In a new addition to the site, Rich Laverty takes a weekly look at five areas of the weekend’s football and explores the key issues behind teams in form, out of form and why. This week, Barcelona’s problems in midfield and Manchester City’s defense woes are highlighted, while Manchester United’s title hopes continue to slip away.
Pep Guardiola can’t get away with an average defence in the Premier League
During Pep Guardiola’s first season at Barcelona, his defence comprised of an ageing Sylvinho and Carles Puyol, a young and untested Gerard Pique – who had just arrived from Manchester United – and Yaya Toure.
Despite that, Guardiola’s Barca waltzed to the La Liga title thanks to the attacking talent of Samuel Eto’o, Lionel Messi and Thierry Henry plus a staggering midfield comprising of Andres Iniesta, Xavi and Sergio Busquets.
At Manchester City Guardiola has a frightening attack to call upon, but it’s nothing compared to a Messi or Iniesta at their peak. Against Chelsea on Saturday, every wave of Chelsea attacks came direct from a City chance and in the case of the second goal; just seconds after Ilkay Gundogan unlocked the Blues’ defence.
Guardiola has tried all manner of combinations, but it feels like Pablo Zabaleta, Aleksandar Kolarov and Gael Clichy have been at City too long now. The full-back areas haven’t been improved, while Martin Demichelis, Eliaquim Mangala and Nicolas Otamendi have all failed to improve the centre-back issue. Kompany’s injury hasn’t helped and John Stones is still error-prone, despite how good the attack is, Guardiola is going to struggle to win the league this season without further recruitment.
Sutton reignite the magic of the cup, AFC Wimbledon kill it
The third round of the FA Cup is everyone’s favourite. It’s the one that throws up the potential of non-league sides facing Premier League giants, but the second round isn’t far behind.
It’s the one that throws up the true agony and ecstasy of the cup, the chance for those non-league teams left to put themselves in with a chance of that big day out to Old Trafford, Anfield, the Emirates and the like.
For Sutton United, that dream came true with a sensational 96th-minute winner at home to Cheltenham Town. The scenes were wild, even chaotic, but at Curzon Ashton it was a different story. The non-league side were unbelievably 3-0 up at home to League One’s AFC Wimbledon with ten minutes to go. With seven minutes to go it was 3-3 before Tom Elliott’s 94th-minute header left behind the ever-lasting imagine of Curzon’s poor manager John Flanagan with his hands planted firmly on the top of his head.
Garry Monk showing he’s still a good coach
In retrospect, maybe taking over a Premier League side at a relatively young age as your first job wasn’t the wisest move Garry Monk will ever make, but nobody really blamed him for taking on the job at a team he held so dearly.
After just one win in 11 games during the 2015-16 season, Monk was sacked and took a small break from football until he took on the poisoned chalice at Elland Road in the summer. It looked like a stupid move for someone looking to rebuild his reputation under a chairman now well known for being all too happy to get rid of manager’s early doors.
Leeds lost their two opening games of the season and rumours suggested Monk may well have been sacked if the penalty shoot out in the EFL Cup had gone Fleetwood’s way. Leeds lost four of their opening six games but have turned that around to now win five of their last six, moving themselves up to fourth in the process.
With a team that doesn’t boast too much individual quality in attack, Monk has built a foundation based on former Swansea man Kyle Bartley, the popular Pontus Jansson and two attacking full-backs in homegrown Charlie Taylor and Luke Ayling. It’s still a tall order for Leeds to go up given how raw they are up front, but any manager capable of setting up a good defence gives himself a real good chance.
El Clasico laid Barca’s issues bare
For many years, whether it be Pep Guardiola, Tito Vilanova, Gerardo Martino or current boss Luis Enrique, Barcelona have been famous for controlling games from midfield. The already mentioned trio of Iniesta, Xavi and Busquets had every capability of dominating matches, but in El Clasico last weekend we saw a different Barcelona.
With Iniesta on the bench after coming back from injury and Xavi long gone to Qatar, only Busquets lined up in midfield alongside Ivan Rakitic and new signing Andre Gomes. That control just wasn’t there and hasn’t been for some time, Barcelona haven’t been at their dominating best this season and sit six points behind La Liga leaders Real Madrid.
End of an era at the Camp Nou? Maybe. Messi, Luis Suarez and Neymar are all capable of tearing through even the best defences around, but the midfield are no longer capable of controlling a game 100% and protecting a defence more than capable of conceding goals against most La Liga sides.
Manchester United wasteful…again
For a team that has names including Zlatan Ibrahimovic, Marcus Rashford, Anthony Martial, Paul Pogba, Wayne Rooney, Juan Mata and Ander Herrera in their ranks, Manchester United have a real penchant for throwing it away this season.
United kept a clean sheet at home to Burnley, but couldn’t find the net, and have now thrown away leads against Stoke City, Arsenal and Everton in the last minutes of the game. Mourinho must be wondering why when his Inter, Chelsea and Real Madrid sides were all capable of closing games out – much to the frustration of opposition fans.
While the penalty awarded was soft and Marouane Fellaini will be blamed for his late cameo, United once again failed to put the game to bed when Ander Herrera missed a golden chance. Despite his superb goal, Ibrahimovic once again cut a frustrated figure up front and Paul Pogba looked like he had four or five ideas going through his mind every time he got the ball. Sadly that indecision meant he regularly wasted possession in good areas.
United’s title chances are now all but over and they need to start putting chances away quickly if they are to make the Champions League.
Follow Rich on Twitter at @RichJLaverty