Barcelona can't win without Lionel Messi's magic. PLUS: How Liverpool passed Chelsea test
There's lots to talk about in this week's Monday Musings after a wild weekend. Gab Marcotti is here to recap the big stories around soccer.
Jump to: Barca look lost without Messi | Liverpool 'win ugly' | Inter add to Milan's woes | Neymar gets rude welcome | Real rebound in style too | Neymar PSG's hero again | Man United are a mess | Chelsea's youth movement | Juve still a work in progress | Stop moaning about VAR! | What's wrong with Atletico? | Ref gets it right in Italy
Barcelona look lost unless Messi is fit and in form
Seven points from five games, behind in each of them, scoreless in 188 minutes in all competitions, one shot on target: you probably have to go back to last spring to find the last time Barcelona turned in an impressive 90-minute performance.
The 2-0 defeat at Granada offered a compendium of what ails this side right now. Antoine Griezmann offers plenty in terms of work rate but isn't yet a functioning cog in this team. To be fair, he hasn't been helped by the fact that one of his strike partners, Luis Suarez, started only his first game last week and the guy who's supposed be his other strike partner, Lionel Messi, has yet to start.
The midfield is horrendous right now, whether it's the Arthur-Frenkie de Jong-Sergio Busquets version most expected to be first choice or the ugly trio we saw Saturday, with Sergi Roberto and Ivan Rakitic joining De Jong. The back line is OK until you remember that Gerard Pique turns 33 in February and his backups are a guy coming off two injury-riddled seasons and injured again (Samuel Umtiti) and a teenager who has started 12 top-flight games in his career, none of them this season (Jean-Clair Todibo).
Poor squad construction? Sure. We've been through this even before you get into the mad chase for Neymar, absurdly played out in public in the dying days of the transfer window. De Jong and Griezmann probably will come good, but having signed them early, it's as if they took the rest of the summer off. Ansu Fati dropped out of the sky to get everybody excited, but if you think they knew that was going to happen, well, there's an unfinished Gaudi cathedral in Barcelona you might be interested in buying.
The above might be mitigating factors, but it certainly doesn't mean that Ernesto Valverde has been exonerated, either. Having gone a goal down early, he seemed to hit the panic at half-time, breaking the glass to call upon Messi and Fati. Not a terrible choice in and of itself except it also meant taking off Junior Firpo, making his first start of the campaign in place of injured Jordi Alba.
Firpo was directly responsible for Granada's first goal and had a rough 45 minutes, but it was also a humiliating change, of the sort that can destroy a player's confidence. What's more, it caused the usual uncomfortable reshuffle, with Nelson Semedo moving to left-back (not his forte), Sergi Roberto switching from midfield to right-back and a lopsided Barca with no midfield laying a disorderly siege on the Granada goal.
That is on Valverde, and it has to be a concern. Two straight years of colossal tactical blunders late in the Champions League knockout round aren't forgotten around the Camp Nou, nor should they be. Needless to say, having Messi in your team papers over a lot of cracks, and it feels as if this Messi-less early stage of the campaign is some kind of post-apocalyptic glimpse of what this team will be like when (if?) he goes.
The fact of the matter is there is more to Barcelona than Messi. But they have to be given a coherent game plan and they have to be made to look like something resembling a team, not a bunch of guys wandering through La Liga waiting for their Messi-ah.
That part of the job belongs to the manager.
Liverpool 'win ugly' to remain perfect in Premier League
There was definitely a different flavour to Liverpool's 2-1 win at Chelsea on Sunday, the one that made it six wins from six league games to open the season. Two set-piece goals, plenty of grit in midfield and the sort of efficiency that sees you through rough patches: it's not what the Jurgen Klopp stereotype calls to mind. But coming off the back of a Champions League defeat, all you really needed was three points and no injuries, and that's what they got.
It doesn't mean there aren't things to work on. Defensively, things got jittery on more than one occasion. The midfield was primarily destructive, which is fine when you have an early lead but less so when you need to get a steady supply to the front three. But it's a long slog and, for now, this will do.
As for Chelsea, when you lose half of your back four by half-time (and your best defender is already out) and you're two goals down, it's tough to get back into it. But that's what they did, exploiting N'Golo Kante's fine vein of form. (By the way, remember all those clever pundits who insisted he could play only as a defensive midfielder rooted in front of the back line? Where they at now?)
They showed guts and personality and created chances. That goes a long way towards explaining why supporters remain squarely behind Frank Lampard despite the fact that Chelsea have yet to win at home in four attempts.
Yup, it's a long slog for them too, but they're resigned to it. For now, as long as they think they're moving in the right direction, it doesn't matter how slowly they're moving.
Inter are the kings of Milan after easy derby win
Antonio Conte was looking for a reaction and got it. Saturday's 2-0 derby win over Milan was pretty much one-way traffic, which is not something you would have taken for granted before kickoff. Not with all the stories of dressing room bust-ups (real or imagined: personally, I don't mind if players get at each other's throats after a poor performance like Marcelo Brozovic and Romelu Lukaku supposedly did), Lukaku's bad back and the fact that they had yet to play anybody decent.
On the back of Milan's performance, you might suggest they still have yet to play anybody decent. Other than Gigio Donnarumma's saves -- he kept the game closer than it should have been and looks to be close to the level he was at a few years ago, when the hype machine went into overdrive -- and Rafael Leao's endeavour (not to be taken for granted when you get thrown in at the deep end after just 17 minutes of football), Milan offered very little. Marco Giampaolo's formation and personnel decisions remain a conundrum, from Suso in the hole to Ismael Bennacer on the bench and Hakan Calhanoglu on the pitch.
Still, there's a buzz around this Inter team that hasn't been there for a long time. A lot of it is down to Conte, of course, but much of it is simply having three midfielders -- Brozovic, Stefano Sensi and Nicolo Barella -- who not only demand the ball but can do something with it.
Man City rebound in style and prove me wrong
So I predicted on the ESPN FC show that Watford might make things tough for Manchester City on Saturday. It seemed to fit. Watford had been stellar against Arsenal; City were back from a long trip to the Ukraine, and Aymeric Laporte and John Stones were injured.
I was right for about 15 seconds or so. The 8-0 masterclass was as extreme a beat-down as you're likely to see in the Premier League. It also showed that if you poke City with a stick, as Norwich did the week before, their wrath won't take long to unfold.
Real shrug off PSG shame by winning at Sevilla
It was all set up for the wheels to come off. After the humiliation at the Parc des Princes against Paris Saint-Germain, Real Madrid traveled away to Sevilla, where they had lost in their past four outings. Plus, there was manager Julen Lopetegui, sacked by Florentino Perez less than a year ago and out for revenge. Instead, Zinedine Zidane -- who had bemoaned his side's lack of intensity in the Champions League -- got the reaction he was looking for as Madrid won 1-0 but, more importantly, showed plenty of signs of growth.
Zidane whipped out the oldest trick in the book -- except for Sergio Ramos, suspended in Paris, he fielded the same starting XI -- and was rewarded: James Rodriguez put in a blue-collar performance, Eden Hazard showed signs of life and Karim Benzema converted when it mattered.
Zidane had mentioned in Paris that sometimes Real Madrid create chances not because they play better but because they simply have better players than most. This wasn't the case at the Sanchez Pizjuan: they were better all-around. As for Sevilla, the tools for a good season are all there, but you're left scratching your head up front. Were Javier "Chicharito" Hernandez and Luuk de Jong really the guys Lopetegui needed? You expect more from Monchi.
Neymar the hero again for PSG even as fans boo
He did it again this weekend, except this time away from home against possibly PSG's toughest opponents, Olympique Lyonnais. Neymar was greeted with the usual hail of projectiles, verbal and actual, from both sets of supporters. It went on for much of the game, which looked headed towards a scoreless draw.
And then, in the dying seconds, just like last week, Neymar popped up. This time it wasn't an overhead kick but rather a mazy run and accurate finish. If he continues like this, will he play his way back into the hearts of the PSG faithful?
Find out in the next episode of "As the Neymar Turns ... "
Man United are a mess
Maybe you're one of those who has bought into Manchester United's master plan lock, stock and barrel. The one where the kids schooled in the United Way instantly emulate Fergie's Fledglings, while Daniel James reaches the heights of that other Welsh United winger, Ryan Giggs, and Marcus Rashford wins the Ballon d'Or.
Maybe we'll get there, but before we do, we'll have plenty more days like Sunday away to West Ham. A side without Anthony Martial and Paul Pogba (Mason Greenwood and Luke Shaw too) showed not just little quality and creativity (that's to be expected, look at the names) but little fight or spirit in the 2-0 defeat. It was the sort of game that got Jose Mourinho fired, and, annoyingly for the hater brigade, they couldn't blame Pogba for the performance, either.
United had five players aged 23 or younger in their starting lineup. The worrying part is that most of them already look as if they are close to their ceiling. That's why the Solskjaer plan is difficult to buy into.
Lewandowski leads Bayern to another big win
Bayern's 4-0 thumping of Cologne saw Robert Lewandowski bag two more goals. He now has nine in five Bundesliga games (11 overall), and it could have been more. With his team 2-0 up at the hour mark, he let Philippe Coutinho take and convert (albeit on his third attempt) a penalty.
That's leadership. Lewandowski might be the consummate goal scorer, but he has no problem stepping aside when a teammate who has had a rocky start needs a boost. Coutinho himself turned in a solid performance, but you still get the feeling coach Niko Kovac isn't sure how to fit both him and Thomas Muller into the same lineup.
Juventus are still a work in progress
Juventus are still in "baby steps" mode. The 2-1 home win against newly promoted Verona saw the opposition hit the woodwork twice, and Gigi Buffon, standing in for Wojciech Szczesny, make a key late save.
Result apart, the glass is half-empty, though Paulo Dybala showed plenty of energy as a "false nine" and Aaron Ramsey opened his scoring account. We're used to Juve winning by slim margins at home except, under Max Allegri, this was rarely accompanied by late-game jitters.
I guess at this stage it's about "trusting the process," but it really feels as if it's going to take a while.
Stop complaining about VAR!
It's OK to be philosophically opposed to VAR. Less OK is getting bent out of shape over the Son Heung-Min offside (which struck off Serge Aurier's goal in Tottenham's defeat against Leicester) for the wrong reasons. Like the fact that it was close and they should stick to the "ruling on the field." (Assistant referees are told not to flag close calls, so there is no such thing as a "ruling on the field.")
Or blaming VAR for the fact that shoulders and heads can make you offside. (That's been the rule for more than a decade.)
Or bleating on about the fact that VAR has a "margin of error." (So does goal-line technology. So do human assistant referees. So what?)
Or moaning about how the lines on your television don't look right. (Presumably your TV is in two dimensions, whereas VAR's software is 3-D...)
Do you have a suggestion for improving the protocol, maybe one that's based on something other than it "not feeling right?" If so, let's hear it. Hit me up on Twitter. But it has to be something realistic that covers all possibilities. Otherwise, please stop with nonsense arguments.
What's wrong with Atletico?
Uh-oh: more points dropped for Atletico Madrid. The scoreless home draw with Celta Vigo means they haven't won since Sept. 1. If Diego Simeone is trying to give them a different dimension -- and you assume he is, bringing back Angel Correa to team up with Joao Felix and Diego Costa -- it's not working.
Equally concerning has to be Diego Costa's return in terms of goals. Since his return from Stamford Bridge in January 2018, he has just five in 34 Liga appearances, the most recent some six months ago. Sure, he's the sort of striker who can contribute even when not scoring, but the simple truth of the matter is that with Griezmann gone, somebody has to pick up the slack.
Referee gets it right in Italy
Atalanta and Fiorentina drew 2-2 but the story here is referee Daniele Orsato, who did what others should have done before him: apply the rules. When Fiorentina full-back Dalbert complained that he was being racially abused by some fans in one of the stands, Orsato took it seriously. He was nearby and also heard it, so he applied the protocol, suspending the game and issuing a warning over the stadium PA system. The abuse stopped, and, three minutes later, the game continued without incident.
This is what should have happened before but often didn't. Most in the ground were unaware of what had happened; the abuse was audible in only a small section of the ground, near Dalbert's area of the pitch. But it doesn't matter. Once it was heard by officials, action was taken.
Hopefully what Dalbert and Orsato did will empower more players to step forward and more referees to take action. There's not much point in having rules if they're not going to be enforced.