THURSDAY'S BIG STORIES
Tactics chat can be a dry business, which is why football people like to sprinkle a little magic over the top. Literally, the word "magic". France's great midfield of the 1980s — Fernández, Tigana, Giresse, Platini — was known as the Magic Square. Vanderlei Luxemburgo's 4-2-2-2 system was known as the Magic Rectangle, though it failed to enchant Real Madrid's opponents.
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Ole Gunnar Solskjaer, who remains manager of Manchester United for the moment, has created the Magic Ring Doughnut. It's heavily sugared. It's got a big old hole in the middle. And it's extremely unhealthy in all sorts of exciting ways.
Last night, Manchester United beat Villarreal. This is because they have a lot of good players, with more good players on the bench, and ring doughnuts are delicious. At the same time, for 70 minutes or so, Manchester United were given something of a chasing by the team currently 11th in La Liga. This is because ring doughnuts are stupid. Put some more dough in there. Then some jam. Or some custard.
Instead, Manchester United have a defence and an attack, a left flank and a right flank, and nothing to stitch all of that together. This is why they so often look like they're being outplayed. In a way, this Champions League group is perfectly designed to make United look tactically vacant: Young Boys, Villarreal and Atalanta are all, in their different ways, extremely well-coached sides. They have systems. They have plans. They have midfields.
United deal in moments, good and bad. At one point Alex Telles, tight on the left touchline, looked up and crossed the ball. It shot directly forwards off his foot and thumped into the corner flag. Some minutes later, he met a looping cross on the volley and fully scholesed the ball into the net. All human life is here, in the Magic Ring Doughnut.
Of course, there is a difference between being outplayed and actually losing. If the former doesn't regularly lead to the latter, it can be waved away, at least for a time. Just a bad look. It's a results business. United won the game thanks to quality substitutions and relentless persistence; Villareal lost because, as Pau Torres put it afterwards, they weren't clever enough not to.
We just had to wait a bit and hit that last free kick up the pitch and the game would have been over… we have to learn. Until then we had been impeccable, better than Man United at Old Trafford. We needed to know how to better play that last minute."
Football's exchange rate is often very, very poor. A side can play a lot of good football and get very few goals for it. United's current iteration seems to be the inverse: anti-system, pro-chaos, pace and moments, quality ingredients, hot oil, sugar, maybe a bit of cinnamon. A walk by the seaside, grease soaking into the bag. Everybody having a great time. Ole's not at the wheel, though the shape is right. He's at the doughnut.
Two defeats in a row. Two defeats in a row. And not a goal scored in either of them. Terrible news for anybody that had decided Chelsea were going to stroll everything this season. And by "anybody", we mean "The Warm-Up". Looks like we were a little hasty there.
Obviously, losing to Manchester City and then Juventus isn't exactly a disaster, much less a crisis, however weird Juventus have been this season. But when two defeats turn up and share this much in the making, it at least gives a side something to think about.
The attack, for starters. When they're good, this version Chelsea exist just on the right side of defensive: solid and well-structured, but with enough imagination through the team and the system to make the chances they need. Not so last weekend, and not so last night. In the absence of Mason Mount — whose reputation grows when he plays and grows more when he doesn't — the attack has deflated into something predictable. Juventus kept Chelsea in front of them, blocked everything, and asked the defending champions to find something special. And they couldn't, not quite.
So Tuchel will head back to his tactics board and apply his big brain to the problem, which we suspect he'll quite enjoy. On the other side, we're guessing that Max Allegri will be very pleased with the win, but even happier with the big, round, beautiful "0". Leo Bonucci was everywhere, in traditional fashion. Georgio Chiellini celebrated one late block like a veteran Italian defender celebrating a late block: that's not a lazy comparison, there's just nothing else quite like it. The kind of celebration that can kick start a season.
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Now, this. This is a crisis. Two games, zero wins, zero scored, six conceded. But you can rationalise a defeat to Bayern Munich, however comprehensive: one superclub in a good moment, another very much not. These things happen.
Getting comfortably turned over at Benfica, however, is less easy to wave away. Barcelona had their chances: Luuk de Jong missing an open goal, then blocking his own teammate's follow-up shot, will live long in the memory. You could even argue that Barcelona played quite well, at least for chunks of the game. But say what you like about Ronald Koeman, he knows what's going on.
I think that for the first and second goals we just had to defend much better.
Asked after the game if a change of manager would change anything, Frenkie de Jong said "No". That might be admirable faith, or simple diplomacy. Or just he might just be knackered: by the game, by the result, by the whole churning mess of the thing. It's striking how similar all crisis clubs look, by the end of the cycle. Everybody's tired, right down in their bones. Everybody's legs are heavy, everybody's head is scrambled. And nothing works.
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IN OTHER NEWS
Decent first touch. Second is pretty good too. And does that say… yep, 90+4. There are worse ways to win a soccer game.
Well, we mentioned them earlier, so we should probably devote this section to that Magic Square, as perfect a midfield as ever midfielded. Sit back, settle yourself with whatever beverage best suits your mood and the time of day, and enjoy.
A nice long interview with Leonardo Bonucci over at the Athletic [£]. Come for the insights into Italy's mentality and preparation through Euro 2020; stay for his explanation of why mere mortals, and journalists, have no idea how important it is for defenders to be good at shouting.
The people who judge us, on the other hand, like journalists often find it harder to spot the small details that differentiate one defender from another. Take a sliding tackle — that will catch the eye more than me shouting at a team-mate to make an adjustment. But the shout is more important because it will help my team-mate make a better decision. I can then avoid having to make the sliding tackle because I’ve alerted him to the danger he did not see before.
Thursday means the Europa League, and it also means the Europa Conference League, and as such it means: loads and loads and loads of games. We have decided, entirely at random, that the game to watch is West Ham at home to Rapid Wien.
Taking a night off from perfecting his tactical masterplan, the Magic Septagon, Andi Thomas — him again! — will be here tomorrow.
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