Around Europe: Liverpool's next move, Pep's Bayern-Dortmund masterclass
A massive weekend of big derbies across Europe ended with pressure growing on Rafa Benitez in Madrid and Sinisa Mihajlovic in Milan; the Premier League losing two coaches in one day; Bayern cementing its status as Bundesliga and Champions League favorite and Zlatan Ibrahimovic making history in Ligue 1.
Here are the talking-points from around Europe leading into an international fixture window:
Liverpool has to get its next hire right
There was more coaching drama in the Premier League, but for once Louis van Gaal’s selection error and Jose Mourinho’s brave challenge to his owner to sack him after another defeat, not to mention Dick Advocaat’s inevitable departure as Sunderland coach, became secondary stories when Liverpool owners Fenway Sports Group sacked coach Brendan Rodgers on Sunday.
Liverpool’s weekend result, a 1-1 draw with Everton, was irrelevant to the decision, according to reports. Instead it was the performances before then; draws with Norwich and FC Sion, a desperate win on penalties over fourth-tier Carlisle United, and a sense that for all his fresh dawns and tactical tweaks, Liverpool under Rodgers was not going in the right direction.
The critics have plenty to with which to beat Rodgers, as even his finest period as coach, the 2013-14 season when Liverpool should have won the title but finished second (it was five points clear with three games left to play) was inspired by the form of Luis Suarez. Of course it was brilliant with him in the side, they say. But Suarez played his first 18 months in England under Kenny Dalglish and he was not as good, so Rodgers must take some credit for creating the team in which he could thrive.
Rodgers rarely helped himself with his comments to the press. Most coaches take the blame for defeat and pass on acclaim for victories to their players, but he did it the other way around.
There are few clubs more political behind the scenes than Liverpool, and Rodgers was in a constant quest for recognition. The battleground was centered around recruitment, and one thing that all managers want: control. Rodgers wanted it. FSG wasn’t willing to cede it, especially after his first two signings, Joe Allen and Fabio Borini, flopped. So when Rodgers also wanted a third ex-Swansea player, Ashley Williams, he was overruled and the club signed Mamadou Sakho.
The players bought after Suarez’s sale to Barcelona were a combination of Rodgers’s requests–the likes of Adam Lallana and Dejan Lovren–and the "transfer committee," which identified Emre Can as a possible Steven Gerrard replacement.
There was one thing Rodgers clearly excelled at: coaching and improving players. Gerrard wrote about this in his recently published autobiography, leading to The Times’s Matt Dickinson suggesting Rodgers would make an excellent England coach. The likes of Jordan Henderson, Philippe Coutinho and Raheem Sterling have all improved hugely under Rodgers’s tuition: would Sterling be worth £49 million if he had worked under another coach?
That could yet stand Liverpool in good stead–Coutinho is likely to be the next big-money departure–and should ensure Rodgers gets another big job in future. (By way of comparison, you can’t help but wonder how good Theo Walcott, Aaron Ramsey and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain would be if they worked under Rodgers).
The challenge for Liverpool now is to appoint the right man. That all depends on what the club wants, and that itself changed under Rodgers. At first it was about the style of play, then about developing young talent, and in the final summer window, when it bought James Milner and Christian Benteke, about proven Premier League talent.
There are plenty of good coaches available, but with Champions League qualification a distant dream at the moment, Liverpool first needs to know what it wants to be, and then find the right man for the job. Jurgen Klopp is the favorite, but his "full-throttle football" worked because Borussia Dortmund director Michael Zorc found the right players for the system. Whether the transfer committee could do the same at Anfield remains to be seen.
Pep shows there is another way
In an ideal world, Liverpool would call Bayern Munich and ask for Pep Guardiola, whose contract is up at the end of the season. A pity for the Spaniard that the Champions League final is not played in October: Bayern is so far ahead of the opposition this season that it’s embarrassing. In the Bundesliga, it followed up wins over Champions League qualifiers Bayer Leverkusen (3-0) and Wolfsburg (5-1) with another demolition of second-placed Borussia Dortmund, winning 5-1.
Guardiola gave a tactical masterclass, identifying Dortmund’s weakness and exploiting it. Dortmund plays a high defensive line and its center backs are not the quickest: twice Jerome Boateng played a 70-yard pass from one end of the pitch to the other, and twice Dortmund’s defenders were caught out: Thomas Muller (10 goals in 12 games this season) and then Robert Lewandowski (16 goals in 12 games) both scored from the same move.
This is not the way Guardiola teams normally play: this season he has replaced the injured Franck Ribery-Arjen Robben wing combination with Douglas Costa and Kingsley Coman, two players who have proved to be great signings already. Guardiola needs to win the Champions League to end the debate as to whether his Bayern period can be called a success, but for those who have seen his teams destroy all-comers this season, there can be no doubt. It is. And he may even extend his deal.
As Kicker put it: “Currently Pep Guardiola cannot find a better employer in Europe. Later this year, he must make his decision. Guardiola should think carefully!”
Diarra challenges for France place
PSG won "El Clasique" with two quick-fire Zlatan Ibrahimovic penalties earning a 2-1 victory. Ibra’s goals make it 110 in all for PSG, breaking Pauleta’s all-time record for the club. Goalkeeper Kevin Trapp played his part, saving Abel Berrada’s second-half spot kick for the host. But it was a visiting player who really caught the eye. Lassana Diarra was called up to Didier Deschamps’s France squad this week after a five-year absence and it was easy to say why. Diarra exuded calm and confidence from his position just in front of L’OM's defense, setting his team in motion for attacking moves and rarely giving the ball away.
In a game that was always on the edge, you could see the respect that Diarra had from his opponents; whenever there was a challenge involving him, his opponent would pat him as a sign of respect. Even Marco Verratti, a yellow card-in-waiting in most matches, embraced Diarra after one crunching challenge.
If he wants to break into France’s starting eleven at Euro 2016, he would have to get past Yohan Cabaye, who played his own match-winning role in Crystal Palace’s 2-0 win over West Brom. In the first half, Cabaye also made three challenges that could have been carded (and in France, might have been). Diarra’s form could see Cabaye come under threat for Les Bleus.
Problems for Spain's big clubs
When was the last time no team in La Liga’s top six failed to win on the same weekend? This may be a sign that La Liga is more competitive than it used to be, but more likely that all three of the top sides at the moment are struggling. Barcelona lost 2-1 to Sevilla and while it may point to the absences of Andres Iniesta, Lionel Messi and others, and the fact it hit the woodwork four times, Sevilla was also missing seven players. Barcelona is paying the price for allowing Pedro to leave this summer, and is one Neymar/Suarez injury from being in full-on crisis mode.
Over in Madrid, the derby between Real Mardrid and Atletico ended in a 1-1 draw, with neither team particularly happy. Atletico did not look like a Diego Simeone side, and the coach is struggling to find the ideal partnership up front: his decision to take off Angel Correa looked motivated by the player’s temper (he was already on a yellow) but worked when replacement Luciano Vietto scored a late equalizer.
On the other hand, Rafa Benitez’s selection of Casemiro worked in deep midfield, but his cautious tactics after Karim Benzema’s early goal were most un-Madrid-like. Cristiano Ronaldo’s bizarre drought in front of goal continues: moving to the center-forward position has actually slowed down his scoring rate, and created more opportunities to Benzema, who has scored Madrid’s last four La Liga goals.
Perhaps it tells its own story that Madrid’s best player once again was goalkeeper Keylor Navas, who kept out Antoine Griezmann’s penalty and late on denied Jackson Martinez a winner.
Pressure on Mihajlovic in Milan
Mourinho was not the only coach promising not to resign this weekend. Milan was humbled 4-0 at home to Napoli Sunday, after which Sinisa Mihajlovic insisted he would turn things around. Napoli’s last three Serie A wins have now been over Lazio (5-0), Juventus (2-1) and Milan (4-0), which is why this writer can see the clubgoing the distance; for Milan, whose ambition is a top-three place, it’s a different story at the moment.
Only relegation-threatened Carpi has conceded more than its 13 goals in seven games, as the Cristian Zapata/Alessio Romagnoli (or, as in this game, Rodrigo Ely) center-back partnership inspires little confidence while at the other end, the Carlos Bacca/Luiz Adriano strike-force has yet to click.
“I will no doubt receive a phone call tomorrow from the president [Silvio] Berlusconi and I will explain what happened," said Mihajlovic after the game. "The club as always will take their decisions, but I won't resign. I am convinced that I can find a solution to the problems. I have done it at other clubs and I can do it here. I need time, even if it is something I cannot ask for. Perhaps we need Freud… since I've arrived I have been trying to work on the players' mentality. I have been speaking to them individually and as a group, trying to analyze everything. Clearly it is not that easy. I expected to resolve things earlier, but evidently we have to keep on working. That is the only option we have. We do work hard and well, but it’s still not enough.”
Next up are three games against sides currently above Milan: Torino, Sassuolo and Chievo. Mihajlovic needs to turn it around then.
Top three players of the week
Jean-Francois Gillet (Mechelen)
The goalkeeper saved three penalties against Anderlecht–from three different players, Dennis Praet, Stefano Okaka, and Youri Tielemans–and pulled off the perfect hat trick as each save was in a different spot. The first penalty was down the middle, the second to his right and third to his left. Mechelen was rewarded for his heroics when a late Serigne Kara own goal earned his side a point.
Lorenzo Insigne (Napoli)
The 24-year-old celebrated his 100th Napoli appearance with two goals and an assist in Napoli’s 4-0 win at AC Milan. Five goals equals his best scoring tally for a single season, and he is already on that after seven games. He has, perhaps prematurely, asked not to be compared to Diego Maradona, but if he can inspire Napoli to Scudetto success, it may be unavoidable.
David Silva (Manchester City)
Is it a coincidence that City’s recent slump happened when Silva was unavailable? Sergio Aguero may have scored five goals against a hapless Newcastle defense but Silva was the architect.
Top three goals of the week
Joan Verdu (Fiorentina vs. Atalanta)
A beautiful assist from in-form Nikola Kalinic set up Verdu for a smart volley as Fiorentina burst to the top of the table in style.
Kevin de Bruyne (Manchester City vs. Newcastle)
Alan Shearer said it was a fluke, but De Bruyne’s volley on the turn was the pick of City’s six goals at the Etihad.
“It was the intention to fire and score,” the Belgian said. “Of course I had to turn 90 degrees with a ball in the air, so I think I did well. You have to have luck, but you should always try.”
Robert Lewandowski (Bayern Munich vs. Dortmund)
Made in Dortmund and scored for Bayern: Mario Gotze setting up Lewandowski for a goal used to delight Dortmund fans but not any more. This time Dortmund was the victim of the perfect Bayern counter, as Gotze’s first-time cross was smashed home by Europe’s in-form player at the moment.