David Moyes said the difference between Manchester United and Chelsea on Sunday was defending on set pieces: United's was poor, Chelsea's was good.
It was actually a bit more than that, though there are some positives for United to take from their 3-1 loss. The first half wasn't too bad; United kept their defensive shape, had a decent penalty shout when Danny Welbeck went down, forced a tremendous save from Petr Cech and most definitely didn't deserve to go in two goals down at the break.
Samuel Eto'o's shot was deflected for the first goal, and on the second, there was a collective meltdown as United's back four lost the Cameroonian striker. Other than that, United conceded little.
However, whatever fight-back Moyes might have planned for the second half was scuppered after just a few minutes, again due to some absurd defending. Gary Cahill enjoyed a free header and Antonio Valencia, despite his bear hug on Eto'o, was unable to stop the striker from turning the ball past David de Gea to complete his hat trick.
You can read the game purely through incidents and episodes and conclude that United were simply unlucky and that there was progress. But if there was, it's not necessarily a case of Moyes' men on their way to being the team they should be. Rather, at times, it felt like United were progressing toward being the Everton of four or five years ago.
- Brewin: Pressure growing on Utd
- Lythell: Chelsea make light work
- Okwonga: Utd's worrying lack of fight
- Moyes: 'Terrible defending' in defeat
- Tactics: Masterful, efficient Eto'o
- FC TV: Hopping off Utd bandwagon
- Nicol, Hislop: Is Eto'o 'back'?
- Highlights: Chelsea 3-1 Man Utd (U.S. only)
Moyes' team was set up to contain, featuring two banks of four. In midfield, Michael Carrick was in a theoretical playmaking role and Phil Jones as the ball winner, while Ashley Young and Valencia manned the flanks. Up front, Adnan Januzaj was charged with providing the creativity behind Welbeck.
It worked for a while, though that was partly because it took Chelsea time to get going. But it was not the sort of game plan that wins titles, assuming that's what Moyes is building toward. Burdening an 18-year-old with the entire attacking onus puts Januzaj in danger of burnout and also makes you wonder what happens when Wayne Rooney returns. Does the teenager simply go back wide, and if so, is this constant positional shuttling any good for his development?
Jones' inability to hang on to the ball when he did win it back meant Carrick had nobody with whom to combine. The fact that the pair sat deep became a problem, too, because neither Valencia nor Young showed too much appetite to come inside, meaning their runs were too often predictable.
As for the back four, each of them made individual errors with Patrice Evra, perhaps, getting the mitigating factor that he picked up an injury.
In some ways, though, that ought to be the least of his concerns. Moyes' defenders are experienced enough to know what they did; they don't need lectures at this stage. You just have to put your trust in the fact they won’t turn in another disastrous performance like this one.
If the manager does feel like reading the riot act, however, he may wish to reserve it for Nemanja Vidic (who was sent off) and Rafael (who should have been sent off). Vidic may only have deserved a caution for his challenge on Eden Hazard, but that doesn't change the fact there is no reason to tackle like that in the middle of the pitch. As for Rafael, the less said, the better.
That kind of loss of discipline late in games is distinctly un-Moyes like: United already have four red cards this season while Everton had just three, in total, last season.
Chelsea's triple threat
Meanwhile, after their slow start, Chelsea obviously got a boost from United's poor defending and the Eto’o deflection. But once Mourinho's machine got going, there was little respite for the opposition.
You can tell how enamoured Mourinho is with his trio of attacking midfielders: Hazard, Oscar and Willian. Each provides an active contribution at both ends of the pitch and each is a threat when in possession, whether to pass, shoot or run with the ball.
When you watch them play like this, you understand why the Chelsea manager doesn't see Juan Mata as part of the equation. Oscar and Hazard have been praised to high heaven before, but Willian has been a real force in the past month or so. He brings a rare blend of strength, physicality, flat-out speed and technique that, when coupled with the work rate seen yesterday, makes him difficult to contain -- let alone stop.
Promising debut for Seedorf
Like any new boss who jets in 72 hours before kickoff, Milan manager Clarence Seedorf didn't have much time to work with his new (old?) players, but in Sunday's 1-0 win over Verona, his impact was obvious -- at least in terms of what he was trying to do.
Seedorf's 4-2-3-1 is distinctly attacking, with Keisuke Honda, Kaka and Robinho floating behind Mario Balotelli and Riccardo Montolivo pulling the strings from midfield. The idea is obviously for possession and movement, which suits the front four to some degree.
The obvious issues are whether Milan’s full-backs can provide enough width without getting caught out and what happens when possession is lost.
- Paul: Seeforf's winning start
For the first 20 minutes or so of the game, the answer was "press high with the front four" and it sort of worked until they ran out of steam. To be fair, you can't really expect Kaka and Robinho to do that for 90 minutes.
Verona seemed happy to hit on the counter, so we don't know whether two central midfielders are enough to contain better, more enterprising opponents, particularly on the road.
The blueprint is there though there is a lot to do for Seedorf, of course. In the immediate, apart from pressing more consistently, moving the ball quicker would be a good start. Longer term, it's hard to see Robinho and Kaka fitting into this system if they're going to be asked to do as much off the ball. The return (and rehabilitation) of Stephan El Shaarawy should help -- assuming it happens -- but there would still be one ingredient missing from the front four.
An upgrade on Nigel De Jong wouldn't go amiss, and defensively, Milan are still at least two men short in terms of quality. But at least now there is a path to follow, some kind of direction. A week ago, Milan were wandering in the wilderness.
Little by little, it looks as if things are coming together for Carlo Ancelotti's Real Madrid. It's not just about the numbers, though they're telling as well.
The 5-0 win at Betis means that after 20 games, Los Merengues have 50 points, two fewer than Jose Mourinho's version had at this stage of their record-setting 2011-12 season, but 10 more than at this time last year.
What's more, Madrid have lost just twice all season in all competitions -- at home to Atletico Madrid and away to Barcelona -- and Saturday's 5-0 hammering of Betis made it seven straight victories. And following draws for Barcelona and Atletico on Sunday, they're just one point out of first place.
What was interesting on Saturday was the fact that Ancelotti named an unchanged XI in La Liga for the first time this season, offering perhaps a clue as to what his base formation might be.
The 4-3-3 had the "BBC" (Bale, Benzema, Cristiano) up front -- no surprise there -- with Xabi Alonso alongside Luka Modric and Angel Di Maria. It's an attacking lineup with Alonso and Modric pulling the strings, Di Maria supplying drive from midfield and the wingers freed from too many defensive responsibilities.
It also puts Modric -- arguably Madrid's best player not named Cristiano Ronaldo this season -- in a position where he can exact maximum damage and it gets Di Maria into the lineup in a more central position.
- Train: Real enjoy stroll in the sun
Not only does that exploit his versatility, it's also something that will help him vis-a-vis the World Cup: Given the competition Argentina have up front, Di Maria is far more likely to squeeze into Alex Sabella's lineup in midfield.
(Clever managers know how to tweak a player's psychology: Di Maria is happy to reinvent himself deeper if he has the added bonus of knowing it will help him in Brazil.)
It also gives Asier Illarramendi more of an opportunity to grow into his destiny as heir apparent to Alonso and, when Raphael Varane returns, he can provide competition for Pepe at centre-back -- or better yet, supplant him -- while Sami Khedira will offer another option in the midfield trio.
It remains to be seen whether this setup can work against better opposition or whether Madrid will need the extra cover in the middle of the park. But the truth is that leagues aren't won or lost just in head-to-heads with rivals; you need to consistently grind out the wins against the rest of the table as well. And Madrid are doing just that.
La Liga race tightens
Of Barcelona's and Atletico's draws against Levante and Sevilla, respectively, it is Diego Simeone's men who, arguably, can feel more aggrieved after Juanfran's bone-headedly obvious shirt-pull precipitated Sevilla's equalizer -- a classic individual brain lapse that cost the team.
Tata Martino's crew, on the other hand, looked muddled away to Levante, a team they had beaten 7-0 in the season opener. They gave up another silly goal from a corner -- the sixth time that has happened this season, which is way, way too many -- and then, despite the usual asphyxiating possession, failed to do much at the other end, once Gerard Pique had equalized.
- Ledwith: Madrid duo close in
It's true that Levante were playing one of those virtual 8-1-1 formations, but that's not the first time Barca have come across such a setup. The directness and speed of execution Tata aims for was not there and nor were Lionel Messi's individual heroics. The coach's substitutions -- especially Sergi Roberto for Cesc Fabregas -- were also tough to decipher and the former Arsenal midfielder let his anger show when he took his seat on the bench.
Yohan Cabaye and Paul Pogba came up huge for their respective black-and-white-striped teams this weekend.
The Newcastle man notched two in a 3-1 win at West Ham while his Juve colleague set up one goal and scored another with a terrifying long-range rocket in a 4-2 victory over Sampdoria.
- Duffy: Classy Cabaye leads Magpies
- Johnson: PSG pummel Nantes
If these two guys team up in France's midfield this summer, they may amount to one of the best tandems on display at the World Cup.
Liverpool's tactical shortcomings
I don't know if Paul Lambert got some kind of tip that Brendan Rodgers was going to drop Lucas to the bench or if it was just prescience, but rarely do you see a manager out-tactic his opponent as summarily as the Villa boss did with his Liverpool counterpart on Saturday.
Rodgers had decided to shoe-horn Daniel Sturridge into his starting XI and to accommodate him alongside Luis Suarez, play Raheem Sterling and Philippe Coutinho wide and leave Steven Gerrard in front of the back four with only Jordan Henderson for company.
The natural antidote to that was to drop someone in the hole to harass Gerrard, and Lambert did just that, playing a tight midfield three with Andreas Weimann on Gerrard and two strikers, Christian Benteke and Gabriel Agbonlahor, up front.
It was that straightforward, and because Villa's front two worked hard tracking Liverpool's full-backs, Gerrard got little help. It soon became a question of him trying to dictate the game's tempo with Weimann hustling him and a wall of three in front. On a good day a few years back, Gerrard may have been up to the task but the current version -- on a poor afternoon -- was not and Villa raced to a 2-nil lead.
- Walsh: Reds dealt midfield lesson
- Usher: Full-backs hindering Liverpool
- Jolly: Defensive woes rock LFC
- Hughes: Admire Villa's performance
Rodgers' solution was to sacrifice Coutinho for Lucas, and the move addressed the problem on the day as the Reds got back into the game and snatched a 2-2 draw. However, it's not a long-term fix. If Sturridge and Suarez are to play together, the Anfield manager needs to find the right setup.
Some are suggesting it's time to ditch Gerrard, but I think it's way too early for that. A three-man defence might work, but you need to train for it and doing it on the fly, when you haven't had time to prepare and won't have any for the rest of this season, is tricky.
The safe bet may simply be to leave out Sterling (through no fault of his own) and to put Coutinho in the hole with Gerrard, Henderson and either Joe Allen or Lucas in the middle of the park. Then you let the front three do their thing.
It's not terribly sophisticated, perhaps, but ending the season in the top four ought to be Liverpool's goal right now, far more so than adopting any fancy tactical scheme.
Matri makes an impact
Maybe sometimes it really is all about context. In 15 league appearances for Milan this season, Alessandro Matri scored one goal in 834 minutes and became the butt of everyone's jokes. In one half for Fiorentina, he has scored two. That's one every 22.5 minutes.
It's early, of course, and obviously Matri won't always be as productive as he was for the Viola at Catania on Sunday, although he likely won't be as poor as he was with Milan, either.
Is this more evidence of Vincenzo Montella's magic regenerative powers?
Stunning Serie A swap
Fredy Guarin for Mirko Vucinic?
Sure, why not ... if you're Juventus. As I write this, the deal is close, but not done. Inter are trying to get some cash along with the Montenegrin striker, but unless it’s a sizable amount, it looks as if this is a slam dunk for Juventus.
They're trading a forward who they quite evidently don't need -- he has played only 354 Serie A minutes this year and, without much of a contribution from him, they're running away with Serie A, plus have depth in Sebastian Giovinco and Fabio Quagliarella -- for a dynamic midfielder who, on paper, seems tailor-made for Antonio Conte's high-energy style.
Despite their undoubted talents, neither player has been a paragon of consistency, but Guarin is three years younger than Vucinic and earns less money, so from a bean-counting perspective it also makes sense.
It also puts Juventus in a strong negotiating position vis-a-vis their midfielders. They now have five top-drawer options: Andrea Pirlo, Paul Pogba, Arturo Vidal, Claudio Marchisio and Guarin. And that affords them more leverage as they enter contract negotiations with Pirlo -- who becomes a free agent in June -- and Pogba, who they need to lock into a revised, more lucrative long-term deal. Or, if a big enough offer comes in, they can consider selling Pogba or Marchisio without having to scramble and worry about a potential replacement.
As for Inter, it's hard to see the logic here. Yes, they had been shopping Guarin around, but nobody was coming close to their $20 million valuation. Surely settling for less cash would have made more sense than adding yet another forward?
Vucinic will get at least another year on his contract -- bringing him through 2016 -- and you wonder if another high-priced veteran is really what they need when you consider they spent $20 million last summer on 22-year-old Ishak Belfodil and 20-year-old Mauro Icardi, two guys who were supposed to represent the future.
Between them they've made one Serie A start all season (further evidence of Walter Mazzarri's proclivity for playing youngsters) and it’s not as if playing time is likely to increase with Vucinic in the mix.