It was another amazing weekend across Europe’s big leagues. Let’s review, shall we? There were big wins for Barcelona and Real Madrid, even bigger ones for Bayern Munich and Paris Saint-Germain, and drama galore in the Premier League as Manchester City were put under stress by Newcastle United and Chelsea were humbled by a fitter, happier, more energetic Leeds United side. Oh, and Arsenal remain perfect after three games of the new season!
It’s Monday, and Gab Marcotti reacts to the biggest moments in the world of football.
Jump to: Fabulous Fati | Man City stressed | PSG romp | Leeds sting Chelsea | Tchouameni dazzles | Bayern don’t miss Lewandowski | Arsenal top table | Subs rescue Milan | Kane scores No. 250 | Dortmund collapse | Inter turn back the clock | Emery bests Atletico | “Kvara” on mark for Napoli
Whatever protestations to the contrary may emanate from Catalunya, Barcelona have pushed all their chips to the middle of the table with their financial levers this season. And when you’re on a knife edge financially — as they still are, as evidenced by the fact that Jules Kounde still hasn’t been registered — it’s critical you get it right on the pitch. Especially after the disappointing opening day home draw against Rayo.
Xavi, fortunately, gets this, and after a first half that finished 1-1 and in which both teams could have scored three or more, he doubled down, sending on Raphinha (Ferran Torres started in his place) and especially Ansu Fati, effectively moving to a 3-3-4 formation. The wonder kid lived up to his billing, inventing two assists in quick succession (a backheel for Ousmane Dembele and a flick for Robert Lewandowski) before scoring the fourth in the 4-1 victory.
It’s hard to overstate the importance of his contribution, and as I see it, if he’s fit, the only reason he shouldn’t be an automatic choice is if Xavi doesn’t want to overburden him mentally or physically, given he doesn’t turn 20 until Halloween. I’ve heard tactical arguments that Xavi apparently prefers wingers who stay wide (hence Raphinha and Dembele). Maybe, but I’m sure he above all prefers talented players and, right now, other than Lewandowski, he’s arguably the most technically gifted at the club.
Beyond that, the match highlighted many of Barca’s current shortcomings, tactical or otherwise. With Ronald Araujo as the nominal right-back and Alex Balde, who started ahead of Jordi Alba, a virtual wing-back on the left, it looked too often like a back three. This would be fine if they had strength in depth at center-back, but they don’t: they have Andreas Christensen and Eric Garcia, neither of whom covered themselves in glory.
Frenkie de Jong also struggled filling in for the suspended Sergio Busquets, but given his current state of mind amid links to Manchester United, that’s perhaps understandable. At this stage, you assume he’s going nowhere because with Nico having joined Valencia on loan, there’s nobody else to provide an alternative to Busquets (and no, Franck Kessie would have to reinvent himself to play that role.)
Barcelona somehow look both absurdly talented and worryingly fragile at the same time right now. And frankly, it’s hard for Xavi to even plan when he’s not sure what’s going to happen between now and the end of the window. That’s why the win was so important: three points, a whole lot of enthusiasm and a fan base that can keep dreaming. And, maybe, they can hope it doesn’t turn into a nightmare.
Man City on the ropes against Newcastle before snatching a draw
Janusz Michallik believes Newcastle are ready to compete for a spot in a European competition.
With nearly an hour gone, Manchester City were 3-1 down against Newcastle United at a rocking St James’ Park, and it could have been worse, if the referee had given a penalty or John Stones‘ collision with Fabian Schar. Yet the defending Premier League champions roared back to a 3-3 draw and, in normal circumstances, you’d assume Pep Guardiola would want to lead an inquest. But these weren’t normal circumstances: This was mostly about Newcastle playing exceptionally well rather than City’s flaws.
If there is a concern for City, perhaps, it’s defensively. With Aymeric Laporte out until next month following his surgery and Nathan Ake coming off after 20 minutes with a groin injury, they may be a bit short at the back. Stones didn’t have a great game and Ruben Dias has been inconsistent in recent weeks. And yes, Kyle Walker had a torrid afternoon against Allan Saint-Maximin, but the good news is he only plays him twice a year.
Besides, City have more than enough going forward to make up for it. You realized this in the second half when, despite Newcastle’s yeoman effort, City came alive. Erling Haaland hit the post and forced a tremendous one-on-one save from the excellent Nick Pope before he scored to make it 2-1. And then came one of those Kevin De Bruyne moments: he delivered the kind of pass few can execute — and fewer still can conceive — to set up Bernardo Silva for the equalizer. This was the sort of game where you doff your cap to Newcastle’s performance, marvel at City’s stacked talent, marvel at the entertainment these two served up in 90 minutes and move on.
A final word on Newcastle. They’ve shown, as some of us predicted, that for all the Saudi wealth behind them, they’re looking for gradual growth rather than a spending spree. Right now, that makes a ton of sense; down the road, it could be difficult to manage (i.e. how gradual should gradual be?). For the time being however, they’re doing everything right and in terms of building confidence (in themselves and in Eddie Howe), Sunday was huge.
Three games into the new Ligue 1 season, and PSG’s Harlem Globetrotters schtick continues. After Sunday’s 7-1 thumping of Lille — the 2020-21 Ligue 1 champions, lest we forget — they have 17 goals in three games and, more importantly, the big guns are all firing.
Kylian Mbappe had a hat trick of goals, Neymar a hat trick of assists (and two goals) and Lionel Messi had a goal and an assist. Whatever concerns there might have been over “penalty-gate” have clearly been put to one side.
That first goal inside of eight seconds sent PSG on their way and Lille’s approach did them no favours — there’s a fine line between being confident and being cavalier — but seven is still seven, whatever the opposition. Yes, it’s a long season with a World Cup smack in the middle, but those who wrote off Neymar and Messi may want a rethink. The challenge for Christophe Galtier is figuring out how to manage the load throughout the season: quality, evidently, is not an issue.
Tuchel high-strung as Chelsea pay price for individual errors vs. industrious Leeds
Janusz Michallik feels Chelsea are severely lacking in attacking options and need to strengthen immediately in that area.
We’ve made the point before that Thomas Tuchel is tightly wound at the moment and perhaps understandably so, given what he and his club have been through over the past six months. Still, it was an odd look to suggest that Chelsea were superior to Leeds and, ultimately, paid the price for individual errors in the 3-0 thumping they received at Elland Road on Sunday.
When many of your individual errors are the result of an opponent pressing the heck out of you, it’s also down to the other guy. And yeah, that includes Edouard Mendy’s blunder, which sent Leeds on their way. If Leeds hadn’t been pressing the way they did, he wouldn’t have tried to be clever and build through the back to play through the press … and he wouldn’t have gifted Brenden Aaronson that goal. And if Leeds’ forwards weren’t running north-south at every occasion, Kalidou Koulibaly likely wouldn’t have gotten two yellow cards for pulling back opponents.
The reality is that Chelsea took a big step back relative to the performance at home against Tottenham. They have issues in every area of the pitch right now. These issues are fixable, though I wouldn’t count solely on a shopping spree in the final days of the transfer window for that.
Chelsea have a bloated squad with an excess of players they need to shift, and it’s always tough to bring guys in at the right price when teams know you’re desperate (Wesley Fofana being Exhibit A). You wonder if, perhaps, Tuchel won’t end up needing to find his solutions in-house: He certainly has enough players at his disposal, and he made his reputation by working with what he has.
With the all-but-certain departure of Casemiro, the focus shifted to Aurelien Tchouameni, the heir apparent at the base of the Madrid midfield.
Given his struggles in the opener against Almeria, you wondered just how nervous Madridistas should be not just about the young Frenchman, but about the summer as a whole: Casemiro gone, Kylian Mbappe saying “non” and now, maybe, doubts over Tchouameni. Instead, after some rocky moments, he showed plenty of promise as the match wore on. The reading of the game is there — the personality, too — and his technical ability was never in question.
I hate labels, but yeah: This is not the role he had at Monaco and yet you feel he has the tools to get the job done at a high level. And that’s what matters.
As for the game itself, the difference-maker was his teammate Luka Modric who, a few weeks shy of his 37th birthday, ran the show, scoring a goal, setting one up for Vinicius and exiting to a standing ovation. It finished 4-1, and Madrid again showed their ruthlessness. What they didn’t show was the ability to press high effectively.
You may recall they attempted to do so last season before Ancelotti abandoned the project, citing the age of Modric and Toni Kroos. Celta played through them too often and again, they were more comfortable in a lower block. It’s something Ancelotti will want to revisit, however, because he doesn’t want his side to be one-dimensional. And with that in mind, you wonder if the departure of Casemiro frees up funds for some last-minute shopping. (Lest we forget, once Casemiro’s departure is official, they will have lost four players from last year and added just two.)
Beyond that, Eden Hazard missed a penalty, suggesting his confidence is still wanting. Between that and his injuries, anything you get from him at this stage has to be a bonus.
Could Bayern Munich actually be better without Lewandowski?
That’s the question some folks are asking after their 7-0 away win at Bochum, giving them the best start in Bundesliga history and an absurd +14 goal difference after three games, though it’s probably best to pump the brakes on that one. They do look better, but it’s not as if the only thing that happened this summer is Lewandowski leaving.
For a start, he was replaced by a guy named Sadio Mane who is, you know, pretty good. Plus they added players like Matthijs de Ligt, Noussair Mazraoui and Ryan Gravenberch and while they only have one start between them so far, it feels as if the whole level has been raised.
Most important, perhaps, is the fact that Julian Nagelsmann has had more time with this group. And you can see the effects, starting from the defending: they’ve conceded just one goal and that was down to an individual error by Manuel Neuer (who doesn’t make many). They may or may not be better without Lewandowski, but they do appear better suited as a whole to what Nagelsmann wants to do.
What a difference a year makes for table-topping Arsenal
Mark Donaldson and Steve Nicol get into an argument over whether Arsenal are destined for the top 4 in the Premier League.
Three games into last season, the Gunners had zero points. Now they have nine and sit in first place.
What changed? A cynic might suggest that last year Mikel Arteta faced Premier League champions Manchester City and European champions Chelsea in that point-less run, whereas this season he got Crystal Palace, an imploding Leicester and Saturday’s opponent, Bournemouth (who looked terrible). But there’s so much more that’s different here at Arsenal, both in terms of execution and approach.
Gabriel Jesus may or may not be the answer up front — though he’s looked far better than I thought he would — but his work rate and movement are a distinct upgrade. Martin Odegaard, who scored twice, has found his feet and Oleksandr Zinchenko, playing fullback the Pep Guardiola way — coming inside and playmaking — offers a different dimension entirely.
There’s a wholly different demeanour to the club right now and having gone three for three, there’s plenty of chance the run can continue between now and the end of September: They’ve got home games against Fulham and Aston Villa, followed by a trip to Old Trafford (hardly intimidating these days), Everton at home and Brentford away. Then the North London Derby when, you assume they’ll get a sense of what their ceiling is.
Arteta’s challenge between now and then is keeping the enthusiasm and positivity, while managing expectations for what remains a very young side in many key areas.
Squad depth, subs to the rescue for Milan in Atalanta draw
Serie A’s defending champions went a goal down away to Atalanta and struggled for much of the first half, before coming back and grabbing a point thanks to a neat goal from Ismael Bennacer. Some are questioning whether they’ve lost some of their mojo, but as I see it, that’s premature.
For a start, this was Atalanta away — a tough nut to crack and a side who, this season, are playing a little more on the counter. Beyond that, the fact that Stefano Pioli changed his entire front four (Ante Rebic, Rafael Leao, Brahim Diaz and Junior Messias replaced by Olivier Giroud, Divock Origi, Alexis Saelemaekers and Charles De Ketelaere) to get back into the game isn’t a weakness, it’s a strength. With five subs at your disposal, you have that luxury.
If rotation is to be a hallmark of Milan this season, that’s not necessarily a bad thing.
Kane hits 250 as Spurs get past Wolves
Steve Nicol and Mark Donaldson speak about Harry Kane making more history in the Premier League and why he’s one of the best strikers in the league.
It was the sort of performance (particularly in the first half) that likely gave Antonio Conte fits, but Tottenham nevertheless grabbed the three points against Wolves thanks to a Harry Kane strike. There’s work to be done here — and you can be sure Conte drove the point home — but in the meantime, the three points are big, just as the draw at Stamford Bridge was big last week.
The 1-0 win marked Kane’s 250th goal for Spurs and, more tellingly, his 185th in the Premier League, allowing him to move past Sergio Aguero into fourth place, behind Andy Cole (187), Wayne Rooney (208) and Alan Shearer (260). That said, allow me to get pedantic for a minute. The Premier League today is very different from what the English top flight was in the 1980s, let alone before, but the change didn’t happen overnight. In fact, things really weren’t any different between 1991-92 and 1992-93, when the Premier League was formed, so it kinda rankles that the 21 goals Shearer scored before 1992-93 simply get wiped off the books.
Kane turned 29 last month and, if he stays injury-free, has a legitimate shot at beating Shearer’s mark — not just the “Premier League record,” but the 283 top-flight goals he scored. That he’s doing it mostly for a team that has been good without being dominant (like Shearer did) is a testament to his achievement.
Surreal comeback loss is all Dortmund deserve
Jamie Bynoe-Gittens’ interview is interrupted by loud Werder Bremen celebrations after their comeback win over Borussia Dortmund.
When a team squanders a two-goal lead in the 89th minute and concedes three times to lose 3-2 at home, you’d normally just focus on the defensive meltdown and question their mentality and organization. Sure, that applies to Borussia Dortmund after their 3-2 home debacle against Werder Bremen, but there’s more to it, starting with the attacking ineptitude they showed — both goals were random, if impressive, long-range strikes — and while some of that can be explained by Jamie Bynoe-Gittens‘ inexperience and Anthony Modeste‘s age, it goes deeper than that.
Injuries — though they do have many — can only partially mitigate this situation. Edin Terzic has shown before he’s a clever coach; he needs time to work, but he also needs players who don’t believe their own hype and who are willing to buckle down. Dortmund fans deserve better.
As for Bremen, hats off to them. They made history though with a little more luck, they would have been out of sight much earlier in this game, based on what we saw on the pitch.
Just like old times for Lukaku, Lautaro partnership
Inter’s 3-0 demolition of Spezia turned back the clock (all the way to, erm, 2020-21) as Lautaro Martinez and Romelu Lukaku ripped through the opposition en route to a 3-0 win. While it didn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out Lukaku’s return would make Inter better, it was by no means to be taken for granted that the “Lu-La” partnership should work so effectively 12 months later and under a different coach, Simone Inzaghi.
And to be fair, this Inter side isn’t a carbon copy of Conte’s, which is even more of a credit to Lukaku and how quickly he has settled. Under Inzaghi, it’s less about perfectly executed patterns of play and more about unpredictability and being able to attack in different ways. No matter: Lukaku has embraced it and Inter are off to a flying start.
It was always going to be a war of attrition between Atletico Madrid and Villarreal, but this game would have been a barn-burner if not for some stellar saves from Jan Oblak (no surprise there) and Geronimo Rulli. From Atletico’s point of view, there were some disappointing individual performances (Joao Felix, Marcos Llorente and Nahuel Molina, with his silly red card, above all) and the result obviously stings (Villarreal are a direct opponent in the race for top four), but there were also encouraging signs that the back three can hold up.
For Villarreal, it’s further evidence that few can find edges in a match up the way Emery can. Nicolas Jackson is still raw, but there’s a player in there and if Gerard Moreno stays fit, unlike last year, there’s enough firepower between him, Samuel Chukwueze and Arnaut Danjuma to keep things ticking over at the attacking end.
A final word on Molina’s red card. Yes, Alex Baena’s behaviour was embarassing and you wonder why VAR can’t sanction that as much as Molina’s shove, but he really should know better at this level.
The name doesn’t roll off the tongue, so the 21-year-old Georgian winger is fine with folks calling him simply “Kvara.” If he has a few more performances like he did during Sunday’s 4-0 battering of Monza, and you expect Neapolitan schoolchildren to learn both the pronunciation and the spelling of his name. He grabbed two goals — the first, an absolute peach — and battered Monza down the flank, linking well with the magnificent Victor Osimhen.
Napoli fans were angry at the club following the departures of big hitters like Lorenzo Insigne, Dries Mertens and Kalidou Koulibaly and understandably so. But it looks like Napoli have managed to reload on the fly between Kvaratskhelia, Gio Simeone and Giacomo Raspadori up front and Leo Ostigaard and Min-Jae Kim at the back, while also cutting the wage bill and bringing in some much needed transfer funds.
The side feels refreshed and re-energized and if, as appears likely, Luciano Spalletti manages to bring in Keylor Navas between the sticks (he’s down on Alex Meret for some reason), another top-four finish, and maybe even a little more, could be on the cards.