Sometimes, there’s a simplicity to good management. Sometimes it’s about picking the right guys at the right time and executing the right plan. That’s being pragmatic, and while the modern game often looks down its nose at it, Jose Mourinho does not.
Hosting Liverpool on Saturday, Mourinho took some steps that, with hindsight, appear basic but would make all the difference. He switched Alexis Sanchez into a central position, where he had the option to run behind the Liverpool defence when in possession and disrupt the build-up when the opposition had the ball. He dusted off Marcus Rashford, who hadn’t made a Premier League start in 2018 and hadn’t scored in three months, and unleashed him down the left, knowing his pace would keep Trent Alexander-Arnold honest. And he broke the Liverpool press by directing long balls to Romelu Lukaku, whom he instructed to target Dejan Lovren rather than Virgil Van Dijk.
Both of United’s goals came from that approach, and other than a Van Dijk header off a set piece, Liverpool weren’t particularly dangerous in the first half. The visitors did somewhat better after the break and should have had a penalty when Marouane Fellaini brought down Sadio Mane, but equally they were somewhat fortunate that Eric Bailly deflected the ball into his own net.
It wasn’t a master-class from Mourinho necessarily; more like doing the right things and executing them well to give yourself an edge. And it’s broadly what Liverpool failed to do. Both of United’s goals came direct from big David De Gea boots up the pitch. Why you would have Lovren (rather than Van Dijk) pick up Lukaku in those situations (not once, but twice!) is something that should give Klopp cause to reflect. And even if you wanted Van Dijk elsewhere, for whatever reason, surely there were ways to help Lovren (who himself could have done better), whether it was screening Lukaku or getting someone to sweep behind.
From United’s perspective, you wonder what happens when Paul Pogba (who missed the game after picking up a knock in training) returns. If you go back to the midfield three — which Mourinho himself said, rightly, was Pogba’s best position — then you either have to switch Sanchez back out wide or change to a 4-3-2-1 or 4-3-1-2 scheme forgoing wingers. Personally, I think that’s the best solution. It will be interesting to see how Mourinho plays it.
As for Liverpool, they slip to fourth place, one point behind Tottenham and four ahead of Chelsea. There’s no reason for them to panic: you can budget for defeat at Old Trafford. But what you don’t want is to find yourself in a situation where the trip to Stamford Bridge on the second-to-last day of the season becomes make-or-break for a top four finish.
The Reds still have a bit of a cushion: Klopp needs to manage it.
Napoli aren’t finished yet despite slip
Napoli were held to a scoreless draw away to Inter, which means they slip into second place one point behind Juventus, who also have a game in hand. Coach Maurizio Sarri reiterated after the game that they still believe, they still played well, they have no intention of giving up, and since they have neither the most expensive nor the best squad in Serie A, they’re not the ones with the pressure.
In many ways, he’s right. Lorenzo Insigne missed a couple of chances that could have given them the win (although, equally Milan Skriniar hit the woodwork at the other end), and Inter never really threatened Pepe Reina’s goal.
Napoli are playing with house money: they’re on pace to collect 95 points, which would be the third-highest total in the history of Serie A. If Juventus can outperform them, good for them: Napoli did their part.
As for Inter, Luciano Spalletti set up not to concede, did it cleverly (as he often does) and got the job done. He pointed out that his team is low on quality, so this is the best they can do right now. He’s right, of course, although it’s always jarring to hear a manager talk about how unremarkable his players are. But points like the one gleaned on Sunday are valuable when it comes to keeping them on track for their goal this season: a place in the top four and access to some Champions League prize money next year.
Pitch invasions blot the weekend
This past weekend saw European football return to the 1980s — and not in a good way. Several West Ham supporters invaded the pitch during their side’s home defeat to Burnley on Saturday, while hundreds others overwhelmed stewards and harangued the club’s owners, David Gold and David Sullivan, in the directors’ box.
That same day, hundreds of angry Lille fans stormed on to the pitch following a 1-1 draw with Montpellier. Several Lille players were hit by their own supporters, who vented their anger at owners Gerard Lopez and Marc Ingla.
There’s not much to say here. Pitch invasions of this sort are dangerous and unacceptable. At the same time, there are reasons why these supporters are so angry, and the situation at both clubs goes well beyond fans simply being angry at under-performance on the pitch.
Lille aren’t just in danger of relegation. The club are under a financial cloud after being acquired by Lopez and Ingla and are being investigated by the DNCG, French football’s financial control authority. As for West Ham, many supporters are angry at the move away from the Boleyn Ground and the way Gold and Sullivan have run the club. There’s also tension between different fan groups after a protest march was called off, with some supporters claiming they’ve been threatened by other supporters. Some have criticised vice chairman Karren Brady for meeting with certain supporters’ groups with dubious pasts.
Football doesn’t need a return to the violence and chaos of the past. But equally, football needs responsible owners who respect supporters, many of whom will still be there after they’re long gone.
Shameful scenes in Greece
The Greek Superleague has been suspended indefinitely, and it’s the only reasonable action that could have been taken after what happened on Sunday when PAOK hosted league-leading AEK.
Fernando Varela put the ball in the net in the 89th minute, giving PAOK a lead that would have meant leap-frogging AEK to the top of the league. Then referee Giorgos Kominis appeared to disallow the goal, leading to a melee on the pitch. PAOK officials — including the owner, Ivan Savvidis — twice went on to the pitch to confront the match officials. On the second occasion, a holstered handgun was clearly visible on Savvidis’ belt.
Savvidis, a Russian billionaire, apparently has a licence to carry a firearm. That’s fine. However, a licence to carry does not mean you can take it with you wherever you like, nor does it entitle you to wander uninvited on to a football pitch. If, on top of that, he also threatened the referee while armed, as AEK officials allege, things get more serious still.
Greek football has had a rocky time over the past decade. Greek football deserves better. Meanwhile, Savvidis should not be allowed near a football stadium ever again.
Who should play up front for Chelsea?
Chelsea were a bit fortunate with their goals in their 2-1 victory over Crystal Palace, but given the amount of chances they created, you’re not going to hold it against them. Now, the worry is about the center-forward.
Alvaro Morata hasn’t scored at all since Dec. 26 while Olivier Giroud hasn’t scored in the Premier League in more than three months, including five Chelsea appearances. On Saturday, he again wasted a couple of opportunities.
Obviously, having a center-forward who converts chances is better than having one who squanders them. But given the way they play, simply having a big body up front to tie up central defenders is often as important as having a prolific central striker. And both Morata and Giroud bring a range of skills beyond goal scoring to the table.
Real might have deepest squad in Europe
If part of being a good coach is knowing how to turn negatives into positives, then Zinedine Zidane’s cup runneth over. Real Madrid are 15 points behind Barcelona in La Liga, which means they won’t be winning it. But they’re also 12 points clear of Sevilla, who were beaten 2-0 at home by Valencia, which means they don’t need to worry about being back in the Champions League next year. Therefore Zidane can spend the rest of the season tinkering and finding the right combinations based on the opponent. The only concern is getting it right, because this might be the deepest squad in Europe.
For the tricky away trip to Eibar, he opted for Gareth Bale and Cristiano Ronaldo up front with Isco, Toni Kroos and the returning Luka Modric behind. Modric, who hadn’t played since Valentine’s Day, dominated the middle of the park while Ronaldo grabbed both goals, taking his seasonal tally to 33. Throw Lucas Vazquez, Karim Benzema, Mateo Kovacic and Marco Asensio into the mix and he has a head-spinning range of permutations. Modric, Kroos and Ronaldo may be the only three guaranteed a spot.
Is Lewandowski leaving Bayern this summer?
The last time Bayern played at home they were tied in knots by Hertha and had to settle for a scoreless draw. That was unlikely to happen against Hamburg, a relegation-threatened side that hasn’t won since November, and in fact, it did not.
Bayern were 3-0 up inside of 20 minutes and cruised to a 6-0 win. They could end up winning the league by April Fool’s Day. Robert Lewandowski’s hat trick means he now has 100 league goals (in just 120 appearances!) for Bayern, and the rumours linking him to a summer move are kicking into gear. He’ll be 30 in August. If it’s going to happen, it’s going to be this summer.
Coutinho, Dembele ease Barca to victory
Barcelona’s last league defeat came against Malaga but that felt like a lifetime ago. This time, Barca went into the game a whopping 56 points clear of their last-placed opposition. And that, coupled with Lionel Messi’s mini-paternity leave, gave Ernesto Valverde the opportunity to do some tinkering. It looked like a 4-2-3-1 with Paulinho, Philippe Coutinho and Ousmane Dembele behind Luis Suarez and it yielded a comfortable 2-0 win with goals from Suarez and Coutinho.
Dembele did his part, especially in the first half. Whether he’ll live up to his price tag over the long term remains to be seen, but the glimpses of playmaking and pace that he showed suggest a bright future. Coutinho will likely take more time to settle, although his clever back-heel for Barca’s second goal proves he can contribute in multiple ways. At the stage, it’s all about Chelsea and their visit to the Camp Nou anyway.
Dybala, Juve keep rolling
You can split Paulo Dybala’s season up into three chunks pretty neatly. Through the end of September, he had 12 goals in nine games. Then came the barren spell, the benching and the injury: from Oct. 1 to Mar. 1, he managed just five goals in 21 games.
But now he has started three games in a row, against Lazio, Tottenham in the Champions League and Udinese on Sunday, and he’s been key in all three, playing a huge part in delivering the three victories. Against Udinese, he conjured up a majestic free kick and converted the second after some nice holdup play by Gonzalo Higuain.
Juve’s season has been very much stop-start, but if Max Allegri can harness this Dybala the rest of the way, the future’s bright, not just domestically but in Europe too.
What could have been for Atletico…
Atletico Madrid’s 3-0 thumping of Celta keeps them seven points clear of Real Madrid in second place and highlighted Antoine Griezmann’s torrid period of form. Goals alone aren’t a great metric by which to judge him, but the fact that he had a distinctly subpar first half of the season and yet has already matched last year’s Liga total offers some context.
You wonder where this club, winners of 10 of the past 11 games, could be if Vitolo and Diego Costa had come on board in the summer. It also makes you look at the Barcelona defeat a bit differently. Should they have been more aggressive given that in reality, they had nothing to lose?
Batshuayi’s having fun at Dortmund
It was a wild one in Dortmund on Sunday. Borussia Dortmund took an early lead, and then Eintracht Frankfurt equalized before Michy Batshuayi put the home side ahead again. And then, after Eintracht made it 2-2 in injury time, Batshuayi — who else? — popped up with the winner, deeper still in injury time.
After his blistering start, which saw him grab five goals in three games, Batshuayi looked to have cooled off to the point that he went five starts without scoring. Then came Sunday’s heroics, neatly set up by stuff like this to which the self-styled “#BATSMAN” responded with more Twitter shenanigans.
Batshuayi is obviously having fun, and after some 18 months rooted to the Chelsea bench, you can only be happy for him.
Gabriele Marcotti is a Senior Writer for ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @Marcotti.