The European soccer weekend offered up a ton of tasty talking points, as per usual. We had lessons galore from Manchester City‘s win over Chelsea and Arsenal‘s derby rout of Tottenham, while Barcelona welcomed back a star in Ansu Fati after a long injury layoff — oh, and he scored in a confidence-boosting win. There were concerns for Real Madrid, Atletico Madrid, Borussia Dortmund and Liverpool, plus frustration for Jose Mourinho’s Roma and for Ole Gunnar Solskjaer at Man United.
It’s Monday, and Gab Marcotti reacts to the biggest moments in the world of football.
Man City close to flawless in win, but Chelsea’s approach doesn’t help
The remarkable thing about Pep Guardiola is how often we throw out cliched criticism and how often it turns out to be wrong. We used to say his Manchester City side were suspect defensively: well, they’ve conceded once in the league this season, and in the past four seasons, they’ve had the stingiest or second-stingiest defense in the Premier League.
We used to say (to be fair, some still do) that they need a “recognized striker” — well, they nearly won a Quadruple last year without one (and, no, Gabriel Jesus is not a “recognized striker,” whatever that means).
Go back and there are plenty more examples. Bernardo Silva has gone off the boil, Rodri is too slow, Kyle Walker isn’t technical enough for a Guardiola team, Joao Cancelo can’t defend, nobody knows who Ruben Dias is. Well, Bernardo Silva was arguably man of the match in Saturday’s 1-0 win at Stamford Bridge, Rodri, Walker and Cancelo are fixtures in this team, and it’s safe to say everybody knows who Ruben Dias is.
City came into the Chelsea game after a lacklustre draw against Southampton (a game they could have lost) and simply pressed the stuffing out of the European champions. Phil Foden and Kevin De Bruyne showed that work rate, creativity and timing from your attacking midfielders means you can play no center-forward — or better yet, rotating center-forwards — and not a miss a beat.
Aymeric Laporte returned next to Dias in central defense and took care of Romelu Lukaku and Timo Werner as if he’d never been away. Gabriel Jesus pinned Marcos Alonso — Chelsea’s only real outlet once Reece James had come off — way back in his own half. Without that “recognized striker” folks like to talk about, they managed 11 shots on goal from inside the box.
(Increasingly, I’m coming around to the notion that Guardiola’s pursuit of Harry Kane wasn’t down to him being a great striker, but down to him being a great footballer … and I’m not so sure he would have played him as a number nine. In fact, it’s telling that once the Kane move went up in smoke, City didn’t spend money on another center-forward. They probably will at some point, maybe in January, but I suspect it will be a youngster with an upside or some kind of physical “Plan B” — if not “Plan C” — rather than somebody one tier down from Kane. In the meantime, Ferran Torres or the set-up we saw Saturday will be more than enough.)
My colleague Julien Laurens described their formation as 2-4-4, which is not a misprint: it did feel as if Dias and Laporte were one-on-one with Werner and Lukaku. But it didn’t matter, because City had so much possession and so much pressure on the ball.
Chelsea boss Thomas Tuchel took responsibility after the match, saying they couldn’t find a way to play through the press or get the front pair service with long balls. When I saw the lineup, I imagined he was taking a page out of the Antonio Conte playbook from last season: a 3-5-2 formation, with Werner standing in for Lautaro Martinez alongside Lukaku. That worked for Conte at Inter Milan, and it got the best out of Lukaku as a creator as well as a finisher. But Conte worked on it for two years; this was Werner’s first time alongside Lukaku. (And, unlike Martinez, he’s not great at dropping off and hitting balls around the corner.)
Inter also had an attacking juggernaut like Achraf Hakimi down the right flank; once Reece James went off inside half an hour, Chelsea had Cesar Azpilicueta who, at this stage of his career, is basically an undersized center-back. Plus, Inter’s midfield trio included passers like Nicolo Barella and Christian Eriksen; anybody would have struggled against City’s press, but Mateo Kovacic and N’Golo Kante aren’t those types of players.
Would it have been a different story if James hadn’t gotten injured, if Mason Mount had been available (and, ergo, Chelsea wouldn’t have played three holding midfielders) and if Kai Havertz had started? Maybe: we’re in the realm of second guesses here.
What is clear is that Tuchel’s approach didn’t work. At all. And while they won three straight games before this one in the league and Champions League, Chelsea have really only impressed for 45 minutes against Spurs (something many sides manage to do) in the past four weeks. There’s work to be done.
Does 0-0 draw mean Real Madrid need to go back to the tactical drawing board?
Real Madrid manager Carlo Ancelotti continued his experiments against Villarreal, perhaps in an effort to assess his side further … or perhaps to try to surprise Unai Emery.
We saw Fede Valverde at right-back, Nacho at left-back (ahead of Miguel Gutierrez), Marco Asensio in midfield and two genuine wingers in Rodrygo (ahead of Eden Hazard) and Vinicius. It’s the sort of setup that required an effective press to work, and on the night, it fell apart. Real Madrid did play high up the field, but when they lost the ball, it was far too easy for Villarreal to break the press and, indeed, Thibaut Courtois had to make some big saves.
Karim Benzema had an off day, Asensio didn’t repeat the heroics of his last outing, and neither Valverde nor Nacho (for different reasons) were effective in the fullback roles. In fact, if not for the fact that Emery seemed content with the draw in the second half, this might have even been worse.
It felt like it was too much, too soon for this team. Valverde is needed in midfield, where Casemiro is going through a rough period and there’s a lack of dynamism. The obvious fix there is to play Nacho on the right and trust Miguel Gutierrez on the left until Dani Carvajal and Ferland Mendy return. Asensio deserved playing time, but without an effective press ahead of him, he was exposed.
Let it be a reminder that there’s still work to do, but equally, credit Emery and Villarreal. He may not be everybody’s cup of tea, but as his collection of Europa League titles shows, in individual games, he’s a very tough out for anyone when he gets it right.
Better late than never: Arteta’s vision comes together vs. woeful Spurs …
After three defeats to open the campaign, Mikel Arteta and Arsenal have notched three straight wins, none more impressive than the 3-1 pasting of Tottenham in the North London Derby on Sunday. (Especially the first hour or so.) They moved the ball quickly and precisely, they played with flair and organisation, and they looked like a team that is only going to get better.
Performances like this buy you time and get fans excited for the future. Eight of the starting XI were 24 or younger. Some of us were saying this a year ago (and getting blasted for it), but why not embark on this rebuild sooner rather than extending Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang‘s contract, signing Willian, messing around with David Luiz or not making a decision on Alexandre Lacazette? Did they really think they were close enough to top four that it made sense to spend money on pricey older players?
Last year feels like a wasted season in that sense, but what’s done is done. And while the big financial commitments are still around — and will likely curtail the speed at which this team can be further strengthened — Arsenal are finally moving in the right direction, with the right set of players.
As for Tottenham, there’s not much to say after one of the worst performances in recent memory. The screws are obviously turning on Nuno Espirito Santo, himself a late, last-ditch managerial appointment. It’s not all on him — there was the Harry Kane situation and a lack of clarity in recruitment that didn’t help — but it’s fairly evident that he was part of the problem and not part of the solution on Sunday.
Injuries aren’t an alibi for Borussia Dortmund at Gladbach
You note that Marco Reus, Erling Haaland and a host of others were out injured, and you’re tempted to give Borussia Dortmund a pass for the defeat at Borussia Moenchengladbach, especially when you consider Marco Rose’s homecoming and all the bad karma that brings. But then you wonder if, maybe, what we saw in Saturday’s 1-0 defeat is the real Dortmund, and having Haaland and his goal-a-game-plus strike rate is just a way of papering over cracks.
You hope not, because Rose’s crew looked limp against an aggressive opponent while also showing their indiscipline at the wrong moments (witness Mahmoud Dahoud foolishly getting sent off in the first half). And for all the key absentees, this is supposedly one of the deepest squads in the Bundesliga, not to mention that Gladbach also had players missing.
Some are questioning Rose for the many injuries; there’s no need to do that. If you’re going to find criticism, just watch Dortmund play and note the sort of mistakes they make — not ones born out of lack of quality, just lack of organization, discipline and preparation.
After three games without a victory in all competitions, a series of abject performances and Ronald Koeman’s news conference antics in which he read a prepared statement asking for support and then walked out of the room, Barcelona needed three points and a smile from the game against Levante. They got both in a 3-0 win.
Without Frenkie De Jong, Ousmane Dembele, Martin Braithwaite, Sergio Aguero, Pedri, Sergi Roberto and Jordi Alba — and with Philippe Coutinho and Luuk De Jong starting — it looked as if it was going to be a long afternoon. Koeman gave two teenagers from the academy the start (Nico and Gavi), and the latter especially looked bright as they raced to an early lead and never looked back. By the end of the game, after Ronald Araujo, Riqui Puig and Fati had come on, the La Masia graduate count for the day stood at nine.
Chucking on the kids when things are going badly is an easy way for managers to relieve pressure, especially at a club like Barca, where La Masia (and its influence on the team) is spoken of in hushed tones. And sure, you can be cynical about Koeman, but more realistically, he had little choice. At full-time, there were only three guys left on the bench: reserve keeper Neto, Samuel Umtiti (who is made of glass) and another kid from the youth team. When it works, though, the narrative is hugely powerful and it’s up to Koeman to channel it now.
Fati is his own narrative. After three surgeries and nearly 11 months on the sideline, the wunderkind came on, scored, celebrated by embracing the team doctor and proudly wore the No.10 shirt vacated by you know who. He’s still 18 years old, and you want to proceed with caution. Even giving him the 10 seemed excessive; he ended up with it after Aguero and Coutinho, seasoned pros, turned it down.
We don’t know what Fati can do; maybe he can carry the side. What we do know is he’s going to need maximum support from the club and the veterans on his team, and that his mere presence has given Barca fans a massive boost.
Mourinho fuming after Lazio win the Rome derby
Jose Mourinho put on a show at the final whistle following Lazio’s 3-2 win over Roma in the derby. It was almost as entertaining as the game, which was itself a captivating spectacle. Lazio don’t quite play “Sarriball” of their manager, Maurizio Sarri — not yet, anyway — but they were devastating on the counter, brave in the tackle and generally did everything a manager would want from them. The fact that Pedro, released by Roma in preseason only to move across town, got on the scoresheet only made things sweet.
Mourinho kept his players on the pitch at the final whistle, telling them how proud he was of their performance before heading out to thank the supporters. Roma, defensive wobbles aside, did play well: in the absence of skipper (and full-blooded Roman Lorenzo Pellegrini) it was Nicolo Zaniolo who took on the leadership role, and he did it with quality and intensity.
What incensed Mourinho — and he let the world know it — was what looked like a clear penalty (Elseid Hysaj on Zaniolo) that wasn’t given. Lazio marched up the pitch and Pedro scored to make it 2-0. From a possible 1-1 to 0-2 down is hard to take, especially when you’re Mourinho.
Is he playing to the gallery, as his more cynical critics, say? Possibly, but it’s working. This Roma side look more galvanised and energised than they have in a while. And if he can continue to get the best out of Zaniolo, there’s no reason they can’t compete at the top. The more cynical out there will point out that we’ve seen this film before — he started out bright at Spurs and Manchester United as well, only to lose the plot. That’s all true, but sometimes folks learn from their experiences.
I, for one, am willing to give him the benefit of the doubt. Plus, it’s whole heck of a lot of fun to watch.
Good thing Liverpool only play Brentford twice a year
Janusz Michallik reflects on Liverpool’s thrilling 3-3 draw away vs. Brentford.
Brentford’s 3-3 draw with Liverpool on Saturday was a wild, entertaining affair that kept you riveted until the last minute … if you were a neutral. If you were Jurgen Klopp or a Liverpool player, it likely wasn’t much fun at all.
It’s not that Liverpool played poorly — they didn’t, and it wouldn’t have been a scandal if they’d scored that fourth goal — rather it’s a reminder that matchups matter in football and Liverpool simply don’t match up well with Brentford, which is why it’s a good thing they won’t see them again for a while.
Everybody knows Trent Alexander-Arnold is a marauding full-back and a key part of Liverpool’s attack, but that also means he leaves space behind him when he advances. By playing a front two of Bryan Mbeumo and Ivan Toney to lock up Liverpool’s center-backs, leaving Rico Henry high and wide left (with Vitaly Janelt nearby), and mercilessly pumping balls into that area while matching their opponents for intensity and pace, Brentford exploited this like few teams we’ve seen in recent years.
It’s still football. Quality and experience matter, which is why Liverpool didn’t get blown away, and I’m not sure Brentford’s blueprint would work for other clubs. But on the day, it confounded Klopp and those are two big points dropped.
Juventus win marred by injuries and errors
The good news is that Juventus had their moments in the 3-2 win over Sampdoria, the much-maligned midfield actually performed well — especially Manuel Locatelli and Rodrigo Bentancur — and that they’re now at least in the left hand side of the Serie A table.
The bad news? How long have you got?
Start with the injuries, which are beyond Max Allegri’s control, but which he needed like he needed a hole in the head. Paulo Dybala and Alvaro Morata both came off and after the match, Allegri said we won’t see them again until after the break. Which, you presume, means more Moise Kean and probably a change of formation, just as the pair were hitting stride.
Then there’s the defensive performance. Juventus haven’t kept a clean sheet for 20 consecutive Serie A games, the longest such streak since 1955. And while the focus for the team’s woes has been the middle of the park and the departure of Cristiano Ronaldo, maybe we ought to be zeroing in on the side’s inability to keep opponents out, especially after taking the lead (which they did again on Sunday, going 2-0 up).
It’s not just Leo Bonucci, beaten by Maya Yoshida in the air. (Seriously!) Sampdoria, under Roberto D’Aversa, aren’t exactly Brazil 1970 — in fact, they’re built to defend deep and counter and are by no means comfortable chasing games — but Juve seemed to shrivel and invite them forward.
This Juve team right now can’t do the old-school thing of taking a lead and managing the game. They have to keep playing and too often, that’s not what they do.
Whining about refs doesn’t suit Solskjaer … especially after a decent performance in home loss
Manchester United made it three defeats in four games, falling to Aston Villa 1-0 at Old Trafford on Saturday. Yes, that’s the headline, but it’s worth looking a little bit more closely at those defeats.
They were poor against Young Boys in the Champions League, especially against 10 men. The League Cup is entirely irrelevant: it may say it’s United vs. West Ham, but when you change 21 of 22 players, nobody is fooled: it’s not really them. And the Villa game could have easily gone the other way, which is why it was a bit surprising to hear Ole Gunnar Solskjaer complain — again — about the officiating.
Did Ollie Watkins impede David De Gea for Kourtney Hause‘s header that made it 1-0 Villa? Maybe, but De Gea wasn’t getting to it anyway. Was it annoying that Bruno Fernandes had to wait ages before taking — and missing — his late penalty that could have made it 1-1? Sure, but it’s probably not why he blasted it into the stratosphere. (And, Solskjaer himself said it “didn’t get into Bruno’s head,” which raises the question of why he even brought it up.)
This comes on the back of his words on Klopp and penalties on Friday when he suggested that the Liverpool boss’s comments last January led to a reduction in the number of penalties awarded to United.
Certain managers talk about refs all the time. Often, it’s a strategy. Solskjaer doesn’t — or didn’t until very recently — which is why it’s a bit perplexing. It doesn’t fit his image and likely does him few favours in the public arena.
Simeone owns Atletico Madrid defeat, but their problems run deeper
Diego Simeone said that the 1-0 loss to Alaves who, before Saturday’s win over Atletico Madrid, had scored just once and lost five out of five Liga matches, was “his responsibility.” It’s nice that he acts like a grown-up unlike some of his colleagues, but no, it’s not all on him.
Without Koke and Thomas Lemar in the starting lineup, there’s very little service getting to the front tandem of Luis Suarez and Antoine Griezmann. There no doubt was a time when both could create their own opportunities, but that’s not the case now.
At the back, the likes of Felipe and Stefan Savic seem to be regressing: in fact, the stout defending that was once a stereotypical Atleti attribute seems to have evaporated.
Still, there are things he can fix, like starting Angel Correa when he’s on form even if it means benching the two Camp Nou exiles, Suarez and Griezmann. (And if there’s one guy who has the authority to do it, it’s him.) Or working on the basics at the back, since obviously some have forgotten what got them there.
Maldini scores, the dynasty continues… now move on
Right, let’s get this out of the way. Daniel Maldini — son of Paolo, grandson of Cesare — made his first Serie A start and got his first Serie A goal in MIlan’s 2-1 win away to Spezia. It’s a neat story because his dad and grandpa won European Cups and became club legends, but for now, it’s only a piece of trivia. Daniel is a kid who turns 20 next month and will write his own story. He doesn’t need the added pressure and, in fact, until he wins silverware in a starring role, there’s no reason to bring up the other Maldinis, which is why you won’t hear me doing this after today.
That said, he took his goal well and seemed entirely unfazed on the pitch despite the fact that he was playing in the playmaking “hole” with plenty going on around him. More broadly, this was a solid win for a Milan side that made a bunch of changes, trusted in youth and were again rewarded with a victory. They look very much like Serie A contenders and when the starters are all fit and playing, they’ll have another gear to which they can go.
No Messi, but Paris Saint-Germain make it eight for eight in Ligue 1
The numbers are gaudy, as you’d expect when a team takes 24 points from their first eight outings. Paris Saint-Germain dominated against Montpellier as you’d expect, though the goals came not from Kylian Mbappe or Neymar, but from the more blue collar pair, Idrissa Gueye and Julian Draxler.
Mauricio Pochettino’s crew created plenty of chances, and you wonder to what degree that may have had to do with playing three central midfielders — Gueye was joined by Leandro Paredes and Ander Herrera — rather than two plus Angel Di Maria, plus the big three up front. It’s something Pochettino might want to think about when Messi returns; sometimes less is more, even if it means sacrificing somebody like Di Maria.
The other takeaway here was the TV cameras appearing to show Mbappe on the bench complaining to teammates that Neymar wasn’t getting him the ball. I don’t think it’s a big deal — players often vent on the bench, and it doesn’t necessarily mean there’s some sort of rift brewing between the two. However, it does mean Mbappe and other PSG players need to be smarter in public and simply assume there’s always a camera trained on them, especially now that they’re in the limelight more than ever.
Inter held by Atalanta in rip-roaring game, but Barella is the real deal
The draw meant Inter would slip to third after the weekend’s other results, but I wouldn’t be overly concerned. This was an imperious Atalanta — not the soft touch we’d seen earlier this season — and there’s no shame in going toe-to-toe with them and having to share the spoils. Lautaro Martinez scored a brilliant goal, Edin Dzeko showed his relentlessness even at 35 but, most of all, Nicolo Barella proved how he may be the best all-around midfielder in the league.
Few players combine quantity and quality the way Barella does, and he’s got plenty of charisma and intelligence to boot. Inter are right to build the side around him.
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