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What Liverpool-Man United rout means for Klopp and Ten Hag, Arsenal's mental boost, more

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Published in Soccer
Monday, 06 March 2023 11:10

What an incredible weekend of soccer, eh? Liverpool put their big rivals, Man United, firmly in check with a historic 7-0 win at Anfield, while Arsenal and Man City picked up very different wins to remain locked in a Premier League title race. In LaLiga, Barcelona snuck a win over Valencia while Real Madrid were frustrated by Real Betis, results that give Xavi & Co. some breathing room at the top of the table. (Oh, and Atletico Madrid scored six -- six! -- against Sevilla.)

In the Bundesliga, Dortmund and Bayern both won to maintain the tension in the title chase, while Serie A saw differing fortunes for Milan and Inter, respectively. Then there's Kylian Mbappe, making history (again) in Paris.

It's Monday, and Gab Marcotti reacts to the biggest moments in the world of football.

It's not about the 7-0 score, it's how you react to it ... for both Liverpool and Man United

Games like Liverpool's 7-0 win over Manchester United on Sunday have different meanings for different stakeholders. It's United's worst defeat since 1931, and for supporters it will be the subject of song and banter for years to come. The more interesting aspect though is what the two managers, Jurgen Klopp and Erik ten Hag, take from it.

And that's not a wholly straightforward question because, until Cody Gakpo's opener in the 43rd minute, the game had been a relatively close-fought affair that felt as if it could have gone either way. Then three goals in the space of 10 minutes either side of half-time basically ended the game as a competitive affair. It's not something you see often and it makes it trickier to interpret, assuming you want to go beyond the banal "Liverpool were great, United were rubbish."

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If you're Klopp and Liverpool, it's evidently a massive boost. Win your game in hand and you're fourth in the table, something you would not have taken for granted not that long ago, when they were ninth. Equally, we've been here before. Last season, Liverpool won this fixture 4-0 and, if anything, it was a more dominating performance, with Klopp's team racking up 2.33 expected goals while limiting United to just two shots and xG of 0.08. (They romped home in the reverse fixture, too, winning 5-0 at Old Trafford.)

On Sunday, Liverpool scored their seven goals from an xG of 2.37. They had eight shots on target and scored seven goals. That's not something you see very often either, and it's something you should not take for granted. Many of Liverpool's goals came on the back of defensive errors, several of them unforced, and he'll want to take that into account as well.

The second half was just weird and perhaps not repeatable, meaning what he can learn from is the first half. And while it was close, Liverpool continued to make progress and, more importantly, they did so under "normal" conditions.

The back line looked cohesive and reactive, even the oft-criticised full-backs. The midfield, while a little short on creativity, offered plenty of intensity and often looked like that of two or three years ago. And up front, while it's obvious the trio of Gakpo, Mohamed Salah and Darwin Nunez still need to grow in terms of chemistry -- and won't, for the time being, match what Salah, Sadio Mane and Roberto Firmino offered in their heyday -- all three provided work rate, quality and enthusiasm. More than the second half, that's what you expect Liverpool to continue to build on.

As for United, clearly the first thing you want to diagnose is what happened after the break and how Ten Hag ended up joining Ole Gunnar Solskjaer and Ralf Rangnick as the recipient of a butt-whupping. A lot of it is down to individual errors, but what came before the mistakes matters, too. For example, I'd focus not so much on the fact that everyone was out of position on Nunez's header, but the way they managed to either give away the ball or fail to clear it three times in the buildup to that goal. Or, on the third -- sure, blame David De Gea for conceding a goal from that angle, but don't ignore how Salah turned Lisandro Martinez inside out before setting up Gakpo. You can go through it yourself and do your own post-mortem.

The point, though, is that individual mistakes can happen. A coach's job is to root out systemic mistakes and not put players in situations where individual mistakes -- or unlucky moments, like the deflection that led to the four-nil -- become catastrophic.

More broadly, you need to look at the attacking end, too. It's only human for heads to drop after you go 3-0 down, but it's frankly shocking that you would manage just three shots on goal (total xG of 0.13 from the 50th minute on). And it's part of the manager's job -- a difficult part, but that's why they're paid the big bucks -- to ensure this doesn't happen. Some of his in-game decisions, like leaving Antony out there or leaving Jadon Sancho on the bench, definitely didn't work out as planned.

Beyond that, it's obviously how you react. Ten Hag will need to convince his players that it was a blip, more than a learning opportunity: when players make the sort of mistakes they made on Sunday, they don't need to be reminded that they screwed up.

Klopp may want to double down on what he said after the game, when he noted how he felt that this sort of game "didn't belong to Liverpool this season." He's right: it's been a dreadful campaign. But it happened, and this is the opportunity to channel it into a positive run into the top four.

Real Madrid's big guns fail to fire away to Betis, leaving LaLiga title hanging by a thread

Betis are fifth in the table, so the idea of traveling to the Benito Villamarin and expecting an easy three points would have been foolish for Real Madrid. Equally though, Manuel Pellegrini was without Nabil Fekir and Sergio Canales, arguably his two most talented players, and for Madrid, this was more of a must-win than for Betis.

Is the LaLiga title race over after Real Madrid's draw to Real Betis?

Craig Burley and Steve Nicol react to Real Madrid's 0-0 draw to Real Betis in LaLiga play.

And yet it felt like the visitors only started really playing at the hour mark. Prior to that, it was Thibaut Courtois who had to come up big on two occasions (denying Borja Iglesias and Ayoze Perez). Real did create enough chances -- many of them late -- but once again, more from individual than collective action. And when the two biggest stars, Karim Benzema and Vinicius, have off days, it gets really tough to find a way through. Especially when Luka Modric, Real Madrid's most reliable creative spark is suspended. (We can have a whole other debate about whether a 37-year-old should be Madrid's main creative force, but that's another matter.)

It's too early to crown Barcelona, and Madrid's players were saying they still believe. But making up nine points against an opponent who will no longer be playing European midweek fixtures is a lot.

Psychology is a funny thing, as Arsenal's buzzer-beater worth more than a rout

It's funny how these things work. Logic tells you that a 4-0 win should inspire more confidence than a last-ditch, come-from-behind victory against the league's cellar-dwellers. But that's not how it worked for Arsenal after Reiss Nelson's winner against Bournemouth.

Logic may tell you there's no such thing as destiny, but the fact they celebrated as if they'd won the league and the scratch card lottery all at once speaks volumes. When your fifth-best winger, who had played all of 65 minutes in the league this season, comes on and scores the winning goal with his weaker foot in the seventh minute of injury time, enabling you to come back from two goals down to get all three points ... yeah, that'll give you a boost. An irrational one, though a boost nonetheless.

Arteta reacts to Arsenal's 'extraordinary' comeback vs. Bournemouth

Mikel Arteta speaks after Arsenal's 3-2 win against Bournemouth in the Premier League.

Though, to be fair, even without Nelson's winner, the way Arsenal battled back after giving up a goal within nine seconds and another after a marking snafu from their veteran midfield leader, would have been a source of pride.

With Manchester City winning earlier in the day, it was all set up for manager Mikel Arteta's young guns to crumble. Except, they didn't. Would he take this sort of win over a 4-0 rout? You bet he would. At least after the fact.

A huge win for Mourinho's Roma, and a bonehead moment from Kean

Going into Sunday's Roma vs. Juventus clash, it was pretty evident the visitors would have settled for a draw, while Roma, realistically needed a win to remain on course for a top-four finish. So it was somewhat surprising when Jose Mourinho opted to play without a striker, deploying Lorenzo Pellegrini and Gini Wijnaldum in the vicinity of Paulo Dybala instead. It's not the reason why Roma won the game -- Juventus hit the woodwork three times and Gianluca Mancini conjured up an improbable long-range effort to win it for Roma -- but it does speak to Mourinho's approach.

No, it's not that Mourinho is necessarily defensive; it's more that he understands the city, the fan base and the climate around the team and knew full well how costly the defeat would have been, especially with the Europa League around the corner. It wasn't a great game, but he turned into a blood-and-guts affair and his team did not let him down.

Juventus, on the other hand, felt like what they've been most of the season. That is, a side that's more talented than all but a handful of opponents but which doesn't always maximise that talent. Sure, Paul Pogba and Federico Chiesa have been injured, but the latter has been back for nearly two months now and the former returned a week ago. What's the logic in giving them just half an hour and 15 minutes respectively? And why did Manuel Locatelli come off for, ahem, Leandro Paredes?

Manager Massimiliano Allegri can point to the fact that without the points penalty (which may yet be overturned) they would be second, and that they're in the Coppa Italia semifinal and the Europa League round of 16. Great, but it doesn't change the fact that too often they're not making their talent count.

And then there's Moise Kean. He came on and got himself sent off in the silliest way possible after less than 40 seconds. He gets fouled by Mancini and, with the referee a few steps away, stands up and kicks him. As Allegri pointed out, that's not just a stupid thing to do, it's also disrespectful to teammates and fans.

Kean turned 23 last week. Age is no longer an excuse.

De Ligt gets it done at both ends, but Bayern unimpressive vs. Stuttgart

With the big Champions League clash against PSG around the corner, it was predictable that Bayern would take their foot off the gas a bit for the trip to Stuttgart (and leave the likes of Sadio Mane, Serge Gnabry and Joao Cancelo out of the starting lineup). Equally, given Borussia Dortmund's victory on Friday night, they needed the three points to keep the pace. They got them in no small part thanks to Matthijs De Ligt, who contributed a goal and a goal-line clearance as well as the usual defensive leadership.

Stuttgart were intense and well-organized, so credit to them, but this also had plenty to do with Bayern's sluggish performance in the 2-1 win. For all their talent, this doesn't seem to be a side suited to quietly managing games and getting max results with minimum effort ... at least not without the sort of hiccups we saw on Saturday.

Man City down Newcastle with grit and quality to keep pressure on

Newcastle United have now gone five games without a win, so the perception is that they're on the slide and running out of steam. I'm not sure that's accurate when you consider the quality of the opposition -- Liverpool, City and Manchester United among them -- and the fact that their performances have generally been steady. Maybe it's more of a case that their results earlier this year outstripped their performances and now there is some regression to the mean.

That said, they remained a tough out for City, which is why Pep Guardiola's crew deserve credit for their approach and execution. They took the lead -- Phil Foden again showed his class -- came close to conceding an equaliser and then put the game to bed with Bernardo Silva. It was the sort of performance that's not showy, but which managers can be very proud of.

This is a professional unit who know how to win and if Saturday is any indication, they're not going away anytime soon.

Blue-collar Barcelona survive to get the three points

Barcelona without Robert Lewandowski, Pedri, Gavi and Ousmane Dembele are Barcelona without four of their five most gifted players. It's worth bearing this in mind when assessing their 1-0 win over Valencia, which, sure, was ugly -- they didn't record a single shot in the final 34 minutes -- but which comes with plenty of mitigating factors. (And I'm not just talking about the missed penalty by Ferran Torres.)

Raphinha nods home header vs. Valencia

Raphinha nods home header vs. Valencia

We've remarked before about how this Barca team has an ability to be workmanlike that previous Barca teams didn't always have. Well, they need it, because against a desperate, relegation-threatened opponent running on guts and fumes, they don't have the quality (not with this lineup) to avoid the street-fight.

Instead, they got sucked in and escaped with the three points. Which is what you need to do sometimes to win titles.

Chelsea finally win, but you can tell Graham Potter isn't himself

OK, so when you've won two of 17 games since early November, getting the three points is paramount. And maybe that's why Graham Potter, with 20 minutes to go, opted to replace two attacking players (Raheem Sterling and Joao Felix) with more defensive options (Denis Zakaria and Conor Gallagher). A Wesley Fofana header had given Chelsea the lead -- greeted by fans mockingly singing "We scored a goal" -- and he wasn't going to relinquish it.

The old Potter, the one who impressed enough at Brighton to get the gig at Chelsea, likely wouldn't have done this. He would have gone for the second, knowing that it was the best way to keep Leeds far from his box and secure the win. And, in fact, he would have been right: post-substitution, Chelsea had one shot on goal for a total xG of 0.02 whereas Leeds managed six, for an xG of 0.50.

But Chelsea (especially this version) isn't Brighton, and Potter isn't the Potter of old (at least right now). That said, Chelsea looked good --- if disjointed -- for the first half hour or so, before dropping to the level of a Leeds side who looked like what they are: a team fighting to avoid the drop. Potter's real priority must be getting his team to perform for 90 minutes.

Mbappe becomes PSG's all-time top scorer (dating all the way back to 1971)

Kylian Mbappe's late goal in Paris Saint-Germain's 4-2 win over Nantes was his 201st for the club, enabling him to pull away from Edinson Cavani, on 200. If he scores another two goals this season -- and he will, barring an act of God -- he will have broken Cavani's mark for league goals, which stands at 138.

I ordinarily take scoring records with a grain of salt: different players, different eras. And given PSG were only founded in 1971, there's not that much history there. That said, Mbappe only turned 24 in December, and his 201 goals have come in just over five-and-a-half seasons. That's pretty special stuff.

On the pitch, we saw the sort of performance we've seen too often from PSG since the World Cup. They were somewhat absent-minded on the pitch, failing to close out the game when they had a chance, allowing Nantes to equalize twice (Gigio Donnarumma's poor day at the office had a lot to do with it) and then getting it done at the end.

The gap in the league is eight points and they had bigger fish to fry -- the Champions League last-16, second leg, against Bayern -- so it probably doesn't matter. But it does go to show how coaching, and working, in these situations is entirely different.

Milan's mini-run ends against Fiorentina ... and yeah, Rafael Leao makes a difference

Some thought Milan had found some sort of balance by switching to a back three. And to be fair, they had racked up four wins on the spin without conceding a goal. But that setup always seems forced on this team, and not what Stefano Pioli wanted nor what Milan were built for. And thus, against a Fiorentina side firing on all cylinders who play far better football than their results suggest, they quickly crumbled, succumbing to a 2-1 defeat that was fully merited.

They looked limp and, most of all, reactive, whereas previously they were proactive. That back three feels like fool's gold. And what's more, because this system is based on moments and individuals it made the absence of Rafael Leao even more impactful.

There's a contract negotiation going on and he hasn't been particularly consistent of late, but the numbers don't lie: with Leao starting, Milan rack up 2.3 points per game with non-penalty xG of 1.8. Without him, they're at 0.7 points per game and a non-penalty xG of 1.1.

Extending his deal depends on his demands, so that may or may not be a no-brainer, but starting him when he's around certainly is.

Tottenham pay heavy price for not putting Wolves away in first half

Should Tottenham fail to qualify for the Champions League this season, they can look back on games like this one, against Wolverhampton Wanderers. They dominated the first half, but failed to capitalize. And when Wolves changed their system to three at the back at the break, Spurs failed to adjust. They hit the woodwork several times and then made an individual error that gave Wolves a 1-0 win.

It's the sort of performance (and outcome) that infuriates managers. Antonio Conte wasn't there -- he's still recovering from surgery, but will be back in time for the Champions League -- but it's a safe bet he was raging back in Turin. And it's the sort of breakdown -- after a game in which they played well, for the most part -- that could carry a heavy price come the end of the season. They could have been one point away from third place and six points clear of fifth. Instead, Liverpool are three points back with a game in hand.

Atletico celebrate Simeone's record with a convincing 6-1 win over Sevilla

After a week in which some media put his future in doubt, even linking Luis Enrique with Atletico Madrid, Diego Simeone could have used a big, quality win and he certainly got it. Memphis Depay and Alvaro Morata bagged two goals each, while Antoine Griezmann, who has been in top form for a while now, scored a worldie. Other than a few uncharacteristic wobbles (and a generous penalty, which Ivan Rakitic missed), Atletico were rarely threatened.

Álvaro Morata goal 92nd minute Atletico Madrid 6-1 Sevilla

Álvaro Morata goal 92nd minute Atletico Madrid 6-1 Sevilla

Simeone got to celebrate his 613th game as Atletico Madrid manager, passing Luis Aragones. We're far away from the likes of Sir Alex Ferguson (who coached Manchester United in 1,500 matches), but Simeone's longevity is astounding. He's been there for 11 years and two months -- to put it in context, in the 11 years before his arrival, Atletico had 11 different bosses.

His deal is through 2024 and it remains to be seen whether he'll stick around, given his huge contract and the more general sense that all good things must come to an end. That said, whatever happens -- two league titles, a Copa del Rey, two Champions League finals and, above all, the sort of stability Atletico Madrid haven't had since the 1970s -- make him one of the club's true greats.

Resilient Inter are back in second: they are what they are

Inter are the prototypical team in transition, dogged by uncertainty, departing stars and injuries. It's not through lack of trying -- Simone Inzaghi attempts to play good football and he sometimes succeeds, sometimes fails -- it's just that they are what they are right now, limited and with too many guys on their way out (Milan Skriniar, Marcelo Brozovic, maybe a few others who haven't come out in the open yet).

And still, they're back in second place in Serie A, they have a legitimate shot of advancing to the Elite Eight in the Champions League (1-0 up ahead of their trip to Porto) and they're in the semifinal of the Coppa Italia. All of that is a credit to Inzaghi. We can debate endlessly what his ceiling may be as a manager, but he rarely screws up games he shouldn't be screwing up and Sunday's professional, no-risk win over Lecce is evidence of this.

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