Real Madrid 3 – 1 PSG

PSG v Real

Picture courtesy of AS English

Twitter was awash with Adrien Rabiot’s comments after PSG’s 3-1 defeat to Real Madrid in the first leg of their Round of 16 tie at the Bernabeu. “It’s all well and good putting 8 goals past Dijon, but it’s in matches like this that you have to stand up and be counted”, he told reporters just after the game, his words tinged with more than a dose of frustration. On a night that Real Madrid barely turned up, PSG managed to snatch defeat from the jaws of, well, not-defeat. The collapse wasn’t of Camp Nou proportions, and one could point to a couple of unfortunate breaks in the concession of both goals, but the manner and timing of Real Madrid’s second and third goals has done nothing to convince critics that the oil-fuelled PSG machine is ready to win the Grand Prix.

How they lined up…

Real Madrid, except for Carvajal (suspended for getting himself suspended – brilliant), lined up with their Gala XI. Nacho, who has quietly been excellent this season, whether filling in for Ramos or Varane, was given the nod at right back. Isco, in and out of the side in the last couple of months as his form has gone off the boil, was included in what seemed like a Real Madrid bid to control the midfield area.

Unai Emery, for PSG, preferred the greater security of Yuri Berchiche to the buccaneering Layvin Kurzawa. Loanee, Kylian Mbappe, got the nod over the unfortunate Angel Di Maria (who has been flying in 2018). However, the biggest surprise (?) was the exclusion of Thiago Silva, with the 22-year-old Presnel Kimpembe favoured. Kimpembe was superb in PSG’s 4-0 trouncing of Barcelona but didn’t play in the 6-1 thrashing that was the second leg (Thiago Silva did!). He acquitted himself well on the whole and few can point to his selection being a cause of the defeat.

Observations

The Damp Squib of a Midfield Battle

PSG played a triangle in midfield, with Verratti and Giovanni Lo Celso playing in a line at the base, and Rabiot at the tip, just in behind Cavani. Against a different team, say Barcelona, Rabiot would have been tasked with shutting down Busquets, but Casemiro does not pose as much a playmaking threat. This left Rabiot free to roam in midfield, although he was very diligent in dropping back to prevent easy passes into Real’s midfield.

The main problem PSG faced all night was how Lo Celso and Verratti interpreted their roles. The Argentine youngster is an attacking midfielder, used to playing higher up the pitch. At the Bernabeu, with Motta not match fit and Emery paying respect to Real’s reputation, he was instructed to play deeper, forming a dual shield in front of PSG’s defence. While his passing was accurate for the most part, it was generally cautious and safe, with his positional movement in the same vein – he rarely ventured forward in or out of possession. Marco Verratti, essentially chaperoning an inexperienced Lo Celso, could not afford to abandon him to shielding duties on his own, so was more conservative in his positioning (he did play a couple of excellent forward balls for Neymar to run onto, but these were few and far between). PSG’s midfield structure and personnel lacked balance, an issue exacerbated by Emery’s tactical safety which, particularly in the first half, often left only four men attacking. While it resulted in a goal when Mbappe’s cross was deflected into the path of an onrushing Rabiot, it meant that PSG struggled to really seize the initiative Real Madrid left up for grabs.

Real’s midfield was standard – however, it never took control of the game. Isco, particularly in the first half, struggled to make his mark on the game. Toni Kroos’ brightest moments were precisely that – moments. He burst into the box in the second minute and nearly won a penalty, tested Areola with a shot from outside the box, and finally won a penalty when an idling Lo Celso pulled him back as he broke into the box. Luke Modric, except for a couple of nifty bursts between the lines, had a pretty average game by his standards. This wasn’t a game where he needed to be spectacular, and he wasn’t.

Cross the Ball and Hope You Die

Even with Carvajal missing, and a midfield diamond in place, Real Madrid’s football is all about width – it’s how Cristiano Ronaldo thrives. This match was no different. One of the reasons the midfield battle was so uninspiring was because both midfields were set up, even with the sparkling individuals in both, to serve a basic function. PSG’s was to stop Real’s which was superfluous because Real’s was never particularly interested in trying to play through PSG’s – it’s job was to funnel the ball wide and pump in crosses. Real Madrid, over the last two years, has cemented its status as perhaps the greatest crossing side in the history of the game – if it ain’t spoilt, why fix it? While Neymar’s dribbling infield is a key part of PSG’s attacking strategy (on his own, he attempted as many dribbles as the whole Real Madrid side), Real Madrid focus on creating overloads in wide areas and swinging crosses into the box for Ronaldo to feast on. It’s interesting to watch them and see how often their midfielders drift into advanced positions on the wings and in the channels to facilitate crossing opportunities. Ronaldo’s second and Marcelo’s goal both came from Marco Asensio crosses (who, by the way, was brought on to provide those crosses). As Zidane sought out a way to break open the tie, he doubled down on his approach – cross the ball.

Marcelo

Picture courtesy of Daily Post

Marcelo is **STILL** Real’s best playmaker

When Dani Alves clattered Marcelo in the first ten minutes, his anguished cries could be heard on TV. Real Madrid hearts fluttered, no, billowed in the turbulence of fear. Theo Hernandez was sent out to warm up. Ultimately, the ex-Atleti man wouldn’t be needed and Marcelo went on to have a storming game. This match was meant to be his crucifixion – he’s had a difficult season, often not interested in defending, and then he was coming up against Mbappe who has been torching defenders like hot wings. Instead, it ended up being a timely reminder of the gifts he possesses: a delectable touch; brilliant crossing; and the ability to create, either through his dribbling or his passing, which all make him Madrid’s shaggy haired jack-in-the-box. In the first half, Real’s most dangerous moments either came from a PSG player gifting the ball to a Madrid player, or Marcelo’s involvement. His brilliant crossfield curling pass into Ronaldo’s path was worthy of Kevin De Bruyne (Areola made a brilliant save). He also set up Benzema for a shot, yet again brilliantly saved by Areola. In his last major contribution of the half, he played a more nuanced, yet equally intelligent pass, to Toni Kroos to put him goal-side of Lo Celso whose foul resulted in the penalty. While Dani Alves became the more prominent Brazilian fullback (midfielder?) in the second half, Marcelo had the last laugh when he connected with Asensio’s fizzed cross to give Real Madrid a two-goal cushion heading into the second leg in three weeks’ time.

ROnaldo and Neymar

Picture courtesy of Birmingham Mail

Neymar v Ronaldo

Neymar did the playing, Ronaldo did the scoring. It’s a refrain we’ve heard many times in Ronaldo’s career (particularly in the Champions League). Is Cristiano the best player in the world? It depends on how you judge it, but skill for skill, no. Has he proven himself as one of the most reliable goal-getters in history? Certainly, no question. Particularly in critical moments. Especially in the Champions League. While Neymar dribbled, slashed and dashed, and created all PSG’s moments of danger, Ronaldo converted the equalising penalty (his 100th for Real Madrid) and had the ball ricochet off his knee for the winner. Goals win games, even inadvertent ones. At 33 years old, Cristiano Ronaldo is not the dribbling winger he was ten years ago, but he continues to be effective for Real Madrid. Of course, what is required of him is different from what teams like PSG and Barcelona require of their own talismans, but the mark of a great player is, not only recognising his limitations, but serving his team maximally because of that. For players like Neymar, they carry a somewhat greater burden because the range of gifts they possess mean that there are no limitations to consider – more is expected and, unless you’re winning, it’s difficult for the cursory eye to look past the loss to see the chances created, dribbles completed, and the air of consistent danger created.

Subs I Win, Subs You Lose

Zinedine Zidane has often been accused of not being proactive with his substitutions, or not using them effectively enough. Or simply not using all of them (I’ve always thought this a weird criticism of managers, particularly when it’s used by default). That could not be said of him last night. As Emery took off the ineffective Cavani for right back, Thomas Meunier, Zidane rolled his dice and put in Gareth Bale for Benzema as the clock neared 70 minutes. Despite the change, Real struggled to really gain a foothold or pose problems because, fundamentally, their shape hadn’t changed. Also, with Dani Alves pushed into midfield, what appeared to be a conservative move by Unai Emery started to look like a positive one as PSG put pressure on Real Madrid between the 70th and 80th minutes. Zidane, recognising the game was slipping away from his side, threw on Asensio and Vazquez, thus reorganising his team into a 4-4-2 shape. As PSG’s confidence grew, Real Madrid found gaps in behind. On at least three occasions prior to Ronaldo’s second, Asensio or Bale escaped down the left only to be flagged offside. When the decisive goals did eventually come, there were no surprises. For all the criticism he gets, credit should be given to Zidane for his substitutions. I don’t want to be too harsh on Emery as his decision seemed to be working before Ronaldo scored, but it was intended to be a happy-with-what-I’ve-got move. Oh, he also used two subs.

Now for the second leg

PSG should be disappointed (see Rabiot’s comments) with how they performed, but more so with how they have nearly let the tie slip away from them by conceding those two late goals. Real Madrid’s first leg performance could either provide encouragement (they really were not great) or could indicate that they have another level to reach. Either way, PSG needs to up their game. Mbappe wasn’t involved enough – this will have to change in the second leg. Emery has no choice but to be brave – conservatism won’t save him a job he’s probably going to lose at the end of the season. The first leg promised so much yet delivered little other than four goals – let’s hope there’s better in store in the second leg.

Raymond

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With Kylian Mbappe, there are no limits

Mbappe (Fox)

“When I watch him dribble, he’s thinking. He thinks when he plays and that for me is the most important thing in a player. He thinks. He uses his brain.” – Thierry Henry on Kylian Mbappe

If age is but a number, Kylian Mbappe is one of the best footballers in the game today. Even if it weren’t, and you wanted him to show more than his year and a half of consistent top-flight football, it shouldn’t matter. While his technical and tactical gifts are plain to see, the measure of his ability can be summarised thus – he can be whatever player his team or coach needs him to be at any given time and perform at elite-level. There are not many players like this in football today, particularly attacking players. They can be counted on one hand. And Mbappe just turned 19.

Mbappe, in choosing to join Paris last summer, walked into a situation that required he adjust his game, perhaps radically so, to coexist with his new attacking playmates. Neymar had just arrived from Barcelona to take his place on a ready-made Parisian throne, and has been scintillating since arriving, leading, scoring, creating and generally making Ligue 1 his playground. Edinson Cavani, after waiting years for Zlatan Ibrahimovic to vacate the no.9 position has hungrily set about feasting on defences, taking advantage of the creativity and space created by the on-the-ball menace of Neymar and Mbappe. Cavani’s not even giving up penalties, not to speak of his position. And he is Europe’s top scorer across all competitions, so can justify his claims. So, what about Mbappe?

Mbappe’s story has been told, re-told, hashed and re-hashed but it’s worth repeating some nuggets here for context.

  • At £165m, he is the second most expensive footballer in history. He was 18 at the time and turned 19 in December 2017
  • In 16/17, was involved in a league goal (either scoring or creating) every 65 minutes
  • Youngest player in history to score 10 Champions League goals
  • First teenager, since Lionel Messi, to be named in top 10 Ballon d’Or (he finished 7th in voting). He is also the youngest player to ever be shortlisted for the award
  • In 17/18 so far, has registered 12 goals and 11 assists in 19 French League and Champions League fixtures

He was second to Ngolo Kante in French Player of the Year 2017 voting, and is already considered an indispensable part of the French starting XI going into the 2018 World Cup. The only question is where he should start – he’s capable of playing pretty much anywhere along the midfield and attacking edge (left midfield, left wide forward, striker, supporting striker, right midfield and right wide forward).

Monaco v PSG – adapting his game

With Monaco last season, playing alongside Radamel Falcao, he provided the most accurate Thierry Henry impression since Igwe himself, drifting off to the left wing to find space and causing havoc with his speed and ability on the ball. This season in Paris, with Cavani and Neymar, he plays off the right side of the field, sometimes as a high and wide forward, other times as a right-sided midfielder. His output has not wavered – in fact, he is surpassing last season’s performances. While his 8 assists in Ligue 1 last season was impressive, he has really come to the fore as a creative force this year in a role that is more obviously about creating space and chances for his more established attacking partners.

It’s worth noting the ease with which he has slotted into this Paris side. Last season, Monaco played a predominantly counter-attacking style – he excelled, always finding space down the channels to sprint into, or behind defences to either glance headers in or apply his already-elite finishing touch. At Paris, currently second to Manchester City in the European club possession charts, he spends more time on the ball, attempting nearly three times the number of passes he was attempting at Monaco in 16/17. Paris also encounters more teams playing lower blocks than Mbappe faced at Monaco, the result being constricted space and less room to play in in the final third of the pitch. Rather than struggle, he has blossomed. His close control is remarkable, even if he is all legs. He can beat a defender going outside with his pace, or coming inside with his ability to deceive and evade. His speed, over short and long distances, takes some getting used to. He dribbles in tight spaces with short and nimble steps, but expands his loping legs to eat up ground faster than recovering defenders when counter-attacking. He loves a fake shot, ala-Henry, but also fancies a stepover or two. He’s employed the Ronaldo chop, both as an evasive tactic, but also routinely to execute passes (and make goals) because he’s just having fun. There isn’t much he can’t do on the ball.

And he’s currently doing all this playing as a right footed right sided midfielder/winger. Somehow, in this age of inverted wingers, the best wide forward in Europe (not named Neymar) is not playing on the wrong wing. Why though? As Thierry Henry said, he thinks; he is always thinking. Take Paris’ trouncing of Bayern in the Champions League group stage. While Neymar was man of the match, Mbappe was not far behind. With Bayern dominant in possession, Mbappe had fewer touches and fewer passes than what he has averaged per game at Paris – which meant fewer opportunities to make an impact. He took the opportunity to re-announce himself to Europe with a performance of astounding efficiency maturity. He has a gift, one that only very few have – the ability to simply situations on the pitch, balancing safety and risk in a manner that belies his age. His bamboozling of Alaba in the lead up to Neymar’s goal was delicious, but his assist for Cavani’s goal, receiving the ball, waiting and playing the perfect pass into the Uruguayan’s stride spoke of his ability to do the simple things simply. Even Neymar, for all his gifts, for a long time retained an individualistic, almost selfish, streak to his football identity that meant that team decision-making was regularly sacrificed on the altar of self-indulgence and gratification.

More recently, Mbappe provided another reminder of his talent against Caen in Ligue 1. Beating three players with a combination of body feints, quick feet and sprinter’s pace, he then delivered the perfect cross to Cavani who converted with an exquisite flick of his heel. Mbappe is making the absurd look normal, with end-product to match.

 

Surprisingly, his finishing this season is the one aspect of his game that has suffered. While this could be because he’s being asked to do more on the pitch than he did at Monaco last season, it is probably because playing on a better team, with more opportunities to express himself and ‘enjoy’ has led to lapses in focus and concentration in critical moments. Additionally, he is not the primary scorer – there’s Neymar and Cavani before him. Some matches come to mind – the trouncing of Anderlecht in the Champions League (in Belgium) was pockmarked by some awful misses, while his return to Monaco was littered with poor decisions and even poorer finishing (chalk that down to nerves, perhaps). While this dip cannot be ignored, particularly given his stellar conversion rate of 30% last season, his finishing ability is well-documented – he just needs to stay switched on all the time.

A Tale of Two Captains

When Johan Cruyff predicted that one of Neymar and Messi could leave Barcelona, many found it difficult to envisage. In his view, two captains (and by two captains, he meant two players that are, if not ball-dominant, naturally placed to lead their teams) could not co-exist for long because one’s star would inevitably start to shrink the room needed for another’s to grow. He suggested that Messi be sold to make room for Neymar – Neymar is younger, after all. However, Barcelona’s reality, with its La Masia core retiring or ageing, meant this was likely never going to happen, particularly with its spotty record of getting consistent and prolonged excellence out of Brazilian stars (compare this to Lionel Messi’s almost mechanical consistent genius). In Neymar’s time at Barcelona, he was a winger, then became a true wide forward, almost Pedroesque in his off the ball movement, before gradually taking on a more creative role in the team. In the 2nd half of his 4 years at Barcelona, it was not unusual for Neymar to have more touches of the ball than Messi, who was more than happy to share the limelight (partly due to increased freedom but also partly because he’s more self-indulgent). But it wasn’t enough, playing second fiddle to Messi, even as grateful as he is for Messi’s guidance.

Paris may end up having a Two-Captains conundrum, that is if Neymar and Mbappe are together that long. In Joon Lee’s excellent Mbappe feature for Bleacher Report, Antonio Ricardi, one of Mbappe’s first coaches, opines that he is “sure Mbappe can be better than Neymar in two years.” It is difficult to see this either happening at Paris, or being acknowledged at Paris, while Neymar remains. Right now, there is no doubt that Neymar is the technical leader, the player that commands the most touches and the most attention. He goes where he chooses on the pitch and how he interacts with his teammates, almost without reproach. Mbappe’s talent and rapid progression means that, very soon, his gifts will need room to be a captain. Right now, he thoroughly enjoys playing with Neymar, learning in training, exchanging tricks and flicks, 1-2s and assists, but he is also individually ambitious; after all, his idol is Cristiano Ronaldo.

Mbappe and Neymar will not last very long as a partnership, certainly not as long as Messi and Neymar lasted. While Neymar is the older of the two, he is a more self-indulgent spirit than Messi is, which means that as Mbappe’s influence on the team grows, it is likely Mbappe will be forced to seek his own kingdom or Neymar will depart for pastures anew.

***

Mbappe is the best teenage footballer football has seen since Lionel Messi. His precocity is only surpassed by fantasies of how bright his star, once fully developed, could be. Before every match, he has a lollipop in his mouth, looking every bit the teenager that he is. He looks like he’s having fun because he really is – the game comes so easily to him, physically, tactically and technically. Will he be one of the best footballers on the planet? He already is. Let’s hope he continues to remain interested in being so.

 

Suarez, Struggling

Suarez

Note: This piece should have been published after the Valencia v Barcelona match at the Mestalla on 26 November 2017, so should be read in that context.

I recall watching Fernando Torres on his Chelsea debut, shaking my head as he flailed in the rain at the Bridge, willing his body, his instincts to catch up to his much-changed environment. Chelsea lost on the day and since then, Fernando Torres, formerly one of the most (if not the most) feared strikers in the world has been losing. He went on to score 1 goal in 18 games across the rest of that campaign. Bar one season with Chelsea, he has lost his battle for fitness, for form, for goals.

Andriiy Shevchenko moved to Chelsea in the summer of 2006, after guiding Ukraine to the World Cup quarter-finals on their maiden visit to the World Cup. At the time, his reputation was unimpeachable – over 7 years at Milan, he had secured his place in the pantheon of great European strikers. When he scored on his debut, in defeat to Liverpool in the Community Shield, England expected the most; instead, we got the least of Shevchenko.

In both foregoing scenarios, we saw irrepressible scorers’ reputations disintegrate so rapidly, the memory of what they were became a mirage; there, then not. Recency bias is a thing, and flailing footballers suffer most from it. You are only as good as your last game. Watching Luis Suarez this season, it’s easy to forget he scored nearly 60 goals last season. As he strains every sinew in his 30-year-old body to get on the end of a Lionel Messi, he’s pulled up for offside. Messi shrugs his shoulders, you want to break something – that was the 4th, 5th (?) time today. All eyes were on the Mestalla last Sunday as 1st met 2nd – it was late November and no, it was not a Clasico. Valencia, without the stresses of European football and inspired by new manager, Marcelino, have played an ebullient and energiser-bunny style of football. Led by the hard running, hard pressing Goncalo Guedes, the team was poised to test Barcelona. Yet, as the first half unfolded, the blaugranes seized control of the game, suffocating Valencia with their revived brand of possession and pressing. With renewed emphasis on midfield play under Valverde, the away side sparkled in the 1st half, although without creating any clear-cut chances.

Spotted throughout the match was Suarez, miscontrolling passes, grimacing as he willed his body to reach passes he was always offside for, swearing at linesmen as they did their job and he failed to do his. He had two presentable chances – one after a Jose Gaya attempted recovering clearance ricocheted off Suarez’s face and left him through on goal, the other a sharp turn and volley following a long ball. In the end, Jordi Alba was the one to a) stay onside (well onside, in fact), (b) make the run and (c) finish immaculately off an equally immaculate Messi pass. A friend, watching the game elsewhere, WhatsApped me after the game – “Bro, I see what you were saying about Suarez”. So, what had I been saying about Suarez? Here it goes:

“Luis Suarez may just be finished.”

Scandalous? Preposterous? Maybe not. I raise you Shevchenko and Torres as precedent, elite strikers that fell off so fast, you had to rub your eyes and watch YouTube highlights to find out if they ever really existed in any form other than fluffing gimmes for a living.

For a long time, I have agonised over Luis Suarez’s relentless ability to shock in both extremes. His catalogue of incredible goals rivals any striker in football over the last two decades (whisper it, but maybe in history). On the other hand, you’d be hard-pressed to find a striker that misses as many head-scratching “How the FUCK did he miss that” opportunities as he does EVEN when he’s in stellar form. That capacity for the sublime and ridiculous has always been a part of the Suarez package – and for a time, it has worked totally fine for Barcelona. His inconsistency in the rhythm and flow of the game is much-documented although surprisingly not as widely acknowledged as it should be. Initially, after moving to Barcelona, his regularly awry touch, his haphazard dribbling and messy passing were brought into sharp focus. This was particularly the case as he struggled initially in Luis Enrique’s confused not-yet-fully-formed system that placed Messi as a false 9 and Suarez as a right winger. As Enrique committed to moving the axis of team activity to the front 3, play became more direct – one benefit for Suarez. The ultimate move was Messi suggesting he play centrally. Suarez had never been a winger and in a team with technical demands such as Barcelona’s, his inadequacies were always highlighted when out of position. Played centrally, particularly with Neymar and Messi dribbling and creating from wide positions, he had one job – put pressure on defenders and score. Over his first three years at Barcelona, he did that with aplomb. Then, this summer, he moved to a new team.

Less is more, more is less

One day, it is possible that Neymar’s departure from Barcelona will come to be seen as the pivotal moment in the precipitous fall of Luis Suarez. Or one of the pivotal moments (his injury during pre-season – will come to that later – being another). With Neymar gone, Barcelona lost their Messi insurance policy for days the Flea decides to chill. They also lost a huge part of their verticality.[1] The signing of Ousmane Dembele was meant to resolve that problem but he quickly got injured. Throw in the appointment of Ernesto Valverde, a pragmatist like Luis Enrique, but in a very different player-attribute environment, and you had the makings of a new team. If Valverde ever planned to continue direct football at Barcelona, losing Dembele to injury stripped him of that option. Therefore, re-circling the side towards its midfield made sense, restoring control through possession, rigid structure and disciplined pressing. And some players have thrived. Jordi Alba is having a stellar season – one of his best in years – linking up with Messi and providing thrust from left back. Sergio Busquets, with the muscle of Paulinho next to him, reduced spaces between the lines and more company in midfield, is back to his short-passing, faint-inducing feinting best self.

On the other hand, though, no player has suffered quite like Suarez. Before now, his worst moments at Barcelona, in terms of goals and form in general, came at the start of his career at the Nou Camp – a similar situation is repeating itself with an accompaniment of exacerbating factors. With Neymar gone, no Dembele, and a lacking-in-confidence Gerard Deulofeu not providing useful support, Suarez has been required to do more this season. To begin with, he’s averaging nearly 6 more passes per game than he did last season, however he’s averaging fewer key passes than he has at any other point in his Barcelona career (his standard square ball to Neymar isn’t an option anymore). As he spends more time in possession, he’s also being dispossessed more times than before and is losing the ball more often to poor touches. And he’s still required to run channels, press even harder, and work both centre backs (without the twin distractions of Messi and Neymar). This is not Liverpool Luis Suarez, 26 years young, assisting, scoring, cooking, cleaning and basically doing all jobs, both menial and significant, at Anfield. At his age, and in this much-changed team, doing more has meant far less from Suarez. Barcelona has also never been his team – it’s style of play has never been tuned specifically to bring out the best in him. Where he excelled, it came as a by-product of getting others (Messi and Neymar) playing their best.

Take the first few weeks of the season, with the Juventus game a perfect example. As Lionel Messi ran rampant, re-enacting his false 9 glory days, Suarez predominantly played off the left wing, reprising a sort of David Villa role. He tried to create, he tried to make diagonal runs inside and generally was required to be more involved in possession play. He was shown up. Okay, so maybe he was played out of possession and struggled? Nope! As Valverde has gradually settled on a very loose 4-4-2, with Messi and Suarez as the front 2, Suarez has struggled even more. With Messi dropping deep into midfield to partake in the midfield carousel, Suarez has been left to provide a function for which, but two seasons ago, he had two (ability-wise, infinitely better) co-conspirators. As is often the case now, Valverde lines up his side with no wide midfielders which means less vertical penetration and less worry for opposition from wingers. Consequently, Suarez’s space has become constricted. Defences know they only have to track one runner in attack. And while the ball pings about in midfield, he remains the old Suarez – making runs and making a nuisance of himself. Except the runs are increasingly mistimed as he becomes a nuisance to his teammates. Even when he broke his scoring drought recently with a brace against Leganes, there were heavy hints of fortune in both goals that suggested they came about less by design and more by force of presence.

However, there’s more. But let’s recap to see where we are.

  • His game has always been painfully inconsistent.
  • He is being asked to play a new role.
  • He is effectively playing in a new team.
  • He is 30 years old.

Finally, if it doesn’t start with injury, injury never makes it better.

Both Shevchenko and Torres signed for Chelsea when both were half-fit/injured. The Ukrainian had rushed his recovery from a knee injury to be ready for Ukraine’s world cup campaign, while Torres, no stranger to hamstring injuries throughout his ‘scoring years’, was beset by numerous injuries (hamstring, knee, groin) in the lead up to the 2010 world cup, and, later, his move to Chelsea.

After initially being ruled out for 4-5 weeks with a knee injury picked up in the 2nd leg of the Spanish Super Cup, Suarez was declared fit to play for Uruguay not 2 weeks after. In reality, he was never fit – instead, the pressures of having to qualify for the world cup meant that national team and player suspended reason and did what they thought they had to do to qualify. The consequences of that decision may stay with Suarez for the rest of his career. Returning to a Barcelona having to compensate for the loss of Neymar has meant that, more now than ever before, Suarez’s presence in the team is invaluable. He could do with an extended rest and may get it over the Christmas break, but until now, he’s laboured along. For a player whose game has never been about the consistency of his touch and imagination, playing below peak condition only exacerbates deficiencies. History tends to repeat itself because the effects of age never really change – you lose a step, others catch on to your tricks and you start to look ordinary again. As Suarez enters his thirties, he’ll have to contend with Father Time. Meanwhile, Barcelona, like Chelsea before them, must reckon with inevitability of a star in decline.

 

[1] Ability to transition up the pitch at speed

Mourinho’s lack of ambition continues to hurt Manchester United – view from the Bridge

Chelsea did the usual at Stamford Bridge against Manchester United. A relatively straightforward victory, 1-0 flattered Manchester United. Bakayoko and Morata wasted wonderful openings as Chelsea, led by Cesc and Kante, dominated the United midfield and, by extension, the game. In losing, United fell 8 points behind City – things aren’t looking great for Jose’s men. We care – does he?

“8 points in the Premier League is not 8 points in Portugal, or in Spain, or in Germany” – Jose Mourinho at Stamford Bridge, 5 November 2017.

Having watched Guardiola’s Manchester City sweep Arsenal away earlier on Sunday, it’s hard not to think that. City, with their millions spent, and team clicking, will not run away with this league. They have won all but one of their league games so far (the one draw amazingly came against Everton at the Etihad). In fact, except for the Koeman-induced draw, they have won all their games this season. They have taken maximum points from fixtures against Liverpool, Arsenal and Chelsea. The victory over the latter was probably the most impressive, picking the Champions apart with panache, confidence and control at the Bridge. In many ways, that victory, for the “other Manchester team”, shows why this 8-point lead may be more than just that. It represents a gulf in personality and ambition between two managers.

There’s a well-known saying – “fortune favours the brave.” If you are brave enough, ambitious enough to try to take control of your destiny, provoking situations to bend outcomes your way, you will, more often than not, be successful. If only someone told Jose. You couldn’t read any football website worth its salt in the last week without coming across comment/news/analysis around Jose Mourinho’s away record against Manchester City, Chelsea, Arsenal, Tottenham or Liverpool. He hasn’t won away from home with Manchester United against those teams. His team has picked up 3 points from a possible 24 in those games.

After the game on Sunday, Mourinho observed that “the team that scored first was going to win”. His team has scored 1 goal away to the other members of the “Big 6” since he came to power at Old Trafford. When you play for 1 point, there’s an obvious problem – 1 point is closer to 0 points than it is to 3 points. In a game like football, often dictated by random events, your opposition trying harder than you to score means that, more often than not, the randomness will favour them.

A friend trotted out an ideal line-up for Manchester United: De Gea; Valencia, Jones, Bailly, Young; Pogba, Matic; Martial, Mata, Rashford; Lukaku. To which I responded – “it does not matter.” No matter the line-up, ambition will often dictate the outcome. Jose Mourinho’s two previous jobs were tainted by his lack of ambition at key moments. Who can forget Cristiano Ronaldo playing doggie in the middle, chasing after a ball Barcelona’s midfielders and defenders were only too happy to pass around him, before he threw up his hands in a massive huff. For once, I felt sympathy for the man – he wanted to play, to be on the front foot, but his manager didn’t want to.

At Stamford Bridge on Sunday, as Mourinho stood by the tunnel and greeted his old Chelsea players, it didn’t take the eagle-eyed to notice that he and Eden Hazard exchanged neither shake nor glance. It was like neither existed for the other. Eden Hazard was arguably the most critical factor to Chelsea winning the 14/15 Premier League title (under Mourinho). Hazard is also one of the reasons Mourinho was dismissed from his job at Chelsea (again). Creating an environment that allowed his best player to work his magic really was an excuse to do the least in pursuit of victory. Who can forget the spate of single-goal margin victories that carried Chelsea to the title in 2014/2015? Hazard got frustrated with a manager who sets out his team to defend, and takes credit for your own magic. He wants to do the least for the most. It might have worked before, but it hasn’t worked for a while. As the Citys and Spurs of the game continue to rise, it becomes increasingly unlikely to work. The problem, for Manchester United, is that this leopard is not about to change his spots.

“There are 18 teams more worried than us”, he said, attempting to dismiss the gap between 2nd and 1st. Standard deflection, really – and it’s not working. However, more worryingly, who or what is he interested in? Others looking worse than he is by reference to a gold standard? Where are the standards, Jose? His problem now is that Manchester City is setting the standard of quality. And for the first time in his career, he’s sharing a city with a “better” club. 2nd place will not be enough for Manchester United this season (or next). It’s also unlikely any new signings will help, regardless of what Jose and Duncan Castles would rather you believe. Indeed, while he initially talked about being at Manchester United for many years to come, his comments about Paris a few weeks ago should not be taken lightly. In Paris, Unai Emery is a sitting duck, playing puppet while Neymar and co. run the team. The Qataris will never say no to Box Office Jose, even if he now treats coaching as a 9-5. That link up is loading…

A final point must be made. Before he left the post-match press conference on Sunday, Mourinho said he had a special mention – for Marouane Fellaini. In short, he was injured for a few weeks, was only in the squad the day before, but came on, in difficult circumstances, and fought for the team and the club. Fellaini was not useless, no. He created some difficulties for Chelsea in the box, and had a decent opportunity saved by the relatively idle Thibaut Courtois. However, he was a liability in midfield and in possession. We all know he’s barely “Manchester United quality” (whatever that means these days). More tellingly, it’s standard divide and rule from Jose Mourinho, an expertly placed passive-aggressive subliminal intended to elicit some sort of desire in the unmentioned players to please him. At Real it was Arbeloa, at Chelsea it was Willian. The problem is that he never picks key players. Why? Because those are nearly always the ones that want to play. To express themselves, to go to the home ground of a big rival and play them off the park. Basically, they want to do what Mourinho does not want to do.

After the defeat at Huddersfield, Mourinho, in no uncertain terms, called out his players for playing with little attitude and desire. But they reflect him and his caution. He loves Marouane Fellaini because the best the player can give to Jose is loyalty and a steadfast dedication to carrying out his destroyer tactics. Mourinho allows him to justify his presence at Manchester United. That is Marouane Fellaini. Jose Mourinho should know that pinning his mast on players like Fellaini will get him nowhere, but one should ask this – does he really care anymore? And it’s the lack of care (a relatively new phenomena) coupled with the steadfast refusal to engage with his peers as peers (except in the media pressroom) that may make his presence at Old Trafford toxic sooner rather than later. He landed in England as The Special One. He left, was Perez’d and came back as The Happy One. He will leave England again, this time as The Disinterested One.

At Swansea – If I could bottle confidence…

The most impressive thing about this result was the confidence. The scoreline, embellished by 3 goals in the last 10 minutes, is impressive but that was only a product of the control and poise with which United played. The first half was all United possession, probing to break down Swansea’s disciplined 3-6-1. The breakthrough came from a corner kick, yet another set-piece goal – something we didn’t see much of last season.

As my post earlier in the week said, there’s no need to draw any long-term conclusions from the West Ham result – the same applies here. 2 games, 2 convincing wins, 6 points. What we are seeing is a work in progress, a construction on the right path. While there remain certain tactical questions – the absence of width in possession being an obvious one – the team is crafting an identity for itself. As @nanu759 says, a partonopei (“pattern of play”) is the first step to establishing sustained dominance. As almost certainly the tallest team in the league, the aerial threat is superbly complemented by the pacey brio and strength of a more mature Rashford, the finishing of a hungry Lukaku, and the clever scheming and direct running of Henrikh Mkhitaryan. Speaking of the Armenian, he was a class above today without ever looking like he was trying hard. His ability to turn off both feet was priceless while with his direct running late in the game, as it opened up, recalled the very best of the Bundesliga’s Player of the Season for 15/16.

The team’s spirit and togetherness is a welcome sight. As reports indicate, it is the best in years – Martial’s goal was eagerly celebrated by Marcus Rashford, with whom he’s obviously in direct competition with. Lukaku scored, and Martial celebrated it with a double fist pump – once again, a player happy for another whose presence in the team is a threat to theirs.

A final shout for Phil Jones. 2 games in and no hobbling must be a beautiful thing to see. His reading of the game was measured, his tackling strong. His partnership with Eric Bailly seems to be blossoming.

3 points, onto the next one.

RU

Opening Day at Old Trafford – avoiding lazy conclusions

To paraphrase @dianekristine, there’s a tendency, in football (particularly football), to draw permanent conclusions from temporary situations. The media cycle is so rapid, the readership’s hunger for ‘expert’ opinions so ravaging that amidst the rush to generate the rowdy conversation that echoes in our pubs, bars, classrooms and living rooms, nuance is often the sorry victim.

This past weekend, Manchester United set out a perfect example. At Old Trafford, Manchester United spanked a strong West Ham side. 4 goals, a comfortable clean sheet and goals from players who, for varying reasons, needed them. In the aftermath, the reaction of the so-called experts has ranged from “Manchester United laid down their title credentials” to “Were Manchester United that good or West Ham were that bad?”

On one hand, you get an unequivocal statement and on the other, a statement which necessarily, for media purposes, provokes the sort of incendiary debate that obscures what is evident. What is evident then? That Manchester United played a very good game from 30 minutes onwards. For the first 30 minutes, there was a lack of cohesion and fluency – West Ham held a solid shape, allowed very little space between the lines and it looked like 16/17 again. However, Lukaku’s opener was symbolic of what this new United represents – pace and power, with the ability to punish teams on the break. With the goal, confidence flowed and the team played with greater panache. 4-0 was hardly flattering, notwithstanding that the final two goals in the dying minutes.

Was West Ham bad? Are oranges orange? It’s like asking to see heads of a coin expecting tails. It’s not common, in football, or any sport in fact, to be good, to execute properly and be properly trounced. As good as Manchester United was, the first 2 goals could be ascribed to lapses in concentration from West Ham players. Doth two individual lapses a narrative create? Perhaps not.

Taking a step back as a supporter that has been burnt by optimism in the last 4 seasons, a 4-0 win to begin the season is a strong start. But it’s 3 points – that’s all. United travels to Wales this weekend to face Swansea – that’s another match, another opportunity to pick up 3 points. A poor performance (or worse, a poor result) will have the murmurers murmuring again, jumping to conclusions.

RU

 

Moments (3) – A Stunner at the Theatre of Dreams

The irony of consolation goals is that they never really are. For a goal to be a consolation goal, the game really must be out of reach, which then raises the question of what there is to celebrate. “Ironic cheers” often accompany such, especially where there seems to be a belated effort to rescue the game – like mouth-to-mouth on a dead horse. Another curiosity about these goals – they are often spectacular. With nothing to lose, players can let loose, be free and try things. “Row Z? We lose anyway.” This piece recalls one such goal. As you read, recall your favourite consolation goals…

 

7-1.jpg

“On a scale of 1-7, I was a 9”

SE7EN – 1

The delight on Cristiano Ronaldo’s face was picturesque, back when his joy was unsullied by conceit. It was a more innocent time for him, and indeed for Manchester United. Back then, the sense of self-congratulation and self-promotion that has invaded the club today was absent. Arising from the ‘barren years’, there was a humility among stars that had shrunk, and upcoming stars that had never tasted true success. Ronaldo scored his 1st Champions League for Manchester United in his 4th season – he didn’t take it for granted. Roma, the recipient of his virginal vaccination, took 6 more gleefully delivered goals. As a fan, it was a night of ecstasy at the Theatre of Dreams, especially following the 2-1 trouncing (yes, trouncing) received at the Stadio Olimpico a couple of weeks prior.

7-1. Ryan Giggs’ 4 assists (joint most assists in a game with Neymar, I believe), Alan Smith’s calmly executed exclamation mark to a sleekly constructed counter-attack (still one of my favourite goals ever), Michael Carrick’s locating Her Majesty’s bonce in the top corner…Patrice Evra (before he loved this game) scoring the 7th goal while cutting in from the right as an inverted right back. These were memorable, particularly so when recalled as a collective happening. However, nothing remains as vivid, and as incomprehensible, as Daniele De Rossi’s consolation…

The Moment

It’s 6-0 at the time. The game is dead and buried. There is no Twitter, so my excitement is confined to the gleeful anticipation of catching up with friends when I return to boarding school. Roma hasn’t played badly – they’ve just been blown away. Nobody blames the oak tree for being uprooted in a hurricane. Heading towards the 70’ mark and Francesco Totti, in possession, drifts out to the right wing, lifts his head and surveys his options. Before he’s closed down, he whips a medium height cross into the box. I don’t think there’s any danger because:

1. It is SIX – ZERO; and

2. De Rossi is backing the…SIX – ONE!

I remember the ball hitting the net and Van der Sar trying and giving up at the same time. I think I clapped; no, I know I clapped. I know I wanted to see the replay because my mind refused to fully process what my eyes had seen. The replays don’t show anything I didn’t see before – he’s fully backing goal, with no sight of where it is. The ball comes across and he wraps his right leg around to connect with the ball at an angle, exerting enough spin, to send it flying into the bottom corner which he is completely backing. I’m a sucker for technique – it remains one of the most impressive volleys – goals – I have ever seen. Period. A picture says a thousand words so here’s a moving picture for you to view:

“Back to goal? No problem”

What Came Next…

Kaka came next, a freak of his time reminding us that the consistency of a freak is a surer bet than freak 7-1 victories. Milan stomped past Fergie’s boys in the semi-final on the way to yet another Champions League success. Manchester United ended the season as English Champions for the first time since 2003.

RADU