Marcotti: Sanchez struggles, Dybala stars
Manchester United were held to a 1-1 draw at home by Wolves, but this time it’s not Jose Mourinho who is on trial. Reactions were split between praising Wolves — deservedly so, Nuno Espirito Santo had the upper hand tactically and in Ruben Neves, they have perhaps the best player outside the top six in England — and questioning Alexis Sanchez.
The Chile international lasted just over an hour before being substituted, and flashed only intermittently over that time, raising the question of whether Mourinho is getting the best out of him, and, inevitably, if he has a mindset where he wants to give his best. Three goals in 23 appearances in all competitions isn’t much of a return. And despite enjoying a whole summer off for the first time in years, he has yet to score this season.
You get the feeling that the Sanchez deal was a short-term move that United made without clear long-term thinking.
That doesn’t mean United made a mistake in signing him; I praised the move when it was announced, and at the time, it made sense. It’s true that he signed a huge contract (although probably not the crazy number thrown around in some corners of the media), but his arrival also allowed United to shift Henrikh Mkhitaryan, offsetting a big chunk of that. Plus, of course, it forced Manchester City to look elsewhere as they’d been courting Sanchez since the summer of 2017.
More importantly, at the time, United’s thinking was that Sanchez could have been a game-changer, especially in the Champions League. At the time, United were set to face Sevilla in Europe, which meant a place in the last eight looked pretty certain. (It didn’t work out that way, as we know all too well.) And once you’re in the quarterfinals, anything can happen when you have a shut-down goalkeeper in David De Gea and a manager with plenty of experience in the competition.
It was a gamble, sure, but one that could have paid off handsomely, not just in terms of money (though that’s important too at United) but also in terms of giving Mourinho political capital and restoring some lustre.
Yet it backfired badly, and not just because of Sanchez. And it left a legacy of a guy who doesn’t quite fit in a 4-3-3.
You can make Sanchez run up the flank as an orthodox winger, but you’re barely scratching the potential of what he can give. Ideally, Mourinho would make him a more central part of his plans (not necessarily by moving him inside, but by tweaking the patterns and style of play) except right now, he has hands full at the back and in midfield. And so too often he looks like a foreign object in a United shirt.
It’s yet another challenge for Mourinho who has more than enough of them on his plate right now.
Lopetegui learning a lot about his Real squad
Julen Lopetegui continues his alchemist act at the Bernabeu. With two tricky La Liga clashes coming up in the next week — away to Sevilla and then, three days later, the Madrid derby — he mixed things up for the visit of Espanyol. We saw Alvaro Odriozola make his debut, Nacho spell Marcelo at left-back and a midfield of Luka Modric, Dani Ceballos and Casemiro, with Gareth Bale on the bench.
The result was a laboured 1-0 victory courtesy of a Marco Asensio goal. As long as the wins keep rolling in and Lopetegui is learning useful things about his squad and how they fit together, then maybe that’s all that matters.
Did La Liga think through overseas game idea?
Speaking of Real Madrid, club president Florentino Perez also stated categorically that his club would not be playing La Liga games overseas. “I will make this clear, we will not go to the United States,” he said. “I do not know who is interested and motivated by this idea, but it certainly is not the fans and the clubs. That is why we strongly oppose these plans.”
That’s fine: it’s his club, his choice. But there’s an evident issue here. The Spanish League signed a 15-year deal to bring one or more matches to North America. You would have imagined that while recognising that not every team would be in favor, Liga boss Javier Tebas might have at least consulted one of the league’s two biggest global draws.
If Tebas did not, and if he really thought he could negotiate on his own without the support of the clubs or maybe convince them after the fact, then it’s a major problem. And no, what Tebas said in response — that Relevent Sports, the company with whom La Liga signed the deal, also organizes Real Madrid’s pre-season tours to the U.S. — is entirely inconsequential.
You don’t sign a deal like that unless you have your ducks in a row.
Dybala looks spectacular as Juve win
After Cristiano Ronaldo’s heroics saved Juventus, the FC crew delve into the Old Lady’s inability to net a goal in the first 80 minutes against Frosinone.
Juventus made it five wins out of five in Serie A, but they had to huff and puff to get there and not for the first time. Little Frosinone, who would be bottom of the table if not for Chievo’s points penalty held them to a scoreless draw until nine minutes from time when Cristiano Ronaldo swooped in to score. Federico Bernardeschi then added a second in injury time.
This is when folks talk about Juve’s mental toughness, which is fair enough. But more telling, I thought, was that Paulo Dybala (in the hole behind Ronaldo and Mario Mandzukic) played his best game in a long time. He looked even better after Bernardeschi came on just before the hour mark.
There’s no escaping the basic fact that Juve right now need Mandzukic in the lineup, and there is no alternative to him on the bench. But if Dybala shows this is not a one-off, maybe there’s some sort of formula involving the Argentine and Bernardeschi that can work when giving Mandzukic a breather.
Why Liverpool signed Shaqiri
Good teams evolve and while Xherdan Shaqiri’s transfer to Liverpool raised more than a few eyebrows, you can see it as an attempt at evolution from Jurgen Klopp. Against Southampton he lined up centrally in midfield and pulled plenty of strings in a rip-roaring first half as the Reds rolled to a 3-0 win.
Shaqiri is not going to be a fixture on this team — and you still worry whether he has the physical skill set to press the way Klopp likes — but as a change of pace against an opponent who sits deep on the road, he’s a very solid option to have.
Bayern keep cruising but Schalke look broken
When the fixture list first came out, it looked as if this could be Bayern’s first “trap game” of the season: away from home, three days after the Champions League opener, against last season’s runners-up. Only it was nothing of the sort.
Bayern had the upper hand over Schalke pretty much from beginning to end, winning 2-0, with James Rodriguez sending them on their way early. That’s seven wins out of seven for Nico Kovac in all competitions. As for Schalke, they’ve opened with four straight defeats — not something you can simply explain away with the departure of Leon Goretzka either. There’s work to be done.
Barca’s rotation doesn’t yield a victory
ESPN FC’s Alejandro Moreno explains how Ernesto Valverde’s player selection played a major role in Barcelona’s 2-2 draw against Girona.
Like Lopetegui, Ernesto Valverde is also pacing himself when it comes to using his squad. Against Girona, Barcelona lined up with Clement Lenglet at the back while Arthur and Arturo Vidal started in midfield alongside Sergio Busquets. They’re not the reason Barcelona dropped points per se, though it was Lenglet’s first-half VAR-assisted red card that forced the home side to play down a man for an hour or so in an eventual 2-2 draw.
Whether or not you deem it a red likely hinges on whether you think Lenglet’s movement was unnatural. Steve Nicol, on the show, had little doubt but I think it goes in the classic “seen them given” rubric, though it’s hugely debatable whether VAR should have intervened. (Of course, referee Jesus Gil Manzano could have missed it entirely, which given his horrendous performance when Porto played Schalke in the Champions League last week, is entirely possible.)
Barca still had enough chances to win and will view this as two points dropped. Arthur and Vidal are two guys whom they will have to turn to at some point so it makes sense to give them minutes, though maybe not in the same game.
Chelsea’s attack isn’t the issue
Steve Nicol breaks down his best XI from the sixth week of Premier League action and defends his inclusion of Pablo Zabaleta.
Maurizio Sarri’s Napoli scored 317 goals in all competitions over three seasons. That’s a lot by any measure so unlike some, I don’t buy this belief that Chelsea will falter unless either Eden Hazard clocks in with 40 goals this year or Alvaro Morata/Olivier Giroud breaks his slump or they sign a striker in January. Scoring goals and creating chances isn’t an issue for Sarri’s teams and while they were held to a scoreless draw at the weekend away to West Ham, they continue to create chances. (Incidentally, they’re also averaging more than two goals a game in the league.)
I hate to bring up the chance and happenstance argument again, but it applies: creating chances is far more difficult than finishing them. The goals will come. More of an issue, perhaps, is the defending, which really hasn’t been tested yet this year. We’ll have a clearer idea on Saturday when Jurgen Klopp’s attacking juggernaut rolls into Stamford Bridge.
Ancelotti is getting results at Napoli
Speaking of Sarri, last season he used the same group of players (12 of them, basically) for much of the campaign. This year, Carlo Ancelotti is happily mixing and matching both systems and personnel, and he’s doing it with success.
Away to Torino — not an easy opponent — he went 4-4-2 with Dries Mertens and Lorenzo Insigne up front and was rewarded with an exceptional Insigne performance (and that was not a given as the little man can be frightfully inconsistent). He gave Marko Rog his first league start in 18 months and dropped Piotr Zielinski, the guy many thought he would build his team around, to the bench. Napoli won 3-1 and played their best football of the season, particularly in the first half.
It’s amazing what people can do when you show them some trust.
Tuchel’s message not getting across at PSG
After the horrendous performance at Anfield in the Champions League, Thomas Tuchel had asked Paris Saint-Germain for a “convincing performance” against Rennes. In fact, he had gone so far as to say that it was more important than the result.
He didn’t get his wish. PSG went a goal down and could have been more in the hole if not for some stellar saves from their 40-year-old goalkeeper Gigi Buffon, who was given the start ahead of Alphonse Areola. They came back to win 3-1 but still looked disjointed, even though things improved a little when Neymar moved inside in the second half.
There’s a lot of work to be done here and if, like me, you’ve been a “Tuchelista” for a long time (since the Mainz days), it’s disappointing to see how his message isn’t getting across.
Milan are going to be fine
Remember when folks were making fun of Gonzalo Higuain’s waistline? No more. He was stellar again — just as he has bene for much of the season — in Milan’s 2-2 draw with Atalanta, a game they could easily have wrapped up early.
Manager Gennaro Gattuso complained that he’d rather play a little worse and get the three points; coming from him, this point of view is understandable. But the fact is Milan are exciting and create tons of chances, thanks in no small part to Higuain’s finishing and movement. Arguably, he’s playing the best football of his career, maybe even more so than the year he scored 36 Serie A goal for Napoli.
That’s why Milan shouldn’t worry just yet despite the fact that the gap between them and Juve is already up to 13 points. They’ll come good.