Getty Images

Manchester City is panicking

Leave a comment

Manchester City fell to Manchester United 2-1 in Saturday’s derby, and one thing was blatantly obvious above all others.

Pep Guardiola‘s side has begun to panic, and there may not be a way back from that headspace this season.

Down 2-0 to the Red Devils at home, Guardiola grabbed the big red metaphoric button, opened the plastic cover, and set off all the alarm bells at The Etihad. At the end of the 90 minutes, Manchester City delivered 47 crosses, completing just seven of them. They forced Manchester United to make 40 clearances in the penalty area, and the Red Devils were up to the task, only conceding on a corner that resulted in a bullet header by Nicolas Otamendi, who was afforded the chance at an attacking move thanks to the dead ball set-piece.

This isn’t a terribly new thing for Man City, but it has reached troubling levels. City – a squad with spectacular dribblers like Riyad Mahrez and Raheem Sterling, plus world-class passers like Kevin De Bruyne and Bernardo Silva – leads the English top flight with 29 crosses per game, six more than any other team. Some of that is down to their gargantuan possessional advantage that lends itself to more deliveries of all kinds into the box, but that number is beyond reasonable explanation.

The trend has cropped up in big games over the past month or two, and it has not been helpful. Against Liverpool, Man City delivered 32 crosses, of which just five found its mark. In the Champions League disappointment against Shakhtar Donetsk, they delivered 29 crosses officially, but the strategy was far beyond that, forcing Shakhtar into 34 clearances. Against Wolves in the 2-0 defeat, they blasted 36 crosses into the area in a game that was scoreless until the final 10 minutes.  Panic.

A deeper dive is even more troubling. Even with all those crosses flying into the opposition box – again, attempting 26% per game more than any other Premier League side – they have just one player among the top 20 in accurate crosses. Kevin de Bruyne leads the Premier League with 45 total completed crosses this season, but even he has done so at just a 28% clip, which is nothing more than bang-on average. The rest of the list is completely devoid of any Man City players, forced to drop all the way to 40th in the league where Angelino, Olkesandr Zinchenko, and Ilkay Gundogan all sit with eight at a combined 29% success rate.

Clearly, strategy does not fit Man City’s strengths – the squad, as mentioned previously, is full of passers, dribblers, and general movers of the ball. They are not a crossing team. They are a spectacular passing team, with de Bruyne leading the league in key passes plus Sterling, Silva and Mahrez all in the Premier League top 20. Man City has six players in the top 10 in accurate final third passes. Yet here they are, blasting crosses into the box.

Pep Guardiola has talked repeatedly about how Manchester City is “still not ready” to win the Champions League, and yet it feels like instead the window may have closed. The team that won back-to-back Premier League titles in record-setting fashion may be in decline.

Injuries have no doubt had an effect. Leroy Sane’s knee injury has proven a much bigger absence than expected, while goal machine Sergio Aguero now finds himself on the sideline. As a result, Guardiola has leaned heavily on de Bruyne, a dangerous prospect given the Belgian’s own recent injury history.

Determining a fix is more complex than asking City to “go back to what they do best,” but any remedy certainly starts there. The problems are also not deep-rooted, as Manchester City still leads the league with 44 goals scored through 16 games, and a 45.89 xG proves that number is not a fluke. Still, the baffling tweak up front has left the team begging for goals when it needs them the most, unable to provide the killer instinct that flowed through the veins of the recent title teams.

Struggling Atleti in unfamiliar territory under Simeone

Photo by Oscar J. Barroso / AFP7 / Europa Press Sports via Getty Images
Leave a comment

MADRID — This is uncharted territory for many Atletico Madrid fans.

Few other times in recent years have they seen their team struggle so much under Diego Simeone.

[ VIDEO: Haaland has played 59 minutes, scored 5 goals for Dortmund ]

Few other times have they seen their coach fail so often while trying to put the team back on track.

Atletico hit a new low under Simeone on Thursday when it was eliminated by third-division club Cultural Leonesa in the round of 32 of the Copa del Rey. The 2-1 loss in extra time was the team’s worst result in the cup competition since losing to third-tier club Albacete at the same stage in 2011-12.

Two days after that loss in 2011, Atletico hired the then-mostly unknown Simeone to replace Gregorio Manzano, a move that kick-started one of the club’s most successful eras and led to a Spanish league title, two Europa League trophies and two Champions League final appearances.

Atletico did go through difficult moments under Simeone, including when the team failed to advance past the group stage of the Champions League a couple of seasons ago.

“There were always complicated moments in past seasons, maybe after we didn’t make it in the Champions League, or when we lost in the Champions League finals,” Simeone said. “After being at the club for so long, things like this can happen, although they shouldn’t happen.”

There is a greater sense of urgency about the team’s struggles this time.

In addition to Wednesday’s embarrassing Copa del Rey elimination, Atletico lost the Spanish Super Cup final to Real Madrid on Jan. 12, and already is eight points off the Spanish league lead after 20 matches.

[ MORE: Report: Man United’s list of possible new strikers revealed ]

Before, there used to be a notion that Simeone would quickly turn things around and put the team back on track, but this time there aren’t many signs things will improve again soon.

Atletico has yet to impress since undergoing its biggest squad revamp under Simeone at the end of last season, when it lost Antoine Griezmann and other veteran players such as Filipe Luis and Diego Godin. Young Portugal forward Joao Felix, who arrived to replace Griezmann after a transfer from Benfica worth more than 120 million euros ($133 million), has yet to meet expectations.

More concerning, Atletico is not being nearly as effective as it used to be, when it always seemed to find a way to win matches despite not playing well.

The team remains solid defensively — it has the second-best defense in the Spanish league with 14 goals conceded — but it hasn’t been able to do much in attack recently.

“Everything is harder when you can’t score,” Simeone said.

Only seven teams have scored fewer goals than Atletico’s 22 in the 20-team standings.

Diego Costa has been mostly out injured, and Victor “Vitolo” Machin and Alvaro Morata haven’t done much in attack. Morata is the team’s leading scorer with 10 goals in all competitions, and no one else has more than five.

“We have to be humble enough to be self-critical,” Simeone said. “We need to keep working to try to be ready for the challenges that we have ahead of us. We have a very good squad and I’m sure that the results that we want will start arriving soon.”

Atletico biggest chance to rebound will come next month against European champion Liverpool in the last 16 of the Champions League. The first leg will be on Feb. 18 in Spain.

Mourinho in favor of PL’s winter break, but says timing all wrong

Photo by Shaun Botterill/Getty Images
Leave a comment

Jose Mourinho seems to be quite happy that the Premier League will implement its first-ever winter break next month, allowing players a bit of rest and recovery time during a marathon campaign, but says its timing makes the break almost worthless for clubs competing in European competitions.

[ VIDEO: Haaland has played 59 minutes, scored 5 goals for Dortmund ]

The next four weeks will play out as follows for Tottenham Hotspur: FA Cup against Southampton this weekend; PL fixture against Manchester City next weekend; the following weekend off which results in two weeks without a game; PL fixture against Aston Villa the following weekend; Champions League first leg against RB Leipzig three days later.

In Mourinho’s perfect world, that first round of PL fixtures following the break would be held a week earlier, leaving the seven English clubs competing in the Champions League and Europa League with a week and a half between games before setting out once again to chase European glory. Instead, Tottenham, Man City, Liverpool and Chelsea will all have a quick turnaround from PL action to UCL competition — quotes from the Guardian:

“It is what it is. I’m not happy that the break comes in the wrong moment. The break should be before the Champions League and, in the end, before the Champions League we don’t have the break. We have to play Aston Villa on the Sunday, playing [RB Leipzig three] days later. So we don’t really care about the break, honestly.”

Mourinho’s point is a solid one: if the winter break is going to exist — and it should — then why shouldn’t its benefits be maximized? Non-European sides — typically those with smaller squads — would still have the full two weeks between games, while those in Europe are able to better leverage their slightly larger squads with only 10 or 11 days between games — still a lengthy break relative to the rest of the season.

[ MORE: Report: Man United’s list of possible new strikers revealed ]

It’s only the first year of the winter break in the PL, so perhaps hopefully they’ll receive Mourinho’s criticism — and that of any other managers — constructively.

Serie A: AC Milan extends unbeaten run since Zlatan’s arrival

Leave a comment

BRESCIA, Italy (AP) Ante Rebic scored his third goal in two matches, goalkeeper Gianluigi Donnarumma was superb and AC Milan won 1-0 at relegation-threatened Brescia on Friday to climb into the Europa League places in Serie A.

[ MORE: Report: Man United’s list of possible new strikers revealed ]

Rebic, who scored twice in a win over Udinese last weekend, pounced on a loose ball directly in front of the goal following a cross from Zlatan Ibrahimovic in the 71st minute.

Since Ibrahimovic’s return to Milan over the holiday break, Milan is unbeaten with four wins and a draw across all competitions.

Donnarumma produced several difficult saves to deny Dimitri Bisoli and Ernesto Torregrossa.

Also, Milan fullback Theo Hernandez hit the crossbar in the closing minutes.

The Rossoneri moved up to sixth place, four points behind fifth-place Atalanta.

[ MORE: Solskjaer’s transfer update; positive on rebuild ]

“Our goal is to qualify for Europe,” Donnarumma said. “We’ve got to continue like this and not rest for a moment. There’s another big Italian Cup match coming up with Torino midweek and we want to reach the semifinals.

“We’ll take it one game at a time and try to keep this momentum going.”

Brescia was without Mario Balotelli, who was suspended for two matches after protesting a booking last weekend that ended up with the striker being sent off.

Brescia remained one point above last-place Genoa.

FA Cup: Sheffield Wednesday into 5th round; Derby headed for replay

Photo by James Chance/Getty Images
Leave a comment

Sheffield Wednesday became the first club to reach the fifth round of the 2019-20 FA Cup by beating Queens Park Rangers at Loftus Road on Friday.

[ MORE: Report: Man United’s list of possible new strikers revealed ]

The Owls took a 1-0 lead into halftime after Morgan Fox squeezed his shot past the goalkeeper from a tight angle, and Sam Winnall put the EFL Championship side 2-0 up by slotting the ball home just before full-time. QPR pulled a goal back through Nahki Wells just moments later, but it wasn’t enough and the game finished 2-1.

It’s the second time in three seasons that Wednesday has reached the fifth round after doing so just twice in their previous 17 seasons.

[ MORE: Solskjaer’s transfer update; positive on rebuild ]

Elsewhere, fellow Championship side Derby County, featuring Wayne Rooney who played all 90 minutes, couldn’t see off League Two side Northampton Town and will be forced into the dreaded replay after struggling to a scoreless draw away from home.

The draw for the fifth round will be held on Monday at 2:20 p.m. ET, prior to kickoff of Bournemouth v. Arsenal.