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FC 100 is about team, not just stars

FC 100
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Man United still on track despite defeat, Real rout Sociedad, more

Paul Mariner breaks down Manchester United's loss at Newcastle and Liverpool's triumph at Southampton, as the race for second place in the Premier League heats up.
Paul Mariner breaks down Manchester United's loss at Newcastle and Liverpool's triumph at Southampton, as the race for second place in the Premier League heats up.
The ESPN FC panel answer your tweets on Paul Pogba and Jose Mourinho's time at Manchester United. Plus, what's Barcelona's best formation with the addition of Philippe Coutinho?
Jose Mourinho reveals his thought process behind withdrawing Paul Pogba in the second half of Man United's 1-0 defeat at Newcastle.

Following Sunday's 1-0 defeat at Newcastle, Jose Mourinho said that it was one of those days when even if Manchester United had played another 10 hours they would not have scored. Maybe so. They created four clear-cut chances and didn't put them away in part because they weren't as clinical as they could have been, in part because Martin Dubravka had a monster game in the home goal.

But that doesn't change the fact that Newcastle had chances too, mainly because United had serious issues in midfield and at the back. Eric Bailly can't come back soon enough. (It looks like he's facing a battle to be fit in time to face Sevilla next week.) As it stands, it's not at all clear that Phil Jones and, especially, Chris Smalling (pathetic dive aside) are the sort of center-backs with whom you win major trophies. Not as starters anyway.

(Sure, there's no doubt that someone will point out Smalling has already won two Premier League titles and Jones has one. So here's some context: Smalling started 21 games in total in those two title-winning seasons, many of them at full-back. Jones started 13 in his title-winning season.)

It doesn't mean you write them off. Jones has been slowed by injuries and doesn't turn 26 until later this month. Maybe he can come good in some capacity, but it's obvious they have not performed -- and not just on Sunday -- at the level you expect from a United center-back.

That said, they weren't helped by the fact that Nemanja Matic and Paul Pogba in particular were poor. In Pogba's case, it's the second consecutive start in which he badly underachieved following the Tottenham game.

Because it's United and because it's Pogba, you'll get all the familiar tropes.

A second bad game in a row for Paul Pogba has the critics talking but Man United shouldn't panic yet.

Was he fit? (Mourinho says he was; others doubt this.) Why can't he play in a two-man midfield? (He can when those around him are doing their job but he's just probably better in a three.) Shouldn't a guy who cost so much money be able to play anywhere? (That's just stupid. Neymar cost more than twice as much and you probably wouldn't want him at center-back. More to the point, you generally want your biggest assets to be put in a position where they do maximum damage to the opposition.).

Why doesn't Mourinho go with a 4-3-3? (Because Marouane Fellaini and Ander Herrera are injured, Michael Carrick is 36 and Sunday was his first Premier League appearance and Scott McTominay has started two more league games this season than Scott Baio; in short, Mourinho's alternatives are nothing to write home about though you'd imagine he'll move in that direction at this point.)

All of this provides talking points, as does the debate over how best to use Alexis Sanchez and whether Antony Martial belongs on the right wing, but the key thing to remember is that as poor as United were, the ratio of quality chances created to those conceded is squarely in their favor. They're still second, they're still far ahead of where they were at this stage of the campaign in any season since the Sir Alex Era and they're making forward progress. The fact that their "noisy neighbours" at City are breaking records makes them look worse, but there's no reason to throw out the baby with the bathwater just yet.

That said, this summer will be key. Mourinho has had enough time to figure out what works and who works and who ought to be shown the door. Get to June without slipping and they can live to fight another day.

Things getting better for Real Madrid?

If it's about making sure you're firing on all cylinders when you come to the tie that will determine whether or not your season ends in early March -- read: if Real Madrid get knocked out by Paris Saint-Germain, it's all over and time to plan for 2018-19 -- there were encouraging signs for Zinedine Zidane. Real Madrid blew away Real Sociedad in the first half with four goals, hit the woodwork twice and looked to be at their free-flowing best, before understandably relenting a bit after the break on their way to a 5-2 victory.

Cristiano Ronaldo nabbed a hat-trick -- he's now up to 24 goals (all competitions) on the season, which is more than he had at this stage last year -- while Toni Kroos and Marcelo all looked sharp. On the flip side, the fact that Zidane dropped Gareth Bale and Casemiro and opted for a 4-4-2 with Karim Benzema and Ronaldo up front and Lucas Vazquez and Marco Asensio on the wing offers limited clues about what might come next. As good they looked, it's hard to imagine him leaving out a defensive midfielder (or Bale, for that matter).

Oh, and the Benzema conundrum remains. On the one hand, they need a center-forward and he's the only one they have (other than Borja Mayoral, who is 20 and, for now, over-matched). On the other, he was booed again by the crowd and looked off his game despite hitting the post.

Diarra needs time to settle at PSG

Paris Saint-Germain (no surprise there) won away to relegation-threatened Toulouse, 1-0, although it took more than an hour for Neymar to score the winner. There was no Edinson Cavani but Kylian Mbappe looked sharp.

What was interesting was seeing Lassana Diarra in the midfield stopper role. It's why he was brought in -- there was no alternative to Thiago Motta -- but he showed the sort of ring rust you'd expect from somebody who was making only his second start for PSG and just his 15th start since the beginning of the 2016-17 season. Rumors abound that he'll get the nod ahead of Thiago Motta at the Bernabeu; if that's the case, it's the kind of big call that could see Unai Emery walk away as either a genius or a fool.

Tottenham thrash Arsenal 1-0

Harry Kane and Dele Alli celebrate after Tottenham take the lead in their Premier League game against Tottenham.
Kane again showed why he's so vital at Spurs as they enjoyed another derby win.

Harry Kane is Tottenham's most important player by some margin (duh...) but Mousa Dembele is also a difference-maker in key games. He bossed the midfield against Arsenal in the North London derby and when he's on form like this, his combination of physical presence and technical excellence makes him nearly unplayable. It also means that Mauricio Pochettino can put Son Heung-Min into the front four without worrying that the middle of the park will be undermanned.

Spurs dominated Arsenal and probably should have been ahead by several goals. Some found Arsenal to be too defensive but in truth, that was down to Tottenham pinning them back and nullifying the creative threat of Henrikh Mkhitaryan, Jack Wilshere and Mesut Ozil, all three of whom were decidedly poor.

If there's a reason to be concerned in Tottenham's run to the top four, it's that they too often make at least one key mistake a game. Sometimes they pay a price and sometimes they don't, like on Saturday when Alexandre Lacazette fluffed two opportunities. Toby Alderweireld's return, which may or may not be imminent, should help in that regard.

Should Wenger worry about Lacazette?

Speaking of Lacazette, you could tell from the way he finished (or didn't) those two chances that he's tentative right now. Arsene Wenger, clearly referring to the arrival of Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang, said that "maybe the confidence is not at its highest because he has seen a competitor coming in for him."

There are two points to be made here.

Some players thrive when facing competition, some do not. You would have expected Arsenal to know in which camp Lacazette fell when spending big on Aubameyang. The other is that Wenger gave the impression that Aubameyang's arrival wasn't entirely down to him. It may be a misreading but the fact remains that last summer, Arsenal (like many others) had the opportunity to sign Aubameyang but chose Lacazette instead. And this was when Wenger was in sole charge, before the arrival of Raul Sanllehi and Sven Mislintat.

Sarri's doing something special at Napoli

Juventus' win over Fiorentina on Friday night put all the pressure in the world on Napoli when they entertained Lazio on Saturday. They needed a win to get back on top. They didn't just get the three points, but they offered another Maurizio Sarri masterclass against an opponent who, despite some recent wobbles, were third in the table and a tough out for anyone.

Two bits of eye candy sum it up better than I ever could. This sequence of 37 consecutive passes and the stunning build-up to Dries Mertens' goal.

There's more than one way to play football and Sarri's Guardiola-esque tendencies aren't the only way to do it. But when it works, it's the perfect synthesis of purposeful possession, using the ball to disrupt defensive lines and how synchronized movements make the whole greater than the sum of its parts.

Whatever happens this season, Sarri has already made history.

Barca shouldn't panic about draw

Barcelona were held 0-0 at home by Getafe. There's no reason to panic: the lead is still seven points over Atletico Madrid and Getafe are exactly the sort of side that can make life uncomfortable. Jose Bordalas is something of a defensive specialist and you could see this being the sort of match where either Barca scored and the floodgates opened, or it would remain tight until the very end.

Vicente Guaita had one of those games where he turns into an octopus (in a good way) and while Barca had their chances, they failed to convert. More of a concern, perhaps, is the progress of the new signings. Yerry Mina lined up alongside Lucas Digne at center-back (Digne hadn't played there before) and it didn't look great. It's going to take time for Mina to adapt to La Liga and not look clunky: playing alongside a real central defender will no doubt help but his sheer size raises questions about his first step.

And then there's Philippe Coutinho, who was tried in the Andres Iniesta role with Paco Alcacer joining Luis Suarez and Lionel Messi up front. It might take him even longer to get in sync with his teammates because he won't be handed the keys to the side anytime soon. In that sense, spending a little extra to bring him over in January and giving him more time seems like money well spent.

Reus' return a boost for Dortmund

Borussia Dortmund felled Hamburg 2-0 to rise to third place in the Bundesliga table. It says a thing or two about the state of the league this season that a team that's won just four of its previous 15 league matches can still be third, but that's a discussion for another time.

Marco Reus made his return after some eight months out and while it may take a while for him to find full fitness, he's obviously a value-add. And what a story it would be if he forced his way into the German team for the World Cup as well. (I'm not holding my breath but it would be fairy-tale stuff.) Oh, and Michy Batshuayi scored again, making it three goals in two games since his loan move from Chelsea.

Aguero still has a big role to play at Man City

Sergio Aguero and Kevin De Bruyne
Sergio Aguero's hat-trick on Saturday showed why he's still so vital to this revamped Man City side.

Whether you were more impressed by the performance of Kevin De Bruyne or Sergio Aguero in Manchester City's 5-1 drubbing of Leicester City is almost a philosophical issue. We debated it on the show: Ale Moreno and Stevie Nicol went with Aguero but I picked De Bruyne, mainly because some dubious goalkeeping played a part in two of Aguero's goals. Ultimately there really isn't much in it.

What's remarkable about Aguero is that it wasn't too long ago that he was being dropped for a Champions League clash against Barcelona. And multiple sources said Pep Guardiola was leaning towards pushing Gabriel Jesus, whose pressing and work off the ball he considered better. Had Alexis Sanchez arrived in August, maybe Aguero would have been expendable next summer.

When facts change, opinions change. Right now, Aguero's finishing is simply out of this world and ensures that whatever limitations he may have off the ball are far outweighed by the way he converts chances into goals. He already has 28 goals in just 32 appearances in all competitions for City. Another six between now and the end of the season and it will be the most prolific of his seven years at the Etihad, eclipsing last year. Which -- surely just a coincidence -- was also under Guardiola.

Bayern are just making it work

Jupp Heynckes wasn't there (flu) but Bayern Munich stuck with the rather lop-sided 4-1-4-1 formation against Schalke on Saturday. They nearly paid dearly for it. They went a goal down and eventually won 2-1, though that was mostly a result of two goalkeeping howlers from Ralf Fahrmann in the Schalke goal. Well, that and the fact that Bayern simply have far better players as evidenced by the fact they are 22 points clear of Schalke.

It's not that a 4-1-4-1 formation is necessarily a bad scheme. After all, it's basically what Manchester City (and Guardiola, Bayern's old boss) play. It's just that for it to work you need the right players. Arturo Vidal is not Fernandinho (especially as he ages) and leaving him to patrol the area in front of the back four on his own doesn't feel like a wise choice: indeed, he got caught up the pitch for Schalke's goal. Equally, James Rodriguez isn't the most dynamic player and out wide, Franck Ribery and Arjen Robben are both 34 years old: putting added off-the-ball burdens on them seems counter-intuitive at best.

Domenico Tedesco's crew showed how this scheme and personnel are vulnerable to a well-drilled side and right now you can't escape the notion that it's more about shoe-horning the big names (and dressing room leaders) into the starting XI than any coherent plan.

Gattuso working wonders for Milan

Milan made it four wins in five with a resounding 4-0 victory away to SPAL. That gap with the top four, which stood as high as 14 points, has been whittled down to nine in six weeks. And they still have a Coppa Italia semifinal return leg and the Europa League ahead.

Many (including yours truly) were skeptical when Rino Gattuso took over, but results speak volumes and even more so, the attitude and intensity displayed on the pitch. It's also encouraging to see him put faith in a homegrown youngster (Patrick Cutrone) sometimes at the expense of pricey signings like Andre Silva and Nikola Kalinic. Cutrone, who only turned 20 last month, bagged two goals this past weekend, bringing his seasonal total to 12 in just 17 starts.

Milan's issues upstairs -- with the ownership and the $350 million loan to Elliott Management, which needs to be repaid in six months -- are well-documented, but all Gattuso can do is control what he can control: on the pitch. And he's making a difference there.

Gabriele Marcotti is a Senior Writer for ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @Marcotti.

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