sarri at Napoli last season, and it holds true for Klopp this year.
But yeah, I’m not holding my breath on that one…
Dortmund are finished in title race
Borussia Dortmund played their “get out of jail free” card last week when, after frittering away a lead and getting beaten 4-2 at home by Schalke, Bayern contrived to draw with Nurnberg to keep the gap between them at the top of the Bundesliga to just two points.
This week, their profligacy was punished. With Marco Reus suspended, they found themselves 2-0 up at half-time away to Werder Bremen only to concede twice in the last 20 minutes through two individual errors, first from Roman Burki, then Manuel Akanji. It’s pretty much “Game Over” now.
That said, we need to give a shout-out to the man who notched the equalizer for Bremen: Claudio Pizarro. The man turns 41 in October and is his club’s fifth-leading goal scorer. He’s a testament to professionalism and longevity.
PSG continue to spiral as season winds down
Paris Saint-Germain’s 1-1 home draw with Nice means they’ve now won just one of their last seven games in all competitions. The last time that happened was 2010-11, before the Qatari takeover. It would have been a different story if Edinson Cavani had not seen his penalty saved, but the fact remains: This is a horrendous end to the season, and the fact that they have won Ligue 1 by a huge margin does little to mitigate this.
Thomas Tuchel and sporting director Antero Henrique have come under heavy criticism, though both are likely to be back (Tuchel’s contract has been renewed already) despite the disappointment of a campaign that’s seen PSG win just one title. There were even (frankly implausible) rumours that the Qatari owners were ready to divest. And, of course, further Financial Fair Play restrictions could be around the corner.
Amid all the woe and chaos, there remain some incontrovertible facts. Even if Qatar does pull out (and they strenuously deny they will), they will leave behind a global brand, a new training ground and an expanded Parc des Princes, all of it located in one of the world’s great cities. The ingredients for long-term success will still be there, all the more so if they stay. What they likely need most is some clear-thinking in their team-building and a succession plan if/when the likes of Cavani, Neymar and/or Kylian Mbappe move on.
Sarri’s been a success at Chelsea
Chelsea undoubtedly took advantage of late-season collapses from Manchester Untied, Tottenham and Arsenal to sneak into the Champions League. But if they better Tottenham’s result on the last day of the season, they’ll finish third, while reaching a League Cup final (and losing it on penalty kicks) and at least a Europa League semifinal. And, lest we forget, Chelsea have finished higher than third just twice since 2011.
Sarri’s brand of football isn’t for everyone, and, yes, they are miles behind Manchester City and Liverpool (but, hey, go look where Pep Guardiola and Jurgen Klopp finished in their first seasons in charge). But he hit his targets despite taking over late, despite uncertainty over the future of Eden Hazard and Callum Hudson-Odoi at the club, despite radically overhauling the playing style and despite getting N’Golo Kante to learn a new role: a cardinal sin in the eyes of the punditocracy.
In other words, he delivered on his brief.
Atalanta’s dream season continues
For most of the 2018-19 season, we were waiting for the wheels to come off Atalanta’s bandwagon. Instead, they went and won away to Lazio this weekend, 3-1, leaping to fourth in the Serie A table just one point behind Inter.
What sets them apart is the way they’re overachieving: It’s not down to staunch defending, but all-out attack. Nobody in Serie A has been more prolific this season and nobody in any of Europe’s Big Five leagues has scored more on the road. That front three of Alejandro “Papu” Gomez, Duvan Zapata and the magnificent Josip Ilicic has given opponents fits, but this is a front-foot-forward team up and down the side.
It’s a credit to the coach, Gian Piero Gasperini, a guy who had his big shot in the past (at Inter) but wasn’t able to seize the opportunity. Nearly eight years later, he may well be headed back to the Champions League, except it looks like it may just be with Atalanta.
Bayern edge toward another title
Bayern Munich took a giant step toward the Bundesliga crown — their seventh in a row — by beating up nearly relegated Hannover, 3-1. Coupled with Borussia Dortmund’s draw in Bremen, it leaves them four points clear with two games to go. They could wrap up the title next Saturday in Leipzig.
In some ways, it was a reflection of their season. Nothing spectacular and even ponderous at times, yet enough to bend the opposition to their will. The fact that Niko Kovac is on the verge of delivering the Double is quite extraordinary when you consider where this team was back in December.
It’s pretty evident that this team needs something new in the final third. With Franck Ribery and Arjen Robben leaving — and possibly James Rodriguez too — they will have plenty of wiggle room in the wage bill to add what they need.
Inter are a mess
Inter’s penchant for self-destruction continued with a 0-0 draw away to Udinese. It was another bland, unimaginative performance that saw coach Luciano Spalletti renew his schtick postgame: He felt the tactical set-up was spot on, but he was disappointed in Keita Balde Diao and Antonio Candreva when they came on late. He felt his wide men should have beaten his opponents, he felt more chances should have been created in the final third and, when asked how you improve performances in the final third, he said, “You improve the players in the final third.”
Okeydoke. It’s the players’ fault, not the manager’s. Roger that.
You know where this is heading. If they finish third, Spalletti will point to the “improvement” over last season when they grabbed fourth place on the final day of the season. If they finish fourth, he’ll say it’s an achievement because the Champions League was so taxing. If they finish fifth, it will be the fault of the Champions League for exhausting his squad.
Inter will be Inter. (Still, the lion tattoo is kinda cool…)
Zidane, Real begin prepping for next season
With nothing left at stake in terms of results, you can almost consider Real Madrid’s final games of the campaign as a sort of permanent audition for next season. That’s why there is less to read into the results than there is in the performances and the choices Zinedine Zidane makes.
Gareth Bale wasn’t even on the bench for the 3-2 win over Villarreal, and when asked about it, Zizou said, “Well, somebody needs to sit out.” It may be that Zidane knows everything there is to know about the Welshman, so there is no point in giving him playing time. Or it may be that this is part of the attempt to give him a taste of what next season may bring, perhaps in an effort to get him to move elsewhere.
Give Pochettino some credit despite defeat
Barring an improbable collapse on the last day of the season — an Arsenal win, a Spurs defeat at home to Everton and an eight-goal swing in goal difference — Tottenham will also qualify for the Champions League.
It will no doubt be overshadowed by their poor end-of-season form (five defeats in their last six, including defeat at Bournemouth Saturday), but when you consider the rash of injuries, the lack of signings in the summer, a wage bill dwarfed by the other top-six clubs and their run to the Champions League semifinal — and no, it ain’t over yet — anybody still questioning Mauricio Pochettino’s credentials because he hasn’t “won anything” is either saying it in bad faith or is simply ignorant.
He’s not perfect — no manager is — but to hold it together for this long and still deliver a top-four finish is quite simply remarkable.
Quagliarella gets better with age
Fabio Quagliarella bagged two goals in Sampdoria’s 3-3 draw away to Parma, extending his lead at the top of the Serie A scorers’ table. He has 25; Duvan Zapata has 22 and Cristiano Ronaldo and Krzysztof Piatek are on 21. It’s far and away the most prolific season of his career, and the fact that he had it at age 36 is downright weird. (Or maybe not: He did have the benefit of eight penalty kicks, and last season was the second-most-prolific to date.)
It also means that, barring an unlikely goal flurry in the final three games — I said “unlikely,” not “impossible,” as you don’t want to put anything past him — Ronaldo won’t achieve the distinction of winning the scoring title in three separate leagues. Not this year, anyway…
Bas Dost scored late on for Sporting in their 8-1 away win at Belenenses. Having missed 10 weeks of the season, he nevertheless has 15 goals in 20 league appearances. Overall, he has 22 goals in 32 appearances across all competitions.
This concludes the latest installment of #BasDostWatch.