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Arsenal, Arteta need to focus on results, not stats; Bayern get lucky; Barca in limbo; Messi ties Pele

In the final weekend before Christmas, there was a lot happening in the soccer world. Bayern Munich left it late to defeat their latest rival for the Bundesliga title, Bayer Leverkusen. Barcelona dropped more points, but Lionel Messi got even closer to yet another record. There were big wins for Real Madrid, Manchester United, Leicester and Milan, Liverpool putting up seven goals away from home, a controversy involving Marcus Thuram in Gladbach’s latest stumble, and business as usual for Atletico Madrid.

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It’s Monday, and Gab Marcotti reacts to the biggest moments in the world of football from the past week.

Jump to: Bayern’s lucky win | Arteta’s stats | Barca in limbo | Messi ties Pele | Man United’s big victory | Inter’s title challenge | How Leicester beat Spurs | Milan stay hot | Real can’t relax | Atletico back to winning | Liverpool score seven | Don’t worry about Leipzig | Will PSG rue Lille draw? | Thuram should know better | Juve show Pirlo’s vision | Man City win ugly

Arteta should focus on Arsenal’s squad, not statistics

Mikel Arteta was 26 years old and playing for Everton when, just across town, Rafa Benitez unleashed his famous “FACTS” news conference, the one where he meticulously fired back at Sir Alex Ferguson and his “mind games.” It seemed like a good idea at the time, fighting fire with fire, but it resulted in Benitez being ridiculed as insecure by the media and — maybe coincidentally, maybe not — losing their top spot in the league.

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Maybe Arteta missed all that, or maybe he genuinely thought that things would be different if he rattled off statistics and probability models to underscore how Arsenal have played better than their results and have, basically, been unlucky. I don’t know, but either way, somebody should have advised him that it was a bad idea.

– Ogden: Arsenal’s squad is the problem, not Arteta
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– Carabao Cup preview: Can Arsenal upset Man City?

It’s not that Arteta is necessarily wrong. Based on what we saw on the pitch, maybe it is true that Burnley only had a 3% chance of beating Arsenal, and that the Gunners were desperately unlucky to lose. But when you cite statistics from a probability model, you’ll invite ridicule.

Analytics and statistics have made big inroads in football, but to the punditocracy and to most fans, it’s still gibberish and making excuses. (And I say this as somebody who often cites Expected Goals and believes in modeling.) It’s a lose-lose. And when, on top of that, you don’t cite whose model you’re using and how it’s derived, you come across even worse.

Following the 2-1 defeat to Everton, they have taken two out of the last 21 points. Were they missing some important players, Gabriel and Xhaka through suspension, Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang and Thomas Partey through injury? Of course they were. (And, if you want to go there, Everton were missing James Rodriguez, Andre Gomes, Allan and Lucas Digne.) Did they create chances? Yes. (Though, since we’re talking stats, the only one with an xG greater than 0.10 was Nicolas Pepe‘s penalty and that was more a function of Tom Davies‘ brain cramp than anything else, whereas Everton had three.)

Arsenal’s performance at Goodison was nothing to write home about, much like most of their recent outings. Arteta no doubt recognises this, because he rang the changes. He gave the captain’s armband to Rob Holding, he dropped Hector Bellerin (and played Ainsley Maitland-Niles in that position, rather than Cedric Soares) and he picked Eddie Nketiah over Alexandre Lacazette. If he was happy, he would have kept the status quo.

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Arteta is in a tough spot and, as I’ve written before, the way this squad has been put together (and the way money has been spent) does him no favors. The best thing to do is figure out how this team can play their way out of the current funk, rather than citing probability and statistics to an audience that only looks at results.

Bayern get lucky vs. Leverkusen

A simple, superficial reading of Bayern’s 2-1 victory in Saturday’s top-of-the-table clash with Bayer Leverkusen is that the winning mentality made all the difference. They’re confident, they have a sense of manifest destiny and they know they’ll find a way to win.

I’m not comfortable with these sort of metaphysical explanations, but it certainly feels that way. How else to explain the fact that this team can go down a goal early, lose arguably their most creative attacking threat (Kingsley Coman) after half an hour, generally be second to every ball and create zero chances for most of the first half and still win?

The Jonathan Tah/Lukas Hradecky early Christmas gift levelled things up and, at the same time, changed Leverkusen’s outlook. It reminded you of the “Pin Pals” episode of The Simpsons when Ned Flanders looks up to the skies and says “God, it’s me, Ned…” and the final, teetering pin falls over. From that moment onwards, Leverkusen became more timid, almost as if they were content with the draw or, at least, were happy to cede the initiative and play on the counter. And Bayern came out of the gate firing. Untidily, perhaps, with a bit of Tony Montana spraying lead everywhere, but with real intent.

The goal came deep in injury time and, as ever, was partly down to Leverkusen’s carelessness as Joshua Kimmich (who came on halfway through the second half after his long injury layoff) punished Tah and set up Robert Lewandowski‘s winner.

Was it deserved? Bayern weren’t great, but they were better than they had been in recent outings. And while both goals were down to craven errors by the opposition, they showed guts and intent after the break. Still, they have plenty of issues to resolve to get back to where they were a year ago.

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Coach Hansi Flick isn’t afraid to make the big calls. Sending out Niklas Sule at right-back against Moussa Diaby worked out, but it’s evidently not a long-term solution. I guess it shows how little faith he has in Benjamin Pavard (relegated to the bench) and Bouna Sarr. But the most talked about one will, no doubt, be his decision to yank Leroy Sane — who had come on for the injured Coman — after 36 minutes on the pitch.

Subbing off a sub who isn’t injured is already seen as humiliating in football circles. Subbing him off for a 17-year-old kid (Jamal Musiala) who had started just two Bundesliga games this season only makes it worse, especially when you’re the club’s second most expensive signing ever who arrived after a long and public pursuit.

Predictably, Sane didn’t take it well. He went into the dressing room and stayed there until the club reminded him to be a good sport and sit in the stands. Just as predictably, the club made it clear that it was a carrot and stick approach, with Karl-Heinz Rummenigge saying he was confident they would get the best out of him eventually.

Maybe. And while the Bayern-friendly local media laps it up, I’m not so certain. Sane turns 25 next month — he’s not a kid. He has been severely hampered by injuries in his career, but equally, he’s been widely inconsistent even when fit. He was dropped by Guardiola on multiple occasions at Man City, and Jogi Loew famously dropped him from Germany’s 2018 World Cup squad. He has ups and downs and, you presume, Bayern knew this.

On a good day, Sane is unplayable. On a not-so-good day, you get what he served up on Saturday. Does the stick approach — after feeding him more carrots than Bugs Bunny — make sense at this stage? Time will tell. You hope that — and it wouldn’t be the first time that Bayern have done this — there’s a plan behind it and not just an inability to admit that sometimes they get things wrong.

Barcelona remain stuck in limbo

Barcelona’s 2-2 draw against Valencia highlighted a lot of what we already know about this team right now, albeit with a new wrinkle. Ronald Koeman didn’t replace the unavailable Frenkie De Jong with a central midfielder like Miralem Pjanic, but abandoned any pretence of 4-2-3-1 and switched to 4-1-4-1, letting Pedri, Philippe Coutinho and Lionel Messi loose through the middle. With Antoine Griezmann wandering inside — as he is wont to do — it was another version of what my colleague Sid Lowe describes as the 4-1-splodge.

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– Messi ‘motivated’ to help Barca after ‘bad’ summer

Valencia conceded plenty of possession and, as you expect, bar the occasional Messi moments (once again he took a ton of shots), it was tough to unclog the blockage. Still, Jordi Alba did get forward down the left and, inevitably, that’s where Barca attacked when they needed space.

If your glass is half-empty, you’ll note that it’s a draw against a mid-table side that have won just once since September — though, to be fair, that victory did come against Real Madrid — and that Messi’s goal came after a penalty (which he missed) that should likely never have been awarded. If your glass is half-full, you’ll notice that Barca still showed plenty of spirit throughout and on the balance of chances, possibly deserved a bit more. Not least because both Valencia goals were the result of craven defensive errors: Mouctar Diakhaby was left unmarked for the first, and Oscar Mingueza showed his limits on the second.

That’s Barca right now: a team in limbo. In those circumstances, you sometimes get guys going through the motions. That’s not happening, which is something for Koeman to hang on to. Like many of these guys, he knows it’s by no means certain that he’ll be here next year, so he’s making the best of what he has. Sometimes it’s good enough. Often it’s not.

A word on Messi, Pele and goals

Messi equalled Pele’s goal-scoring record with a single club in that 2-2 draw, notching his 643rd for Barcelona. As records go, it’s entirely imperfect. Some put Pele’s goals with Santos at 642, others at 644. Others still might highlight the folly of statistically comparing two legends from such disparate eras, once of whom scored the bulk of his goals in the Campeonato Paulista half a century before the other.

– Pele congratulates Messi after tying single-club record

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Ideally, we’d just recognise the two as some of the greatest goal scorers of all time who remained loyal to their clubs for many years and just move on. But hey, career goal-scoring records generate content and are easily digestible. Plus it’s nice to hear a classy message for Messi from Pele who, no doubt, is preparing another one for when Cristiano Ronaldo breaks his overall scoring record. (Which is perhaps just as iffy, but, like we said, whatever floats your boat …)

However many goals these guys have scored, it’s a lot.

Solskjaer must build on Man United’s big win

Manchester United’s 6-2 win over Leeds United means that if they win their game in hand, they’ll be second in the table, two points behind Liverpool. That’s big. That matters even though, in this compressed, topsy-turvy Premier League second, it’s also true that if they lose their game in hand (and Aston Villa, Chelsea and Manchester City win theirs) they’ll be in sixth place.

This is no time for premature celebration, but it doesn’t mean you go too far in the other direction either. This game could have just as easily ended 10-8 or 4-5 or whatever. That’s what happens when you play against Marcelo Bielsa and his high risk/high reward brand of fantasyland football. If Leeds are just a little off, then a team that counters well and knows how to use their quality (and United do both) will rip them to shreds.

– Dawson: Are Man United for real?
– Carabao Cup preview: Man United’s tough Everton trip

So while you don’t want to read too much into the result, there are positives. Scott McTominay showed another dimension to his game that, perhaps, can be exploited more often. Marcus Rashford‘s confidence will only grow. The back four, despite the chances conceded, held up reasonably well against an awkward opponent.

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The challenge for Ole Gunnar Solskjaer is to build on those positives, as he knows all too well he only gets to face Leeds twice a year.

Is this how Inter are going to win Serie A?

Inter may not have been lighting it up of late, but their 2-1 win over Spezia means they’ve taken 19 of a possible 21 points in their last seven outings. (The only game they didn’t win was against Shakhtar Donetsk: it cost them a place in the Champions League knockout rounds, but it also was one they could easily have won.)

What’s pretty evident is that, after trying to press high and outwork the opposition earlier in the year, Antonio Conte has reverted to more of a counterpunching style. They defend deeper, they make sure the wingbacks (like Achraf Hakimi, who scored a great goal) and forwards have space in which to run, and they’ve toned down the aggression.

It’s not an approach that will necessarily yield dividends in Europe, but Conte clearly thinks it can deliver a title over a long haul like a league campaign.

Leicester’s deserved victory at Tottenham

We fretted about what might happen when two exceptional counterattacking sides like Tottenham and Leicester faced each other. Was it gonna be a stalemate? Would one manage to find another dimension and show they could create in possession too?

The answer was “yes” and it was Leicester.

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– Olley: Spurs, Mourinho beginning to show some cracks
– Carabao Cup preview: Spurs should have enough to beat Stoke

Buoyed by magnificent performances from Wilfred Ndidi and James Maddison, they overwhelmed Spurs’ hitherto impressive midfield and, on the balance of play, fully deserved the three points. Giovani Lo Celso and Tanguy Ndombele — out there, you presume, to add some quality and creativity against a team that defends well — both had off-days, as did Moussa Sissoko and Pierre-Emile Hojbjerg.

Leicester’s lead via a penalty was a gift from Santa Aurier, but — a goal down and having to attack — Spurs really struggled and that should be Jose Mourinho’s takeaway. That’s what he needs to get right if they’re going to be legitimate title contenders. We know he can do the other thing — play very well without the ball — but it’s when the opponent lets you have it that Spurs need to step it up.

Milan stay hot in Italy

Rafael Leao scored the quickest goal in Serie A history as Milan beat Sassuolo 2-1 to remain top of Serie A. And yes, they did it without one of the defensive leaders (Simon Kjaer), without their best midfielder (Ismael Bennacer) and without their first and second-choice central strikers (Zlatan Ibrahimovic and Ante Rebic).

Their starting lineup had an average age of 22 and they played with speed, confidence and precision — all the qualities that Stefano Pioli promised and is delivering. The old cliche about needing established superstars and experience to win in Serie A seems decidedly obsolete and when Ibrahimovic returns, he’ll join a team brimming with confidence. The high press might become a little less intense — yeah, he’s the eternal Norse God and all that, but he’s also 39 — but the luxury of letting him sit in the box and simply convert the chances created rather than roaming the pitch trying to do everything is going to make Milan better.

Another lesson for Real Madrid

Less than 20 minutes into Real Madrid’s trip to Eibar, Zinedine Zidane’s crew were 2-0 up and Karim Benzema had just missed a sitter. It looked like a mauling in the making. Instead, Real Madrid suffered through a bumpy second half that saw them concede a world-class goal to Kike Garcia and nearly give up a penalty when the ball caromed off Sergio Ramos‘s elbow. (It was classic “seen-them-given” type stuff and on a different day with a different VAR, who knows?)

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Lucas Vazquez scored in garbage time to make it 3-1, but it ought to serve as a reminder: Real Madrid simply aren’t good enough right now to only play in spurts and still dominate games. The fits Eibar’s press gave them after the break are a testament to this.

Atletico rally behind Suarez, Costa

There was no derby hangover for Atletico Madrid, or for Luis Suarez. Just a bump in the road. You get smacked in the teeth, knocked on your backside and get right back up. And win.

Suarez bagged two goals in the 3-1 win over Elche, his first in roughly six weeks. Both were the sort he scored plenty of in recent years, ghosting away from defenders and finding the right timing in the penalty area — evidence that, if you keep him supplied and keep players around him, he will continue to convert, even at 33 years old.

Atleti’s “other” center-forward also scored after nearly a month out, and that may be significant too (although it was never a penalty and what VAR was thinking will likely forever remain a mystery). Diego Costa can probably best replicate what Suarez does not in terms of style, but in terms of presence in the box. Atleti’s lead is hefty, but to defend it over a long season, they can’t just rely on roadrunners like Angel Correa or Joao Felix. It’s a heck of a lot easier with a real battle-scarred center-forward, like Suarez or his brawny understudy, Diego Costa.

Any negatives to Liverpool’s 7-0 win?

By half-time, Liverpool were 3-0 up and had wiped away any suggestions that Crystal Palace’s weapons — the threat of Jeffrey Schlupp, Eberechi Eze and Wilfried Zaha on the counter, the karma of Roy Hodgson against his old club — were going to derail them. And having taken the lead, they were ruthless, hammering in seven goals, including two from Roberto Firmino who, hopefully, has shed the “non-scoring center-forward” tag once and for all.

– Hamilton: Liverpool ruthless at top of table

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They did this with the usual cast of absentees and with Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain playing his first 16 minutes of the season off the bench after a long injury layoff: he’s another valuable option in midfield. The only (nitpicky) question mark might be why, at 4-0 up early in the second half, Jurgen Klopp brought on guys like Curtis Jones and Mohamed Salah rather than give minutes to those who rarely play, like Rhys Williams or Divock Origi. But hey, he won 7-0 and is top of the table at Christmas. Who am I to argue with that?

Leipzig slip up, but no need to worry

Leipzig dropped points at home against Cologne this weekend despite dominating for long stretches as we’ve become accustomed to them doing. Creating chances wasn’t the problem; finishing them was the issue, and it’s not the first time we’ve seen this from them.

That said, you worry when you’re not creating more than when you’re not finishing. And when you consider that Julian Nagelsmann was missing half a dozen players (including three nailed-on starters like Konrad Laimer, Lukas Klostermann and Christopher Nkunku) and had guys like Marcel Sabitzer and Dayot Upamecano at less than 100 percent, it’s evident that, more than most, Leipzig can weather absentees. That could be crucial down the stretch.

Will PSG regret dropping points against rivals?

With Neymar injured and Kylian Mbappe on the bench, it was always going to be a different Paris Saint-Germain side vs. Lille in their top-of-the-table Ligue 1 clash on Sunday. And Lille, by the way, have their own problems with owner Gerard Lopez reportedly on the brink of being forced to sell the club.

It finished 0-0, with PSG creating little and Lille trying to hit on the break, the most dangerous one being broken up by a tackle of the season contender from Presnel Kimpembe.

It’s very tight at the top and PSG sit third, a point behind Lyon and Lille. Marseille, with two games in hand, could yet pass PSG too. It’s the price you pay for not winning your head-to-heads: they lost to Marseille and Lyon and have now dropped two points against Lille.

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Thuram sent off as Gladbach’s tough run continues

Memo to Borussia Monchengladbach’s superstar forward, Marcus Thuram. You have an illustrious pedigree and a very bright future. You should know not to spit in an opponent’s face even after a heavy foul, especially when there’s VAR and cameras all about. You screwed up and may have cost your team the game. It happens. Apologize, learn and move on. (Oh, and while we’re at it, let’s not overlook the recipient, Stefan Posch: yeah, it’s gross and distressing when you’re spat on, but it still doesn’t mean you need to throw yourself to the ground.)

Down to 10 men after Thuram’s red card, Gladbach fell 2-1 to Hoffenheim. It’s not a great moment for Marco Rose’s crew: since Halloween, the only Bundesliga side they’ve beaten is Schalke. (And let’s face it, most teams beat Schalke…)

Juventus show best example yet of Pirlo’s tactics

Juventus rolled over Parma 4-0, but more than the scoreline, what has to be encouraging is that we saw more of Andrea Pirlo’s vision made real than in any other game. They committed men forward, they bossed the midfield (thanks to a sterling performance from Rodrigo Bentancur in the playmaker role and Weston McKennie, who is quickly becoming untouchable for his tactical nous in possession) and they created plenty of chances.

Up front, Cristiano Ronaldo bagged two goals, one of them a patented hang-time header where he posterizes the poor defender. The ability to have two legitimate aerial goal threats — and good crossers like Juan Cuadrado, Dejan Kulusevski, Alex Sandro and Federico Chiesa — gives them another dimension.

Guardiola, Man City win ugly vs. Southampton

Pep Guardiola’s critics love to depict him as rigid and incapable of conjuring up a Plan B … except he did just that against Southampton on Saturday. Against Ralph Hasenhuttl’s intense high press — which had enabled them to avoid defeat in all but one game since last September — he opted against playing a center-forward (Ferran Torres was there nominally, but didn’t play like a central striker), was patient and conservative in his build-up and wasn’t afraid to go long into space when conditions warranted.

The result was a hard-fought 1-0 win thanks to Raheem Sterling‘s goal (following a long pass straight from Ederson via Kevin De Bruyne), and while both sides had chances, City looked determined but calm throughout. They’ll need more days like this one to get back into the title race.

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