Less than a year ago, Antonio Conte famously said "I am not so stupid to play against Manchester City open and lose 3-0 or 4-0." After the 6-0 beatdown that Pep Guardiola's crew inflicted on Chelsea Sunday, you wonder if it makes Maurizio Sarri "stupid" -- at least on the Conte-meter. And because too many people like simple, ready-made storylines, they jumped on that, as well as the always reliable tropes about N'Golo Kante not playing defensive midfield and Sarri's like-for-like substitutions.
Indeed, Chelsea set up to play an aggressive high press, hoping to catch Manchester City off-guard, which is risky by its very nature. But that's not why they got spanked. They lost because they switched off defensively, not because they were too open or inflexible.
The first goal came off a free kick, with Eden Hazard and Marcos Alonso not noticing the runner down the right flank. The second was an absolute world-class, long-range finish from Sergio Aguero, the sort you can't really do much about. The third was a horrendous back header from Ross Barkley that was easy prey for the lurking Aguero and on the fourth, Kepa really should have done better.
All of that happened in the first 25 minutes. When you're 4-0 down at that stage away from home against Manchester City, you're pretty much done.
None of those goals had anything to do with Chelsea's high press, Kante's positioning or Sarri's substitutions. They had to do with something for which Sarri hasn't had much criticism this season but is as much of an issue as his problems further up the pitch: the back four. (You can throw in the last goal as well: it involved a beautiful sweeping piece of passing, but something you'd expect a well-drilled backline to deal with.)
In addition to some built-in limits -- Marcos Alonso is a fine attacking wingback but struggles in a back four in terms of quickness and nous, while Cesar Azpilicueta is having a horrendous campaign in his first year back out wide -- there was a shocking lack of basics on display. Sarri needs to get that part right as much as he needs to get the press working at the other end, which looked way too tentative and disjointed (a bit like against Arsenal).
You can debate his philosophy all you like, but this is why he's there. This is what the club wanted after 16 years of safety-first managers (with the exception of Andre Villas-Boas' brief stint in charge). As Gary Neville pointed out, it would be foolish to try and change this now.
If it doesn't work, get a different manager or get different players; in that sense, with Willian, Pedro, Hazard, Olivier Giroud, Kovacic, David Luiz, Higuain all out of contract either this summer or next, they should have room to manoeuvre. But expecting Sarri to change is a bit like going to a sushi restaurant and ordering shepherd's pie.
The above is not meant to absolve Sarri, of course. Not at all. Part of his job is getting his message across to the players and getting them to execute, and that isn't happening. In fact, against City it didn't happen at both ends of the pitch, which is an even greater concern. His insistence on working with a small nucleus of players -- he said it was something he learned from Guardiola, who once claimed "you can only work with 14 players in your first season, otherwise it's impossible" -- has boomeranged badly and it's hard to believe people like Andreas Christensen, Emerson, Ethan Ampadu or Callum Hudson-Odoi couldn't have absorbed his message better if given the chance.
Sarri operated pretty much the same way at Napoli where, as the joke went, in Serie A at least, he always played the same lineup and the Piotr Zielinski for Marek Hamsik substitution was that year's version of Kovacic-for-Barkley. (In the cup competitions he made wholesale changes, just like he is now.) The fact that he hasn't moved on from this even a smidgeon is an indictment.
Still, Chelsea are one point out of fourth place and are still competing for three cup competitions, one of which will get them back in the Champions League. This is not the time to tear up the blueprint. They opted for the unconventional and they're getting it. Ride it out, see where you are and then draw your conclusions. This is most likely what you expect they will do, too, given the fact that Roman Abramovich seems less preoccupied with the club than at any time since acquiring it back in 2003.
Guardiola got it perfect vs. Chelsea
Is the La Liga title race back on?
With Real Madrid back in the picture, the ESPN FC crew assess the chances Barcelona will relinquish their six-point advantage.
Chelsea's meltdown and Sarri's future should not overshadow the fact that Manchester City are firing on all cylinders right now and, perhaps, could have even scored more. They are the form side in Europe (at least among the big clubs right now) and the Quadruple remains a distinct possibility.
What struck me most when I saw Guardiola's lineup was how unlike Sarri, he was willing to tweak within a system. He opted for Oleksandr Zinchenko at left-back, a guy who had started just three league games this season and last featured in the Premier League back in December. Bernardo Silva shifted wide, Ilkay Gundogan came in to provide some extra heft in midfield while Leroy Sane and David Silva were on the bench. All of it points to a manager who is uber-confident in his decisions and his players, and who has the political capital and communication skills to make it work. It was quite a contrast with his opposite number.
The best Real game of the year
Suddenly, out of nowhere, we see the best Real Madrid performance of the season. It may even be their best performance against a quality opponent since the 3-0 thumping of Juventus in Turin last April, which happened two managers ago. Santiago Solari's side had been on upswing more in terms of results than performances, but it came together nicely at the Wanda against Atletico Madrid on Saturday.
Let's get the VAR business out of the way. Jose Maria Gimenez's foul on Vinicius, which led to Sergio Ramos' penalty, certainly looked outside the box to me.
Alvaro Morata's exquisite disallowed chip? It was certainly very close, but without seeing exactly what the VAR guys see in the booth, it's hard to tell. Given the technology, which goes beyond simply drawing lines on a pitch and the replays available to viewers, I'm willing to give them the benefit of the doubt.
As for the Casemiro clash with Morata, it's a classic "I've seen them given." On the flipside, Antoine Griezmann's goal for Atletico should have been disallowed for a fairly obvious foul by Angel Correa on Vinicius in the build-up but overall, you're tempted to go with Diego Simeone's assessment of the 3-1 Real win. "We certainly didn't lose because of VAR," he said. "The key to the game is how good they were, not the officiating."
How much trouble are injury-plagued PSG in?
With Edinson Cavani picking up an injury against Bordeaux, the FC panel examine how PSG would line up if he's ruled out against Manchester United.
The other key, arguably, was Atletico's approach. It was as if Simeone decided to catch Real Madrid out with an attacking setup and dropping Rodri. It didn't work and Atleti's midfield was overrun.
With Barcelona held away to Athletic Bilbao, the gap stands at six points, meaning the Catalans remain firm favorites. But you can also see just why there is renewed faith in Solari. Whether it's taking a tough stance towards Isco, Marcelo and Marco Asensio (each of whom seemed untouchable not that long ago), dropping Gareth Bale when there's a better fit or putting his faith in Sergio Reguilon and Vinicius, he's been unafraid to make the big calls.
Maybe that huge summer rebuild everyone was talking about won't be necessary after all. Maybe it will simply be a case of reloading instead.
Solskjaer does it again
It's a sign of Ole Gunnar Solskjaer's confidence and the way he has grown into the role that he would rotate his team ahead of Manchester United's trip to Fulham. Marcus Rashford, Jesse Lingard and Victor Lindelof made way for Juan Mata, Romelu Lukaku and Chris Smalling (making his first appearance in two months) as United cruised to a 3-0 win.
On the pitch, Paul Pogba stole the show, and it's almost too easy to compare his output now with what he produced under Jose Mourinho. But what stands out is Solskjaer acting like a United manager; namely, someone who has enough trust in his team that he can even make changes to a side on a roll because he thinks he can best PSG and take a run at the Champions League as well.
PSG lose Cavani in victory
What's going on with Borussia Dortmund?
After Dortmund let a three-goal lead slip against Hoffenheim, the FC crew voice their concerns about the Bundesliga leaders mentality.
Paris Saint-Germain's 1-0 victory over Bordeaux was overshadowed by Edinson Cavani's injury, which happened while taking a penalty, no less. This is already a paper-thin squad and missing both Cavani and Neymar in the Champions League -- which, let's face it, is the real goal this season -- is obviously a massive blow. (By the way, if you're wondering why their first option off the bench up front is Eric Choupo-Moting, the answer is "yes, financial fair play really is a thing.")
You imagine Kylian Mbappe will lead the line with Julian Draxler and Angel Di Maria in support for Tuesday's clash at Manchester United, and it will be up to Thomas Tuchel to make the pieces fit together. At least there was a small consolation in the middle of the park with the return of Marco Verratti, which takes the number of live, able-bodied central midfielders at Thomas Tuchel's disposal to two. (Adrien Rabiot, of course, is still on the naughty step.)
Liverpool's weekend win bodes well for the Reds
Regular readers will know that I'm more about performance than results when it comes to figuring out what might happen next, which is why Liverpool's 3-0 thumping of Bournemouth was so encouraging. Yes, Sadio Mane's opener was offside, but beyond that, Jurgen Klopp's crew turned in their best performance since the 5-1 drubbing of Arsenal late last year.
Georginio Wijnaldum's return certainly helped and Trent Alexander-Arnold's late cameo suggests he's on the mend too. Most of all, they played like a side that didn't realize they'd dropped four points in the previous two games. It's the kind of form that will take them past Bayern.
Barca need a plan beyond Messi
Barcelona have an affliction right now and it's called "Messi dependency." When he's fit and productive, it's the ultimate high and they feel invincible. When he's unfit or simply ordinary (by his standards), then Barca run into serious trouble. That was the case Sunday against Athletic Bilbao, a match that saw Ernesto Valverde's crew only avoid defeat thanks to some Marc-Andre ter Stegen saves that bordered on the supernatural.
It finished 0-0, but it could have been worse. Luis Suarez can't create on his own right now and is reliant upon service. But with Philippe Coutinho out of sorts and Arturo Vidal (again) looking horrendous, there was very little. Arthur was unavailable (he picked up an injury coincidentally after attending Neymar's birthday party), Ousmane Dembele is still recovering fitness, only playing the last 15 minutes, and Jordi Alba was also out. (Oh, and we discovered Nelson Semedo can't play on the opposite flank). All of which meant that a less-than-superhuman day for Messi left Barca toothless.
The gap is six points, there's a Clasico at the Bernabeu to come, but Barca are still firmly in control. Yet it's critical that they find productive ways to play that do not involve Messi, too.
Dortmund shouldn't worry about shocking collapse
If you're top of the table and you're 3-0 up at home with 24 minutes to go against a side that's 23 points back and you contrive not to win, it's nearly unforgivable. Not only have you squandered two points but you've also dealt yourself a massive psychological blow. Yet somehow, I think Dortmund are the sort of side that can absorb the punch and move on.
They ripped Hoffenheim to shreds for most of the game, and while Julian Nagelsmann turned his side around in the second half, they still hit the post and missed several sitters along the way. To me, that matters more than the late defensive errors, which ought to be remedied when Manuel Akanji returns so that Julian Weigl never has to play center-back again. In a bizarre way, the absences of Marco Reus through injury and the flu-ridden Lucien Favre may help too.
I'm not sure their presence would have avoided the late collapse, but their absence gives them another alibi. With young sides, psychology matters. Dortmund will be just fine.
Juve are back on track
Juventus got back on track after the 3-3 home draw with Parma (which felt like a defeat) by winning 3-0 at Sassuolo. It wasn't something to take for granted either, because Max Allegri was forced to persevere with the Daniele Rugani-Martin Caceres partnership in defense that was so maligned a week ago.
After a somewhat nervy first half, Juve took control and never looked back. Paulo Dybala, who had clashed with Allegri, was given a cameo at the end, and Federico Bernardeschi looked good in his absence.
Of course, the headlines belonged to Cristiano Ronaldo. He scored one and had a hand in the other two, taking his seasonal total to 20 for the 13th consecutive year. And his goal celebration was a tribute to Dybala, in what was a nice show of leadership and team unity, as well as the importance of keeping him in the fold.
Some praise for Tottenham
Since the North London Derby on Dec. 2, Tottenham have won 30 of a possible 36 points in the Premier League. Since Harry Kane's injury, they've won four straight games, three of them without Dele Alli as well. They've won playing well and they've won (like Sunday against Leicester City) while playing poorly.
At some point, you expect reality to catch up with them. Maybe they'll even regress to the mean -- although the return of Alli and Kane should help offset that -- but in the interim you can only praise the way Mauricio Pochettino has squeezed every ounce of output from this team.
James pops up to lead Bayern
Bayern took advantage of Borussia Dortmund's slip-up to come within five points with a 3-1 win over Schalke. It was one of those games where the result was better than the performance, but the fact that James Rodriguez turned up and was influential in two of the goals is encouraging. I'm not sure that if Uli Hoeness could time-travel back to 2017 he'd take the Colombian again, but if he plays like this, he can come in handy down the stretch.
More of a concern, but this is nothing new, is the way Bayern allowed themselves to be stretched defensively. Niklas Sule is one of the few bright spots this season, and his absence was felt in the second half: Mats Hummels and Jerome Boateng have yet to regain their mojo.
Inter avoid the Parma trap
Inter's trip to Parma was the classic "trap game." You haven't won in nearly a month, you're a bundle of nerves, your three highest-paid players are all (for different reasons) making headlines of the wrong kind and you travel to face a side playing with house money that recently came back to grab a point away from Juve.
For much of the game, we saw the worst of Inter: slow build-up, little imagination, even Mauro Icardi getting lost. Lautaro Martinez's goal, just after coming on, only serves to paper over the cracks.
Yes, the three points are crucial, but there is still a ton of work to be done.