Arsenal Manchester United have defensive issues PSG stunned Barcelona Real Madrid held

Football


The ESPN FC crew identify the catalysts of Manchester United’s free-flowing play in their 3-1 victory against Arsenal.
Alejandro Moreno explains how Unai Emery can use PSG’s shock defeat at Strasbourg to get the attention of his players.
As Cristiano Ronaldo continues to struggle, Alejandro Moreno pinpoints the other areas of concern for Real Madrid.
Alejandro Moreno explains how Samuel Umtiti’s absence could impact a Barcelona side that failed to see off Celta Vigo at home.
Stewart Robson offers a solution for Manchester City to be more dominant against teams that want to play deep in their own half.

As games go, Arsenal vs. Manchester United was classic glass half-full, glass half-empty stuff. Jose Mourinho can walk away from a 3-1 away win and rattle off the numbers: United have the stingiest defence and the second-most prolific attack in the Premier League, and while they remain eight points behind Manchester City — roll on Sunday’s derby — 35 points from 15 games is the best start of any Old Trafford manager since Sir Alex Ferguson. And it’s a whopping 11 more than at this stage last season.

United seized upon two early defensive errors from Arsenal and never really looked back. Goals change games; it’s the truest cliche in football. Two-nil up and cruising after 11 minutes, you expected them to hold down the fort and, perhaps, hit at the other end. They did add a third through Jesse Lingard who, before that and just after Alexandre Lacazette’s goal, could have added another.

That part was good for United; less good was the way Arsenal pinned them back and peppered David De Gea’s goal, which is not what we’re used to from a Mourinho side. It’s not so much the 33 shots, per se — numbers like that are meaningless if it’s a guy belting it from distance — it’s that United gave up 21 shots from inside the area. Of those, four came from inside the six-yard box.

De Gea was simply monstrous on the day and, while we’ve seen this from him before, Mourinho knows it’s not something to rely on. The best way to defend is to either not concede shots — by keeping possession or by keeping opponents far way — or concede “bad” ones, from poor angles, well outside the box or with plenty of defenders in the way.

That didn’t happen at the Emirates. Arsenal deserve a ton of credit — their attacking movement was exceptional — and United played the last 15 minutes a man down after Paul Pogba’s red card, but you can’t imagine that, privately, Mourinho will be happy. Even when he goes on lockdown, his teams generally do a better job at denying opportunities and at controlling the game.

You’d expect there will be a few things to revisit, starting with the three-man defence. Maybe with Phil Jones and, especially, Eric Bailly available, we wouldn’t see it at all. The risk, particularly against teams that move the ball well — like, say, Manchester City — is that defenders get too deep and because there’s one fewer ball-player in midfield, struggle to get out.

That said, we’re quibbling, and the positives far outweigh the negatives. We’re only scratching the surface of how devastating United can be on the counter and the fact that they can also win via aerial assault, pace and slick passing means they have multiple solutions.

It feels weird to stay this, but Mourinho’s biggest task is probably the defensive half of the equation. That’s not necessarily a bad thing; you would trust him more to be able to sort that out than to turn a sterile attacking side into a prolific one.

As for Arsenal, mistakes cost them the game early on. They did all right after that at the back, but that was also because United were happy to concede the initiative. In the final third, Arsene Wenger’s side were very sharp; while some will blame poor finishing, De Gea was otherworldly with some of his 14 stops.

“I believe the game has to make us angry and more determined,” Wenger said. “I think of what we produced and the fact that we lost the game, I cannot accept that. I am blaming nobody. I am blaming myself as always.”

You can’t legislate for individual errors, and everybody makes them, although some make more than most. What Wenger might want to review, though, is how individual errors are compounded by poor positioning and movement from the rest of his defence, as was the case on each of United’s first two goals. That’s something he can — and must — work on.

Benevento finally have reason to smile

Goalkeeper Alberto Brignoli was Benevento's unlikely hero against Milan.
Goalkeeper Alberto Brignoli was Benevento’s unlikely hero against Milan.

This is why we keep watching. Unless you’re a Milan fan, and maybe even if you are, you had to be captivated by what happened during the closing minutes in Benevento on Sunday.

The hosts — in their first Serie A season and sporting a fetching witch-on-a-broomstick club crest (yes, really) — had set a major European league record by losing their first 14 games of the season, breaking the mark held by — of all teams — Manchester United in 1930-31. 

There were various reasons for the losses: Benevento play open, attacking football (certainly for a promoted side), they have made blunders at key moments (like a goal they conceded in injury time at Sassuolo) and, above all, they’re not very good. Still their fans have kept the Vigorito teeming with support, and over time, the fact they seem to be saying “if we’re going to go down, we’re going down swinging” helped win over neutrals.

Against Milan they found themselves a goal down and then, 15 minutes from time, a man up after Alessio Romagnoli’s (harsh) second yellow. And then we entered the twilight zone. In the fifth and final minute of injury time, goalkeeper Alberto Brignoli came up into the box, hoping his seventy-four inches of height might come in handy as Danilo Cataldi prepared to take a free kick.

Somehow, Brignoli’s head found the ball and the ball found the back of the net and Benevento found themselves in a moment they would have wanted to freeze-frame for eternity. He would later say that he hates heading the ball, that he closed his eyes at the moment of impact and that it hurt like hell. All of that only adds to the moment. Like a gambler on a bad streak, Benevento were due a turn of fortune.

As for Milan, it was the first match of the Rino Gattuso era, after the former midfield enforcer was elevated from the youth side to replace Vincenzo Montella as manager. In typical fashion, he said afterwards that he’d rather “be knifed in the gut” than give up a goal like that.

It would be silly to draw conclusions based on 95 minutes and a crazy ending, so we’ll revisit him later. Suffice to say, his first task may be to convince his players that, no, they haven’t been cursed by the broomstick-riding witches of Benevento.

Another narrow win for Man City

I’ve made the point before and it’s worth making again: Manchester City’s recent outings have been a little too close for comfort. Too often they’ve had to rely on individual brilliance or late goals or both, and it was the same story in Sunday’s 2-1 win over West Ham.

Maybe it’s physiological; maybe they’re going at such a breakneck pace results-wise that this is simply regression to the mean. That’s for Pep Guardiola to decide. If some players have dropped off, that would be more than understandable and maybe less worrying than the opposition figuring out how to play against them.

In recent games, City conceded their first goal of the season on a set piece (Nicolas Otamendi’s own goal vs. Huddersfield), then gave up a number of chances to Southampton on corners before allowing a first headed goal vs. West Ham (Angelo Ogbonna).

I’m not sure that makes for a crisis or exposes a particular vulnerability, other than the fact that the Premier League leaders are missing John Stones and did a phenomenal job with a small and not particularly aerially-adept side earlier in the season.

Still, it will be interesting to see how — and if — Guardiola reacts, especially in the derby at United. That he brought on Gabriel Jesus for Danilo at half-time on Sunday and went to a virtual 4-2-4 — not of the goofy Gian Piero Ventura variety either — showed he’s not afraid to be bold when threatened. The question is whether he feels even minimally under threat.

Stunning loss for PSG

PSG suffered their first Ligue 1 defeat of the season at Strasbourg.
PSG suffered their first Ligue 1 defeat of the season at Strasbourg.

Complacency was always going to be a risk for Paris Saint-Germain. That’s what happens when you are exponentially better resourced than most of your opposition in the league and you race out to a lead at the top that even after Saturday’s 2-1 defeat at promoted Strasbourg, stands at a whopping nine points.

It’s true that many opponents give them the treatment that demons give Eric Cantona, Paolo Maldini and others in this vintage ad, and PSG’s visit is treated as the highlight of the season. But that doesn’t excuse milquetoast displays like the one we saw.

Were Unai Emery in a stronger position as manager, he could rotate his squad or crack the whip. But, as it stands, too often at this time of year it feels like PSG are on an extended winter break ahead of the Champions League Round of 16 in February.

Inter on top in Italy

The combination of Juventus’ win at Napoli on Friday and Inter’s 5-0 rout of Chievo two days later meant the Nerazzurri top Serie A for the first time in two years.

But perhaps more importantly, unlike some of their recent results, Inter were dominant and on the front foot in their most recent outing. True, Chievo were somewhat under-strength and poor from the start, but, equally, Inter were missing regulars like Roberto Gagliardini, Miranda and Matias Vecino, which is why Andrea Ranocchia, who had previously played all of six minutes this season, started at center-back.

Ivan Perisic nabbed a hat trick and proved that when switched on — as he has increasingly been of late — he’s a game-changer. Meanwhile, Borja Valero was massive in midfield and even Ranocchia could have had a couple of goals.

Most encouragingly, there was no bad Inter habit of scoring and then being tentative, as if every opponent was some combination of Barcelona and Manchester City. Instead, they kept going for it. You’re not going to say Luciano Spalletti has turned a corner based on 90 minutes, and the big test is next week against Juve, but this was a different Inter and in a good way.

Defensive concerns for Barcelona

Luis Suarez scored but Barcelona had to settle for a point against Celta Vigo.
Luis Suarez scored but Barcelona had to settle for a point against Celta Vigo.

As I repeat endlessly, you can’t just judge results, you need to look at performances. Barcelona drew 2-2 with Celta Vigo, meaning they’ve won just two of their past six games in La Liga and the Champions League.

Yet in many ways, this was one of their better performances: Lionel Messi and Luis Suarez found the net, and the side created plenty of opportunities at the end, hitting the woodwork twice and having a seemingly good goal disallowed.

But, with a tricky trip to Villarreal next week and El Clasico at Real Madrid on Dec. 23, Samuel Umtiti’s injury could not have come at a worse time. The central defender will be out for two months and the alternatives in his absence aren’t good.

There’s Thomas Vermaelen, who has been limited by injury and poor form to just 22 league appearances — including nine on loan at Roma — in the past three-and-a-half years. There’s Javier Mascherano, except he’s currently injured and likely won’t be back for a few weeks. And, unless you turn to Barca B, that’s about the extent of the options for Ernesto Valverde.

Despite defeat, Valencia shouldn’t panic

Valencia missed a gilt-edged opportunity to cut Barcelona’s Liga lead to just two points, falling 1-0 at Getafe. In some ways, it’s a bit harsh to be critical of Los Che, given that few would have had them second at this stage of the season; Marcelino’s crew are, simply put, playing with house money.

But this was a poor performance when you consider Valencia played more than an hour against 10 men. And while they did hit the post on a Dani Parejo free kick, they also squandered chances. What’s more, Getafe’s physicality got to them.

Throw in the fact that Markel Bergara’s winning goal was clearly deflected and you can see why this stings. Still, Valencia are right up there and, if they don’t lose sight of what got them into the nose-bleed part of the table, they’ll be just fine.

Madrid drop more points as Ramos sees red again

Sergio Ramos was sent off in Real Madrid's 0-0 draw with Athletic Bilbao.
Sergio Ramos was sent off in Real Madrid’s 0-0 draw with Athletic Bilbao.

Real Madrid failed to capitalize on Barcelona’s draw and Valencia’s loss when they were held 0-0 at Athletic Bilbao. In an ugly game against a poor opponent, the defending champions took a bunch of bad shots, and while they hit the woodwork through Karim Benzema and Cristiano Ronaldo, they looked like a poor relation of what we saw last season.

And the cherry on top was Sergio Ramos getting himself sent off for the 24th time in his career. I’ve made the point before, but how such a legendary defender and leader could be so irresponsible on such a regular basis remains one of the all-time mysteries of the game.

Klopp’s midfield men make his changes work

Former England international Owen Hargreaves used to tell me that you don’t necessarily need tall, prototypical centre-halves. In fact, so much defending is done higher up the pitch or in the open field that a clever midfielder can do the job.

It was something I thought of while watching Liverpool manager Jurgen Klopp line up Georginio Wijnaldum and Emre Can alongside Dejan Lovren at Brighton in the absence of Joel Matip and Joe Gomez. The result was a 5-1 victory, although the game could have taken a different turn early.

Against certain opponents, Hargreaves’ solution — or should I say Klopp’s solution — makes sense. The key is getting the movement down, and in this game, Wijnaldum and Can were more than adept. And given that Matip is a former central midfielder, maybe we’ll see more of this when he returns.

Bayern back to winning ways

After losing at Borussia Monchengladbach last weekend, Bayern Munich saw off Hannover 3-1. While the opposition sit in mid-table, the win was in keeping with a rather bizarre — but no less impressive — stat: Bayern have won 30 of their past 31 games against promoted sides. Welcome to the big leagues, kids!

It was Kingsley Coman who stole the show in this one, scoring to break a 1-1 deadlock and winning the penalty that made it 3-1. He’s been around long enough that it’s easy to forget that he’s still just 21.

If he stays fit and if he performs at anywhere near the level we saw on Saturday, he’s a game-changer. And it will be tricky for Jupp Heynckes to keep him out of the lineup even when all of Bayern’s injured guys return.

Leipzig suffer lopsided loss

In response to Craig Burley’s complaint on ESPN FC TV last week that, other than Serie A, none of Europe’s big leagues have a proper title race, someone on Twitter pointed out that RB Leipzig were just three points off the pace in the Bundesliga.

I figured he might have a point, but then you see them have games where they collapse, like Saturday’s 4-0 thumping — replete with a Serge Gnabry 50-yarder — against Julian Nagelsmann’s Hoffenheim, and you begin to wonder.

When Leipzig fall, they fall hard, Witness their defeats to Porto and Besiktas in the Champions League. You could chalk it up to growing pains last season, but with the added burden of European football, they have seven points fewer than at this point a year ago.

#BasDostwatch

Bas Dost scored the only goal in Sporting’s victory over Belenenses, which leaves them level at the top of the table with Porto. He has 10 goals in 13 league matches this season, putting him on pace to score 26 league this season. In all competitions, he has 14 in 21.

Gabriele Marcotti is a Senior Writer for ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @Marcotti.



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