Arsene Wenger and Luis Enrique are feeling the heat at two clubs headed out of the Champions League, plus Mario Balotelli saw red–again–headlining the week around Europe.
There was an FA Cup shock that made front-page news, but the biggest story in England continues to revolve around the future of Arsene Wenger as Arsenal manager.
It’s been a week for managers above all: a similar tale, though one with more trophies involved, is playing out at Barcelona, whose Champions League defeat might spell the end for Luis Enrique. Bayern Munich needed a late late goal to salvage a point at Hertha Berlin while a return to the bench for Zdenek Zeman helped Pescara to an astonishing first legitimate win of the season. In France, time is ticking on the career of Mario Balotelli who was sent off again for Nice.
Here is what caught our eye Around Europe this weekend:
PREMIER LEAGUE: Conte's success an indicator for Arsenal's decision makers
BUNDESLIGA: Sparks fly as Bayern needs last-gasp equalizer
SERIE A: Zemanlandia returns to save Pescara
TOP GOALS/PLAYERS: Mitroglu stays hot; a hero for Lincoln City
Another weekend of FA Cup shocks saw Lincoln City become the first non-league side to reach the quarterfinal for 103 years after beating Premier League side Burnley 1-0 Saturday. It made front-page news in the British press. Meriting less mention as another win for Chelsea, 2-0 at Liverpool’s conqueror Wolverhampton. Pedro and Diego Costa were the scorers, and coach Antonio Conte, despite making seven changes, was clearly taking the cup match seriously, keeping Eden Hazard and Costa in his starting lineup. Chelsea, eight points clear in the league, remains on course for a league and Cup double.
“It is too early to talk about this,” a wary Conte said.
Conte’s seamless integration to English football is worth considering when it comes to one of Chelsea’s would-be rivals in the top four, Arsenal. After the club suffered a shattering 5-1 Champions League defeat at Bayern Munich, the decision over Arsene Wenger’s future was brought into sharp focus: Will he stay or will he go? The problem, as has been mentioned in this space before, is that the decision at the moment belongs to Wenger, who has a two-year contract offer on the table.
“Part of a successful life is to basically deal with disappointments and focus 100% on what is in front of you and show you can deal with that,” Wenger said. “I would say it’s more about character and being united because it’s important you do not get in a blame culture and [instead] focus on being united to respond well.”
When talk turns to the options to replace Wenger, the example of Manchester United is seen as a cautionary tale of succession planning. Lesson one: don’t let the current coach choose his successor. Lesson two: don’t be fooled by the concept of "Premier League experience." Potential candidates Thomas Tuchel, Max Allegri, Diego Simeone don’t have it; Ronald Koeman and Eddie Howe do. But how does that give them an advantage? Neither had it before they coached in the Premier League and it didn't stop them doing well.
Conte has exposed the myth of requiring Premier League experience in order to do well in England. The Arsenal board has many attributes to consider when it comes to choosing the club's next coach–for what it's worth, I believe Wenger will stay beyond this season–but that is certainly not one of them.
Arsenal was not the only club on the end of a European hiding last week. Barcelona’s 4-0 loss at Paris Saint-Germain has ensured the clock keeps ticking for Luis Enrique at Barcelona, though some might say it has been ever since he joined.
Let’s not forget that six months into his Camp Nou career, the coach offered to stand aside following a row with Lionel Messi. At the same time, the club's sporting director and the coach’s ally, Andoni Zubizaretta, left the club. Luis Enrique ended that first season with the treble of league, Copa del Rey and Champions League titles, and last season he won the double, missing out on the Champions League crown. But questions have never gone away, mainly over the change of Barcelona’s style under its coach.
Luis Enrique was offered a new deal before the Paris debacle, but it seems increasingly unlikely he will take it. Spanish pundits said they saw the PSG result coming. Critics speak of a loss of identity. There is less pressing. Ball circulation is down. Luis Enrique puts his attacking chips all on his front three of Messi, Luis Suarez and Neymar.
The club “has sold its soul to the tridente,” wrote El Pais columnist Ramon Besa.
There are reports of disconnect between the coach and his players, who are unhappy with the tactics. Both Andres Iniesta and Sergio Busquets made pointed comments to that effect after the PSG game.
The problems go deeper, too. The club has failed to replace Dani Alves properly, some of the new signings have simply not worked out and the production line from the famed La Masia academy is not producing first-team players like it used to. Too often, the club has had Messi to bail it out, such as he did in Barcelona's last-gasp 2-1 win over Leganes, a result that pulled Barcelona back within a point of first-place rival Real Madrid, though the Blancos have two valuable games in hand. The Argentine maestro still has his contract to sort out, which has 18 months left to run. No wonder the fans were getting restless during the Leganes match. They resorted to booing the much-maligned Andre Gomes, which the coach said was out of order.
So who is on the list to replace Luis Enrique? The top two candidates appear to be Sevilla’s Jorge Sampaoli, who Neymar reportedly wanted as Brazil boss–and whose assistant Juanma Lillo was Pep Guardiola’s coaching mentor–and Ernesto Valverde, Athletic Bilbao’s understated coach.
Whoever it is will have to not only win trophies but to restore "the Barcelona way."
You'd think a 5-1 win over Arsenal would have taken some pressure off Bayern coach Carlo Ancelotti, but not so. The Champions League triumph was seen as not so much down to Bayern’s brilliance but Arsenal’s fallibility. Back in Bundesliga play, Bayern took on Hertha Berlin and needed a Robert Lewandowski equalizer after 96 minutes to sneak away with a 1-1 draw.
“It wasn’t a cup game, we weren’t playing for 120 minutes, the referee has to blow [the whistle],” complained Hertha boss Pal Dardai, who called the time added on a "Bayern Bonus."
Tempers were frayed late on: after the goal, Hertha keeper Rune Jarstein kicked the ball into the back of Xabi Alonso, prompting a scuffle in which even Manuel Neuer got involved. On the bench, the normally mild-mannered Ancelotti raised his middle finger to the Hertha fans whom he later said had spat on him. Expect the fallout from this one to run this week, with the German federation already requesting a statement from Ancelotti about the events that transpired.
Behind Bayern, RB Leipzig beat Borussia Monchengladbach 2-1 away to come back within five points of the leader. The two teams face each other on the penultimate matchday of the season. Bayern should have the title wrapped up by then, but given the stop-start nature of its game under Ancelotti, anything goes.
We all laughed when Football Leaks revealed that Mario Balotelli’s Liverpool contract contained a clause offering him a million-pound bonus if he was not sent off three times in one season. It seemed crazy at the time, but it turns out it made sense. Balotelli, now at Nice, was sent off for the third time this season (although one was later rescinded) after insulting referee Tony Chapron in English. Nice went on to win the game against Lorient, 1-0, but Balotelli seems to have run out of chances on the south coast. After scoring eight goals in his first eight games, he now has more red cards than goals in his last six. And with striker Alassane Plea currently out injured, Balotelli has now blown his chance.
His latest red card came a few days after teammate Valentin Eysseric questioned his attitude, telling BeIn Sports: “It’s a shame he lets his head drop, you see him in training every day. He's such a great player. I think he looks like he wants nothing to do with us. It's really disappointing… We know the coach demands enormous effort from his squad. He won't accept anyone taking their foot off the gas.” For what it's worth, another teammate, Dante, claimed those his words were misinterpreted.
Nice remains in third place and on course for a Champions League spot, but it seems increasingly unlikely it will have Balotelli on its roster next season. At only 26, the Italian forward should be at his peak now. He is not, and it looks like another move to an even lesser league could be next in the cards.
Elsewhere in Ligue 1, there was good news for football hipsters this weekend, as Lille confirmed that Marcelo Bielsa would take charge of the club in July. Lille’s new owner Gerard Lopez came into the club with all sorts of promises, and this is the first that has come off, except the lessons of Lazio need to be heeded. Last summer, Lazio announced that Bielsa had agreed to be its new coach, but two days later, after claiming promises were not met, he walked away.
With four months until July, there’s still time for Bielsa to change his mind. But it would be fun for all involved if he didn’t.
One of the premises of the book Soccernomics is that coaches matter less than clubs’ total wage bills. There is said to be a talent myth around the mystique of this individual who does not even kick a ball on the field. If the importance of the coach is sometimes overstated, then no one told Zdenek Zeman. The 69-year-old Czech manager returned to the dugout this week to take charge of doomed Pescara, whose boss Massimo Oddo was ushered out of the club earlier in the week.
Zeman is beloved at Pescara, whom he coached into Serie A with a free-scoring side in 2011-12. No wonder: that squad contained Marco Verratti, Ciro Immobile and Lorenzo Insigne.
Zeman claims his tactics are just a simple matter of math.
“Whenever we attack, all three forwards have to be in the penalty area while two of the three midfielders come forward as well,” he once explained. “That way the opponent is pinned back. Then you put the ball in the box, and because you have more men, you have more chances of scoring. It’s not rocket science.”
Prior to Zeman's return, Pescara had not won a single game all season, drawing six and having its only three points awarded to it after Sassuolo fielded an ineligible player, forcing a forfeit after an initial victory. So what happened on Zeman’s second debut against Genoa? His team was 3-0 up at halftime and won 5-0 for its first legitimate win of the season.
“I have to thank the players, as they gave everything they had to unblock this situation. They managed it, we broke the curse,” he said after the game. “I hope we can improve, though naturally 5-0 is a good result. We need improvements on application and focus, but the two or three things we tested in our three training sessions did work. It was important to get the win above all psychologically, as it gives us the chance to work with less pressure and improve our game.”
Pescara is still 10 points from safety and needs a lot of results to go its way to avoid relegation. Zeman has signed on for 18 months so could help them get out of Serie B if the inevitable drop follows. The team has plenty of decent youngsters that he could get the best out of, but, more importantly, Pescara will be great to watch again.
Zemanlandia is back!
Top three goals of the week
Florian Thauvin (Marseille): A breakaway goal, scored from distance by the former Newcastle winger but set up with a delightful back-heel pass.
Josip Brekalo (Stuttgart): On the turn, into the top corner, this goal has a dramatic quality as it goes in off the corner of post and crossbar. Wonderful stuff.
Kostas Mitroglu (Benfica): That’s now 31 goals in 50 games for the Greek striker, but few will be better than this, as he dribbled through the Braga defense to score Benfica’s winner.
Top three players of the week:
Youri Tielemans (Anderlecht): The talented teenage midfielder scored two goals, both from outside the area; one with his left and the other with his right. The Belgian is a star in the making.
Lorenzo Insigne (Napoli): The Napoli star had a goal and an assist for his side that is still in the top three in Serie A and six points clear of Inter Milan in the race for Champions League qualification.
Sean Raggett (Lincoln City): The non-league player scored the goal that knocked Burnley out of the FA Cup and the next morning was at the club to support the team’s Under-9s and Under-11s in action. A role model to them, next up could be a trip to Arsenal for his giant-killing team.