Three things we learned: Tottenham v. Liverpool

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LONDON — In a battle between two Premier League title contenders, Liverpool proved they’re the real deal and Tottenham showed they are perhaps on the slide this season.

Jurgen Klopp‘s Liverpool were comfortable throughout as they beat Tottenham 2-1 on Saturday at Wembley, with a goal in each half from Georginio Wijnaldum and Roberto Firmino doing the trick. Erik Lamela pulled a goal back but it was too little too late for Mauricio Pochettino‘s sluggish Spurs.

Tottenham have now lost back-to-back PL games and concerns about them sustaining a top four challenge this season are starting to linger.

Here’s what we learned from the clash at Wembley.


LIVERPOOL UNDERLINE TITLE CREDENTIALS

Five wins from five so far this season, and this was the best of the bunch.

Liverpool defended resolutely, dominated midfield and launched searing counter attacks as they beat title rivals Tottenham with ease at Wembley. Klopp’s side set the tone early on, with James Milner, Naby Keita and Georginio Wijnaldum forcing Mousa Dembele, Harry Winks and Eric Dier into several giveaways.

The only question mark remains is about Liverpool’s composure. They had the chance to put the game to bed multiple times but failed to score again on the break and were almost made to pay after Lamela’s late goal, then some pressure from Spurs. Klopp looked frustrated on the sidelines as his team failed to manage the game effectively, but they’d done enough over the course of the 90 minutes to ease to victory.

Liverpool have only started a top-flight season with five victories on two previous occasions (1978-79, 1990-91) and on both occasions they finished in the top two that campaign, winning the title in 1979. There’s still a long way to go but ahead of a pivotal two months where they face Chelsea in the PL and League Cup, Man City in the league and PSG and Napoli and the UEFA Champions League, Liverpool have put down a marker as they continue to lead the Premier League.

Their display at Tottenham proved their early season promise can correctly be converted into talk of a serious, and sustained, title push.


POCH’S CONCERNS COMPOUNDED

Mauricio Pochettino raised plenty of eyebrows when he called out his team for not being at their best in the aftermath of their big win at Manchester United late last month. Prothetic Poch knew exactly what was coming up.

A defeat at Watford arrived just before the international break and Spurs’ sluggish start and finish to the first half handed Liverpool the initiative as Tottenham lost back-to-back PL games for the first time since May 2016.

There are a few factors to explain this sticky patch for Spurs: 1) most of their squad had no preseason and Pochettino’s high-pressing tactics need a rigorous preseason. 2) there is still some uncertainty in the air over their delayed move back to their new White Hart Lane home. 3) injuries to Dele Alli and Hugo Lloris were huge in this loss to Liverpool.

The latter reason is something which will be sorted out in the next few days when Dele and Lloris return. Without the former they lacked a presence between midfield and attack and Harry Kane in particular was isolated. Without Lloris, well, they probably wouldn’t have concede the first goal as Michel Vorm flapped at a corner and couldn’t keep out the header.

The other issues are more difficult to solve. Only three of Spurs’ starting lineup didn’t play in the latter stages of the World Cup this summer and fatigue will continue to creep in over the next few months as the busy Champions League and cup schedule intensifies. Harry Kane once again struggled through and doesn’t look to be at his best.


SALAH QUIET AS FIRMINO, MANE SHINE

Mohamed Salah isn’t quite having a Sophomore slump, but he isn’t the main man right now for Liverpool. And that’s great news for Klopp. So often last season Liverpool ran out of ideas if Salah wasn’t on form.

With the Egyptian star feeling his way into the new season with just two goals to his name so far, Sadio Mane and Roberto Firmino carried the threat against Spurs.

The former didn’t score but opened up so much space behind Tottenham’s usually stout defensive line. He took a little too much time to supply a finish or a pass for his teammates on a few breakaways, but Mane’s pace caused all kinds of problems and his cross led to Firmino’s goal.

As for the Brazilian striker, he continues to almost, quite amazingly, fly under the radar. He looked sharp throughout with his twists and turns and almost flicked home twice in the opening two minutes.

Mane and Firmino are carrying Liverpool’s main offensive threat right now but the good news for Klopp is that Salah is just getting warmed up.

Three things learned: Man United v. Tottenham

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MANCHESTER — Jose Mourinho and Manchester United are in a really, really bad place right now.

[ RECAP: Spurs hammer United

United lost their second-straight game in the Premier League, with second half goals from Harry Kane and Lucas Moura handing Tottenham their first win at Old Trafford since 2014 as the 3-0 victory underlined their title credentials.

Mourinho and United were left in a crumpled mess after several lineup changes failed to do the trick and the pressure on the Portugeuse coach was cranked up a few notches. The loss was the largest home defeat of his managerial career.

Here’s what we learned from an intense, error-strewn battle at Old Trafford.


POCHETTINO WORKS OUT MOURINHO’S SPECIAL

Whatever Jose Mourinho was drinking when he came up with his team selection for the game against Tottenham, I’ll have a glass of that…

Under pressure since United’s 3-2 defeat at Brighton last Sunday, Mourinho made six changes to his starting lineup. Nemanja Matic was shown as a center back in a graphic by MUTV before the game but played in midfield. Ander Herrera played at right center back during the game. Holding midfielder Fred played as a surging No.10. Midfielder Jesse Lingard played as a central striker.

And it worked quite well in the first half barring a few individual errors from Paul Pogba, Lingard and Matic who gave the ball away cheaply. They had Luke Shaw and Antonio Valencia offering genuine width, with Fred, Pogba and Lukaku going close with first half efforts as the latter should’ve scored after picking off a poor Danny Rose backpass, rounding Hugo Lloris but slotting wide.

It took Tottenham until the end of the first half to figure out how to get an attack going as they could have had a penalty kick when Lucas Moura was brought down, while Dele Alli and Christian Eriksen were both denied. And then the second half happened. Dele Alli and Christian Eriksen tucked themselves in the gaps between Shaw and Valencia and the center backs and caused havoc. Kane scored from a corner and missed a free header. Moura slotted home Eriksen’s cross. Alli forced David De Gea into a fine save. Spurs were rampant once they figured out how to expose United’s creaking mess of a defense.

Mourinho was the coach who use to change his tactics mid-game to win back momentum and change it in his favor. Pochettino was the man who did that on Monday and proved just how much further Tottenham are ahead of United in the battle to challenge Manchester City and Liverpool for the title.


PRESSURE BUILDS AS UNITED LACK CONFIDENCE, DIRECTION

Jose Mourinho has been a moody mess for the last few months and all of his negativity seemed to culminate in the jumbled performance his team put in as they were rolled over by an organized, resolute Tottenham.

Cries of, “you’re getting sacked in the morning!” rang out from the Tottenham fans, as one United fan was shown praying and close to tears on the TV screens. It’s not quite getting that bad, but there are serious issues for Mourinho to try and resolve, if he’s given the chance.

A lack of confidence was clear from United’s players ands so too was a clear direction as to how to play. United’s players were trying “Hollywood balls” and giving it away. Not tracking runners in the second half. Just not focusing on doing the simple things well. This had all the hallmarks of a team freelancing.

That’s when a manager knows he is in trouble.

All the talk of Mourinho’s “third-season syndrome” will be rife in the coming days as he battles to turn it around. This situation is eerily similar to the mess the 2015-16 season became at Chelsea as he was sacked in December with the Blues languishing in the bottom half of the table. It may not get that bad at United this season, but it’s not going to get a lot better if the performances we’ve seen so far continue.

The fact of the matter is, United are well behind Manchester City, Liverpool, Spurs and maybe even Chelsea in the title race.

Since taking over United in the summer of 2016, Mourinho has won 153 points, 19 fewer than Spurs and 31 fewer than Man City. He is not only struggling to turn United into genuine title contenders, he is also struggling to turn them into top four regulars.


SPURS RECOVER VALIANTLY TO SHOWCASE TITLE CREDENTIALS

The World Cup hangover is severe for plenty of teams in the Premier League, but Tottenham will perhaps suffer from it the most. Out of their starting lineup on Monday, only Christian Eriksen and Lucas Moura didn’t reach the final two days of the World Cup. Five Englishman, three Belgians, and a Frenchman mean that Pochettino has been handed a rough deal when it comes to trying to rejuvenate his stars.

In the first half they were off the pace, apart from Moura who was a pest throughout. Kane received a yellow card for a late tackle and Alli wasted a glorious chance. But after Spurs figured out United’s bizarre formation, they took the game by the scruff of the neck. Their midfield finally came to life as Mousa Dembele, Eric Dier and Eriksen won the ball back, used it wisely and that allowed Alli and Moura to time their runs to perfection from wide areas.

Tottenham didn’t play well in the first 45 minutes but they dug deep to turn the game around as their horrendous run at United failed to unnerve them. Pochettino’s squad are no longer “young hopefuls” and they now seem ready to truly challenge for trophies. Last season was supposed to be their season, but this season it just has to be. Even though they didn’t spend any money this summer and there are issues with their new stadium being delayed, Spurs have won their opening three games and look genuine title contenders alongside Liverpool and Man City.

Pochettino is learning, as well as his team, as Tottenham’s dismal away record against the top six has improved. Tottenham have now won three of their 21 PL games away to the “big six” sides, and this was the biggest of them all.

Three things learned: Chelsea v. Arsenal

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LONDON — The London derby delivered. Big time.

Chelsea and Arsenal played out a thrilling encounter in England’s capital as both Maruizio Sarri and Unai Emery will have seen plenty of things they liked, and plenty they didn’t.

The Blues raced into a 2-0 lead through Pedro and Alvaro Morata, but Arsenal fought back as they squandered several chances but eventually scored twice through Henrikh Mkhitaryan and Alex Iwobi to make it 2-2 at half time.

Marcos Alonso scored a late winner for Chelsea as Sarri made it two wins from two, while it’s two defeats on the spin for Emery to open up his time in charge of Arsenal.

Here’s what we learned from a lively encounter in West London as two new managers in the Premier League saw their teams entertain.


ARSENAL EXCITE BUT SAME ISSUES REMAIN

Arsenal have never had problems creating chances and that will continue post-Wenger. On numerous occasions they carved open Chelsea’s defense as Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang should have scored and went close, Henrikh Mkhitaryan was also guilty of a shocking miss before he scored and Mesut Ozil went close too. Alex Iwobi scored and missed a sitter. That was all in the first half. And it all came from clever build-up play out wide as Arsenal’s gameplan was clear: isolate Chelsea’s full backs and get players arriving into the box late.

Eventually Chelsea figured this out but Arsenal showed enough to suggest they can go toe-to-toe with the best attacking teams in the Premier League.

The problem, as it has been for quite some time, has been defensively. Both Shkodran Mustafi and Sokratis looked exposed when Chelsea got the ball wide early and Hector Bellerin was particularly culpable for Chelsea’s first goal as two long balls caught out Arsenal’s entire defensive unit. That simply cannot happen.

It is still too early to judge Unai Emery based on these defeats against Manchester City and Chelsea to open the season. Arsenal’s defensive issues have been magnified by two Premier League heavyweights early in the campaign but it seems their attacking prowess remains intact. The exciting thing is that it may even be better under Emery than it was under Wenger.


CHELSEA CENTERED AROUND Jorginho

Sarri-ball needed a general and Jorginho is just that. The deep-lying playmaker Chelsea paid $72 million to Napoli for this summer is Sarri’s main man and he made them tick against Arsenal. You can point to his lack of physicality but like Cesc Fabregas, who he will likely replace in Chelsea’s midfield, he plays the game at his own pace. The way he found Marcos Alonso for Chelsea’s first goal was a thing of beauty as he curled the ball into his path from 50 yards away.

Jorginho is Chelsea’s quarterback and he is capable of doing wonderful things offensively. Like this.

But it wasn’t all perfect for Jorginho and Chelsea. Far from it. Sarri scratched his head as Arsenal got in down the flanks on seven occasions in the first half and scored with two of their attempt as Mkhitaryan and Aubameyang were both guilty of horrible misses. Not having Kante in the central defensive role left it down to Jorginho to plug the gaps and time and time again Arsenal’s attacking midfielders had so much space.

Willian and Pedro didn’t give Marcos Alonso and Cesar Azpilicueta much support defensively and that will concern Sarri, but eventually they tweaked the system with Kante dropping more centrally in the second half.

With Jorginho pulling the strings, N'Golo Kante plugging the gaps and Ross Barkley putting in another strong display, midfield is where Sarri’s vision is taking shape as Mateo Kovacic and Eden Hazard delivered impressive cameos. Defensively there is plenty of work to do for Chelsea and playing four at the back may not be how they set up for much longer.


NEW REGIMES PROMISE PLENTY

Aside from the defensive deficiencies of both teams, it is clear that both Sarri and Emery will aim to entertain and attack in their maiden seasons in the Premier League.

That’s a good thing for both clubs as they aim to get back into the top four by playing different ways, almost polar opposites, to last season.

Arsenal look more incisive and better equipped to break down stubborn defenses than they did in the past. There is a Plan A, to get the ball wide and time runs to perfection. Plan B is about fluid passing and dictating the tempo of the game just like it was under Wenger.

For Chelsea, it’s the opposite. Under Antonio Conte they looked to launch counters and get behind opponents as quickly as they could. Now they possess the ball, get Jorginho on it and have the likes of Eden Hazard, Pedro and Willian dropping deeper to open up gaps.

It will be intriguing to see how these players adapt to these new philosophies over the coming weeks and months. Saturday proved it will be nerve-wracking for their fans but quite a lot of fun for neutrals.

Three things we learned: France v Croatia

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France beat Croatia in the 2018 World Cup as a six-goal thriller yielded plenty of controversial and memorable moments.

[ RECAP: France win World Cup ]

Les Bleus battled by Croatia as young stars Kylian Mbappe and Paul Pogba came up big in the second half to power past Croatia’s midfield veterans Luka Modric and Ivan Rakitic.

[ MORE: Player ratings | Celebrations

Below we take a look at the key storylines from what become a classic World Cup final.

[ MORE: Latest 2018 World Cup news ] 

Click here for live and on demand coverage of the World Cup online and via the NBC Sports App.


FRANCE GET VAR CALLS

There’s no doubting that the close calls went France’s way in the final, especially two key decisions.

First up: the VAR review on France’s first goal, an own goal by Mario Mandzukic, didn’t see Paul Pogba in an offside position when the free kick came in. Pogba was in an offside position when the ball was kicked and nudged into Mandzukic who headed into his own net, but the rules state that Pogba wouldn’t have been active until he made an attempt to challenge for the ball and by that time he was back onside in the second phase. He also wasn’t interfering with the goalkeeper so it appears that the rules were interpreted correctly in that case.

[ MORE: World Cup stats ] 

Then came the huge moment, the handball call on Perisic from a corner. This is probably a 60/40 decision, with 60 in favor of it being a handball. Perisic’s hands were up and he put it towards the ball and stopped the ball from going towards several French players crashing towards goal. It’s gut-wrenching to use this in a World Cup final, but it was certainly worth reviewing.

Croatia will point to key decisions going against them and had VAR not been available to use, it’s unlikely the penalty kick would have been given.


CROATIA GUTSY BUT FALL

This World Cup final summed up the 2018 tournament nicely. It didn’t make much sense at all.

From the get-go Croatia took the game to France and pinned them back, creating plenty of chances and only conceding after a own goal from a set piece and then a debatable penalty kick.

Croatia’s goal came from a moment of magic from Ivan Perisic and they went close on several occasions with crosses into the box causing France so many problems. Hugo Lloris made fine saves and interceptions in the second half to keep France ahead and although Croatia lost the World Cup final, they can leave Russia with their heads held high.

It’s tough to know how they could’ve done anymore to win the trophy as Rebic, Perisic and Mandzukic showed up but the extra 90 minutes they’d play compared to France meant they were jaded in the final stages.

Luka Modric and Ivan Rakitic didn’t quite have the same time and space they’ve had on previous games and we expected that but a sign of Croatia’s dominance was N'Golo Kante being subbed off in the second half as France lost control of the central midfield area. Kante’s replacement, Steven Nzonzi, helped to steady the ship for France but Croatia still looked dangerous as they made France’s defense look shaky after two-straight clean sheets against Uruguay and Belgium.

Croatia’s incredible run to their first-ever final didn’t end in glory but their performance on the day deserved more.


POGBA, MBAPPE DELIVER

This was supposed to be the final where Kylian Mbappe, just the fourth teenager in history to play in a World Cup final, announced himself.

And he became just the second teenager in history to score in a World Cup final. The other? Pele.

Mbappe, 19, spent most of the first half trying to help out Benjamin Pavard lock down Ivan Perisic on France’s right flank but in the second half he came to life, bursting forward on the break, then drilling home a fine strike from distance to etch his name into World Cup folklore.

Yet apart from Mbappe’s moment of brilliance the only other French player to truly stand tall in the final was Paul Pogba who scored a crucial third and battled valiantly in midfield as Modric and Rakitic tried to drag Croatia level and got the better of N’Golo Kante. After all of the criticism of him at Manchester United over the past two seasons, Pogba delivered several disciplined displays to drive his team to glory.

It is fair to say that France will be remembered as being pragmatic rather than electric when it comes to this World Cup but Deschamps’ defensive unit, although rattled for large spells in this game, held firm.

Rapahel Varane and Samuel Umtiti dug deep and even a mistake from Hugo Lloris couldn’t stop them. France trailed for just nine minutes and 12 seconds during the entire 2018 World Cup and they relied on their stars to deliver in key moments.

Mbappe and Pogba did that on Sunday on the biggest possible stage and both of those superstars will be entering, or about to enter, their prime for the next World Cup in Qatar in 2022.

Three things we learned from France v. USMNT

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The U.S. men’s national team drew 1-1 with France in Lyon on Saturday as the youngsters came close to causing a huge surprise against one of the favorites to win the World Cup this summer.

[ MORE: USMNT player ratings

Julian Green put the USA 1-0 up right on half time to stun France, but Didier Deschamps’ side equalized late on through Paris Saint-Germain superstar Kylian Mbappe.

Below is a look at what we learned from Dave Sarachan’s kids impressing against France.


CCV TO LEAD NEW-LOOK DEFENSE

The main reason the USMNT took such a young squad to Europe for these games against Ireland and France as for experience, and these youngster will have learned so much from playing on the road in tight games.

Especially in Lyon against a virtual first-choice France side.

10 of the USA’s starting 11 had less than 10 caps to their name, and that showed in a shaky start in a 3-5-2 formation. But Cameron Carter-Vickers and Matt Miazga looked particularly assured, with both Shaq Moore and Antonee Robinson also impressing at wing back.

CCV and Miazga (who left the game early in the second half after a nasty clash of heads) have played together throughout the U.S. youth ranks and they will now get the chance to shine together for the USMNT. Carter-Vickers was particularly impressive as he stepped in and stopped attacks, plus kept Olivier Giroud quiet. The Tottenham Hotspur youngster is maturing rapidly.

Miazga’s ball-playing ability complements CCV power well and with DeAndre Yedlin and Moore to battle it out for the right back spot, plus Robinson pushing hard to start at left back, a long-term back four of Yedlin-CCV-Miazga-Robinson would be able to develop together over the next few years with all four playing for clubs across the top-flight of European soccer.

A special shoutout for Zack Steffen too, as the Columbus Crew goalkeeper looks to have cemented his spot as the heir to Tim Howard‘s throne as the USMNT’s starting stopper. Steffen came up big late on with a fine double-stop.

It’s a cliche, but you know what: the kids, they’re alright.


USMNT STILL A LONG WAY OFF

Yes, there were some promising displays, especially defensively, but let’s not get carried away here. This was a France side which had one eye on the World Cup kicking off in Russia next week.

And you can totally understand if a few of the French stars didn’t want to get injured and join the long list of heartbreaking World Cup absentees (Manuel Lanzini, Sergio Romero, Kamil Glik et al.) ahead of what is the biggest tournament of their careers so far.

The U.S. bunkered down and barely got in the France half in the first half but when they took the lead, they weathered the storm and despite Mbappe’s equalizer, the USMNT were fairly comfortable. But they were also far from adventurous in what resembled a 5-3-1-1 formation for most of the game.

This draw will give the young group confidence as U.S. Soccer will now focus on implementing Earnie Stewart’s plans as the new GM (appointed on Wednesday) will focus on hiring a new head coach over the summer.

A long, tough road to recovery is ahead but the nucleus of this side which drew at France should be given the chance to lead the USMNT to the World Cup in Qatar in 2022.


WAKE-UP CALL FOR FRANCE

Boos rang out during spells of the game in Lyon as the home fans weren’t overjoyed with what they saw from their team in their final outing before flying to Russia on Sunday.

A virtual full-strength France started well but faded badly.

Didier Deschamps is under pressure (he has been for a while) and with the likes of Arsene Wenger and Zinedine Zidane now out of jobs, it’s likely that anything other than a trip to the World Cup final this summer will see the current France boss keep his job.

France looked disjointed and although Antoine Griezmann and Paul Pogba came close to scoring in the first half, they never really got out of second gear. Hugo Lloris shouldn’t have been beaten at his near post for the USA’s goal and Djibril Sidibe should have cleared the initial cross as a lapse in concentration cost Les Bleus.

Placed in Group C along with Denmark, Peru and Australia, France are still expected to get out of their group and go far this summer in Russia. But unless Deschamps’ men gel remarkably fast in the next few weeks, they won’t go all the way.