Tottenham's superb season, gauging Bayern's success, Real Madrid's secret
It was the perfect way to celebrate the demise of St. Totteringham's Day, that moment in the season (usually in the spring) when Arsenal are so far ahead of Tottenham that they can't be caught. Well, there will be no St. Totteringham's Day this season, and Spurs fans got confirmation of this in the most satisfying ways: beating Arsenal 2-0 and in the final North London Derby at White Hart Lane, no less.
By switching to the 3-4-2-1 a few weeks ago, Arsene Wenger may have shown that he is not the inflexible, one-dimensional stick-in-the-mud he is sometimes lampooned as being: Indeed, he stuck with it on Sunday. But to be fair, if he thought the back three was the answer to Arsenal's woes, it shows how misguided he was. They may have won three straight with the system, but one victory was against a free-falling Middlesbrough side who were winless since December at that point, while the other two -- against Manchester City in the FA Cup and Leicester in the Premier League -- could easily have gone the other way.
Away from home against a solid, motivated and gifted opponent, Wenger's formation was quite easily swept away. Tottenham could have been a couple goals up at the half and could have added more at the end, with only some fine Petr Cech saves preventing a total rout. In between, Dele Alli gave Tottenham the lead, and Harry Kane won (and converted) a penalty, both in the space of a few minutes.
Last season, Tottenham had the title within their grasp only to collapse mightily. Whether it was inexperience or lack of leadership or mental toughness, we're not seeing those issues this year. The FA Cup semifinal loss to Chelsea could have been such a turning point, but Spurs' reaction -- perhaps because although they lost at Wembley, they were not outplayed -- away to Crystal Palace and against Arsenal show that they are as focused as ever. There's a maturity and a grit there that weren't evident before.
Mauricio Pochettino has his own theory on this, and he does get a bit metaphysical when discussing it. He called it, in Spanish, "energia universal."
"I believe in energia universal," he said. "It is connected. Nothing happens for causality. It is always a consequence [of something else]. Maybe, it is one of the reasons that Harry [Kane] always scores in derbies. I believe in that energy. For me, it exists." Pochettino also used it to explain last season when the bottom fell out, as Tottenham fought "negative energy" when most neutrals were openly cheering for Leicester City to win the title.
You get the fact that confidence and good vibes exist and can help performance, but the whole "energy" thing sounds a little too "New Age" for many. And rationally, while it's true that events are interconnected, when there are a tons of them and you can only influence some, it's pretty much the definition of randomness.
Still, you can't argue with the eye test. It's working. Temperament seems to be the least of Tottenham's problems these days. And it feels as if there's a genuine cohesion and unity to the side: witness the fact that Kyle Walker has been dropped to the bench for two of the past three games and we've barely heard a peep.
Making up the four points that separate them from Chelsea would be a superhuman achievement, particularly given their respective schedules. Or to put it differently, it would involve a heck of a lot of randomness and negative "energia universal" raining down on Chelsea's heads.
But in some ways, it doesn't even matter. Tottenham will likely finish with their highest points total (adjusting for the three points-for-a-win rule) since their double-winning season of 1960-61. And they'll enjoy their highest league finish in 54 years.
In terms of achievement, it's not far off from actually winning a league title.
How do you measure Bayern's season?
Bayern's 26th Bundesliga title, which was confirmed on Saturday with a 6-0 thumping of Wolfsburg, is also their fifth straight and their 14th in the past 21 years. In that context, it's obvious that the bar is high and that a season won't be judged merely on domestic success.
The fact of the matter is that in the past 20 years, every single Bayern manager not named Jurgen Klinsmann has led the club to a German title. So in assessing the club's season, you need to come up with something else.
Anyone can spin it any way they like: They're just treading water; if you don't improve, you sink, and so if they didn't win it, it would be abject failure. (Everybody in last year's Bundesliga top six, other than Bayern, will finish lower than they did last season.)
They lost to Borussia Dortmund in the German Cup semifinal. (They also dominated that game and were unlucky not to win.)
They lost to Real Madrid, 6-3 on aggregate, in the Champions League quarterfinal. (Real Madrid are arguably the best team in the world, and if you buy into expected goals, Bayern were ahead by almost a full goal at the 90th minute at the Bernabeu. Plus, there was some rather controversial officiating in that game.)
They're less attacking and fun to watch than they were under Pep Guardiola. (This is a matter of taste but numbers say they are scoring more per game in the real world and their xG is identical to last year.)
Ancelotti is too soft and his training sessions aren't intense enough. (Maybe so. And maybe that's also the reason why they had a ton fewer injuries than last year.)
They went five games without a win in all competitions for the first time in 17 years. (Actually, that stat only works if you consider extra time. At full-time, they had beaten Real Madrid at the Bernabeu, the first team to do so in the Champions League since 2015. Oh, and that was in April, a month in which they played nine games, something Jose Mourinho says is "inhuman.")
There was too much reliance on veterans like Phillip Lahm, Xabi Alonso and Arjen Robben; youngsters like Kingsley Coman, Joshua Kimmich and Renato Sanches didn't develop. (A lot of that is down to the fact that there were few injuries. And besides, Kimmich will likely end up playing more minutes than last year. Sanches, lest we forget, is 19 and had all of 22 top-flight starts to his name when he moved to a new country and a far better team.)
The simple fact is that managing the very top clubs -- particularly in your debut season, when you haven't yet accumulated credit with your fans and still have the excuse of being new -- involves some very basic criteria. Don't finish lower than the year before and don't let smaller, worse-resourced clubs finish ahead of you. (This means different things in different countries: in the Bundesliga, it means finishing first, in La Liga ending the season first or second, in the Premier League it can mean finishing as low as sixth.)
Win cup competitions, and if you must exit, do so late in the tournament and after looking like potential champions. Don't fall out with senior club figures or the club's stars.
Do that, and you get to come back next season.
End of the line for Emery at PSG?
By that very measure, you wonder where that Unai Emery stands after Paris Saint-Germain's 3-1 defeat at Nice. Coupled with Monaco's 3-1 victory over Toulouse, it leaves PSG three points back and having played an additional game. Barring some act of divine (or demonic?) intervention, if Monaco win two of their last four games, somebody other than PSG will be champion of France for the first time since 2012.
Nice have taken 46 of a possible 54 points at the Allianz Riviera this season and in fact haven't lost a league game at home in 14 months. It was never going to be a cakewalk for PSG. What you did not expect, after going 2-0 down, was such a feeble reaction. Nice tied them up in knots and it took a set piece to pull one back. Late in the game, there was a total loss of discipline as Thiago Motta and Angel Di Maria were sent off, and Nice rounded it off by scoring their third.
Emery insists that the title is not lost, although at this stage, it would be worrying if he said the opposite and that it's time to raise the white flag of surrender instead. Having already won the French League Cup, he'll probably win the French Cup too (they face Angers in the final), but it's hard to see how that's enough to satisfy the owners.
Only fools judge only by results. What you look for is movement in the right direction and frankly, it's not clear there has been much of that this season. It's not entirely Emery's fault, of course, but the simple fact is that in football, it's easier (and a lot cheaper) to replace one manager than it is six or seven players.
Chelsea shrug off Everton challenge with ease
Antonio Conte's Chelsea rolled back the clock at Goodison Park on Sunday, producing perhaps their most commanding away performance since beating West Ham nearly two months ago. And they successfully navigated what was arguably their toughest remaining hurdle with the 3-0 win.
What's more, they showed that the strategy that Jose Mourinho employed against them at Old Trafford -- deputising a midfielder to man-mark Eden Hazard -- is not a foolproof method. It might have worked there with that set of players and with Mourinho's tactical instructions. But when Ronald Koeman opted to put Idrissa Gueye on the Belgium international, all it did was allow Hazard to drag his marker out of position, opening up large swathes of real estate in front of the back four.
That's the thing about man-marking in the modern game: you can't really improvise it. You either have guys who know how to do it and a team around them that can adjust, or you simply end up turning it into a 10 vs. 10. When you do the latter, it means there is more space. Against an opponent with better players, that's simply suicidal.
Real's secret to success? Late goals
If Real Madrid do win La Liga this year, they'll owe a lot to that old trope of how "when the going gets tough, the tough get going." It is a cliche, but it's almost eerie how often this team manages to get out of jams when you expect them to lose points.
Indeed, this season, they've scored a whopping 24 goals (26 percent of their total) after the 75th minute, and 11 of those goals helped them gain points. Incidentally, it's not just a league phenomenon for them: overall, they've scored 41 of their 151 goals this season with 10 minutes or less remaining.
It happened again away to Valencia. Zinedine Zidane's men showed some rust. They had a scare when Santi Mina hit the post but took the lead through Cristiano Ronaldo, watched as Diego Alves saved a dubious penalty (and plenty more) and then found themselves up against it when Parejo equalised with eight minutes to go.
It was left to the magnificent Marcelo, hitting form just as the season enters its stretch run, to notch the winner. Three huge points to keep them on track and another late, late reaction when it mattered most.
Mourinho shouldn't complain about fixtures
Manchester United's 1-1 home draw with Swansea marked the 11th time this year they've dropped points at Old Trafford. Like many of their previous draws, they actually outplayed the opposition and probably should have put the game away early. That part will be lost in the postgame conversation, however, owing to Marcus Rashford's rather egregious dive -- which, in the words of Swansea boss Paul Clement, "deceived" the referee -- and Jose Mourinho's postmatch comments.
Mourinho again turned lightning round: Asked about the injury status of Phil Jones and Chris Smalling (whose toughness he had questioned in the past) he simply said "I prefer not to speak. I prefer to say brave guy Juan Mata trying everything to be available. I'm grateful for that."
Asked about Luke Shaw coming off injured early on: "I think [it] must be a big injury, because to leave the pitch after 10 minutes, I'm expecting a very big injury."
Then, he talked about how tired and exhausted his players were, saying that being forced to play nine competitive games in April was "inhuman."
As so often happens in these situations, the media focus switched to Mourinho's comments. Some pointed out that Bayern Munich, Borussia Dortmund, Barcelona, Real Madrid and Celta Vigo also played nine games in April -- or that Liverpool played 10 matches between Dec. 31 and Jan. 31. It's frankly silly to even entertain this, but suffice to say, these teams play a lot of games because they are good teams who advance far in cup competitions.
Sure, there's room for a serious argument about fixture congestion. (Personally, I'd reduce every top European league to 16 or 18 clubs and scrap the League Cup.) But given the size of United's team -- 16 of the 18 in the matchday squad against Swansea were internationals -- it ought to be less of an issue.
The real problem for Mourinho is that they're without some of their best players (Paul Pogba, Zlatan Ibrahimovic) and that they've had an injury crisis in central defence. That's also down to bad luck and is a far better explanation than simply playing nine games in April.
The referee let Muntari down
What's most disconcerting about Sulley Muntari's walk-out when Cagliari hosted Pescara on Sunday isn't the fact that he claims he was racially abused. It's the reaction of the match officials.
Muntari says he was racially abused from the start of the game by a small group of fans, which included some children. He went over to speak to the parents and at half-time, handed them his jersey "to set an example." Later, he says he was racially abused by another set of fans. Muntari spoke to them too, as well as appealing to the referee.
Under Serie A rules, if the match officials hear racial abuse, in addition to postgame punishments, the referee has to act immediately. First he issues a warning via the stadium speakers, and if it doesn't stop, he suspends the game. If it continues, the game gets abandoned.
Muntari says he asked the referee to do just that. The match official, Daniele Minelli, told him he didn't hear the abuse and warned him again not to interact with the supporters. Things got heated and Muntari was booked. A few moments later, he simply walked off the pitch.
None of the match officials said they heard the abuse and neither did the match delegate or the police. That, presumably, is why the referee did not issue a warning or suspend the game. Fine, but this is where common sense comes in, and you expect referees not to be robots.
Muntari believed he was racially abused and accordingly, he deserves the respect that any target of abuse deserves. What was Minelli thinking? That Muntari had suddenly gone insane? That after living in Italy for 12 years, he somehow misunderstood what was said? That a veteran midfielder playing for an already relegated side would somehow pull some weird publicity stunt?
That's the question Minelli, the league and the referees' association needs to answer. Why they didn't afford Muntari the basic human decency you would give anyone on the receiving end of abuse, whether racist or otherwise.
Me? I'm with Alessandro Del Piero. Speaking on TV, the former Juventus star told Muntari, "You handled things perfectly, you're setting the example for [the generations] of tomorrow. You did everything right."
It's the referee who let him down. Not as a match official, necessarily, but as a human being.
Barca keep the pressure on
Barcelona managed to keep up with Real Madrid in what was meant to be a classic "trap game" against crosstown rivals Espanyol. There was plenty of tension and intensity on the pitch and in the stands, and for just over a half, you wondered whether Quique Sanchez Flores might just trip up his old teammate (and foe) Luis Enrique.
But then a double dose of errors from Jose Jurado (ironically, a Real Madrid product) sent Barca on their way. First he fluffed an obvious chance and then gifted a chance to Luis Suarez, who buried it in clinical fashion. The goal deflated Espanyol, and Ivan Rakitic and Suarez (again) rounded out the 3-0 scoreline.
The run-in can't be taken for granted -- Villarreal (still praying for fourth) at home, Las Palmas (who have lost just three at home all year) on the road and Eibar (the feel-good story of the year) at the Camp Nou -- but all Barca can do is keep the pressure on.
Strootman should be punished for his dive
On a weekend that saw several highly dubious penalties going to high profile clubs -- Rashford against Swansea and Leroy Sane in Manchester City's 2-2 draw with Middlesbrough -- perhaps one of the most egregious came in the Rome derby when Kevin Strootman jumped out of the way of Wallace's leg and won Roma a penalty. (It still finished 3-1 to Lazio.)
The pictures are pretty brutal. And the way Strootman sits on the pitch suggesting he'd been nailed make it even worse.
In these circumstances, there's a mechanism in Serie A whereby he can be punished with retrospective punishment for unsporting behaviour. At the very least, he ought to be charged and made to explain himself. Some cases are borderline, and it doesn't mean that every time a player goes down without contact, it's necessarily a penalty. Sometimes, evasive action is necessary.
This was not one of those times.
And finally... Bas Dost!
Bas Dost scored three goals in Sporting Lisbon's away victory over Braga. The hat trick takes his season total to 34 and, crucially, his league total to 31. That means he's up to second in the European "Golden Shoe" ranking with a score of 62, because the Portuguese league has a coefficient of 2.0.
That puts him four points behind some guy named Messi, who is on 66. So there.
This concludes the latest installment of #DostWatch.
Gabriele Marcotti is a senior writer for ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @Marcotti.