Man City and Liverpool complete a truly special season. PLUS: Do Man United have a recovery plan?
After another action-packed weekend in soccer, Gab Marcotti reflects on the big talking points in his latest edition of Monday Musings.
Jump to: Man City, Liverpool's conclusion | The title's turning point? | Barca still have pride | Dortmund are a mess | Do Man United have a plan? | A big week for Gattuso, Milan | Bayern's VAR woe | The end for Bale at Real? | Sarri belongs at Chelsea | Allegri should be safe | Don't hate Neymar | Ajax's remarkable season
Let's reflect on Man City, Liverpool's brilliance
There were no sudden twists and no Hollywood endings on the final day of the Premier League season. Just two of the finest teams England have ever seen doing what they've done every league game for the past few months: winning.
It's probably best that way, too. Let their feats speak for themselves.
Manchester City have gained 198 of a possible 228 Premier League points over the past two seasons. That equals domination on a level not seen before, and it should give cause to think to all those people who ridiculed Pep Guardiola's achievements at Bayern (a one-horse race) and Barcelona (a two-horse race).
- Ames: City pass test of character to clinch title glory
- Ogden: The Premier League was decided by finest margins
- Man City's takeover: How football changed forever
- What you may have missed on Premier League's final day
Equally, the fact that they were pushed until the very end by Liverpool is a testament to their rival's work. We've focused so much on the broader storylines that sometimes we lost sight of the bread-and-butter work these two managers do. Both collectively (in the way the teams play), individually (in the progress single players make) and in terms of the way they represent their clubs. So here are some nuggets from each camp that perhaps received less attention amid the narrative of a record-breaking season.
Manchester City lost 2-1 away to Newcastle at the end of January. From that point forward, they conceded just four goals in the remaining 14 matches. This despite the fact that Fernandinho, supposedly their irreplaceable defensive bulwark, started just five of them.
Down the stretch, Guardiola put his faith in two guys who few would have pegged as key contributors, one young, one old.
Oleksandr Zinchenko arrived under the radar as a winger and hardly figured last year. For the past three months of this season, he was a nearly ever-present left back who looked as if he'd been part of the side for years. Slowed by injuries, Vincent Kompany looked to have become the equivalent of those non-playing Davis Cup captains the past few years. Instead, he was critical to the cause in the final weeks. And, of course, Kompany's late goal against Leicester City last week is what made this past weekend's denouement possible.
A central defender shooting from 25 yards out when he has plenty of options out wide is one of the last things you'd expect a Guardiola side to do. It's a low-percentage shot -- especially for Kompany, who hadn't scored from outside the box since 2007 -- you're likely to give up possession and you end up giving the opposition a chance to milk more minutes off the clock. But Kompany took responsibility, and it made all the difference. Sometimes you win by taking your carefully thought-out script and ripping it up.
Liverpool, of course, lost one league game all year while boasting the best defensive record in the league. Virgil Van Dijk, Alisson and the two full-backs, Andrew Robertson and Trent Alexander-Arnold, all received plenty of praise, and rightly so. But how about Joel Matip? Eighteen months ago, squeezed by injuries and the arrival of Van Dijk, he looked to have fallen behind Joe Gomez and Dejan Lovren in the pecking order. This season, he stepped into the starting lineup in January and was almost ever-present since, without Liverpool missing a beat.
Or take Fabinho and Naby Keita, two expensive signings who failed to do much for the first three months at the club. Klopp stuck with them, worked with them and now the former is a key figure in midfield and the latter would be, if not for injury.
These are some of the little details that illustrate the added value these two managers bring to their jobs. Sure, they both lead clubs with massive resources and both benefited from transition years at Arsenal and Chelsea, injuries at Tottenham and general ineptness at Manchester United. But to finish with two of the three highest points totals in history, you have to go way beyond that.
And to do this while also competing until the very end on other fronts and keeping the players, the club and the fan base on board all season long -- well, we've just witnessed something truly special.
Was one missed red the season's turning point? No
Keith Hackett, former head of Premier League referees, tweeted that the turning point of the season was the failure to send off Kompany for a two-footed lunge on Mohamed Salah back in January. City went on to win, 2-1.
You can agree with Hackett saying that Kompany should have seen red. But to call it a "turning point" is failing to fundamentally understand how football -- and a football season -- works. I'm highlighting this not because I particularly care what Hackett thinks, but because too many people embrace this sort of thinking.
Apart from the obvious -- there's no way to definitely say that City wouldn't have won the game with 10 men -- you can pluck out dozens of such incidents in a season. These range from refereeing errors (the free kick that led to Liverpool's winner against Newcastle, for example, was highly dubious) to balls hitting the woodwork or being saved off the line to players choosing to make impulsive, improbable choices that work out, even though logic says they shouldn't (see: Kompany's goal against Leicester).
Not to mention the fact that as anyone who has seen "Back to the Future" or "X-Men" will tell you, once you start changing history, you have plenty of unexpected consequences.
Barcelona still have some pride left
Barcelona's first match after the Anfield debacle was the classic "trap" game. They were taking on Getafe, hoping to pull off the minor miracle of a top-four finish, and the crowd had plenty of anger to vent (mostly at Philippe Coutinho). It says something that they still emerged as 2-0 winners and against a hugely motivated opponent.
There is still pride there -- plenty of it. And this group of players, for better or worse, clearly haven't jumped on the "dump Ernesto Valverde" bandwagon. Not yet anyway. A convincing performance in the Copa del Rey final is the least the fans can demand at this stage. As horrible as the Champions League elimination was, this group has earned the right to try to make amends.
A word on Getafe too. They're not mathematically out of a top-four finish, but they do need Valencia to slip up. Pepe Bordalas' brand of football isn't easy on the eye (especially by Liga standards), but what he has achieved with a tiny budget and a hugely limited squad is remarkable. It's not clear that his skills would translate at a higher level -- then again, Diego Simeone has made this approach work well for him at Atletico Madrid -- but he ought to be a shoo-in for manager of the year in Spain.
Dortmund are a mess
The last time the Bundesliga title came down to the final game of the season was a decade ago, when Wolfsburg and Bayern arrived even on points before Wolfsburg prevailed. (OK pedants: technically it came down to week 34 the following season too, but Bayern had a three-point lead and a 17-goal edge in goal difference.) That Borussia Dortmund still have a glimmer of hope with 90 minutes left to go has more to do with Bayern's deficiencies than their own merits.
In fact, their 3-2 win over Fortuna Dusseldorf this weekend was a proverbial wreck. Christian Pulisic (Jadon Sancho was on the bench, struggling with illness) put them up early in his last home game, and you figured you were set for a dull, end-of-season clash where the team that needs the points gets them. But no. We saw two bouts of horrendous goalkeeping from Marvin Hitz -- standing in from Roman Burki -- the visitors going down to 10 men and still carving out a whole host of chances to equalize in injury time.
This team has a serious issue, one that not even Lucien Favre can fix. If they somehow snatch the title on the last day, they will go down in history. Few sides, going into the season as underdogs, have wasted so much over the course of a single campaign.
Do Man United have a plan to turn themselves around?
Manchester United's 2-0 home defeat to Cardiff only underscored the end-of-season disappointment. Soon, folks will be running out of people to blame: the Glazers, Ed Woodward, the players, Jose Mourinho, Ole Gunnar Solskjaer, the "structure" or the "lack of empathy with the manager." I've written before that giving the job to Solskjaer on a permanent basis that early was silly and an example of crass populism. Two wins, two draws and eight defeats since that famous Champions League night in Paris tell their own story.
There is more than one path to turning United's fortunes around but you need clear thinking and a plan and, once it's in place, you have to execute. Solskjaer's bumper deal makes that harder, not easier, but it's the path United have chosen. Now, follow through and have the courage to do what you think is best, including -- if you don't feel you're qualified or if you don't think Solskjaer and his assistant, Mike Phelan, are -- hiring someone who will.
Gattuso, Bakayoko make up before big Milan win
If you believe in karma, this one's for you. A week after his spat with Tiemoue Bakayoko -- when the French midfielder appeared to direct an expletive at his manager, a version of events he denies -- Gennaro Gattuso had no qualms about burying the hatchet. Bakayoko dropped back into central midfield and was one of the better performers in Milan's 1-0 away victory at Fiorentina, which keeps their hopes of a crucial top four finish alive.
It wasn't a pretty win and Milan didn't play particularly well, a recurring theme under Gattuso. But whatever happens, Gattuso has shown that he's a grown-up capable of putting his ego aside and putting the good of the club first. He may not be a master tactician or coach, but he's a tremendous manager of people and situations. And a real pro.
Bayern shouldn't be complaining about VAR
Hindsight being 20/20, maybe it was unreasonable to think Bayern would seal the Bundesliga title away to Leipzig. While the opposition had nothing to play for -- and, if anything, they likely didn't want to show their hand too much given they'll face each other in the German Cup final -- the lack of pressure probably helped Ralf Rangnick's crew, who were their usual physical, intense and disruptive selves.
That said, Bayern had the upper hand for much of the game and were furious when Leon Goretzka's goal was disallowed by VAR for a marginal Robert Lewandowski offside decision. It was one of those "shoe-size" calls -- with smaller feet, he would have been on -- and Uli Hoeness called the decision to disallow it the "joke of the year" because it wasn't a "clear error."
It's a bit worrying that after nearly two full seasons of VAR, folks still don't get the fact that when it comes to offside and objective calls, it's black and white: there is no "clear error" criteria. And assistant referees are told to not flag unless it's entirely clear, because VAR will sort it out. Had the linesman flagged straight away, Goretzka would never have scored and Hoeness would never have complained. But equally, he might have got it wrong, and it would simply have been yet another move that was ended by a wrong offside decision.
I don't know if Hoeness is busy deflecting attention from a wobbly end of the season and growing dissatisfaction with Niko Kovac in some quarters. Either way, by this stage, he should be familiar with the VAR protocol.
End of the line for Bale at Real?
Gareth Bale was left out of the matchday squad for the second straight week as Real Madrid fell to Real Sociedad, 3-1. Bale was fully fit and his agent had said earlier that month that it wasn't clear that Zidane wanted to keep him around. Maybe it is pretty clear, though, given that Zidane said afterwards "it's very clear what I've done this weekend."
It's also clear that when you don't play one of your two highest-paid players, you're sending an obvious message. It has nothing to do with whether Bale has been good or bad during his six seasons at the club. It has everything to do with his monster contract that runs through 2022, the fact that he turns 30 in the summer and that, as manager, Zidane gets to decide who is right for the future of a team that will finish with its lowest points total in 13 years.
Maybe sitting out might persuade Bale to go elsewhere while likely taking a pay cut, since it's hard to see who would pay him what he now earns. At this stage, even giving him away would free up a ton of money for Real's rebuild.
Sarri proves he belongs at Chelsea
For years, Chelsea have been lampooned as some sort of house of cards with managers hired and fired at a whim and no coherent plan. The fact that nobody has won more Premier League titles since Roman Abramovich's arrival in 2003 -- and that they've also won the Champions League and Europa League in that time frame -- rather suggests that is nonsense.
They made a choice last year, opting for a progressive "system coach" and arguably the only one they've had -- other than Andre Villas Boas, who did not end well -- since Abramovich's arrival. That man was Maurizio Sarri, and they chose him because they figured it would deliver more bang for buck in the long run, particularly since many of the "pragmatists" out there tend to be high-priced egomaniacs who demand massive spending and absolute control.
Sarri has many flaws, as Napoli fans will tell you. But he had a minimum objective -- to get Chelsea back into the top four -- and he reached it. In fact he surpassed it, finishing third, losing a League Cup final on penalties and with a Europa League final still to play. He did it despite taking over the team late, despite representing a radical shift with past managers (and what Chelsea fans were accustomed to), despite getting abuse from media (and from his own fans) and despite making mistakes.
He may or may not be the long-term answer. But he did what was asked of him and more.
Losing to Roma shouldn't jeopardize Allegri at Juve
Roma's 2-0 win over Juventus -- on the day the bianconeri introduced next year's kit, which ditches the stripes entirely, going from zebras to two-toned cows -- keeps their hopes of a top-four finish alive. Roma didn't play particularly well -- Antonio Mirante, replacing the much-criticized Robin Olsen in goal, made some big saves -- but they hung in there and took their chances.
As for Juve, the fact that they still showed motivation rather than playing out the string of meaningless games is, again, a credit to Max Allegri. He may have other flaws but man-management isn't one. According to incessant media reports, he's set for showdown talks with president Andrea Agnelli this week.
It would be wise for Agnelli to look at the whole picture here, particularly some of the transfer moves that have been made and those that will be made (like Aaron Ramsey), take stock of what he has -- namely, a veteran-filled side -- and figure out what he wants Juve to be. Allegri is a certain kind of manager who does certain things exceptionally well.
If that doesn't match Agnelli's plans, there's no point in going further down this road.
Don't hate Neymar for his trickery
Paris Saint-Germain's season, of course, ended a long time ago, so the 2-1 win over Angers was rather meaningless. It did, however, mark Neymar's last appearance of the campaign -- his ban for lashing out at a supporter after the French Cup final is about to kick in -- and he marked it by doing this at the end of the game.
Old-school football folk don't like that sort of showboating. He could simply have won a free kick instead, but it's part of what makes Neymar who he is. As long as he's not trying to humiliate an opponent -- and he wasn't here -- I see no real issue with it.
Ajax can end season with a double
If, as many take for granted, this Ajax side is asset-stripped in the summer beyond Frenkie de Jong, who is already off to Barcelona, there's an excellent chance they will leave behind a domestic Double, which isn't bad considering it's been nine years since their last Cup win and five since their last Eredivisie crown.
This past weekend, they bounced back from the Champions League heartbreak against Tottenham Hotspur to beat Utrecht, 4-1, while PSV Eindhoven fell at AZ Alkmaar. On a team with so many youngsters, reacting in that way after crushing disappointment is far from automatic.