So it’s now six wins out of six games for Manchester United under caretaker manager Ole Gunnar Solskjaer. And while the first five were eminently winnable, Tottenham away was meant to be the Norwegian’s first real test. He passed, again, with flying colors.
He didn’t pass because United won — although that too is important in the hunt for a top four spot — but because, frankly, it could have been very different if not for David De Gea‘s string of saves. (Indeed, the xG shows that Tottenham were firmly in front). Rather, the test was passed for the way they played in the first half: the positivity shown, the maturity and cohesion — aspects that were largely missing under the previous manager.
That they they gave up loads of chances after the break is something to work on, and you have to accept that Tottenham are simply a better side right now. But the way United played is evidence that they have bought into Solskjaer, that the viruses, stiffs and malcontents supposedly populating the dressing room during the Jose Mourinho Era may well have been figments of his imagination.
The fact that Solskjaer’s start is better than that of any manager in Manchester United history (he eclipsed Sir Matt Busby on Sunday) is more of a statistical quirk. The popular notion whereby he simply “released the handbrake” is equally simplistic.
Against Spurs his set-up was sophisticated, starting with the way Jesse Lingard dropped from a “false nine” position to press Harry Winks off the ball, the way Ander Herrera regularly got help in dealing with Christian Eriksen. In other words, Solskjaer is not just a “plug-and-play” alumnus who smiles a lot, waves his players forward, makes sure to praise individuals by name and generally succeeds by simply not being Mourinho.
Whether this can last and whether this is something on which United can build remains to be seen. But their next two home games, against Brighton and Burnley, are eminently winnable, so expect the bandwagon to roll on. Heck, some are already suggesting that maybe United have found their next manager. Why embark on some tortuous and acrimonious pursuit of a Mauricio Pochettino or a Max Allegri if you can simply hire a director of football and appoint Solskjaer on the cheap?
We’re not yet at the point where that’s a serious proposition, but Solskjaer certainly isn’t hurting his case.
Trouble ahead up front for Tottenham
Pochettino said the second half on Sunday was the best 45 minutes of football Spurs have played this season. I wouldn’t quite go that far, while the cynic in me suggests that quotes like that are designed to deflect from the other issues of the day: the United job, Eriksen’s contract, Kane’s injury and so on. But there’s no question they played some dazzling stuff after the break and repeatedly carved up United, creating plenty of chances.
Were the many missed opportunities down to De Gea’s brilliance or should they count as spurned chances? I’m hesitant to weigh in on this — in my experience, only keepers can really judge each other as most of us (including coaches and ex-pros) have little sense of what they actually do — but there’s no question he was in the right place at the right time over and over again. Equally, you’d imagine Spurs would love to have some of those finishes back.
We’ll know more about Kane’s injury soon, but it’s obvious that any prolonged absence would be a major blow, particularly with Heung-Min Son leaving for the Asian Cup. Not so much because Fernando Llorente isn’t a good player (for all the stick he gets, he’s a solid target man), but simply because when he’s in the side, Spurs have to come up with a whole new game plan since he’s an entirely different sort of player.
Coutinho proves his worth vs. Eibar
The Brazilian playmaker has spent a lot of time on the bench this season, partly because of Ousmane Dembele‘s re-emergence, partly because Ernesto Valverde skews towards more conservative football and finds it hard to fit him in a midfield three and partly because despite his billing, he really isn’t the “new Andres Iniesta.” It’s pretty evident, though, that given the fee paid for him and his wage packet, he needs to be part of Barca’s present and future. I know it’s only Eibar, but a productive Coutinho can make all the difference down the stretch.
Putting Messi’s mark into context
Four-hundred top-flight league goals is a huge amount and because Messi (and Cristiano Ronaldo) so regularly provide freakish numbers, you inevitably end up comparing them to others. Now, because you are cutting across different eras and different standards, it really does become a case of comparing apples and aardvarks when it comes to Europe’s best league goal scorers. But because we can’t help ourselves, here’s some context with a little help from UEFA.
As you can see, there are still folks in front of him, although you’d imagine he’ll likely blow past Stjepan Bobek (403), Jimmy McGrory (410), Gyula Zsengeller (411) and maybe even Imre Schlosser (417) by the end of the season. In terms of historical goal scorers, at that point he’ll be chasing Josef Bican (518) and Ferenc Puskas (517). Messi may also be chasing Cristiano Ronaldo, the only other active goal scorer on the list, who currently is on 411.
What’s pretty evident looking at these numbers, though, is that the game has changed. Every guy with at least 400 goals retired at least 50 years ago. Everybody, that is, bar Messi and Ronaldo. These guys aren’t just GOAT candidates; they might as well be time travellers or extraterrestrials.
Emery has a genuine Ozil problem
The first time Unai Emery seemed to downplay Mesut Ozil, when he said he wouldn’t face Bournemouth because of their style of play, you, like me, may have chalked it up to miscommunication. But after leaving him out for the trip to West Ham and explaining his absence by saying “for me he is like any other player” and adding “sometimes he is not helping us because maybe the match is not for him,” it’s pretty obvious he’s making a point.
Ozil is not “like any other player.” He is a player who signed a long-term deal less than a year ago, a player who earns some $23 million a year and a player who is one of the two highest-paid in the entire league.
I realize Emery wasn’t in charge when Ozil signed his deal, but I’d imagine that when he interviewed for his job somebody at Arsenal said: “OK, Unai, we’ve tied up a huge chunk of our wage bill in this guy — how are you going to use him and how will you get the best out of him?” And I assume (perhaps wrongly) that whatever Emery replied, it wasn’t: “To me he is like any other player, he’s basically Carl Jenkinson, only shorter and with one more World Cup.”
Ozil’s absence wasn’t the reason Arsenal lost to West Ham, but right now Emery needs an “Ozil issue” like he needs a hole in the head.
Will PSG’s midfield issues doom their season?
We were looking for Paris Saint-Germain to bounce back after the League Cup elimination in midweek and they did, winning 3-0 away to Amiens. But take a closer look and you’ll note that it was the third straight game in which they failed to score in the first half.
What’s more, again, they had to make do with a makeshift midfield, with square pegs (Julian Draxler, Dani Alves) in round holes next to Marco Verratti. With Adrien Rabiot distracted by his future and Lassana Diarra fading out of the picture, they are severely short-handed in the middle of the park.
Thomas Tuchel has asked for reinforcements and Julian Weigl has been heavily linked. If he’s fit, he’d make a lot of sense. They simply need an extra body in there. PSG have to deal with financial fair play, of course, which is part of the reason their squad is so small, but it’s mad to think that this could cause their season to become unstuck in the Champions League.
Solari, Real stick with the kids
As a general rule, it’s not really a good sign when an under-fire manager chucks in the youngsters. Fans tend to be supportive of kids, it gives him an alibi and it sometimes can show he ran out of ideas.
Santiago Solari left Marcelo and Isco on the bench away to Betis (Toni Kroos and Marco Asensio were already unavailable, as was Gareth Bale), and over the course of the game, he relied instead on Sergio Reguilon, Federico Valverde and, later, Cristo, all in the course of a newfangled 3-5-2.
For a half or so it worked as Luka Modric gave them the lead, although perhaps it was more down to Betis’ inefficiency with the ball. But after Karim Benzema came off at half-time with a broken finger, Real Madrid really struggled to come to terms with Betis as Quique Setien kicked it up several notches. Sergio Canales equalised before a wonder-strike from Dani Ceballos gave Real Madrid the three points.
Three points are critical right now, of course, but if Solari was looking for answers with this set-up, all he got was more questions.
Liverpool show their title credentials at Brighton
If Liverpool do go on to win the Premier League this season, victories like the 1-0 one in Brighton on Saturday will be the building blocks. Away from home, Fabinho as an emergency central defender, some chances not converted, the risk of conceding on the counter — but no, they gut it out and take all three points thank to Mohamed Salah‘s penalty.
Liverpool have played 15 games against teams outside the top six and have won every single one of them. Conversely, in the seven games against top six opponents, they have won three (Arsenal and Manchester United at home, Tottenham away), drawn two (Chelsea and Arsenal away, Manchester City at home) and lost one (City away). This is Klopp winning the games he’s supposed to win and getting as much as he can in those he’s not. That’s why the title is Liverpool’s to lose right now.
Cutrone should be the answer at Milan, not Higuain
Patrick Cutrone came on as a substitute, scored two gorgeous goals and helped Milan dispatch Sampdoria in the Coppa Italia. The kid is 21 and has nine goals in all competitions this season, which is actually more than Gonzalo Higuain‘s eight despite more limited playing time.
Higuain, of course, is surrounded by transfer talk, most of it fomented by his brother. Manager Gennaro Gattuso insists the striker is going nowhere and that he’s critical to Milan’s seasonal objective of a top-four finish. That matters, of course, because they have all sorts of FFP issues and Champions League revenue would help alleviate that.
I get all that, but equally, Milan are set to pay Higuain a whopping €8.5m (nearly $10m) in wages through the end of the season. Plus, they’re on the hook to Juventus for another €9m ($10.5m) in loan fees through June 30. That’s a ton of money.
Personally, I’m not sure anybody will take Higuain given his wages: those who can afford him likely don’t need him. But this idea that he’s the be-all and end-all, at that price, isn’t helpful. Maybe putting your faith in Cutrone and getting a short-term, serviceable striker to back him up wouldn’t be such a bad thing instead.