Real Madrid crisis over, Man United vs. Man City a snooze, Liverpool and Bayern look tired, Barca need work

It was another wild weekend in soccer as Real Madrid shrugged off “crisis” talk to beat Atletico in the derby, the top three in England (Tottenham, Liverpool, Chelsea) all dropped points, Bayern’s flaws are proving hard to paper over and Dortmund responded to a humiliating defeat by firing manager Lucien Favre. The Manchester derby was a frustrating snooze, Juventus won a fourth in a row for embattled boss Andrea Pirlo, and Arsenal’s woes continue to pile up.

– Stream ESPN FC Daily on ESPN+ (U.S. only)
– ESPN+ viewer’s guide: Bundesliga, Serie A, MLS, FA Cup and more

It’s Monday, and Gab Marcotti reacts to the biggest moments in the world of football from the past week.

Jump to: Real reborn | Dull Manchester derby | Milan’s minor slip | Tired Liverpool | Bayern’s dropped points | Spurs’ need for speed | Does Havertz fit at Chelsea? | Why Dortmund fired Favre | Barca have work to do | Juve making progress | Woe for PSG | Leipzig’s title challenge | Inter win again | Lovely Leverkusen | More Arsenal misery | And finally…

Real Madrid respond to “crisis” week with three big wins

After defeat against Shakhtar Donetsk in the Champions League on Dec. 1, the script was pretty clear: Real Madrid boss Zinedine Zidane had, according to the media, three games to save his job. (Or, perhaps more accurately, three games to decide if he wanted to stick around). Three games with plenty at stake against Sevilla away, Borussia Monchengladbach to avoid a historic group stage Champions League exit and table-topping Atletico Madrid in La Liga.

And what happened? Real got three wins and three clean sheets, including Saturday’s 2-0 win over Atletico in the derby, which was their first Liga defeat since Feb. 1.

More importantly, it wasn’t just three wins, it was three convincing performances, three games that remind you that Real Madrid have really gifted players who, for whatever reason, rally behind their manager with purpose when they sense he’s in trouble. Of course, folks like Luka Modric, Toni Kroos, Sergio Ramos and Raphael Varane would be better off — as would the team — if they did this more regularly rather than, as often happens, just often enough to get a result.

It wasn’t just about character and application, either. Zidane also earned his bacon in terms of tactics and game prep. Dani Carvajal’s return at right-back helped stabilize the back line and provided attacking oomph. Lucas Vazquez (picked ahead of Rodrygo and Marco Asensio) out on the wing was another hit: he offered a steady supply of service to Karim Benzema. My colleague Sid Lowe noticed another wrinkle: Modric and Kroos lined up very wide in the midfield three, helping to shut down Atletico on the flanks.

– Real ratings: Zidane’s side back in title race
– Zidane: ‘Nothing has changed’ in winning run
– Champions League draw: Real get Atalanta, Atletico vs. Chelsea

As for Atletico, Diego Simeone making three changes at half-time (off go Hector Herrera, Yannick Carrasco and Felipe, on come Angel Correa, Renan Lodi and Thomas Lemar) and overhauling his system — lest we forget, they were only 1-0 down at the time — was the equivalent of a manager holding his hand up and saying “I got it wrong, let’s try something else.”

play

1:17

Ale Moreno feels Diego Simeone’s defensive tactics were Atletico Madrid’s downfall against Real Madrid.

Crucially, it was the change he didn’t make until 17 minutes from full-time that contributed to his downfall. Luis Suarez contributed close to zero in this game, in part because he looked woefully out of form, in part because Atleti simply couldn’t get him the service he needs. Yes, there’s a streak of sentimentality in all of us and, maybe, in Simeone too: perhaps he thought the old warrior would find a way.

The other substitution that will be talked about was yanking Joao Felix at the hour mark for Saul. The young Portuguese phenom didn’t appear to take it well at all, and while you can’t fault Simeone for wanting Saul (despite his indifferent form of late on the pitch) perhaps that was the moment to take off Suarez, not Joao Felix.

Atletico remain level on points with Real Sociedad, but they have two games in hand. You pretty much have to consider them frontrunners to win the league at this stage, despite the weekend defeat. If you’re Simeone, it’s not tough to spin the narrative, internally at least, that while Real Madrid can best them head-to-head (as they’ve done regularly of late), leagues are won in the weekly grind of results. And, here, with a bit of Cholismo (whether 1.0 or 2.0), Atleti have to believe they can do it.

Why such a drab Manchester Derby?

play

1:21

ESPN FC’s Craig Burley explains he was more disappointed with Man City in the goalless draw in the Manchester derby.

The Manchester derby reminded us of some basic football truisms: Fatigue and fear of failure don’t lend themselves to entertainment or even particularly good football.

You can understand this from Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s perspective. Reintroducing a version of the diamond midfield (with Paul Pogba, despite the recent hullabaloo, in the starting XI) and battening down the hatches against your local rivals a few days after getting knocked out of the Champions League makes sense. It’s not a good idea to juggle chainsaws when you already have a couple of flesh wounds.

– Solskjaer: ‘Big moment’ for Man United
– Europa League: Man United get Real Sociedad in last-32
– Pogba, Raiola and Man United: Unpacking the transfer mess

It’s tougher to grasp Pep Guardiola’s logic in adopting a conservative approach. (Most striking, perhaps, was the sight of Phil Foden and Bernardo Silva warming up endlessly in the second half: Guardiola would go on to use just one substitute.)

Was it fatigue? Sure, it’s been a rough and tiring season for everyone, but just three of his starters on Saturday — Kyle Walker, Fernandinho and Riyad Mahrez — played the previous midweek in the Champions League against Marseille.

Was it a fear of failure? Meh. City’s worst-case scenario in case of defeat would be to find themselves nine points back with a game in hand. A draw means it would have been eight points back with a game in hand. If you can live with one, you can live with the other, no? Especially with with more than two-thirds of the season left to go?

– Ogden: Man City miss their chance on derby day

Plus, this conservatism doesn’t feel like Pep. Especially away against a team that, in the Premier League hasn’t scored form open play at home since week one of the season.

That said, City should have taken the lead with the one early clear-cut chance they created, when Kevin De Bruyne set up Mahrez. Put that away and potentially everything changes. Maybe that’s he was hoping for in the second half, only with a different outcome. Except it never came.

Milan don’t win, but it’s no big deal

play

1:26

Shaka Hislop questions if Milan will be happy with a draw or upset to drop points vs. Parma.

Milan dropped points on Sunday night when they were held 2-2 by Parma, but it was the sort of draw that does little to diminish the belief that maybe, just maybe, they could win the title. They hit the woodwork four times, they came from two goals down and they played with belief until the very end.

– Replay: Milan 2-2 Parma, ESPN+ (U.S. only)

Theo Hernandez was back to his best, scoring both goals and, of course, Zlatan Ibrahimovic is expected to return in midweek. He’ll rejoin a side that, without him, went six games unbeaten in all competitions, winning four. And that’s good news. Because the less Ibrahimovic needs to carry the team (and, conversely, the more he can be a mere centerforward, preoccupied with finishing and turning service into goals), the better it is for Milan and Stefano Pioli.

Lessons from Liverpool’s draw

play

1:25

Mark Ogden says fatigue is catching up with Liverpool ahead of their crunch match with Spurs.

How poor was Liverpool’s first half against Fulham? They could have been three goals down, if Ivan Cavaleiro’s finishing was better and if the referee had listened to VAR’s suggestion to award a penalty when the Portuguese forward was brought down by Fabinho. That’s probably why a furious Jurgen Klopp stalked the sidelines shouting “WAKE UP! WAKE UP!” to his bemused team.

They did just that after the break and, while the equaliser may have been a bit fortunate (memo to Aboubakar Kamara: watch where your arms go when you’re in the wall) it wasn’t against the run of play. Liverpool have been hit hard by injuries, but more than that, they looked mentally exhausted until the break.

– Hamilton: Fulham draw shows why Liverpool need to spend
– Former Liverpool boss Houiller dies at 73

The good news is that Alisson and Trent Alexander-Arnold are both back and that Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain — out since last season — is on his way. On the flip-side, Diogo Jota will miss at least six weeks, which means less of a breather for the front three and a chance for Takumi Minamino and Divock Origi to show they deserve to be part of the forward rotation.

On a day when none of England’s traditional “Big Six” won, at least they got a point and kept pace with Spurs.

Bayern’s draw with Union Berlin was a long time coming

play

1:14

Is back-to-back draws a cause for concern for Hansi Flick and Bayern Munich? Jan Aage Fjortoft weighs in on what’s to come.

Union Berlin rode their underdog chutzpah to a 1-1 draw with Bayern Munich on Saturday. To be fair, it’s a game which could have seen the home side score three or four goals, though, typically at the very end, it was the Union keeper Andreas Luthe who made an unreal last-ditch save to deny Hansi Flick his three points.

Bayern have, of course, the injury alibi, though even that is starting to dissipate. Joshua Kimmich’s absence is huge, sure, and both Lucas Hernandez and Corentin Tolisso have been in and out (though both featured in the past week) and Alphonso Davies finally returned after his long layoff. But here’s the thing: The cracks have been there for a long time. Expected Goals have their limitations, but in each of their last six Bundesliga games, dating back to the win at Cologne on Oct. 31 — Bayern have lost the xG battle (just like they did against Union Berlin).

– Replay: Union Berlin 1-1 Bayern, ESPN+ (U.S. only)

Can you explain it all away with Kimmich’s absence? No, but it’s evidently a big part. Because Jamal Musiala, brilliant as he is (and will be), can’t be expected at his age to play out of position in central midfield and not get knocked around. You wonder too if perhaps with a bit more leadership in the middle of the park, Flick’s high defensive line — which has gotten deeper in the last few games — wouldn’t be so vulnerable.

There’s enough talent here to paper over cracks, but you can tell this Bayern side isn’t well (witness Serge Gnabry’s horrendous control when through on goal). They play midweek and then there’s the huge game against Bayer Leverkusen who — gasp! — may well be ahead of them in the table.

Tottenham need to keep up the pace vs. lesser teams

play

1:05

Mark Ogden discusses Dele Alli’s return to Premier League action and Spurs’ huge game with Liverpool.

I’m reluctant to read too much into Tottenham’s 1-1 draw against Crystal Palace. On the one hand, you’re tempted to see this as vindication of what some suspected: that this is, primarily, a side that counterattacks and plays in transition very well, and is therefore likely to have a more difficult time against teams that do the same. But that’s not what happened against Palace. Vicente Guaita made a string of phenomenal saves to stop Tottenham from building up a two- or three-goal lead. (That said, he also messed up badly on Harry Kane’s goal). And, of course, Palace’s equalizer was also the result of a goalkeeping error, this time from Hugo Lloris.

– Olley: Spurs must defeat lesser teams in title race
– Europa League: Tottenham draw Wolfsberger AC in last-32

The bigger concern for Mourinho is how his team offered virtually nothing between the final minutes of the first half and Palace’s goal, other than an Eric Dier header and late free-kick. If you’re going to play like this, you have to keep up the intensity, particularly against a side like Palace, who are blessed with individuals who can win their one-on-one battles.

Havertz a square peg in Lampard’s system

play

2:02

Gab Marcotti and Julien Laurens discuss the pressure on Chelsea to win in draw with Atletico Madrid.

Edouard Mendy’s blunder — possibly caused by a collision a few minutes earlier that appeared to leave him dazed — gave Everton the penalty that ultimately was the difference between them and Chelsea on Saturday. Frank Lampard’s side enjoyed a ton of possession, but little in the way of cutting edge. With Hakim Ziyech, Christian Pulisic and Callum Hudson-Odoi, Lampard stuck Kai Havertz out on the wing, where he struggled to have much of an impact.

– Chelsea ratings: Havertz & Co. slump at Everton
– Lampard: Chelsea get ‘toughest’ UCL draw vs. Atletico

It’s hard to believe that’s where Havertz’s future lies, but at this stage Lampard evidently believes it’s more important to get him on the pitch, particularly when you’re short on bodies. Lampard talked about the youth of his team, but you wonder if perhaps, if you’re going to experiment anyway, maybe this would have been a situation to try a front two — Timo Werner and either Olivier Giroud (making his third start in four games, after not starting at all since last season) or Tammy Abraham — with Havertz in the hole. At least that would have freed Havertz to do his thing.

Five goals too far for Favre

play

1:17

Gab Marcotti questions Pep Guardiola’s tactics following their 0-0 draw with Manchester United.

Saturday’s 5-1 hammering at home against Rino Matarazzo’s Stuttgart turned into Sunday’s sacking of Lucien Favre. Harsh? No: it was overdue.

Stuttgart played well and their aggressive pressing system (a de facto 3-3-4 formation) gave Dortmund fits but this is still a newly promoted team with a lot of young, unheralded players. Favre had no answers. A tremendous goal by Gio Reyna kept Dortmund in the game, but the bottom fell out in the second half and Favre didn’t help matters. Bringing in an 18-year-old kid (Reinier Jesus) who has hardly played for Emre Can at 2-1 down, and switching to a back four, backfired badly as it added nothing to the attack and unbalanced the defence. Mistakes like these have consequences.

– Dortmund sack Favre after 5-1 rout – Highlights: Dortmund 1-5 Stuttgart, ESPN+ (U.S. only)

Some will preach patience and talk about Dortmund’s youth, but here’s a reality check: Mats Hummels (31), Thomas Meunier (29), Roman Burki (30), Emre Can (26), Axel Witsel (31), Raphael Guerreiro (26), Manuel Akanji (25), Thorgan Hazard (27) and Marco Reus (31) are NOT young. These are either experienced veterans, or guys in mid-career. Asking them to show leadership and mental toughness is more than legitimate; part of Favre’s job is to ensure they provide just that, and it’s been missing.

Lest we forget, since the summer of 2019, this team added Hummels, Hazard, Brandt, Erling Haaland, Meunier and Jude Bellingham. They finished 13 points off the pace last season. And right now, they’re fifth. That’s not forward progress.

In Favre’s defence, you get the sense sometimes that Dortmund’s front office — while rightly proud of their youth policy and young guns — think they’re the smartest guys in the room. He has nothing to prove as a manager given the work he’s done at previous clubs. But this group simply isn’t growing and is being let down not by the kids, but by the veterans and the veteran boss in charge.

Let somebody else have a go. Edin Terzic is an interim boss so you assume they’ll take the time to find a longer-term solution (though, of course, Flick was an interim choice at Bayern as well). There has to be somebody who can work with both youth and experience and get Dortmund to punch their weight.

Barca bailed out by Messi, but there’s still work to do

play

1:03

Gab Marcotti and Julien Laurens give their early impressions of the standout tie in the round of 16.

It took a Lionel Messi strike 15 minutes from time tor Barcelona to get the better of Levante and Aitor Fernandez, who made a string of stellar saves. The victory saves Ronald Koeman more public pillory after the setbacks against Juventus and Cadiz, but there was little in the way of progress.

– Barca, Messi and the napkin: Oral history of his move, 20 years on
– Ogden: Barca vs. PSG pick of Champions League last-16

Defensively, the question marks are still there — in fact, when Levante did break through, it was Marc-Andre ter Stegen who had to come up big. But it’s at the other end of the pitch where this team feels like a bunch of individuals, many of whom — Messi, Philippe Coutinho, Antoine Griezmann — all gravitate into the same areas. Martin Braithwaite, the closest thing this team has to a center-forward, was deployed wide, possibly because he’s the only willing and able to follow instructions and actually stay wide and attempt to stretch the opposing defence.

– Messi on cusp of Pele’s record

There’s still work to do and with Real Sociedad (who went top again after Atletico’s defeat) up next, another potential trap on the way.

Another step in the right direction for Juventus

play

1:09

Gab Marcotti believes Juve still have work to do to fully execute manager Andrea Pirlo’s style of play effectively.

Juventus won consecutive games for the first time this season, winning 3-1 away to Genoa. That’s four wins in a row in all competitions for Andrea PIrlo, but there are a few factors that are, perhaps even more encouraging.

Paulo Dybala got the start, scored a goal and, especially after the break, looked lively and dangerous. His future remains uncertain, but Pirlo rightly understands that he’s going to have to play his way out of the funk. Weston McKennie turned in another strong performance in midfield: his combination of intensity and tactical awareness won’t solve Juve’s lack of creativity/slow build-up problem, but it mitigates the damage. Federico Chiesa also looked bright out wide and could soon become an untouchable on this team.

– Juve draw Porto in Champions League last-16
– Connelly: Pirlo’s coaching vision vs. reality at Juventus

Oh, and then there’s Cristiano Ronaldo. He missed the sort of header you’d expect him to bury, but he also converted two penalties, taking his league total to 10 (at this stage, last season, he had six). Juve also had a couple goals disallowed for tight offside decisions (no, Alvaro Morata wasn’t involved) and while they obviously don’t count, the buildup and the finishes will have pleased Pirlo.

It’s still baby steps, of course, but in the right direction.

Things getting tougher for PSG in Ligue 1

Paris Saint-Germain can’t afford to take Ligue 1 for granted. Not this season. It’s not just about the results, either; it’s about the toll it takes. They fell 1-0 at home to Olympique Lyon on Sunday night after a hard-fought game that saw them record just one shot on target. And the fallout doesn’t end there: Neymar was stretchered off during injury time and it’s unlikely we’ll see him again before 2021.

Thomas Tuchel may have been hoping that, with the Champions League out of the way for now, he could use this time to pad out a nice lead in Ligue 1, but that’s looking increasingly difficult. Lille and Lyon are both ahead of PSG, and Olympique Marseille will be as well if they win one of their two games in hand. Things just got that much harder.

Leipzig quietly showing title credentials

play

1:20

Gab Marcotti says RB Leipzig’s unpredictable nature will be a challenge for Liverpool to overcome.

Leipzig wrapped things up early against Werder Bremen, scoring through a Marcel Sabitzer penalty and a strike from Dani Olmo. The 2-0 win takes them level with Bayern one point off the top of the league.

Given their last three outings — the wild trip to Istanbul, the 3-3 draw against Bayern and the hard-fought Champions League victory over Manchester United — you could have budgeted for a slip-up, but Julian Nagelsmann made sure his team didn’t let their guard down. His squad and ability to make tweaks and changes without losing chemistry allowed this. As I see it, they’re the likeliest side to stop Bayern from repeating as Bundesliga champions.

Conte rings the changes and Inter win

Antonio Conte says he doesn’t like talking about his “Plan B,” so he showed us instead, switching to a back four against Cagliari when things weren’t going right and running out to a 3-1 win. It may or may not be a long-term answer but the ability to change and adapt — which, by the way, he showed throughout his career before arriving at Inter — is a sign of strength.

It’s reductive to say Inter turned it around with the switch, though. Despite coming from behind with three goals in the final 13 minutes, Inter were on top before that as well. In fact, the performance in bouncing back from the Champions League disappointment is as encouraging as discovering that, yes, they can operate with a back four as well.

Leverkusen enjoying themselves this season

Bayer Leverkusen’s 4-1 trouncing of Hoffenheim leaves them top of the Bundesliga — not what you’d have expected after a summer that saw the departures of Kevin Volland and, especially, Kai Havertz. And not what those of us who are a bit skeptical about Peter Bosz’ vision of football would have expected either.

But Leon Bailey, after several difficult seasons, is on a hot streak and teen sensation Florian Wirtz is on his way to having folks ask “Kai, who?”

Can it last? Probably not. But it’s a fun ride for the time being.

Arsenal’s miserable season continues

play

1:16

Mark Ogden is concerned Arsenal’s confidence won’t be helped by match vs. Fourth-place Southampton.

Arsenal’s 1-0 home loss to Burnley makes it seven defeats in 12 Premier League games this season for Mikel Arteta. What has to be frustrating here is that, relative to some of their recent outings, they didn’t even play that badly — at least right up to the hour mark, when Granit Xhaka needlessly got himself sent off. It’s the fourth red card for the Gunners this season, and it doesn’t take a genius to figure out that you can’t afford to go down a man every three games.

More frustrating is the fact that his was just a complete loss of discipline (and possibly loss of memory, forgetting that VAR cameras are everywhere) and eerily reminiscent of Nicolas Pepe’s sending off against Leeds United. And, because when it rains it pours, they ended up conceding the winner on a bizarre Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang own goal.

– 15 things wrong with 15th-place Arsenal – Europa League: Benfica vs. Arsenal in last-32 draw

When you consider that Mohamed Elneny could have also been sent off for a similar, hissy fit of a reaction, you have to wonder about Arteta’s hold on some of his senior players in terms of discipline. (Xhaka is now suspended, of course, and with Thomas Partey out too, you realize just how disastrous a red card for Elneny would have been.) Because, let’s be clear, these are the guys who are letting him down – not younger players like Bukayo Saka, Kieran Tierney or Gabriel (though he’s had his ups and downs, too.

With Southampton, Everton and Chelsea up next in the Premier League (and a League Cup quarterfinal against Manchester City thrown in) all between now and Boxing Day, things aren’t getting any easier any time soon.

And finally…

Bas Dost scored for Eintracht Frankfurt in their 2-1 away defeat to Wolfsburg. He now has four goals in 11 Bundesliga appearances and is on pace to score 12 in the league. He has five goals in 13 games overall.

This concludes this instalment of #BasDostWatch.

Latest posts