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Football Reporting


Man City thrash Chelsea with vintage display, Atletico’s balance keeps them top of La Liga, Juve building nicely

Manchester City were back to their best against Chelsea, Atletico Madrid and Real Madrid both got big wins to keep the pressure on each other in La Liga, Bayern’s big win was slightly deceptive and Juventus looked impressive ahead of a midweek top-of-the-table Serie A clash with Milan. There were also talking points galore at Dortmund (with Jadon Sancho back on the scoresheet), Arsenal (Mikel Arteta’s got some big decisions ahead) and Milan (their confidence is sky high).

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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: Vintage Man City | Guardiola defends Mendy | Atletico’s winning balance | Zidane, Real play it safe | Juve encouraged | Cavani’s ban | Leipzig can go all the way | Milan are soaring | Spurs keep rolling | Don’t be fooled by Bayern | Vidal frustrating at Inter | Good signs for Barca | Schalke approach record | Are Leicester contenders? | Dortmund need to get better | Decision time at Arsenal | Napoli still in it

Man City roll back the years with big Chelsea win

At times during Sunday’s 3-1 win over Chelsea, it felt like you had traveled back in time. Not far — just two years or so — back to Peak Pep, when Manchester City’s combination of creativity, intensity and what Guardiola might call “verticality” made them the Gold Standard in the Premier League.

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Between injuries, positive COVID-19 tests and Sergio Aguero having played more than 45 minutes just twice since March, City went into this game with little choice in terms of starting XI. In addition to the players picked, you had possibly Riyad Mahrez and Fernandinho as viable potential starters. Yet it wasn’t about the team Guardiola sent out; it was about what he sent them out to do.

Despite having missed training sessions (a result of the outbreak that led to the cancellation of their clash with Everton), despite the fact that Zack Steffen in goal and Oleksandr Zinchenko at left-back were making their first Premier League starts of the season, despite the fact that you can count on one hand the number of times Kevin De Bruyne played as a withdrawn forward in the past few years, they played some of the best football we’ve seen in a while from Man City.

They scored three times, and it could easily have been twice as many. The sharpness and controlled directness ripped Chelsea apart. Joao Cancelo and Zinchenko moving inside, while De Bruyne dropped off and, in turns, Bernardo Silva, Raheem Sterling and Phil Foden rotated across the front, was a sight to behold.

– Ogden: Lampard under pressure as Guardiola dazzles
– Pulisic: Chelsea in ‘tough period’
– How Lampard compares to other coaches under Abramovich

That’s not tactics, by the way. That’s concepts. Giving players some key ideas, training them to make their own decisions and trusting them to make the right choices. And it’s performances like this that remind you that, in this hugely compressed Premier League table, City are right there in the mix to win at all alongside the teams ahead of them.

However, the fact that City were exceptional doesn’t take away from how poor Chelsea looked. And while you can pinpoint individual errors that led to goals — there’s almost always a mistake before anyone scores, that’s the nature of the sport — these were, above all, collective failures. And when that happens, it’s on the manager.

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Leaving N’Golo Kante on his own to deal both with a withdrawn De Bruyne, as well as Silva and Gundogan running off him, is hard for Frank Lampard to explain. Sending Mateo Kovacic and Mason Mount to press high is fine, but when they’re getting bypassed time and again, it’s time for an adjustment.

Equally, when your team is being slice and diced through the middle, tucking your fullbacks in and defending a bit narrower is no crime: it’s common sense. Especially when one of them, Cesar Azpilicueta, at this stage of his career, is more of a undersize centre-half playing full-back than anything else. Still, Chelsea didn’t just wait until the hour mark to make their first substitutions, they also appeared not to make any adjustments to what they had on the pitch.

– Chelsea ratings: Silva, Azpilicueta woeful vs. City
– Man City ratings: De Bruyne dazzles in big win

I have less of an issue with the choice of Timo Werner at center-forward. In a game like this, maybe he did make more sense than Tammy Abraham or Olivier Giroud. Yes, his recent outings had been subpar, but maybe this was a chance to turn it around.

Sometimes you have to put faith in the choices made by the guy who works with the players every day. Still, it meant undoing a scheme with which Chelsea had developed some familiarity: a tall, strong center-forward with presence. And the fact that both big men remained rooted to the bench is also tough to understand.

Five of Lampard’s starting XI arrived in the summer as did Kai Havertz, who came off the bench. While there’s no doubting the individual talent, these pieces aren’t easy to fit together (and some may not fit at all), particularly when you don’t have the benefit of preseason, and that may be the single biggest mitigating factor when judging the manager. I’m led to believe the club accept this and are willing to give Lampard time, at least until they believe the situation gets out of hand and a Champions League spot looks unlikely. They’re still three points out of fourth place with more than half the season to go, so the impression is he’ll have every opportunity to turn it around.

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But as much as performances and result, what ought to matter to Chelsea is this team’s ability — and especially the manager’s — to learn from their mistakes and to grow. That’s what he has to show. Lampard can’t be held responsible for how good Man City looked Sunday and even with the best version of Chelsea on the pitch, they might still have lost. But he bears responsibility — and plenty of it — for how poor Chelsea looked.

Guardiola goes public to defend Mendy

If there was a sour note to City’s Sunday, it was Pep Guardiola’s reaction to news that Benjamin Mendy had breached COVID-19 protocols by hosting a New Year’s Eve party with people from outside his household.

Mendy apologized for his actions; Manchester City said in a statement that they were “disappointed” and would be holding an “internal investigation.” Did Pep mirror the club line and draw a line under the incident? Was he especially sensitive given that less than a week earlier, his own club had reported “a breach” and a possible outbreak, forcing them to close the training ground and postpone their game against Everton, sowing more congestion in their already jam-packed calendar?


“It would be better if, before we judge others, we judge ourselves,” he said. “I’m not justifying [his actions], he broke the rules…. Of course it was not correct what he has done, but don’t judge him too much. Maybe many people have done the same. It’s easy to judge others.”

We’re judging his actions, which clearly broke rules and put his own health and that of others, including his teammates at risk. That’s it. He did something foolish and wrong — and yes, he’s a public figure, so it gets magnified — and he apologised for it and his employer will investigate, which is exactly what should be happening.

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But to say that “maybe many people” also had unauthorised New Year’s Eve parties with people form outside their households is irrelevant (and insulting) to the vast majority of those who follow the rules. There are plenty of things that “maybe many people do” that they shouldn’t, from driving drunk to evading taxes, but if they get caught, it’s really no justification.

The way Guardiola nurtures and sticks up for his players is admirable, but this was one occasion where it would have been best to do it in private.

Balance keeping Simeone, Atletico on course for La Liga title

We have seemingly infinite cliches about great strikers and their ability to find space and opportunities through movement and anticipation. As I see it, it’s a greater skill than actually finishing. If you’re not clear on it, just watch Luis Suarez‘ late winner for Atletico Madrid against Alaves. He ghosts away from the central defenders at just the right moment — not through quickness or strength, but simply from reading the situation — and tucks in Joao Felix’s cross.

With the 2-1 win, Atleti stay two points clear at the top of La Liga and, of course, they still have those two games in hand. It also appears Diego Simeone remains committed to “Cholismo 2.0,” which means being more comfortable with the ball and more proactive in possession. With Koke in a deep play-making role, Yannick Carrasco high on the flank (effectively turning his 3-5-2 into a 4-3-3) and Thomas Lemar and Marcos Llorente making runs from deep, they dominated the ball and the pitch.

Alaves’ equalizer came on the counter after a rare mistake (and with the help of a deflection), and Atletico replied with the sort of fury and intensity we associate with their original incarnation. It’s a balancing act and Simeone is getting it right.

Real Madrid playing it conservatively… for now

With Celta Vigo, Iago Aspas and the irrepressible Eduardo “Chacho” Coudet rolling into Madrid (well, Valdebebas) you wondered if we’d see a somewhat more cavalier Real side. Celta love to attack and they give you space. That means open games. And in open games, the more talented side wins.

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Instead, Zinedine Zidane left no doubt as to how he sees the current version of his side.

Right now, this is a blue collar bunch to the bone. Lucas Vazquez and Marco Asensio both scored and assisted each other’s goals, but they also did the tracking back and grunt work you expect from defensive wingers. Equally, the midfield trio of Toni Kroos, Luka Modric and Casemiro — the guys with a zillion Champions League titles between them — played like veterans managing a game, pacing themselves without imposing themselves, punishing errors and limiting damage.

– Real ratings: Vazquez, Asensio impress

Zidane evidently believes this is the path to success and it yielded a 2-0 win. That may change — heck, it will likely have to change when (if?) Eden Hazard is fully fit and contributing, or when Martin Odegaard and Federico Valverde start getting more minutes. For now, Zidane has embraced this version to keep pace with Atletico at the top.

Positive signs for Pirlo, but mostly for Juventus

Juve’s 4-1 win over Udinese was big not because Cristiano Ronaldo scored twice and set up another (he’s been doing that all year), nor because they suddenly played better (they picked it up in the second half, with a bit of help from the opposition as Udinese boss Ivan Gotti pointed out), but rather because it changes the narrative ahead of Wednesday’s huge clash with Milan.

A draw would have left them seventh, with the very real possibility of being 15 points back by Wednesday night. (Yes, they have a game in hand, but it’s also against Napoli, so by no means a gimme.) That would have set up a hugely uncomfortable scenario for Andrea Pirlo given that the next two games are against fearless and unpredictable Sassuolo and Antonio Conte’s Inter, who are second in the table.

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Juventus are committed to transition, which is why they hired Pirlo, but they’re not necessarily committed to transitioning with Pirlo. They like his message, but if they feel he can’t implement it, they’ll find someone else who can.

What’s encouraging is that the players are on board with it, starting with Ronaldo. Also encouraging was Federico Chiesa‘s goal and general contribution. If this is going to work long-term, given the investment in the player, he had better be a part of it. Less encouraging is the fact that they still lack creativity and the ability to play with tempo in midfield. You’re only going to fix that with signings (next summer) or with more work on the training ground. Pirlo bought himself time to do that.

Why English FA had no choice but to ban Cavani

If I read the legalese correctly, the Football Association’s Independent Regulatory Commission was navigating a pretty narrow path in deciding whether to punish Edinson Cavani for his “negrito” post on Instagram.

Once they established that the term “negrito” was “insulting, abusive, improper and brought the game into disrepute,” he had violated FA Rule E33.1. And because it includes reference, “whether express or implied,” to color and/or/ rare and/or ethnic origin, well, it became an aggravated breach, and that translates to a three-match ban.

Intent, ignorance, context, the fact that he immediately took down the post and apologized? None of it matters. All MannUnited were left with was the hope that, in their written reasons, they will make it clear that Cavani had “no racist intent in his post.” I can’t help but feel, speaking of intent, that this is not what whoever wrote the law had in mind.

Leipzig can go all the way

Leipzig took all three points away to Stuttgart in what amounted to a classic “trap” game. After all, Rino Matarazzo’s crew had taken points off Bayer Leverkusen and Borussia Dortmund and should have stopped Bayern Munich. But Leipzig kept their nerve and kept turning the screws, eventually notching the winner through Dani Olmo.

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The itinerant Spaniard hasn’t quite clicked consistently since his move a year ago, but at 22 years old, the best is yet to come. And with some of the injured players close to fitness and the addition of Dominik Szoboszlai from Salzburg, Julian Nagelsmann has the depth and talent to go all the way.

Milan’s confidence, self-belief growing with every win

Milan were winning 1-0 away to Benevento when Sandro Tonali was sent off with half a hour gone. At that point, conventional wisdom should have dictated taking off either Ante Rebic or Rafael Leao, sending on a midfielder and defending the lead, particularly since they were already depleted, missing their best defender, best midfielder and best striker (Theo Hernandez, Ismael Bennacer and Zlatan Ibrahimovic respectively).

Stefano Pioli did no such thing: he took off a winger, Brahim Diaz, and pushed Rebic on alongside Leao. And they kept going, winning 2-0.

Performances like these build confidence, as does seeing a manager’s brave choice vindicated by his players. It could have gone awry of course (Gigio Donnarumma had to make a couple big saves), but it didn’t, and that’s what matters here. The challenge, as they prepare to host Juventus on Wednesday, is to channel that positivity and integrate the returning starters into the side. But there’s little question they took a big step forward on Sunday night.

Tottenham’s win vs. Leeds was par for the course

Marcelo Bielsa’s Leeds United were always going to be a study in contrasts against a side that plays in transition as well as Jose Mourinho’s Tottenham. Because, man for man, they’re a less gifted team than Spurs, the only way they were going to win was if two things happened: they outworked Tottenham and/or Spurs failed to execute.

– Olley: Kane, Son have Spurs dreaming of title
– Report: Tottenham 3-0 Leeds United

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Neither was the case: Heung-Min Son and Harry Kane showed why they’re the most telepathic forward duo in the Premier League and Spurs — with the benefit of an extra 48 hours’ rest following the postponement of the Fulham game — out-hustled them as well.

You didn’t learn much other than getting confirmation that these are the types of games that Mourinho teams very rarely screw up.

Don’t be fooled by Bayern’s huge comeback win

The fact that Hansi Flick felt the need to replace Benjamin Pavard at half-time in order to move Joshua Kimmich out of midfield and to right-back speaks volumes about the current situation at Bayern. They were 2-0 down at home against Mainz, a team that’s second-bottom and who have won just twice all season. Flick also replaced Jerome Boateng who, like Pavard, was getting destroyed by Jonathan Burkardt and Robin Quaison on the counter.

Mainz came within a post of going 3-0 up early in the second half before the champions stormed back, with — who else? — the immense Kimmich opening the Bayern scoring. The floodgates then opened, with Robert Lewandowski bagging two goals to bring his league total to 19, and they eventually won 5-2.

If you simply live in a world of highlights, it looks like another convincing win with the added bonus of a brilliant Leroy Sane strike. You hope they’re not buying that at the Sabenerstrasse because the first half was a concern, at both ends. Against better sides, you’re not going to be able to simply switch it on the way they did after the break.

Vidal’s schtick finally wearing thing on Conte at Inter

Arturo Vidal has become the epitome of Antonio Conte’s obsession with a certain type of battle-hardened, high energy veteran player. “Warriors,” he calls them. Though the problem with Vidal (and not for the first time) is that despite being 33, in terms of discipline he too often acts like a guy 20 years younger: an out-of-control tween.

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On Sunday, after giving away a needless penalty against Crotone in the first half, he harangued the referee repeatedly and you could clear hear Conte shout: “Arturo! Just play and stop busting balls!” It was classic Conte, and he followed up by taking him off at half-time. Inter went on to win 6-2 as Lautaro Martinez turned in one of his best performances of the campaign and Romelu Lukaku reminded us just why he’s one of the sharpest center-forwards out there. The victory leaves them one point in Milan’s wake.

Vidal tweeted out a photo with the caption “Calm is the virtue of the strong” the following day. You hope he follows his own advice. As for Conte, you feel he’s reaching a tipping point with Vidal. At some point, he’s really not worth the effort anymore.

Barcelona look encouraging despite only winning 1-0

Ronald Koeman again dropped Antoine Griezmann to the bench and Barcelona created plenty of chances against bottom-of-the-table Huesca for much of the game. Ousmane Dembele looked super-sharp to the point if you wonder if he’s turning the corner and, if he stays fit, is on his way to becoming the player they thought they had bought.

Barca ratings: De Jong, Messi 7/10 in narrow win

That’s the good news for Barca and it’s what’s most encouraging here: Barca played and played well. Dembele’s ability and width are a game-changer. Chances, however, need to be converted, and the fact that Frenkie de Jong‘s first-half strike was the only goal late in the game meant that we saw the usual jitters and a Marc-Andre ter Stegen save at the end. I’m less concerned about that, as I’ve pointed out many times the worry is when you don’t create.

It doesn’t mean they’re out of the woods, though. Huesca are bottom for a reason (they’ve won 1 in 17 in La Liga), defensively there are still questions and it’s by no means clear what Sergi Busquets can still give you in midfield. But Barcelona are at least productive with the ball and Koeman has found some sort of functional attack. That’s progress too.

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New manager, same result for Schalke

Christian Gross took charge of Schalke for the very first time and… little changed. They were beaten 3-0 away to Hertha, which means that next Saturday they’ll get a chance to equal the sort of record nobody wants: 31 games without a win, set by Tasmania Berlin back in 1966.

Whether or not they match the record of futility — and end up on the back of a Trivial Pursuit card — this club’s problems run far deeper and are financial as much as they are sporting in nature. Relegation can help wipe the slate clean… provided the right people are in charge. It’s almost a better solution than somehow avoiding the drop.

Are Leicester contenders for the title again?

Leicester City’s 2-1 victory over Newcastle United leaves them one point off the top of the table. As impressive as the result was, we’re seeing this is also a side that can be comfortable in possession and can beat you with build-up and creativity as well, thanks in no small part to guys like James Maddison and Harvey Barnes.

Are they title contenders? Having witnessed the 2015-16 title winners up close, you don’t want to rule anything out. That was a wild, unconventional season, but then again, so is this one. And man for man, this Leicester side are, arguably, by no means inferior to that one.

Sancho scores, but neither he nor Dortmund are where they want to be

Borussia Dortmund resumed their Bundesliga campaign with a 2-0 win over Wolfsburg that also saw Jadon Sancho notch his first goal in 17 league appearances. It’s a gaudy stretch without scoring, but it’s also one of those stats that don’t mean that much. In fact, he scored in his last match before this one, in the German Cup, as well as bagging two in the Champions League group stage.

More of an issue (especially since the goal came in garbage time, albeit it with a nifty move to turn Paulo Otavio inside out) right now is his performance on the pitch. Sancho is not the player he was last season, but then neither are Dortmund the same team they were. They create less, their finishing is worse and while Erling Haaland‘s return will help, they’re still not where they want to be.

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Lucien Favre’s departure was never going to change that overnight, and Edin Terzic knows he’s most likely keeping the seat warm for somebody else. It’s a big ask to expect everything to come together between now and the end of the season.

Big decisions ahead for Arteta at Arsenal

Saturday’s win makes it three in a row for Arsenal following their 4-0 hammering of West Bromwich Albion in the driving snow. They’re up to 11th, which may not sound impressive, but after taking two of a possible 21 points in a wretched run, it makes for a buoyant atmosphere.

– Report: Arsenal thump West Brom
– Arsenal ratings: Tierney, Saka lead the way

There are two ways to look at this. You could note that they beat two teams in the bottom four (Brighton and West Brom) and a Chelsea side in a tailspin (with the help of a worldie, a deflection and penalty). But look beyond that and you’ll note that they’re playing better. Kieran Tierney (23 years old) and Bukayo Saka (19) are kids who are thriving. Emile Smith Rowe (20) is producing in the No. 10 space. Alexandre Lacazette looks rejuvenated and has four goals in his last three appearances.

They’re growing, and they’re doing it with little or no contribution from their big-ticket items: Pepe and Willian have played a total of 40 minutes combined in this stretch, Thomas Partey, Gabriel and David Luiz haven’t played since before Christmas, Aubameyang started the last two games but contributed little. At some point, Arteta will have some big decisions to make and, perhaps, some will second-guess the decision to commit big contracts to certain guys rather than sucking it up and rebuilding through youth.

Napoli still in Serie A race, no thanks to Osimhen

Two highlight-reel goals form Piotr Zielinski sent Napoli to a 4-1 win over Cagliari that keeps them in the running as title outsiders (they’re nine points back, but they do have a game in hand). The title push would be more credible, of course, if they had Dries Mertens and Victor Osimhen.

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The former got injured last month — nothing you can do about that. The latter, after a blistering start to the season, has been out since November. He was on his way back, but his return was delayed by a positive COVID-19 test that came after he was pictured — mask-less and with no social distancing — at a party back home in Nigeria.

Osimhen apologized, and rightly so. “He’ll pay for it, he made us all look bad” was Rino Gattuso’s typically understated reaction. He then added “I’ll wait for him.”

He’d better, as Napoli need Osimhen to win the big head-to-heads and mount a challenge.

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