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Real Madrid's self-inflicted issues, Man Utd's evolution, Barca's bright start

Saturday night at the Bernabeu was a study in contrast. Atletico manager Diego Simeone -- who was banned from the sideline -- paced around a skybox like some kind of caged, yet ecstatic, wild animal.

Meanwhile, Real Madrid's Carlo Ancelotti stood on the sideline with his usual hangdog expression and looked like those cartoon characters with a cloud above their head, following him around everywhere, liberally dispensing lightning and rain.

Atletico's 2-1 win marked the first time ever that they had won back-to-back league games at the Bernabeu, following their 1-0 triumph in September 2013.

What's remarkable is how much this season's Atleti looks like last season's despite losing Diego Costa, Filipe Luis, David Villa, Adrian and, of course, Thibaut Courtois. They ebb and flow with a controlled intensity, and when they spot opportunity, they take it.

If you were to score this game on points, like figure skating, a draw may have been a fairer result based on what Real showed in the first 45 minutes. But in some ways, Real's dominance in the first half was based on their weaknesses. They have to play this way; the transfer dealings of club president Florentino Perez left them no choice.

So they streamed forward in a virtual 4-2-4, with Atletico hanging back, thanks in part to the early lead. Cristiano Ronaldo -- by the way, Ancelotti wasn't telling porkies when he said pregame that he was in top form -- equalized from the spot, but Real could easily have had another two if Atletico goalkeeper Miguel Moya hadn't been in beast mode.

Real Madrid have lost two of their three league games this season.

The problem is you can't pull off this formation for 90 minutes, not with the requisite intensity anyway. So when Real's tempo fell, Atleti were ready to capitalize. The fact that Ancelotti's crew did not manage a shot on goal in the second half tells its own story.

Fingers will be pointed at Iker Casillas and the home defence because of the nature of the goals. Tiago's early header laid bare all the set-piece issues this team continues to have. For the winner, all it took was a dummy by Raul Garcia to turn the back four into deer in headlights before Arda Turan's deadly finish.

Boos and whistles rang out at the Bernabeu with Karim Benzema and Casillas among those targeted. Truth be told, they were not the only ones. Alvaro Arbeloa is simply not a viable right-back, not with that front four. On the other side, Fabio Coentrao needs protection and is not going to get it with James Rodriguez in front of him.

Meanwhile, where Xabi Alonso's mere presence used to drive traffic away, Toni Kroos seems to attract it, possibly because his positioning so deep isn't what it should be. And Gareth Bale, apart from one free-kick, disappeared in the second half.

- Corrigan: Atletico's changes set up victory
- Train: Real Madrid player ratings
- Walker: Atletico Madrid player ratings

What now?

The good news is that, against most opponents, that first-half performance will be more than enough to give Real the padding they need to survive the inevitable second-half deflation.

At some point, though, someone -- whether it's Perez upstairs or Ancelotti -- has to realize that they need either a physical presence or a specialist in front of the back four. That means either Sami Khedira, when he returns to fitness, or Asier Illarramendi, despite his inconsistencies, has to be on the pitch. If it means sacrificing James or Bale, so be it. The other mooted experiment -- Coentrao in midfield -- is best avoided, frankly.

Truth be told, as it currently stands, Real need to hang in there until January and then plug the gaping hole left by Alonso's departure. It's their best -- really, their only -- bet. Stick to the lineup seen in the first 45 minutes on Saturday and one of two things will happen: Either they will run out of steam and let any decent opposition back into the game or they will simply run themselves into the ground and be exhausted by midseason.

It's often simplistic to point fingers, but this one is easy. Perez got them into this situation, and he's the guy to get them out of it in January. Until that's addressed, Ancelotti will need to do it with smoke and mirrors.

Do not read too much into Man United's win

Louis van Gaal won his first game in charge as Manchester United manager, beating Queens Park Rangers 4-0. It was an impressive win, but it would be a mistake to read too much into it and not just because, right now, QPR simply aren't very good.

It doesn't mean, for example, that Van Gaal has somehow "seen the light" and abandoned the three-man defence. That contention is a bit patronizing toward him; the guy has been in the business for some time now and has been rather successful. A more plausible explanation is that, with Chris Smalling and Phil Jones unavailable, he didn't have enough right-footed centre-backs.

- Jolly: Much-needed first win
- Payne: Man United player ratings
- Mitten: United hope for short European exile
- Highlights (U.S. only): Man United 4-0 QPR

That is what Van Gaal said after the game, that he could have played a back three with Tyler Blackett, Jonny Evans and Marcos Rojo, but one of them would have had to be on the right of the three. "I don't think it's good to create a left-footed player as a right-sided central defender," the manager said.

This doesn't mean that a back four might not be a better option than a back three, or vice versa. It's just that Van Gaal isn't going to make a definitive decision based on 90 minutes against QPR. He pushed the back three all summer long, most of his signings were, presumably, made with an eye toward a 3-5-2, and it would be stupid to make a 180 degree turn before fully assessing the squad and how the pieces fit together.

Particularly when, because of the recent international break, he got only a few days of training sessions with the latest newcomers.

A game for the ages

You've heard the cliché, but that doesn't make it any less valid. From kickoff onward, we are treated to unscripted theater. Sometimes it's compelling, sometimes it's uplifting, sometimes it's terrifying, and sometimes it's frightfully dull.

Milan won away to Parma on Sunday 5-4 in a game that had just about everything in it, including a goal that my ESPN FC colleague Alejandro Moreno might call "filthylicious" -- Jeremy Menez's slaloming run and "Twilight Zone" backheel to beat goalkeeper Antonio Mirante.

- Paul: Inzaghi's influence on display

If you're a purist, you may not have enjoyed it. You may have turned up your nose at defenders too often being left in one-on-one positions, individuals making mistakes and forwards streaming up the pitch at every opportunity.

But if you like to see goals, actions and incidents, you will have enjoyed the breathless 90-minute roller coaster.

Liverpool lost for the second time in four Premier League games this season.

Growing pains at Anfield

Liverpool's home defeat to Aston Villa on Saturday seemed to dampen enthusiasm pretty quickly. It was a deserved setback, although the game took a Villa turn early when a defensive mistake allowed Gabriel Agbonlahor to score early and the visitors to raise the barricades and sit on the lead.

It would be easy to question manager Brendan Rodgers' decisions. With Daniel Sturridge injured, he opted to leave Raheem Sterling initially on the bench and switch away from a midfield diamond to a formation with Adam Lallana, Philippe Coutinho and Lazar Markovic supporting Mario Balotelli. It didn't work -- Lallana, Markovic and Balotelli all came off in the final half hour -- but it doesn't mean it was the wrong choice.

- Jolly: Liverpool's new boys are taking time to fit in
- Kelly: Liverpool player ratings
- Hughes: Villa's brick wall holds firm
- Highlights (U.S. only): Liverpool 0-1 Aston Villa

While resting Sterling may have seemed unusual, the fact of the matter is that, as Rodgers pointed out, Liverpool now have a big squad and he needs to get players minutes while figuring out how they fit together.

Having spent $100 million on Balotelli, Markovic and Lallana, easing them into the rotation and giving them a shot at a starting spot simply makes sense. If that means losing some of the fluidity that marks the side when Sturridge and Sterling are both starting, so be it.

Luis Enrique masterminds Barcelona's bright start

Two of the knocks on Luis Enrique when he was appointed to replace Tata Martino as Barcelona boss seemed somewhat contradictory. The first was that he lacked pragmatism, that he was too wed to some sort of utopian version of 4-3-3 and attacking possession football.

The other was that he lacked the gravitas to make the tough decisions, particularly when it came to veterans.

Three games in, the skeptics may want to think again. Barca have yet to concede a goal in La Liga and are creating plenty of chances. It's still an attacking side that demands the ball, but the front three have plenty of directness and work rate.

- Ledwith: Barca keep an eye on Atletico
- Tomas: Barcelona player ratings

Just as impressive, Enrique has shown a willingness to make the big decisions. Like slotting Ivan Rakitic into midfield ahead of a veteran hero like Xavi, who has seen just 17 minutes on the pitch. Further, on Saturday, for the visit of Athletic Bilbao, he dropped Gerard Pique and instead went with Javier Mascherano and Jeremy Mathieu at the back.

Neymar, fresh off the plane from the international break, started on the bench, making way for the 19-year-old wunderkind Munir El Haddadi, who has been in the starting XI for every game.

As it happened, Neymar linked well with Lionel Messi and scored both goals in Barca's 2-0 win. However, the enduring impression is that Enrique isn't afraid to be his own man and make his own decisions, regardless of the political implications.

Kagawa looks comfortable in Dortmund again

Nothing quite like a homecoming, is there?

Any concerns about whether Shinji Kagawa had lost his mojo were swept aside after Jurgen Klopp threw him straight into the Borussia Dortmund starting XI in his return to the Westfalenstadion. Kagawa scored one and help set up another in the 3-1 victory over Freiburg, and he was positively beaming at the final whistle, as if it were 2011-12 all over again.

- Buczko: Fans relish Kagawa's return

You wonder, though, how Klopp will play things now, because when it comes to the front four he really has a host of options. Marco Reus and Henrikh Mkhitaryan are -- you would think -- untouchable when fit.

That leaves two slots for Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang, Ciro Immobile, Adrian Ramos, Jakub Blaszczykowski (who should be back in a month) and Kagawa. A bit like Rodgers at Liverpool, that's a lot of competition and a lot of guys to keep happy.

After taking the lead, Man City fell behind before ultimately claiming a point thanks to a late equaliser at the Emirates.

Two points dropped for Man City?

Manuel Pellegrini seemed genuinely annoyed after Manchester City's 2-2 draw at the Emirates against an Arsenal side that -- at least when going forward -- looked exceptional, with Jack Wilshere and Alexis Sanchez in sparkling form.

Pellegrini pointed to some refereeing decisions he didn't like and gave the impression that he considered it two points dropped. You can see his point, particularly since City hit the woodwork twice.

- Cox: Rugged City dig deep for a point
- McNicholas: Arsenal player ratings
- Mooney: Man City player ratings
- Highlights (U.S. only): Arsenal 2-2 Man City

But it's also true that they were without Yaya Toure (and Frank Lampard, stepping in for him, struggled to fill his shoes), while Sergio Aguero, his goal aside, looks only half-fit. And it's not as if they were playing Accrington Stanley reserves. This was Arsenal, who haven't lost at home in the league for 13 months.

It's a sign of the standard to which Pellegrini holds City and himself that he wouldn't view Saturday as a good away point against a direct rival.

Brazilian racism fallout misses the point

You may recall how Gremio were thrown out of the Copa do Brasil after their fans were found guilty of racially abusing Santos keeper Aranha.

Personally, I've long been in favor of punishing individuals rather than entire clubs, except in situations where there is evidence the club is colluding with or simply not doing enough to police crowd behaviour. I thought holding individuals accountable for their actions is the fairest and most effective way of dealing with this. Public naming and shaming works well in most cases.

On this occasion, a number of Gremio supporters were punished, but the media focus was entirely on one person, a young lady named Patricia Moreira. She was caught on camera shouting "Macaco!" which is a type of monkey, at Aranha.

She lost her job and was roundly abused on social media, where she also received death threats. Last week, someone set fire to her house.

- Blatter praises Gremio ban

Does it mean the "name and shame" approach is wrong? I don't think so. Folks need to be held responsible for what they do, whether it's hurling racial insults or trying burn down a house.

But it does raise a question about the media. If Moreira, instead of being an attractive young lady, had been a middle-aged balding pot-bellied man, would she have received so much attention? Would we even know her name?

The fact of the matter is that there were hundreds of supporters racially abusing Aranha that day. Every one of them should have been punished and identified. Perhaps if that had happened then the backlash would have been spread out across all the racist abusers.

Napoli's numbers don't add up

It's never a good sign when you have to resort to numbers to defend yourself. It shouldn't be that way -- after all, what's more rational than empirical data? -- but it is.

So when Rafa Benitez started rattling off stats after Napoli's surprise 1-0 home defeat to Chievo, it probably wasn't the wisest move because it just angered the critics further.

"We missed a penalty and shot on goal 33 times, and I counted 11 clear-cut chances," Benitez said. "Yet we simply failed to score. We could easily have been 3-0 up at halftime."

All that is -- somewhat -- true. (Actually, I'm not sure how he got to 11 chances, but Napoli did have plenty of shots.) But it's not what supporters want to hear right now, not when the pain of getting knocked out in the Champions League qualifiers by Athletic Bilbao is still so fresh in their hearts.

Another slow Chelsea start

It's sort of becoming a habit, at least at Stamford Bridge. For the first 44 minutes, right up until Diego Costa's equalizer, Chelsea were on the ropes vs. Swansea, a bit like they were against Leicester in their previous home game.

Bafetimbi Gomis, filling in for Wilfried Bony, was a hulking figure in Swansea's attack, often tying up three men -- Nemanja Matic, Gary Cahill and John Terry -- in one go. Meanwhile, Oscar, Eden Hazard and even Cesc Fabregas were uncharacteristically sloppy at the other end.

- Delaney: Costa inspires rampant leaders
- Lythell: Chelsea player ratings
- Highlights (U.S. only): Chelsea 4-2 Swansea

The floodgates opened in the second half, and Chelsea kicked it up several notches, with Costa leading the way and notching a picture-perfect hat-trick. Is it that Jose Mourinho's side simply has the ability to wear down the opposition and then pummel it in the second half? Maybe. Could the slow starts be down to underestimating the opposition and being a little too laid-back out there? Possibly.

Whatever the case, you can be sure Mourinho is doing his darnedest to identify the problem and fix it.

Gabriele Marcotti is a senior writer for ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @Marcotti.


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