It was an FA Cup weekend in England, league title races heated up around Europe, and we have a ton of talking points to dissect at the end of it all. Liverpool’s slide continued as the defending champions were knocked out by Brighton, while PSG, Real Madrid and Bayern Munich all looked sluggish in league play for different reasons.
There was drama in Italy as Napoli continued to extend their lead atop Serie A while Milan and Juventus suffered humbling defeats to Sassuolo and Monza respectively. Borussia Dortmund got a morale-boosting victory to stay in the Bundesliga’s top four, Casemiro (of all people) popped up with goals for Man United and Pedri again stepped up for Barcelona.
It’s Monday, and Gab Marcotti reacts to the biggest moments in the world of football.
What a difference a year makes for Liverpool
This time last year, Liverpool were second in the Premier League and had just strengthened the side with the addition of Luis Diaz. They were one-third of the way into a nine-game winning streak — 12 if you count the League Cup final victory on penalties against Chelsea, and 18 if you discount the Champions League defeat against Inter, since they still went through on aggregate. They would win both domestic cups and not lose a match that mattered until the last game of the season, against Real Madrid in the Champions League final.
Twelve months on, they’re out of both domestic cups — on Sunday, they fell 2-1 to Brighton — they’re ninth in the table (and 10 points away from fourth place), they face a tough rematch against Real Madrid in the Champions League round of 16, they lost a posse of the recruitment gurus who masterminded their rise (namely Michael Edwards and Julian Ward), and they’re up for sale.
No wonder Jurgen Klopp looked wearier than usual on Sunday.
Liverpool weren’t terrible against Brighton, and they might even have scored a couple of goals in the first half. But they fell away badly after the break and, perhaps most concerning, appeared to lose discipline: witness the fouls from Fabinho and Andy Robertson that could easily have been red cards. (In fact, the Fabinho one left you wonder what sort of “threshold” exists in the mind of Neil Swarbrick, the VAR who didn’t tell referee David Coote to have another look.) When guys like Fabinho and Robertson — veterans who have been there, done that and bought the commemorative T-shirt — act like that, you know something is seriously wrong.
Obviously injuries (Jota and Diaz have been out since October) have played a big part, but right now there’s a dangerous sense of drift that Klopp must contend with. More than keeping Darwin Nunez healthy (and living up to his transfer fee), more than integrating Cody Gakpo (who has felt like a foreign object in recent games), more than figuring out what happened to the real Fabinho, more than getting Mohamed Salah to fire again (to be fair, he’s looking better), that’s the single biggest challenge: bringing back the swagger and confidence and purpose to this team. Given what’s happening off the pitch, it’s not easy, but losing Klopp — or even just losing Klopp’s belief — would be a real body blow.
As for Brighton, lest we forget they were without two key pieces who had been a huge part of their recent success: Leandro Trossard (who is now at Arsenal) and Moises Caicedo (who may or may not soon be joining him in North London). Unfazed, Roberto De Zerbi put his faith in Kaoru Mitoma (who responded with a stunning winner) and a gifted 18-year-old Irishman named Evan Ferguson, and he reinvented Alexis Mac Allister and Pascal Gross as a defensive midfield duo (further proof that we get too fixated on definitions). In the end, they fully deserved the three points.
Three games without a win for Bayern … and a lot to sort through
Bayern’s 1-1 home draw with Eintracht Frankfurt (whom they’d beaten 6-1 on the road earlier this season) was their third straight. As a result, their Bundesliga league lead is down to a single point.
We are so accustomed to seeing the Bavarians dominate that it’s normal to ring the alarm bells, but in fact, they had an even worse stretch back in October (three draws and a defeat). These aren’t exactly uncharted waters. The difference is that this comes against the backdrop of unrest, from sporting director Hasan Salihamidzic calling out Serge Gnabry in public for his trip to Paris Fashion Week to the firing of Manuel Neuer’s goalkeeping coach (and close friend), Toni Tapalovic.
Julian Nagelsmann’s plan had been to send out an even more attacking side than unusual: two wingers, a center-forward, Jamal Musiala and Thomas Muller together in the “hole” behind the center-forward, and Joshua Kimmich essentially playing midfield on his own. The thinking was that Eintracht were going to sit deep and try to hit on the counter, so you might as well pin them back.
Bayern created enough chances to win — though far fewer than usual — but they also felt flimsy in transition (good as Kimmich is, he can’t carry an entire midfield on his own) and Nagelsmann himself acknowledged this after the game, when he said they’re struggling against teams who sit deep.
Club CEO Oliver Kahn says he’d rather have a bad run now than later in the season. Sure, except the first leg of their Champions League round of 16 game against Paris Saint-Germain is coming up on Valentine’s Day. Get that wrong, and there may not be much of a “later in the season.”
It feels as if the issues run deeper than injuries (Sadio Mane, above all) and loss of form (Alphonso Davies had a rough time). Nagelsmann can only do so much, especially since you get the impression that — even after 18 months and even after the club went to such expense to bring him in — some Bayern old-timers still see him as the “new kid.” Emphasis on “kid” just as much as “new.”
Real Madrid get a performance, but not a result
If the knock against Real Madrid of late had been a certain stodginess and reliance on individuals — rather than dynamism — to win games, Sunday’s game against Real Sociedad turned that on its head. Carlo Ancelotti’s crew played with intensity and drive, fully matched by a Real Sociedad who are third in the table for a reason. Yes, Madrid were without Ferland Mendy, Aurelien Tchouameni, David Alaba and Luka Modric, but the visitors also had some key pieces unavailable (David Silva and Mikel Merino).
In the end, it was an entertaining game that could have gone either way. Madrid probably shaded it by virtue of the fact that Alex Remiro made more big saves than Thibaut Courtois. The result may feel like two points dropped for Real Madrid, the fact is the performance showed there’s plenty of fight here and they can still lift their game and take it to the opposition when required. Which is not something to be taken for granted …
Casemiro’s goals carry Man United past Reading
Maybe it did take Manchester United longer than expected to dispatch Reading, a side from the bottom half of the Championship, but two goals from Casemiro — of all people — sent them on their way, and now you’d imagine their serious contenders for both the FA Cup and the League Cup.
After nine years at Real Madrid, his pricey move to United could have gone either way: a gilded early retirement package on a rebuilding side unlikely to compete for several years, or a chance to bring leadership and know-how to an evolving group. Right now, it’s looking like the latter.
Casemiro seems to embrace the dirty work in midfield (often with a smile on his face), and his decision-making and tactical intelligence make him stand out. Whether it’s Casemiro’s professionalism or Erik Ten Hag’s leadership, United have themselves a difference maker who is keen to seed the long-term project.
Bad to worse for Juventus as Max Allegri starts talking relegation
There have been so many poor performances this season under manager Max Allegri that it’s hard to say where the weekend’s 2-0 home defeat to Monza ranks.
Whatever he was trying to do tactically didn’t work — not with the back three, not when he moved to a back four at half-time, not when he reverted to a three at the end — nor did his bet that Mattia De Sciglio (out since early October) could come back in and help. Yet even when you get your coaching choices wrong, individuals sometimes can bail you out. Except in this case, he wasn’t helped at all by the players, especially Leandro Paredes, Filip Kostic, Bremer and Angel Di Maria (not to mention De Sciglio, but that’s a whole other story).
Most concerning is Allegri talking about how the players need to buckle down and realize that if they don’t turn things around, relegation is a real possibility.
Now, I get the fact that the 15-point penalty has stunned everybody, but the fact is that as poor as Juve have been, only two teams won more points than they did this season. (Even in defeat to Monza, opposing keeper Michele Di Gregorio had to make some superb saves and but for a bonehead move from Bremer, needlessly touching a ball that was already going in from an offside position, they would have got on the scoresheet.) And, more significantly, there are 11 points — and five teams — between Juve and the third-bottom side, Verona.
Are we sure it’s wise to motivate the players by going all Chicken Little on them at this time?
Pedri rescues Barcelona, but Xavi wants more
Pedri was meant to get a rare day off against Girona, but Ousmane Dembele’s first-half injury meant Xavi threw into the mix. Good thing too, because the wunderkind scored the only goal for a Barca side who notched their third straight 1-0 victory.
It turned out to be remarkably close, mainly because there was no Robert Lewandowski up front (Ansu Fati is a talent, but probably not in that role) and Dembele’s one-on-one game went missing when he came off. And, in fact, Girona laid siege to Marc Andre ter Stegen’s goal late on, while Ivan Martin had a miss of the season contender.
All hail Pedri, then, though what to make of Xavi saying “he needs to do even more?” Is that putting too much pressure and unrealistic expectation on a kid who only turned 20 in November?
I’d tend to say no. You need to put your trust in your manager, especially when it’s a bright guy like Xavi, and assume he knows which buttons to push. Another player might struggle under that weight of expectation, but Xavi, who was around both Ronaldinho and a young Messi (and was something of a young phenom himself), presumably knows which buttons to push with Pedri.
Napoli gut out a big win against Roma … bringing the Scudetto a step closer
At some point soon, their fans will start calculating their “magic number.” The visit of Roma was a potential trap for Napoli, and not just because Jose Mourinho’s Roma were coming off three straight wins and had not lost since early November. Paulo Dybala was in excellent form; this was still a Mourinho side high on motivation and intensity, capable of derailing any opponent on their day.
Napoli took the lead with Victor Osimhen (14 goals in 16 Serie A games for him), wobbled under the Roma fightback and equaliser and then grabbed the winner through Giovanni Simeone. Credit Spalletti for sending on the Argentine for Osimhen — in fact, he changed his entire front three during the game, something not many managers would have had the guts to do — because right now, it feels as if he can’t put a foot wrong.
PSG are sleepwalking again. Will it cost them?
Don’t look now, but it feels as if Paris Saint-Germain are doing their own version of dry January. They’ve had just one win in 2023 and Sunday night’s draw against Stade de Reims — a club built on a shoestring and managed by a 30-year-old named Will Still who doesn’t even have his full coaching badges — underscores just how far away they are from where they want to be.
The chasing pack keep dropping points, too, so Ligue 1 probably isn’t in question, though Lens could have moved within a single point this weekend. But the main concern has to be whether they can just turn it on when it counts, starting with the Champions League clash against Bayern. The “MNM” front line of Kylian Mbappe, Neymar and Lionel Messi was worryingly flat (other than, at times, Neymar), Marco Verratti (who really should know better) got himself sent off after coming on and in a turgid first half, they managed a single shot on goal.
In short, they’re mailing it in right now.
After weeks of darkness, FA Cup has Son shining again for Spurs
It’s fair to say Tottenham are living through uncertain times. Their coach, Antonio Conte, is on an expiring contract. Their sporting director, Fabio Paratici, has been banned for football (pending appeal) for his time at Juventus. Before Saturday, they had lost two of their three previous games (against the top two sides in the league, sure, but generally stinking it up on the pitch) and fourth spot in the league was getting no closer.
Under those circumstances, the FA Cup could be seen both a distraction and an opportunity to regroup — that’s how Conte treated it anyway. Against Preston, he made seven changes and played Ivan Perisic at center-forward. It wasn’t about winning as much as it was about seeing what the squad players could do and seeing if some of the star-crossed starters could regain their mojo.
Son Heung-Min answered the call with two gorgeous strikes in the 3-0 win. (The other was from the new arrival, Arnaut Danjuma). Son, the Premier League’s joint top scorer last season, had scored just four in 21 league games this year and just one since mid-September. While his work off the ball remained solid, his attacking contribution had seriously dried up and he looked imprecise and rattled. Those two goals — not the kind of strikes you take if you’re shy on confidence — could mark a turning point. At least Conte will be hoping they do.
Lautaro carries min-effort, max-result Inter
Lautaro Martinez did not have the best of World Cup — no goals (though he did convert a penalty in the final shootout), two starts and then a bunch of substitute appearances — yet he picked up where he left off after his return. His two goals in Inter 2-1 away win at Cremonese make it seven in seven.
His contribution to the win, coming as it did after the horrendous defeat at Empoli, was critical. Inter were solid and just focused on the result, unfazed after David Okereke’s worldie sent them a goal down. It’s probably what they needed and what, unlike their rivals for the runner-up spot (Milan and Juve), is keeping them from unraveling.
Terzic outwits Xabi Alonso as Dortmund halt Leverkusen’s run
Edin Terzic is no fool. He knows Borussia Dortmund are maddeningly inconsistent, and he knows it’s his job to fix that. Against Xabi Alonso’s red-hot Bayer Leverkusen, he came up with a plan that worked a peach … though if it had come up short, he would have been eviscerated.
Knowing Bayer Leverkusen’s high possession attacking proclivities, he packed the Dortmund midfield with two holding players (Salih Ozcan and Emre Can) and got his wingers, Karim Adeyemi and Julian Brandt to do double duty as auxiliary wing-backs. Up front, he opted to give the big fella, Sebastian Haller, his first start since returning from cancer treatment. It meant leaving out his gaggle of “skill” guys — Gio Reyna, Raphael Guerreiro, Donyell Malen — but hey, so be it.
It’s true that Gregor Kobel had to make some huge saves to keep Leverkusen out, but it’s also true that if Dortmund had turned this into some kind of shootout, odds are they would have come up with the short end of the stick.
Saul to the rescue for battling Atletico Madrid
Come the end of the season, we may come to remember Atletico Madrid’s 1-0 away win at Osasuna as a turning point. It marked only the second time this season that they managed to win back to back league games, and it vindicated Diego Simeone’s choices. And it showed, against a gritty opponent who had not lost in 2023, that the players are still very much onside.
Including, it seems, Saul, the star-crossed midfielder — and walking, talking evidence that long-term contracts aren’t always a wise choice — who seemingly already had his bags packed to move elsewhere this window. It’s going to be a hard slog to secure a Champions League place, but Simeone knows that, for now anyway, his crew are united behind him.
The bottom falls out for Milan against Sassuolo
A reigning champion going six games without a win, conceding nine over two games and losing 5-2 at home (and it was two only because Divock Origi, the man known for scoring important goals, is now the man who scores irrelevant goals) is perhaps not unprecedented, but it’s exceedingly rare. It’s the situation Milan find themselves in following their home humiliation against Sassuolo.
Coach Stefano Pioli says they need to reevaluate the way they play, and it may mean moving away from the pressing game they played so effectively last season. That’s the thing about the press: if the intensity drops, your defence is exposed. And if, on top of that, your defence is underperforming and lacking in confidence (and your starting keeper is injured), then things unravel pretty quickly.
The good news is that they’re still third in Serie A. The bad news is that while Pioli is a smart and versatile tactical mind, this team was built to play a certain way. If you have a game plan that you believe works and has worked before, how much of it do you sacrifice to deal with a current rough patch?
That’s the million-dollar question he’ll have to answer.