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Mourinho's formation options; Juve, Barca do enough; Ronaldo finds form

October 31, 2016 3:11 PM
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Manchester United's scoreless draw against Burnley means Jose Mourinho has amassed 15 points from 10 games; that's fewer than David Moyes (17) in 2013-14 and fewer than Louis Van Gaal (20) last year.

The chicken littles suggest the sky is falling but, while Mourinho has an laundry list of issues to work through, it's a bit of a knee-jerk reaction. Burnley played one of those classic 8-1-1 formations where they stuffed their own penalty area. United pushed them way back and took whatever shots they could.

They created plenty of chances and conceded very few, which is pretty much the definition of "playing well." And if you're into Expected Goals and all that, the numbers are pretty clear.

And all that's before you get into Matteo Darmian's first-half penalty appeal and the somewhat controversial second yellow card shown to Ander Herrera with more than 20 minutes to go.

The point is this is not the sort of the game which should make United fans despair. The performance was fine; the finishing less so, though on many occasions that was down to Burnley defending well.

But if United do need a shakeup, it's not based on what we saw on Saturday. Instead, it's based on the fact that, right now, the pieces simply don't fit together the way they should. With all due respect, whether or not you beat Burnley shouldn't be the benchmark of anything, not if you're Manchester United.

The fact of the matter is that United have, perhaps, four or five guys who everybody agrees ought to start and the rest are all down to tactical and personnel permutations. Everybody who cares about United has an idea and, seemingly, so does Mourinho.

I happen to have one as well. It's based on a heck of a lot less information than Mourinho has, so there may well be a raft of very good reasons why he hasn't done this, but it may also be something he turns to going forward.

There is no hard and fast rule that stipulates you need to play a lone centre-forward and two wingers. I wonder what United would look like in a diamond formation. Play Zlatan Ibrahimovic alongside one of Antony Martial or Marcus Rashford, to get your quicker guy closer to goal and give Ibrahimovic more freedom.

In the hole at the tip of the diamond, I'd go with Juan Mata for now, at least until Henrikh Mkhitaryan is "ready" in Mourinho's eyes. Wayne Rooney is obviously an option too and he'd also be an alternative up front. Paul Pogba would be on one side of the diamond, with Herrera -- or perhaps Jesse Lingard -- on the other. It's Pogba's best position and, equally, there's enough dynamism there to slide across and cover the wings and to drive forward from deeper positions.

At the back of the diamond you need a holding midfielder and here the options are Michael Carrick (perhaps not every game, but in certain fixtures), Morgan Schneiderlin (sooner or later he has to come in from the cold, right?) and maybe Daley Blind. None seems an ideal solution in Mourinho's eyes, but there is no perfect solution right now.

In defiance, Mourinho can go with the two centre-backs Mourinho he likes -- I guess Chris Smalling and Eric Bailly when they are both fit -- as well as full-backs who can get forward to offer width, like Antonio Valencia and Luke Shaw.

It's also worth noting that Ibrahimovic wasn't always a lone striker -- he did very well in a front two at Juventus -- and that Mourinho himself has experience with this formation: He often used it when winning the Treble with Porto in 2003-04.

It's just a thought. And I'd be surprised if it hasn't crossed the United manager's mind.

Speaking of Mourinho, he was sent off by Mark Clattenburg at half-time, after which we saw the somewhat comical scenes of the United manager taking a seat beside behind the United bench and then being made to sit further away. At which point he proceeded to hand notes to Ricardo Formosinho, one of his assistants, who dutifully scurried down to the bench where Rui Faria had taken over.

I've written this before, but I'll say it again: This is just stupid. If a manager is sent off, he should be gone from public view and he should not be communicating with the bench and calling the shots. Otherwise, what's the point?

Writing in The Times, former referee Howard Webb said that, while Mourinho's behaviour would not be allowed in other countries, in "England it appears [to be] acceptable." Why? What's the point of sending someone off if he then continues to do his job at a distance?

I'm not having a go at Mourinho; he does whatever the rules allow him to do. But it's pretty obvious that this is just a sham.

It's time the Football Association -- or whoever is in charge of these procedures -- implement basic, common-sense rules. If a manager is sent off or banned from the touchline, he should be somewhere else, with a chaperone who ensures he's not communicating with his bench.

I don't generally buy the old cliche whereby playing poorly and winning is a sign of greatness. If you play poorly and get the three points then you were either fortunate or simply have better players than the team you were facing that day.

For most of October, Juventus haven't played particularly well. Nor did they play particularly well against Napoli on Saturday night. They won 2-1 because the absences of Napoli's first and second-choice centre-forwards Arkadiusz Milik and Manolo Gabbiadini are too much of a cross to bear rand because Leo Bonucci and -- who else? -- ex-Napoli man Gonzalo Higuain are quick-witted deadly finishers.

But Juve are still far from where they can be and Max Allegri knows this. The Double-target man experiment -- Higuain was joined by Mario Mandzukic up front -- is not one to revisit any time soon; until Paulo Dybala returns, they're better off working out some kind of front three.

Hernanes struggled again in the play-making role and Miralem Pjanic still needs to find his mojo. Those two factors, as well as Dani Alves on the bench, meant there was little in the way of supply going to the front two.

It's all fixable and, in fact, Juve's Serie A lead is now four points. But you do feel they need to kick it up several notches to hang with the big boys in Europe.

As for Napoli, Maurizio Sarri played with no fear and, for long stretches, his team were better than Juve. Lorenzo Insigne's hissy fit at being substituted was needed like he needed a hole in the head, but getting your team to perform in these circumstances is no small feat.

Going into Saturday's trip to Alaves, Cristiano Ronaldo had scored four goals this season: Two in La Liga and two in the Champions League. By the end of the match he should have had equalled that total but he missed a second-half penalty and had to "settle" for a hat trick, his 40th for the club.

Alaves actually took an early lead but wilted after Madrid equalized with a rather dubious penalty. Zinedine Zidane can take some encouragement from the performance, given that this is still a Real side without Casemiro, Dani Carvajal, Sergio Ramos and -- especially -- Luka Modric. The fact that they conceded for the ninth game in a row isn't great, but the significance is somewhat overblown.

The weekend got even better on Sunday when it was announced that Gareth Bale had extended his contract through 2022, when he turns 33. We'll get a better sense of the numbers soon, but you expect it to be in the region of €20 million ($22m) a year net, which works out to nearly €40m ($44m) gross.

It's a serious commitment, particularly when you consider the recent extension of Toni and it suggests that, contrary to what some have suggested, president Florentino Perez isn't planning to gut this team anytime soon.

It also lays down a marker for Ronaldo's contract negotiations. His current deal is due to expire in 2018 which means that they need to lock him up in double-quick time. Spanish media are already speculating about whether he could possibly accept making less than Bale. I'd like to think his ego doesn't stretch to such cartoonish lengths.

The tricky thing for Madrid is that they have a very clear idea of how much Ronaldo is worth right now. Figuring out how much he'll be worth after 2018, when he will turn 33, is far more of a delicate science.

Nice's incredible run continues in Ligue 1. They beat up Nantes 4-1 on Sunday to make it five wins in a row in all competitions and extend their lead at the top of the table to six points. And they're still undefeated in Le Championnat as well.

It's quite a turnaround when you consider how sure the skeptics were that the combination of a tactical task master like Lucien Favre and the maverick enigma that is Mario Balotelli would never work. It's true that, on paper, it was an unlikely pairing, but it's equally true that both are showing the intelligence - and, dare I say, maturity -- to work towards a common goal.

It's inevitable that Balotelli, who notched his seventh goal of the season in all competitions and also provided an assist, will hog the limelight. But credit needs to be spread out throughout the team, starting with forward Alassane Plea, who is up to third in the scoring charts and has already surpassed last season's total. So much for the one-horse French league, eh?

The two goals Liverpool conceded against Crystal Palace aren't really the price you pay for Jurgen Klopp's style, but rather a function of individual mistakes. If anything, Liverpool as a team defended better than in recent outings.

Meanwhile, Emre Can showed personality in the middle of the park in Georginio Wijnaldum's absence and now that the Dutchman is presumably ready to start, Klopp will have more options in that area. Indeed, if Alberto Moreno shows he can make the left back position his own -- frankly, despite his errors, I still think he's the best long-term fit there -- then you have James Milner in the mix for midfield as well.

Klopp will need that kind of depth because, even if Liverpool have no European commitments, his style of play is definitely taxing.

It was a case of maximum result with minimum effort for Barcelona against Granada. They could have scored more but the 1-0 result was far from a travesty against La Liga's cellar-dwellers. An early goal could have broken down a massed defence but, instead, Barca had to wait until the start of the second half and Rafinha's strike to break the ice.

True, there were plenty of absentees, but there was still a full-fledged MSN up front and it's fair to say Lionel Messi and, especially, Luis Suarez had an off day. Maybe it's nothing to be concerned about -- occasionally they show us they're human -- but it shows just why Luis Enrique has been trying to come up with a Plan B for when their main men fire blanks.

In one of the most predictable developments imaginable, Inter's 1-0 defeat at Sampdoria immediately raised the prospect of Frank De Boer's imminent sacking. As I write this, it is unclear what the club will do, possibly because they and their globally-spread owners spread don't know either.

Inter weren't that poor against Samp and, on the balance of chances, could easily have won the game. But they showed the type of flaws that just won't fly in Serie A (unless you're a hugely charismatic, internationally pedigreed manager, who knows how to navigate the vagaries of the Italian game: De Boer isn't any of those things.).

There's a midfield that can't win the ball back and centre-backs who are superb if defending as a unit, but less so when exposed. Throw in strikers who finish poorly and De Boer's attempts at attacking football see him laughed out of the building.

It's not fair on him and this notion that every week he needs to prove he can stay with a win -- no matter whether deserved or not -- is rather pathetic. The fear is that we're looking at another wasted season for Inter.

This is looking more like the Bayern Munich that Carlo Ancelotti wants to see. They're still scoring goals, but are also fundamentally in control. The 3-1 win at Augsburg was a relatively comfortable affair, with Robert Lewandowski and Arjen Robben leading the way.

Thomas Muller was on the bench for his second straight Bundesliga game and didn't come on at all, which was a bit of an eyebrow raiser. But the fact is that, in Ancelotti's 4-3-3 -- at least the way it's drawn up now -- it's hard to accommodate Muller ahead of Douglas Costa and Robben. His time will come, you'd imagine.

No surprise that Pep Guardiola's "WORST CAREER WINLESS STREAK" is over. He said all along he wasn't concerned and Saturday's 4-0 thumping of West Bromwich Albion bore this out.

It's interesting, though, to note how it came about, because Guardiola effectively went back to as close to a basic, straight-forward formation as he has. The 4-1-4-1 scheme is what delivered success earlier in the year and is what allowed him to play his best available players in their favoured positions, with the added wrinkle of Fernando at right-back.

The impression is that, while it's great to experiment with new systems and exotic formations, Guardiola's own philosophy is exotic enough. For the time being, City should absorb his concepts and walk before they run. There's no need to reinvent the wheel; once it becomes second nature, that's when you kick it up a notch creatively.

Things were far nervier than they should have been for Atletico Madrid at home against Malaga, as the visitors twice came from behind to cut the lead to a single goal. On top of that, Stefan Savic got himself sent off with half an hour to go, which didn't help matters either.

Yannick Carrasco then put the game out of reach with his second of the game and the Belgian is on a tear, having scored six goals in four matches. That form is coming at the right time for Diego Simeone, whose side have been put through the wringer in their last three outings.

Chelsea continue to lurk with intent, a single point off the top of the Premier League, following their 2-0 win at Southampton. As against Man United the week before, Antonio Conte's crew got an early goal which helped tremendously. But while they generally looked to hit on the break the rest of the game you were struck how the deeper defending was so relaxed; they were hardly ever in danger.

Defending like that isn't just about putting numbers back there. It's about perfecting and coordinating movements to the point that the opposition struggle to get off a decent shot. That "hard work" Conte keeps talking about is evidently paying off.

And the biggest beneficiaries aren't just Chelsea's defensive players; they are arguably wingers like Eden Hazard and Pedro. When Chelsea win back possession, those two have the luxury of space ahead of them and knowing exactly where the options will be as the wing-backs break.

Their win at Darmstadt made it four in a row for RB Leipzig, who are still just two points behind table-topping Bayern. Needless to say, they are working wonders for a newly-promoted side although, this being Red Bull, it comes with asterisks. (Their net spend last summer was the highest in the Bundesliga and two-and-a-half times as much as the second-biggest spenders, Bayern.)

Ralf Hasenhuttl is making the best of the (admittedly few) advantages afforded to newly-promoted sides. A lack of European football makes his hyper-intensive pressing style more viable and the way they bludgeon teams centrally is a sight to behold. Opponents may yet figure them out but, for now, they're flying and they're fun to watch. And Bayern may just need to look over their shoulders.

You don't want to read too much into a win at Sunderland because David Moyes' crew really are horrendous at present. But the ease with which Arsenal swatted them aside, 4-1, was telling.

Alexis Sanchez at centre-forward is a waste if he's simply asked to run in behind defences. In Arsenal's current scheme, though, he comes short, dialogues with the attacking midfielders and drags opposing defenders out of position' it's hugely effective.

And I know I'm in the minority, but I think Olivier Giroud, who came off the bench to score his first goals of the season, can also be hugely effective. For all the criticism he gets, his goals per minute ratio remains impressive. Further, he works hard and provides additional defensive help on set pieces, which aren't exactly Arsenal's forte.

Given that and despite how well as Sanchez has done in the last few games, I'm by no means certain he'll be leading the line for the rest of the season.

Gabriele Marcotti is a columnist for ESPN FC, The Times and Corriere dello Sport. Follow him on Twitter @Marcotti.

Source: espnfc.com

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