Liverpool vs. Man City lived up to hype, Real in free-fall, Wenger woe
Not every game lives up the hype, especially the incessant, percussive kind where commentators and pundits go out of their way to regularly remind you that what you're watching is fantastic and entertaining and you made such a clever choice with your leisure time.
But Liverpool vs. Manchester City certainly did. It was breath-taking, high-speed stuff, blending technique and work-rate against a raucous backdrop. Oh, and City suffered their first defeat in a "real" game since April. (Sorry: the Shakthar Donetsk game doesn't count, for obvious reasons.) Their unbeaten run therefore stops at 30 matches, the sixth longest in the history of top-flight English football.
Liverpool didn't necessarily unlock some magic kryptonite. They did what other teams who created problems for Manchester City did: press high while maintaining their shape in midfield. (Or, as Steve Nicol put it so aptly on the show Sunday night, "forcing City into areas where they did not want to be.")
It was a controlled press, especially in the middle of the park, and it's what stopped City from doing what you're supposed to do against sides who press high: exploit the fact that opponents are out of position and play your way through it.
You don't need a genius manager to draw up the blueprint but they do have to drill this way of playing into their players and get them to execute. On the day, Liverpool (particularly Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain and Georginio Wijnaldum) did it brilliantly. Any time Nicolas Otamendi has to step into midfield with the ball at his feet, you know you're doing something right.
That said, it's worth remembering that three of Liverpool's four goals were exquisite, difficult strikes. Or, put differently, low-percentage shots. It's not something you want to, or should, rely on. Then again, sometimes it's the only way to beat Manchester City, especially since they managed to keep their defensive shape and organisation for much of the game.
On the flip side, those two late goals (and, for that matter, the Loris Karius blunder) underscored Liverpool's usual defensive frailty. More worryingly, perhaps, is the fact that they weren't a function of their style of play -- this wasn't due to center-backs left exposed in the open field -- but rather simply down to poor execution. Is it something Virgil Van Dijk can fix on his own? Probably not. He'll help but they should serve as a reminder that Jurgen Klopp still has work to do under the hood.
As for City, Pep Guardiola didn't seem overly bothered after the game. Defeat was always in the cards at some point. If you're going to nitpick, the insistence on playing out from the back, particularly when it was obvious that what Liverpool were doing was working, could have been interspersed with the odd ball over the top for the pacy Leroy Sane or Raheem Sterling. Indeed, it was just such a ball (Kyle Walker to Leroy Sane) that led to their opening goal. Maybe Sterling, who was stifled all game, could have come off sooner: whether it was the crowd or just a poor day at the office, he clearly wasn't himself.
Whatever the case, this didn't feel like the sort of setback that leaves a mark when it comes to City. Klopp, on the other hand, will be hoping that this was some kind of seminal moment, the point at which it all came together. Keep this up and folks will be forgetting all about Philippe Coutinho in double-quick time.
Real Madrid's crisis continues
Now it's ugly. It's no longer about being 19 points behind Barcelona; it's about being just one point clear of Villarreal for fourth place and a spot in the Champions League. (Real Madrid do have a game in hand but they also have the decency not to bring that up right now.)
"We have to focus on qualifying for the Champions League next season," said Toni Kroos. "We have to think about our current position."
Saturday's 1-0 home defeat to Villarreal means the defending champions of Europe and Spain have now lost more points through 18 games than they did through 38 last season. It was also the second time in their past three home games that they failed to score; when you consider that not long ago they found the net in 73 consecutive matches, this is a pretty extraordinary stat.
Zinedine Zidane pointed out that unlike the draw at Celta last week -- a game they deserved to lose given that they conceded plenty of chances -- this time they could have been several goals up at half-time. He's right and if Cristiano Ronaldo, who managed to take no fewer than eight (!) shots in the first 45 minutes, had his shooting boots on, we might not be having this conversation. But that shouldn't take away from the horrendous second half.
Real looked tentative and insecure after the break and while that may be normal for most teams and players after a frustrating half, this is Real Madrid. These are guys who have won everything there is to win, veterans who have been through the metaphorical wars. The last thing you'd question about them is mentality but this is what went missing as much as anything else.
The focus is now squarely on Zidane and you suspect that if he's going to turn it around, he'll need to do it by coaching and scheme rather than personnel. This is an XI packed with "undroppables." There's very little wiggle room, not because there isn't talent on the bench but rather because of the status of the starters. And that's tough, because there are more than a few regulars who could use a breather right now if it helps them regain their mojo.
That Paris Saint-Germain round of 16 game in the Champions League looms larger than ever not just in terms of Real's season, but for Zidane's future too.
Wenger's tactics lead to another defeat
Arsenal endured a horrendous afternoon away to Bournemouth, throwing away a lead and losing 2-1 in a Groundhog Day of bad defending and midfield listlessness. You feel as if volumes have been written about the Gunners' recent ineptitude (it's their fifth straight game without a victory) and the fact that they were without Nacho Monreal, Laurent Koscielny, Mesut Ozil and Alexis Sanchez isn't much of a mitigating circumstance.
Most baffling, perhaps, is Arsene Wenger's insistence on a back three. It's something you do when it maximises the characteristics of the players around you and when you have an oversupply of talented central defenders. But he doesn't. He has Callum Chambers, Rob Holding and Shkodran Mustafi. There are some situations beyond Wenger's control, like injuries, and there are others which he may have been responsible for but there is no crying over spilt milk, like Ozil and Sanchez. There are others still where he makes a rod for his own back. This was the latter.
Aubameyang nearing end at Dortmund?
A decimated Borussia Dortmund were held at home by Wolfsburg, but it was Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang who stole the headlines once again. For the third time in just over a year, he was suspended by the club for disciplinary reasons: this time, it was missing a team meeting.
"We simply cannot tolerate this kind of behaviour," said BVB sporting director Michael Zorc. "I don't want to take part in media speculation but we can't continue like this any more."
Those are strong words aimed at a guy who has bagged 21 goals in 23 games this season. And you wonder if we've reached his tipping point, the one where he's more problem than solution -- or, indeed, if we passed it some time ago.
Aubameyang's representatives spent much of the summer peddling him around Europe, unsuccessfully. In this window, he's already been linked with the perennial move to China and, most recently, with Arsenal. (This link, you'd imagine, is all about Alexis Sanchez's imminent departure and the arrival of Sven Mislintat, Dortmund's former chief scout at the Emirates, though it's hard to see how, with Alexandre Lacazette and Olivier Giroud already there, Aubameyang would be a priority for the Gunners.)
The stark reality is that Aubameyang turns 29 this summer and has already developed a reputation. His goal-scoring is unquestioned but his baggage is becoming an issue. And that inspires cold feet in those teams who are expected to shell out north of £60 million on him.
Chelsea's latest draw is on Conte
The headline of three straight scoreless draws for Chelsea is slightly misleading (the first 0-0 in the series, against Norwich in the FA Cup wasn't Chelsea, it was some weird "B-team") but that doesn't change the fact that Antonio Conte's crew were poor and off the pace against Leicester City on Saturday.
Conte blamed fatigue, which can be an explanation at best, but certainly not an excuse. Not when Leicester could easily have come away with the victory. It's easy to jump to the conclusion that maybe he's distracted by the Jose Mourinho feud or uncertainty over his own future at the club, but that's too easy an explanation. Conte is used to feuding and whatever else he may be, he's not insecure.
More plausibly, it's simply poor personnel choices (Tiemoue Bakayoko was in no condition, mentally or physically, to play) and getting outwitted on the day.
Barcelona's stirring comeback
So much for the curse of Anoeta: Barcelona came from two goals down in a driving downpour to dispatch Real Sociedad 4-2.
This was exactly the sort of match where you could have forgiven them for dropping points. Instead, they got a couple of breaks -- the jury is still out on whether Luis Suarez's first goal was meant to be a cross and Geronimo Rulli gifted them a goal with an errant clearance -- and rode both their superior quality and mental toughness.
Suarez scored for the sixth consecutive match (he's up to 15 on the season, wiping out his slow start) and Paulinho, an increasing goal threat from midfield, also found the net. The downside? Andre Gomes struggled (again) and Ernesto Valverde's 4-4-2 (possible future blueprint) needs some work. But they'll have plenty of time to get into it.
Leipzig win without several starters
Sometimes Leipzig get a little too clever and sometimes they get the balance just right. Already without two starters, Emil Forsberg and Marcel Halstenberg, Ralf Hasenhuttl opted to leave Timo Werner, Lukas Klostermann and Stefan Ilsanker on the bench as well for the visit of second-place Schalke.
The result was a 3-1 victory that could have been bigger had Jean-Kevin Augustin not fluffed his penalty. Schalke may feel a bit hard done by but the fact is if they're going to be contenders, they need to raise their game in matches like this.
After the game they issued a pretty strong statement regarding Naby Keita, who scored in the game and is set to join Liverpool in the summer. Philippe Coutinho's move to Barcelona prompted Liverpool to try to get him over in January, but they apparently won't allow it. It will be interesting to see how resolute they are... or how hard Liverpool try.
What was this ref thinking?
I have no idea what went through the head of referee Tony Chapron during PSG's 1-0 win over Nantes Sunday night. By now, I assume you've seen this. What we do know is that he's been suspended indefinitely by the French Football Association, has admitted the collision with Diego Carlos was accidental and will ask that the second yellow he showed him be rescinded, which the league did on Monday afternoon.
It's easy to mock the guy and it's only fair that he pay for his mistake. Goodness knows he's been ridiculed everywhere around the world. But let it also be a reminder that Chapron is human and human beings occasionally have massive brain farts... like this one.
Spartak have a long way to go
This story is a reminder that some folks still need to be educated on how to treat others.
By the way, credit to the club for removing the tweet. But simply getting Fernando to say "there's no racism at Spartak, we are a family" won't cut it. Nobody is accusing them of being a hive of racism, just that they could be a bit more respectful and sensitive when referring to people of color.
Doucoure should be banned for handball
Southampton were flat-out robbed of two points when Watford's Abdoulaye Doucoure scored an evident handball goal late in their 2-2 draw Saturday. For a team struggling to avoid relegation, those two points could be massive come the end of the season.
I think this is pretty simple and it ought to be an obvious case for retrospective punishment. We debate having it for players who dive even though simulation is very rarely cut-and-dried. Why not have it here, where there is no debate whatsoever to be had?
The game shouldn't be about conning match officials. There should be a long ban in these situations because there is no grey area, no "looking for contact" or "evasive action" or anything like this. And even if it wasn't intentional -- and it's pretty obvious that it was -- Doucoure knew immediately that he handled the ball and he still went off to celebrate, deceiving the referee. That's unsporting conduct and while we all like to be cynical and all, it's against the Laws of the Game.
Throw the book at him so that nobody else is tempted to do this.
Bas Dost scored a hat-trick in Sporting's 3-0 victory over Desportivo Aves, which saw them leapfrog Porto (who have a game in hand) at the top of the table. He now has 19 goals in 18 league matches, putting him on pace to score 36 league goals this season. Overall, he has in 24 in 30 games in all competitions.
This concludes the latest instalment of #BasDostWatch.
Gabriele Marcotti is a Senior Writer for ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @Marcotti.