Man United show grit vs. Liverpool, Bayern lose again, more

It’s early April, and the fun keeps coming in European soccer as we follow all the title races and Champions League chases to their conclusion. The big game of the weekend saw Man United damage Liverpool‘s title hopes with a gritty home draw over their high-flying rivals. In Germany‘s Bundesliga, Bayern Munich‘s latest stumble means Bayer Leverkusen (who are unbeaten in 41 games across all competitions this season) can clinch their first league title next weekend even before they play. Not a bad spot for Xabi Alonso & Co. to be in, right?

Elsewhere, there were talking points for Arsenal (who continue to get the best out of Kai Havertz up front), Roma (who are getting the most out of club legend Daniele De Rossi), Athletic Club (who recorded a historic Copa del Rey win) and Tottenham, whose push for a top-four finish continues at pace.

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It’s Monday. Gab Marcotti reacts to the biggest moments in the world of football.

Man United show grit as Liverpool pay for their mistakes

Jurgen Klopp will be happy that his Liverpool team won’t be seeing Erik Ten Hag and Manchester United again this season. Forget the 4-3 FA Cup quarterfinal defeat, and that late Amad Diallo goal, in what was a competitive game. But the two league meetings between the clubs — a 0-0 draw back in December, and Sunday’s 2-2 draw — produced just two points for Liverpool. This despite Klopp’s team having a whopping cumulative edge in terms of Expected Goals (6.33 to 1.61), shots on goal (62 to 16) and shots on target (16 to 7).

Sunday could have easily seen them three or four goals up by half-time and yet, this is a sport that often punishes mistakes. This applies both to the wayward finishing — Klopp said later that his players were “rushing things” — as well as errors like Jarell Quansah‘s errand pass that led to Bruno Fernandes‘ equaliser early in the second half, which very much brought the Old Trafford crowd back to life.

Quansah’s mistake was a brain cramp of the sort that is so extreme, it’s not worth pointing it out to the player — he knows what he did wrong. Later in the second half, the lax defending that led to Kobbie Mainoo infuriated Klopp on the sidelines because that was a collective shortcoming. That said, both cases took truly special finishes to be converted into goals, and that’s a testament to the quality that Bruno and Mainoo bring: against lesser individuals, Liverpool may well have gotten away with it.

Once the fog lifts, this may prompt Klopp into seeing his glass as a little more half-full. Yes, the stupid mistakes should have been avoided — but then, lest we forget, Mohamed Salah‘s equalizer from the spot was also a gift from the opposition after Aaron Wan-Bissaka‘s reckless challenge on Harvey Elliott — but they still left the opponent with a lot to do. And while the bad finishing is infuriating, there’s plenty of data that suggests you should be concerned more when you don’t create chances than when you don’t finish them.

More of a concern, perhaps, is how the intensity dropped in the second half. Was it by a design, an attempt to conserve energy and manage the lead with so many fixtures coming up? Or was there just a collective switch off, especially in midfield, maybe because they can’t sustain a certain pace for 90 minutes? Only Klopp will know the answer to that.

As for Manchester United, amid all the woe, injuries (Lisandro Martínez, Raphaël Varane, Tyrell Malacia, Luke Shaw, Jonny Evans and Victor Lindelöf were all unavailable … and those are just the defenders), negativity and uncertainty, several things are undeniable.

One is that Bruno Fernandes can still carry this team in its dark moments and that the trio of Mainoo, Rasmus Holland and Alejandro Garnacho bodes well for the future. The other is you can’t accuse this group of players of not being resilient and fighting on until the end, whether out of loyalty to Ten Hag, professional pride or love for the shirt. They often get outplayed for many reasons — sometimes they’re not good, sometimes the opponent is better, sometimes Ten Hag sets them up incorrectly — but it’s very rarely because they give up.

That said, I get that managers — especially ones whose future is in doubt — are taught to be positive, but Ten Hag takes it to an extreme. Reflecting on how his team threw away leads against Brentford (it finished 1-1) and Chelsea (3-4) in injury time, and Liverpool 10 minutes from the end, he said “On one side, I am disappointed that we have dropped seven points in one week after being in winning positions, but we have to blame ourselves for making stupid mistakes … on the other side I am very proud … you see how we are improving and the potential of this squad is amazing.”

I get the disappointment for the dropped points, but how about a reality check?



Marcotti tired of Erik Ten Hag’s excuses

Gab Marcotti hits out at Manchester United manager Erik ten Hag following his reaction to dropping seven points in the last three Premier League games.

The potential of some players (as mentioned above) is legitimately “amazing.” The squad as a whole? Meh.

And as for how “we can see” how they are “improving?” Well let’s consider those three games, shall we? They could have been 3-0 down at halftime on Sunday, they were hardly anything to write home about against a mediocre Chelsea (even before the injury-time madness), and against Brentford, who are 16th in the table, they conceded 31 shots and 3.05 xG while getting comprehensively battered for much of the game.

Ten Hag should just talk about the mitigating circumstances (starting with injuries) and individual errors that cost you points, and how excited you are about Garnacho, Mainoo and Hojlund. There’s no need to play “make-believe” by talking about an improvement only you seem to be aware of.

Bayern collapse at Heidenheim, and now talk turns to simply qualifying for Champions League

Yeah, it seems absurd to me too, but that’s what Max Eberl, Bayern’s sporting director, said: “We can’t be arrogant and say ‘Oh well, then we’ll just finish second,’ because as of right now we haven’t finished second, in fact, we haven’t even qualified for the Champions League [next year].”

It’s a bit dramatic — with six games to go, they are seven points clear of fifth place and, in fact, fifth might get them into the Champions league anyway — but you get the point: the situation is serious and the club can’t afford to be complacent. (A cynic might say that Eberl has the luxury of talking like this since he only took over last month, which means he wasn’t responsible for many of the poor decisions, including turning Thomas Tuchel into a lame duck.)

Sure, maybe Bayern were somewhat distracted by their Champions League clash with Arsenal on Tuesday, but the fact is they went into half-time leading 2-0 against a Heidenheim team that had won just once since Christmas. You can blame the Min-Jae Kim/Dayot Upamecano centre-back partnership, of course, but when you give up two goals in two minutes, the malaise runs deeper. Harry Kane scored and could have scored more — if he had, it would have papered over some cracks, but the cracks are very evidently still there.

Tuchel also picked up a yellow card on the sideline, which means he is suspended for Bayern’s next outing. You can insert your own joke here about whether we’ll see him in the Bundesliga again, too. (By the time the next game rolls around, they might be out of the Champions League as well.)

If you’re a Bayern fan, all you can hope for is that rather than just pinning everything on Tuchel, the players find the pride necessary to see out this domestic campaign with dignity.

Arsenal’s turnaround is also Havertz’s turnaround

Regular readers will know that I’m a Kai Havertz guy. I never got the obsession with labels and debates over whether he’s a “proper center-forward” or not.

Earlier this year, when asked for a list of worse value signings in the window, I felt no choice but to put him on the list. Not because he doesn’t have all the tools to be outstanding, but because Arsenal had paid a club-record fee for him and he simply wasn’t producing (or even playing that much). He was dropped for five of Arsenal’s first 16 Premier League or Champions League games, notching just one goal — and that was from the penalty spot — in that time frame. When you’re 24, just entering the prime of your career and your new club breaks the bank for you, only to sit you every third game, and then you don’t produce whenever you do play … well … what else are you going to call it?

Arsenal boss Mikel Arteta tried Havertz in different roles, the most intriguing perhaps being alongside Martin Odegaard in the 4-1-4-1 formation. It took time to make things work and when they did, it was with Havertz at center-forward, the role he (supposedly) can’t play. Not only are Arsenal flying now (11 wins, one draw and that last minute defeat at Porto in their past 13 games), but Havertz has picked up the scoring pace too, with six goals in his last 11 outings, including the one in Sunday’s 3-0 win away to Brighton.

Havertz is tall, strong, gifted, athletic, good in the air and with just the right amount of “nasty” in him. Plus, he’s a pressing machine. He may not score at Harry Kane levels, but that’s fine: neither does Arteta’s other designated center-forward, Gabriel Jesus. (Who, incidentally, when deployed on the wing, showed there was a good reason Pep Guardiola used him out wide at Manchester City.)

Using Havertz up front also allows you to stick Jorginho alongside Declan Rice in midfield, adding some passing creativity and allowing Rice to romp forward. It just makes for a better balance, especially against better opponents.

Roma win derby to close in on Champions League spot as De Rossi choice is vindicated

When Roma sacked Jose Mourinho back in January, it split opinion. The Stadio Olimpico was full, most of the fans were squarely behind him and he had delivered a European trophy and reached the final of another the year before. Equally, as I wrote at the time, his presence had simply become unsustainable financially for a club that had racked up massive losses during his tenure and finished well away from the Champions League places.

The replacement choice of club legend Daniele De Rossi felt like a stop-gap, the guy who wouldn’t be booed by the crowd while Roma regrouped. However, it’s fair to say he has surpassed all expectations.

Since his appointment, Roma knocked both Feyenoord and Brighton out of the Europa League, and with Saturday’s 1-0 derby victory over Lazio — the derby still carries outsized importance in the Eternal City, and Mourinho’s record in the derby was poor — they’ve risen up the table, going from ninth to fifth, losing just twice along the way in all competitions: one a virtually meaningless game with Brighton, the other against league leaders Inter.

De Rossi also radically changed Roma’s approach, making them far more attacking and entertaining, though the underlying fundamentals in terms of Expected Goals aren’t dissimilar to Mourinho’s. It’s hugely likely he’ll be given the job on a permanent basis next season, and with a full preseason to work with, you wonder how he’ll fare. What’s pretty clear is that in the short term, Roma made the correct decision. There’s no point keeping a manager when you know his contract won’t be extended in the summer.

Quick hits



Where do Bayer Leverkusen rank in all-time football unbeaten runs?

With 41 games undefeated, Julien Laurens takes a look at where Bayer Leverkusen sit within the list of teams with the highest unbeaten runs.

TEN — Leverkusen can be crowned Bundesliga champions next weekend … even if they don’t win: That’s the cumulative effect of their 1-0 win away to Union Berlin, courtesy of a Florian Wirtz penalty and Bayern’s capitulation away to Heidenheim. If you’re keeping track at home, that’s now 41 games unbeaten across all competitions this season — seven away from the record set by Benfica from 1963 to 1965. More importantly, if they win next weekend against Werder Bremen, they’ll be champions for the first time in their history.

NINE — Athletic Club‘s local lads outlast Mallorca to win tense Copa del Rey: Not everyone likes Athletic Bilbao’s unwritten “Basque-only” policy, but wherever you stand on the issue, you have to admit that competing at this level when you only sign Basque-born or Basque-raised players is pretty incredible. On Saturday night they won the Spanish Cup, overcoming feisty Mallorca on penalties for their first major domestic trophy since they won the Double four decades ago. It was an engrossing, colourful match and evidence that you don’t need traditional box office powers for a great spectacle, not in a cup final anyway. I was also struck by how Mallorca, spurred on by coach Javier Aguirre, celebrated before they took the first penalty. Had it worked out, we’d be reading about what a brilliant psychological ploy it was and, no doubt, it would have been emulated far and wide.

EIGHT — “Squad rotation” isn’t a dirty concept if it means getting a Kevin De Bruyne like the one who dismantled Crystal Palace: The Belgian was subdued against Arsenal last weekend and benched entirely in midweek against Aston Villa while his replacement, Phil Foden, notched a hat-trick. So what did Pep Guardiola do against Crystal Palace? He left out Foden and handed the keys back to De Bruyne, who responded with two goals and an assist in the 4-2 road win against Crystal Palace. De Bruyne turns 33 in the summer and in part due to injuries, has started just eight league games this season. He may be City’s best individual player, but he embodies the sense that “everybody’s important, nobody is indispensable.” (Well, arguably Rodri is … and maybe it’s not a coincidence that one of his worst outings of the season coincided with a poor first half from City.)

SEVEN — Christian Pulisic finally plays at “10” and hits “10” (league goals) in Milan’s win vs. Lecce: Stefano Pioli wheeled out an uber-attacking (on paper) front four with Pulisic in the playmaker hole, Rafael Leão and Samuel Chukwueze out wide and Olivier Giroud and Milan cruised to a 3-0 win over Lecce. It helped that their opponents went down to 10 men before half-time and I’m not sure this is a week-in, week-out blueprint, but it’s a good option to have and Pulisic showed this might be his position … at least as long as Rafael Leao is at the club.

SIX — Huge win at Dortmund confirms what we already knew as Stuttgart are for real: It was Borussia Dortmund who needed the points at home, but it was Stuttgart who got them thanks to Serhou Guirassy‘s 24th league goal of the campaign (and in just 22 games). They’re level on points with Bayern in second place; for a side that went through a relegation playoff last season, lost three key players (Wataru Endo, Konstantinos Mavropanos and Borna Sosa) over the summer and transferred players out for $30 million more than they spent is an incredible feat. As for Dortmund, they didn’t lack effort or intensity, they lacked quality and the ability to control a game which quickly turned messy. Once that happens, it’s a crapshoot.

FIVE — Paris Saint-Germain‘s second string held by bottom-of-the-table Clermont Foot as big guns rest up for Barcelona challenge: I guess that’s the luxury of being 10 points clear at the top: you can rotate heavily for the Champions League. That’s what Luis Enrique did and while drawing 1-1 with the league’s cellar-dwellers is nothing to cheer, PSG’s B-team — including the two 17-year-old debutants, defender Yoram Zague and midfielder Senny Mayulu — pretty much dominated the game. Maybe he’s got more depth than he realizes.

FOUR — Napoli turn back the clock 12 months and reflect on what might have been: This time last year, Napoli were running away with Serie A and going deep into the Champions League while playing some of the best football in Europe. Twelve months on, it’s a different story. That’s what made Sunday bittersweet, as the 4-2 away win to Monza showcased the talent in this side — and some highlight reel worthy goals from Piotr Zielinski, Mattia Politano and Victor Osimhen — and left fans wondering what might have been if better decisions had been made at the top.



Why Tottenham Hotspur ‘deserve’ a Champions League spot

The “ESPN FC” crew break down Spurs’ 3-1 win over Nottingham Forest in the Premier League.

THREE — Tottenham leapfrog Villa into fourth place and James Maddison shows that reputation evidently matters: Just how James Maddison avoided being sent off for punching Nottingham Forest‘s Ryan Yates in the stomach off the ball is one of those enduring VAR mysteries that, maybe, you can only explain with the fact the Spurs midfielder is seen as a lightweight, likeable type who would never play dirty whereas a teammate like Cristian “Cuti” Romero would have been straight down the tunnel had it been him. The game was tied 1-1 at the time and the game, which Spurs eventually won 3-1, could well have taken a very different turn. Tottenham played well, but it was a blown call, plain and simple, and the fact that it could impact both relegation and the Champions League places come the end of the season only makes it more frustrating.

TWO — Hey, Poch! Nobody wants to hear about three- or five-year “projects” in the modern game: Chelsea boss Mauricio Pochettino talked about how his team lacked the maturity to compete in games “every three days” after conceding an injury-time equalizer to Oli McBurnie and bottom-of-the-table Sheffield United on Sunday that cost them two points. It’s nothing we haven’t heard before and there’s some truth to it, though it’s worth remembering that because they didn’t qualify for Europe, they’ve had most midweeks free this season. However, his subsequent talk of “three-year or five-year projects” simply doesn’t mesh with the reality of the modern game — not when you have an ownership group who are nearing the end of “Year 2” of their project, and when the club as a whole has made very little progress under their stewardship. By this time next year, rightly or wrongly, he will have to have shown that Chelsea are moving in the right direction and in double-quick time. Otherwise, there will be no Year Three (let alone a Year Five) of the Poch Project.

ONE — Same humdrum Juventus performance, different result as Allegri snaps winless streak vs. Fiorentina: Nope, Max Allegri can’t help himself. Against a Fiorentina side that play wide-open attacking football, this was a chance to show that hey, his team can also play, and with Dusan Vlahovic and Federico Chiesa up front, maybe they could take the game to the opposition and impose themselves for once. Nope. After a bright start — perhaps a carryover from the midweek Coppa Italia win over Lazio, where they played well for more than a half — they reverted to form, sitting deep and defending and conceding far too many chances to the opposition. That approach might have worked in the days of Giorgio Chiellini and Leo Bonucci because those guys looked comfortable defending. These guys do not, however, and they came within a whisker of blowing the game. Allegri talked about how their goal is to get back into the Champions League and how they’re doing well in Serie A. With a 12-point lead over the sixth-place team, how about trying to build something viable for next season rather than the usual safety-first approach?