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Arsenal woe down to Wenger, Milan sides have far to go, Chelsea impress

I couldn't believe that someone actually asked Louis Van Gaal whether Manchester United's performance in their 2-1 win at Arsenal on Saturday was the best United has played this season.

Talk about mistaking results for performance. To his credit -- unlike some managers who might have basked in the afterglow of a win at Arsenal and suggested it was all part of a master plan -- Van Gaal is brutally honest. He doesn't need to make himself look good.

"With the way we played in the first half, I certainly don't think so," he said. "In the first 25 minutes we gave the ball away so easily ... it's not possible for a top team, and because of that Arsenal created a lot of chances. Fortunately, we have a very good goalkeeper."

Van Gaal made no secret of Man United's lucky win at the Emirates.

This was the typical game that could have taken a wholly different turn had keeper David De Gea's heroics been more limited or Danny Welbeck and Jack Wilshere more accurate. If Arsenal had gone 2- or 3-nil up, United would have had to chase and lose their shape, and manager Arsene Wenger's men would have been back in business.

But the fact that it didn't happen might actually be a good thing for the Gunners. Maybe it will display -- for the umpteenth time, it has to be said -- Arsenal's limitations and the fact that they're not being addressed.

"I was sure that Arsenal wanted to attack and to press us," Van Gaal said. "You know that Arsenal give a lot of space away, and then [Per] Mertesacker and our friend [Nacho] Monreal have to defend."

Put like that, it's pretty simple. Sure, you can say United's lead was fortuitous given Kieran Gibbs' own goal/collision. But stuff happens. What's less fortuitous was United's second goal. With 15 minutes to go, there were 10 Arsenal players in United's half when Marouane Fellaini initiated the counter that resulted in Rooney's goal.

"With the disappointment of being 1-nil down, everybody wanted too much to go forward," Wenger said, before adding something about "defensive maturity."


Kieran Gibbs is 25. Nacho Monreal, 28. Mikel Arteta, 32. Per Mertesacker is 30 -- and he's a World Cup winner. If you want to play the "maturity card," it applies only to Calum Chambers at right-back. And, lest we forget, this is the same Chambers whom Wenger trusted to play centre-back earlier this season.

Gibbs' error and United's subsequent second goal are as much Wenger's fault as anyone else's.

These are his defenders. This is the team he put together. And sure, a fit Laurent Koscielny might have made a difference. So too would a fit Mathieu Debuchy, if only because Chambers could have moved into the middle and offered a bit more defensively than Monreal, who is a recycled full-back.

But guess what? Arsenal had a net spend of 53 million pounds ($83 million) in the summer. Wenger is the guy who thought he could get by with just two senior centre-backs (Mertesacker and Koscielny), plus a 19-year-old (who is more of a full-back anyway) with zero minutes of Premier League action to his name before this summer (Hector Bellerin). And he's the guy who thought that, should something go wrong, Chambers or Monreal could deputize as central defenders.

Best of Premier League Week 12 Ratings and Reaction

- Premier League Team of the Weekend
- Brewin: Excuses aplenty for Wenger, Van Gaal
- Arsenal ratings: Defeat was 'typical Wilshere'
- Man United ratings: De Gea the hero again
- Brewin: Pool crash at Palace again
- Liverpool ratings: Abject all round from Reds
- Delaney: Chelsea on song vs. West Brom

And it's not as if Wenger didn't have money to spend. He had plenty. And he spent it. Most of it on attacking players such as Danny Welbeck and Alexis Sanchez, because -- evidently -- the manager thinks you can never have enough.

Most of all, it's Wenger who works with these guys every day in training. It's Wenger who gives them a defensive structure. If they're lacking the "defensive maturity" to not lose their marbles when they go a goal down inside of an hour against an opponent they pummeled for most of the first half, it can mean only one of two things.

Either the players ignore Wenger's instructions, or he's not driving them home enough. Either way, it's a problem. And it would have been a problem even if they'd scored those goals in the first half-hour.

Derby shows Milan, Inter's collective limitations

Unless you've been living under a rock, you'll know that this is a low point in Milanese football. The city, the fans and the stadium deserve better. The San Siro crowd, the displays by the two sets of Ultras, the heritage of the fixture ... all of this demands more than what we saw on the pitch.

It's not that Sunday's 1-1 draw between Inter Milan and AC Milan was a boring game. We saw a tremendous goal from Jeremy Menez, a nice one from Joel Obi, and the ball twice hit the woodwork.

There was plenty of endeavour; there was just a general lack of quality, with a few notable exceptions. And while much of that qualitative deficit might be down to the belt-tightening precipitated by financial fair play and years of losing money, some of it is down to the choices made by the two managers and their clubs.

You look at Milan and you see Michael Essien and Sulley Muntari who, of course, were Ghana's starting midfield ... in the 2006 World Cup. That's right, eight years ago, which, funnily enough, is roughly the time when Fernando Torres was one of the hottest young strikers in Europe, banging in goals for Atletico Madrid.

Sunday's Milan derby showed promising signs for both clubs, but there's still a long way to go.

Pippo Inzaghi can complain about injuries to key players such as Riccardo Montolivo, Ignazio Abate and Nigel de Jong. But, heck, injuries happen. It doesn't mean you have to relegate Andrea Poli to the bench. He isn't a superstar by any stretch, but Poli brings a bit of dynamism, unlike Essien, who isn't the player he was before he got hurt ... four years ago.

Nor does it mean you have to persist ad infinitum with Torres up front when it's obvious that he seems to be invisible to Menez. The joke is that it isn't true that Milan began playing with a "false 9" after Keisuke Honda came on for Torres -- they were playing with one before, too.

You can perhaps cut Inter manager Roberto Mancini a little more slack. It was his debut; he needed a result, and he got one. Dropping Nemanja Vidic took courage -- not because it wasn't the right thing to do but because he's a big, pedigreed name -- and Mancini was entirely vindicated. But sticking Mateo Kovacic wide in a way-too-deferential 4-5-1 formation backfired badly. There's no point adding extra cover wide when the opposing fullbacks don't attack. Besides, isn't Kovacic the guy around whom Inter were going to build the future?

Sure, there are some positives you can take.

If you're Milan: Giacomo Bonaventura looked great (no way he should lose his place when Montolivo is fully fit), Stephan El Shaarawy looks fit (if not accurate), Honda confirmed he provides instant intensity, and the back four (even with Adil Rami as an emergency full-back) weren't terrible.

It was a slow but steady start for Roberto Mancini in his second term as Inter manager.

And if you're Inter? Well, Freddy Guarin looks up for it, Samir Handanovic saved everything that could be saved (Menez's wonder goal does not fall in that category) and the spirit looks reasonable.

But there is so much work still to do. Inzaghi would be well served ditching the counterattacking setup. Especially if he sees the light and drops Torres. Mancini needs to find a scheme that provides enough defensive cover and gives him the ability to transition quickly, while also keeping Kovacic in the midst of the action.

It's a long way to the light at the end of the tunnel. We're still in pitch-black darkness.

Chelsea look superb in deceptive win

If you watch only the highlights and look only at the stats, you can easily misread a game. You could look at Chelsea's 2-nil win over West Brom and jump to conclusions. Diego Costa's goal was probably offside and shouldn't have counted. That changed the game early, until Eden Hazard got a second, and then the poor old Baggies had to play more than an hour with 10 men. And still Chelsea could win only 2-nil.

You'd be totally and wholly wrong. Chelsea's first 45 minutes at Stamford Bridge were some of the best football you're likely to see from anyone this season. Cesc Fabregas said it was the most fun he'd had playing football for as long as he could remember ... and he's won World Cups and European Championships.

With a testy Champions League encounter against Schalke up next, Saturday's easy win over West Brom was perfect timing for Chelsea.
Chelsea looked sensational in beating West Brom, further proof of their status atop the Prem.

On one level, you could say a win is a win. Chelsea are undefeated and seven points clear. So they beat a bottom-half-of-the-table side at home -- isn't that what they're supposed to do?

Well, yes. But how they do it matters, too. Chelsea had a bumpy ride at home against the likes of Leicester, Swansea and Queens Park Rangers before going on to win -- the latter raised manager Jose Mourinho's ire, as he complained about the home support.

This was all set up for something similar. Post-international break, humdrum opponent. Instead, Chelsea took the field with the kind of focus and intensity they normally reserve for A-list opposition, and with the kind of creativity that Mourinho's critics say he lacks.

Score this one for the manager.

Messi makes more history, let's enjoy the ride

Three league games without a goal. To most strikers, it's a blip; to Lionel Messi, it's the Sahara desert. After all, it had happened just once in the past three-and-a-half years.

Throw in a turbulent week, when he hinted he might not be at Barcelona in perpetuity, and the usual dime-store psychologists who wonder whether the pressure of breaking Telmo Zarra's record is getting to him, and you can see why, perhaps, some weren't feeling particularly bullish about Saturday when Sevilla traveled to face Barcelona at the Camp Nou.

But then he stepped on the pitch and everything was fine. More than fine. His hat trick sparked a 5-1 victory that kept Barca within two points of Real Madrid. He equaled and surpassed Zarra's mark and then added another -- brilliant -- score for good measure.

Two-hundred and fifty-three goals in La Liga, another 107 in assorted cup competitions for Barcelona. And, yes, he's only 27.

Sid Lowe did a great job of outlining the backstory, which also helps explain why Barca director of football Andoni Zubizarreta and club president Josep Maria Bartomeu were jeered so roundly by the Camp Nou faithful.

Whatever Messi does from here, let's just enjoy the ride.

That's reality. There may come a time when Messi moves on. Heck, Messi's rise was itself facilitated when the club allowed Ronaldinho to move on -- the guy who, at the time, was the best player in the world. Who's to say if, in a few years, Neymar reaches Messi-esque proportions, the club might not make a similar decision?

But all that is in the future. Right now, he's here and he's making history. Let's appreciate it for what it is and for what he does on the pitch. We'll miss it when he's gone.

Wigan owner Whelan should keep quiet

Maybe Wigan owner Dave Whelan doesn't believe the alleged racist, sexist and homophobic messages that manager Malky Mackay and his buddy Iain Moody allegedly sent each other are a big deal. Maybe he thinks Mackay should have the equivalent of his day in court -- or the footballing equivalent, which in this cases means waiting for the FA's independent investigation, which, of course, moves at a glacial pace. Maybe he believes Mackay went a little over the top but deserves a second chance.

Whatever the case, Whelan can hire whoever he wants as manager. Wigan is his club. But with his comments after hiring Mackay, Whelan has made Mackay's return even more difficult than it already was.

That means not giving your opinion to the media on matters of race.

Whelan claims he was misquoted by the Guardian's David Conn; either way, there was no rational reason for him to think he'd be helping Mackay in any way by sharing his views with the world.

Get well soon, Marco

More heartbreak for Marco Reus in Borussia Dortmund's 2-2 draw with Paderborn. Reus was injured after being tackled by Marvin Bakalorz -- who ironically spent three years in Dortmund and is a fan of the club -- which means he's out until 2015.

It's Reus' third injury in the last five months: The first, on his other ankle, cost him the World Cup, while the second coincided with Dortmund's early-season slide. You can only feel sorry for him and wish him the best.

Rodgers is running out of excuses

Since Sept. 1, Liverpool have won just four of 15 games. And three of those four wins -- against Swansea in the League Cup, Ludogorets in the Champions League and Queens Park Rangers in the Premier League -- have come courtesy of injury-time goals. Sunday's 3-1 defeat at Crystal Palace was their fourth straight in all competitions.

Brendan Rodgers is running out of excuses. He can't trot out the line about Daniel Sturridge being injured every week. He can't blame Mario Balotelli (he was injured). Nor can he call out his players too much: yes, they were flat and lacked intensity, but as Steve Nicol pointed out on FC TV Sunday night, that's supposed to come from the manager.

Rodgers is the only one who can fix Liverpool's mess at this stage.

Going with a lightweight midfield -- Philippe Coutinho and Joe Allen alongside Steven Gerrard, who had a poor game -- was a conscious decision and it backfired. The back four were poor -- again -- but, to some degree, they have been all season. And up front, you could see the logic in teaming up Rickie Lambert with his old teammate, Adam Lallana, and Raheem Sterling -- except it didn't work.

Rodgers took ownership of the situation after the game, saying it was "his responsibility" to sort it out. That's all he needs to say. Now, it's time to get Liverpool out this mess.

Napoli look very un-Benitez at the back

Anybody watching video of Rafa Benitez during his Liverpool heyday -- better yet, during his two Liga-winning campaigns at Valencia -- would struggle to believe that this is the same guy currently managing Napoli.

Benitez's strength for so long has been defensive organization and structure. This Napoli side is the opposite. This team looks excellent going forward but is frustratingly wobbly at the back.

Counting Sunday's 3-3 draw with Cagliari (and, to be fair, you may want to give him a slight pass because playing against any Zdenek Zeman coached side is like playing a different sport), Napoli have kept a grand total of TWO clean sheets at home in all competitions (against Roma, which was impressive, and against Young Boys in the Europa League). That's two clean sheets in nine home games.

Napoli managed to leak a total of eight goals at home to Palermo, Cagliari and Verona, who aren't exactly Real Madrid, Chelsea and Bayern. And, of course, massive defensive blunders cost them their place in the Champions League.

Napoli remain third, and colander-like defending aside, have looked reasonable. It must be so frustrating, though, for Benitez, who finds that one of his traditional strengths is now a weakness.

Another win for Bayern, perfectionist Pep

Bayern demolished Hoffenheim 4-0 on Saturday. Wolfsburg's 3-2 defeat at Schalke means that Bayern's lead at the top of the table is now up to seven points. Bastian Schweinsteiger made his return, coming off the bench 132 days after the World Cup final.

But was Pep Guardiola happy? "We had problems with our buildup play... we carelessly gave the ball away too often," he said. "Maybe it was the formation, with five attackers."

Umm ... yeah, Pep. We appreciate you're a perfectionist, but you did put out something approaching a 4-1-5 formation. You used a back four shielded by Xabi Alonso and then Arjen Robben, Franck Ribery, Thomas Mueller, Mario Goetze and Robert Lewandowski. Heck, it's an interesting experiment; it's bold, it's attacking, maybe it's something you wanted to try out. Nobody has ever accused you of being conservative.

You can't have that front five on the pitch -- all of whom are "direct" players -- and then be disappointed when they fail to unleash some tiki-taka hurt on the opposition. You fixed it at the hour mark (when you were 2-nil up) by sending on Sebastian Rode for Mueller, and that was that.

Guardiola's perfectionism -- that incessant need to push the envelope and improve, always demanding more from himself and his players -- is part of what makes him great. Appreciate it.

Gabriele Marcotti is a senior writer for ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @Marcotti.


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