Chelsea gamble by sacking Frank Lampard; Real Madrid’s old guard win; Liverpool and Man United’s fun Cup clash
The biggest news of the weekend wasn’t a game, but the word that Chelsea are moving on from Frank Lampard as manager, with former PSG and Borussia Dortmund boss Thomas Tuchel set to take over. Elsewhere we saw Real Madrid’s veterans play a key role in a much-needed win, Liverpool and Man United put on a show in the FA Cup fourth round, and statement wins (plus lessons galore) for Barcelona, Bayern Munich and Atalanta.
It was also a bad weekend for Arsenal, Inter Milan and RB Leipzig as they let their momentum slip with bad results.
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It’s Monday, and Gab Marcotti reacts to the biggest moments in the world of football from the past week.
Jump to: Chelsea, Lampard fall-out | Real’s veterans step up | Man United beat Liverpool | Atalanta dent Milan | Arsenal, Odegaard | Barca win without Messi | Conte can’t hide Inter issues | Suarez lifts Atletico | Man City’s cup scare | Bayern getting it done | Is Juve’s midfield fixed? | Leipzig let it slip | And finally…
Chelsea make a huge call in replacing Lampard now
The fact that Roman Abramovich himself offered a quote in the club statement announcing the departure of Frank Lampard as Chelsea manager speaks volumes about how the club approached this decision. You can probably count on one hand the number of times the Chelsea owner has made public pronouncements since taking over the club in 2003. (You can count on one finger the number of interviews he has given.)
– Lampard sacked as Chelsea boss
– Guardiola on Lampard: Managers ‘have to win’
– How does Lampard compare to other Chelsea bosses?
As recently as last week the club were expressing faith in Lampard’s work and, as I wrote at the time, it fully made sense. Sacking Lampard at this stage, with the Champions League spots just two wins away, means doubling down in so many different ways.
For a start, it exposes you to backlash if things go from bad to worse. It leaves you, at least to some degree, needing to spend more at the end of the season after the most expensive net spend in the club’s history. (Managers don’t generally take new jobs unless they have some indication of future investment.) If, instead of appointing an interim manager, Tuchel gets the permanent job, it precludes the possibility of picking up one of the other top-drawer managers who may be available in the summer (for example, Julian Nagelsmann, whom they reportedly also sounded out but who wasn’t going to leave Leipzig in mid-season).
Make no mistake about it: This is a huge call to be making if we are to take what we’re being told at face value — that Lampard left the club “without any clear path to sustained improvement” — and that’s why Abramovich himself popped up in the club statement. We often speak of a club’s “board” making decisions, but football isn’t a democracy. Board members may weigh in, as will other club executives, but it’s one man making the decision: Abramovich. The fact that he so clearly put his name to it — unlike other times — leaves you little doubt as to where he stands.
“Without any clear path to sustained improvement” means they lost faith in Lampard’s ability to manage what many had identified as a potential pitfall: a very large squad with six starter-caliber newcomers, split between veterans and youngsters and with at least one glaring deficiency in the defensive midfield role. And a squad that, between the pandemic and the money already committed, can’t be overhauled in short order.
That, you assume, is a big part of the appeal in turning to Tuchel. He built his career at Mainz as a self-described “rule-breaker,” turning conventional wisdom on its head, experimenting with fancy, unorthodox set-ups and formations along the lines of another Mainz alumnus, Jurgen Klopp. This approach got Tuchel the job at Borussia Dortmund, where he was fired after two years, finishing second and third in the Bundesliga and winning the German Cup.
Then, after a year out of the game, came his stint at Paris Saint-Germain and, after a few months, an unlikely transformation. Tuchel the visionary with groundbreaking tactical ideas made way for Tuchel the man-manager. The dogmatist left; the pragmatist entered the building. Perhaps realising that there was no tactical formation or footballing approach that he could conjure up for the sheer talent at his disposal, he simply focused on keeping his stars — first and foremost, Neymar and Kylian Mbappe — happy and putting them in a position to win. He went from “system manager” to “man-manager” very quickly.
Julien Laurens examines how Thomas Tuchel’s expected arrival at Chelsea would impact Christian Pulisic.
You imagine that this latter version of Tuchel is what tipped the balance at Chelsea, more than the trophy haul at PSG, which wasn’t dissimilar from his predecessors at the club, other than reaching the Champions League final. Tuchel may have been born a tactical visionary, but he reached his footballing apex as a man-manager who kept his players happy and motivated and could manage egos. It’s a journey other successful managers have traveled, most notably another former Chelsea (and PSG) boss, Carlo Ancelotti.
The challenge for Tuchel is combining the tactical innovation he served up early in his career with the man-management skills he honed in Paris, and it’s a tall order. For all his man-management skills with the squad, he fell out with the club hierarchy both in Dortmund and in Paris — in the latter case, his relationship with sporting director Leonardo, with whom he clashed over transfers, was particularly fraught — which is why he was fired from his last two jobs.
It does feel like many in and around the club have pushed their chips to the middle of the table by betting on Tuchel and getting Abramovich to take a public stand. If Tuchel comes up short and departs the club, odds are he won’t be the only one.
Old guard gets it done for Zidane-less Real Madrid
After the midweek humiliation against Alcoyano in the Copa del Rey, Real Madrid needed a reaction against Alaves on Saturday. And they had to do it without Zinedine Zidane (who tested positive for COVID-19) as well as Sergio Ramos and Dani Carvajal at the back. They got what they needed in the most professional way: 3-0 up at half-time on their way to a 4-1 win.
What do we learn from this? On the plus side, Madrid were driven by their veterans, from Casemiro to Toni Kroos, from Karim Benzema to (especially) Luka Modric. They’re the guys keeping them in the hunt. And while it’s great to have them, there’s also a question of the supporting cast and succession. And that’s what Zidane still needs to address, with the help of the club.
The Gab & Juls podcast reflects on Real Madrid’s bounce-back performance vs. Alaves.
Eden Hazard scored, which is encouraging, though after all those false dawns, nobody is going to get excited. If this season is going to be a success, Real Madrid will need others to step up, whether Isco or Fede Valverde, Marco Asensio or Vinicius Junior. Or, indeed, Hazard himself. The old guard can only carry you for so long.
Different competition results in very different game between Liverpool, Man United
When Liverpool hosted Manchester United in the Premier League a week ago, the resulting 0-0 draw was a tense and often dull affair. It was the sort of game where, you felt, the damage from losing outweighed the benefits of winning. And so, despite the fact that there were some chances on both ends, the scoreless outcome probably wasn’t surprising.
– Report: Man United dump Liverpool out of FA Cup
– Dawson: Solskjaer, Man United must keep momentum going
But Sunday’s clash was in the FA Cup, and here, the equation was reversed. The damage of a defeat was negligible, the morale boost of a win considerable, and the result was a much more entertaining game. Both teams went for the win (it’s significant that there was only one major star dropped per side with Sadio Mane for Liverpool, Bruno Fernandes for United) and the pattern of the game wasn’t wholly dissimilar to the league encounter, with Liverpool with the initiative and United looking to counter — it was just played with more sharpness and bravery.
Don Hutchison and Frank Leboeuf react to Man United’s comeback win vs. Liverpool in the FA Cup fourth round.
For United, it’s another building block of sporting capital for Ole Gunnar Solskjaer and his “day-by-day” approach, which yields new surprises. After so many highs and lows, Luke Shaw is playing some of the best football of his career, Mason Greenwood got on the score sheet for the first time in 10 games and Paul Pogba showed, again, that uncertainty over his future isn’t going to affect him on the pitch. (Oh, and he’s not the sulky, lazy malcontent some think he is.) There is still a long way to go to get where they want — and many of these players likely won’t be there if it happens — but the momentum is in the right direction.
As for Liverpool, the scoring drought is over, which is not insignificant, and all told, they turned in a solid performance, ultimately beaten in part by individual errors on United’s first two goals. Given their long list of absentees and the trauma of Thursday’s home defeat at Burnley, there’s only so much Klopp could ask for. He got a good team performance, blighted by some individual deficiencies he already knew about. (Trent Alexander-Arnold is struggling, a midfield without both Fabinho and Jordan Henderson won’t perform to the same level in this system, and Rhys Williams has room for improvement).
Right now, you’ll take that.
Atalanta remind Milan that Serie A’s title race is far from easy
There’s no shame in losing to Atalanta. Just ask Liverpool. Or Roma. Or Lazio. Or any of the other teams that have been beaten down, whether morally or practically, by Gian Piero Gasperini’s heavy metal artwork. There’s a reason they came within a smidgen of a Champions League semifinal last August.
That said, Milan would be wise to remind themselves that you can employ the “next man up” mantra for only so long. Without Alessio Romagnoli at the back, Hakan Calhanoglu and Ismael Bennacer in midfield and Ante Rebic up front, this team can’t be expected to operate under normal conditions. On a different day, Theo Hernandez or Zlatan Ibrahimovic might have come up with a patch, and Gianluigi Donnarumma might have conjured up some miracles. But not Saturday, as Atalanta ran out comfortable 3-0 winners.
Gab Marcotti and Matteo Bonetti explain how Milan will find a way to finish above Scudetto holders Juve.
Ibrahimovic lamented the lack of experience after the game, and if he was just letting off steam, no problem. He’s entitled to be outspoken. But if not, he ought to be reminded that this is what he signed up for: a rebuilding job with youngsters and a transition season. There’s a long-term project here, and it doesn’t involve going “all in” straight away.
Arsenal not bothered with FA Cup, while Odegaard feels like short-term fix
Arsenal’s trip to face Southampton in the FA Cup fourth round on Saturday resulted in a 1-0 defeat that, broadly, followed the script. It’s not surprising that with Kieran Tierney and Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang watching on TV and Alexandre Lacazette, Thomas Partey and Bukayo Saka on the bench, Arsenal should lose away from home to a team above them in the table. Nor, frankly, with Pepe, Willian and Eddie Nketiah up front — none of whom have played a big part in the club’s recent revival — is it surprising that they managed just two shots on target and had plenty of sterile possession.
– Arsenal ratings: Gabriel 4/10 in cup defeat
Mikel Arteta won’t say it, but it’s pretty obvious he prioritized the Premier League. Fine. It makes sense. Less clear, though, is the thinking around the imminent loan signing of Martin Odegaard. Real Madrid’s gifted Norwegian hasn’t had much joy this season back at the mothership, and he’ll obviously add quality and creativity to Arsenal’s midfield. He’s 22 and is exactly the sort of player Arsenal should be looking at.
Gab Marcotti feels Martin Odegaard may hinder the development of some of Arsenal’s youth players.
But the fact that, according to reports, there is no agreement to make the deal permanent should be cause of unease. If Odegaard does poorly, it will be wasted wages and wasted loan fee. (And, perhaps, fewer minutes for Emile Smith Rowe.) If Odegaard does exceptionally well, there’s the very real risk that he’ll go back to Real Madrid and excel, or that the Spanish club will use his time at Arsenal to put him in the shop window for other, wealthier, Premier League clubs; they could even make Arsenal pay through the nose to keep him.
Weirdly, the best outcome is for Odegaard to have a merely “decent” six months but convince Arteta that the best is yet to come. That’s how Arsenal may get to keep him long-term. It’s hardly ideal.
Ter Stegen, De Jong serve as Barca’s Messi stand-ins
With Lionel Messi suspended, it’s up to others to step into the breach. And while obviously they’re not in the Messi stratosphere, Marc-Andre ter Stegen and Frenkie de Jong did their part to pick up the slack in his absence. Ter Stegen made a game-defining save with Barca 1-0 up that turned the match. (Barca did score a second, through Riqui Puig of all people, but that was in garbage time.) De Jong was a dervish in midfield, appearing all over the place, scoring the opener (with a bit of luck) and generally letting his combination of guile, athleticism and technique dictate the match.
If you’re looking for leaders not named Lionel, here they are.
– De Jong steps up for Barcelona
Beyond that, this Barca team still looks fragile, one mistake away from chucking it all down the drain. They create chances, sure, but mostly through individual efforts, and when they run into a keeper having a good game, like Elche’s Edgar Badia on Sunday, they get frustrated and disjointed very quickly. Right now, with Gerard Pique and Messi out, de Jong and, in his own way, Ter Stegen are the glue holding them together and keeping Barcelona in the Champions League places.
Conte’s red card overshadows Inter Milan’s failings
A limp Inter side were held to a 0-0 draw by Udinese and a frustrated Antonio Conte found a way to get himself sent off in the 90th minute by arguing over the amount of time added on. (Stop me if you’ve heard this one before — you may well have.)
Conte’s red card isn’t the reason Inter failed to win the game, nor, in all likelihood, would more minutes of injury time than the four that were given have propelled them to victory. But it shifts the focus once again to the Inter manager’s temper and away from the XI guys who actually step on the pitch. This was the same group that had beaten Juventus so comprehensively a week earlier, and yet they looked so ineffective against Udinese, who had not won a game since early December.
At this stage, achieving some consistency of performance — after 18 months on the job — should be a given for Conte’s Inter if they’re going to win the title.
Luis Suarez gets the last laugh for Atletico
Julien Laurens believes Atletico Madrid are set to be crowned La Liga champions following their win against Valencia.
Atletico Madrid’s 3-1 win over Valencia cements their spot at the top of La Liga. Luis Suarez not only scored the most Suarez of goals against Valencia — the ones where he somehow ghosts away from defenders and finds enough space to finish — but he’s also the league’s top scorer, alongside Sevilla’s Youssef En-Nesyri.
If they win their game in hand, they’ll be 10 points clear of Real Madrid and, significantly, 13 points clear of Barcelona. Why significant? Because Barcelona are the club that let Suarez move to a direct rival in the summer. And not only did they do it for nothing, they actually paid him to leave.
There were legitimate questions about how Suarez would fit into Atletico Madrid and Diego Simeone’s set-up after years of playing alongside Messi on teams with 70% possession. He’s answered them, and so has Simeone, who created the environment for Suarez to be productive straightaway.
The other thing? Atletico Madrid aren’t dependent on Suarez. In fact, they’re almost interchangeable in the final third, from Angel Correa to Marcos Llorente to Joao Felix (who has already matched last year’s goal total despite being left out of the starting XI in the previous few games). The win streak is now at eight in La Liga. And while you reasonably expect them to drop off at some point, the gap is so big — and the opposition, for now, so dysfunctional — it feels like 2014 all over again, only with a smidgen less a bite and a tad more quality.
Man City’s FA Cup scare could have played out differently with a crowd
The narrative of FA Cup minnows playing in ramshackle, bandbox grounds spurred on by a few thousand rabid supporters and upsetting the big beasts is well-established. Fourth-tier Cheltenham Town came within eight minutes of achieving just that against none other than Manchester City on Saturday… minus the home fans.
City won 3-1 as the on-fire Phil Foden (City’s top scorer this season) made all the difference late on, but we’ll never know whether things might have turned out differently with a packed stadium. It didn’t happen, there was no fairy tale, the better team won and, I guess, we’ll have a box office team in the next round.
“Eighty-odd minutes gone, we’re 1-0 up and you wonder if a crowd was there, would that get us across the line?” Michael Duff, Cheltenham manager, wondered at full-time. Many of us are wondering the same.
Bayern aren’t where they want to be, but that’s OK
Janusz Michallik is convinced Bayern Munich have won the Bundesliga after their stunning 4-0 win over Schalke.
Bayern’s 4-0 win over Schalke means they open up a seven-point lead at the top of the Bundesliga. And given it’s Bayern and it’s the Bundesliga, the knee-jerk reaction is to crown them as champions in January. After all, there are enough holes in the “competition” — from Leipzig to Bayer Leverkusen… and let’s not even get started on Borussia Dortmund — to drive a Mercedes Benz through.
I think it’s premature, though there is no question who the overwhelming favourites are. You were only going to learn so much based on facing the bottom team who you beat 8-0 last time around. And what you saw was a Bayern side that were only a goal up at half-time, Manuel Neuer forced to make at least one big save and a team that’s riding their stars — Robert Lewandowski, Joshua Kimmich, Thomas Muller and, of course, Manuel Neuer — rather than the all-consuming force we saw last season.
A win is a win: does it matter? Not if, behind the scenes, Hansi Flick is getting the answers he wants and is building toward something. We’ll know soon enough.
It’s only a win against Bologna, but has Pirlo solved Juve’s midfield conundrum?
All season long, the middle of the park has been Juve’s biggest issue. Not the only issue, by any means: Cristiano Ronaldo has had to rotate through three different attacking partners, the creative players have blown hot and (mostly) cold, the jury is still out on the back four (and will be until Matthijs de Ligt’s return, which is imminent). But the midfield being poor is a particularly serious issue because that’s where the tempo is dictated, that’s where the playmaking happens and that’s what shields the back line.
Janusz Michallik praises Weston McKennie for superb goal for Juventus in Juventus 2-0 win vs. Bologna.
Against Bologna, we saw arguably the best performances of the season from Rodrigo Bentancur and Arthur, while Weston McKennie was again excellent (and offered his own Harry Potter celebration after scoring). Only I’m not sure it’s a long-term answer. Bentancur and Arthur have been extremely inconsistent, and the fact that Arthur came out and said he didn’t want to be a playmaker, but preferred to play inside-right, leaves Juve thin in that position. Nicolo Rovella might help when he arrives in the summer from Genoa — then again, he’s a teenager — but for now, Andrea Pirlo will be hoping the Bentancur-Arthur partnership holds up.
Leipzig throw it away
There was a point when many of us believed Leipzig was going to win the Bundesliga. After taking just four of a possible 12 points in their last four games — including Saturday’s shock 3-2 defeat at Mainz — you’d be forgiven if you stopped believing. Certainly, Julian Nagelsmann himself says he’s “not thinking” about the title.
Leipzig thoroughly deserved to lose against relegation-threatened Mainz and, again, made silly defensive errors that cost them two goals. Nagelsmann says they can’t rely on simply outscoring the opposition: he’s right. After focusing for so long on strikers and whether Timo Werner and Patrik Schick could be replaced, maybe the issues are, in fact, at the back.
And finally… #BASDOSTWATCH
Bas Dost scored for Bruges in their 3-2 home win against Racing Genk. He now has four goals in four Belgian First Division appearances and is on pace to score 15 in the league. Counting his time at Eintracht Frankfurt, he has nine goals in 18 games overall this season.
This concludes this instalment of #BasDostWatch.