25 Sep Real Madrid get it wrong, Arsenal vs. Tottenham put on a show, more: Marcotti recaps the weekend
The European soccer weekend didn’t disappoint as a string of high-profile clashes offered up plenty of entertainment and talking points. There was the Atletico Madrid rout of Real Madrid in LaLiga, led by Álvaro Morata, while Arsenal and Tottenham played out a thrilling 2-2 draw in the North London derby. Barcelona left it late to beat Celta Vigo, notching three goals in the final nine minutes, while Man United got a gritty 1-0 win over Burnley that should help stabilize things a little for Erik ten Hag.
Elsewhere, there were notable wins for Liverpool (led by Darwin Núñez), Manchester City and Paris Saint-Germain, plus Harry Kane grabbed his first Bundesliga hat trick in Bayern Munich‘s 7-0 thrashing of Bochum.
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It’s Monday, and Gab Marcotti reacts to the biggest moments in the world of football.
Wrong setup from Real Madrid as Atletico romp
Atletico Madrid rode the midweek form they showed against Lazio into the derby with Real, and emerged as emphatic victors. The 3-1 scoreline doesn’t quite capture how much better Atletico were at both ends of the pitch in exposing so many of Real’s limitations. After the game, there were the usual recriminations over officiating, but frankly, this was some serious clutching at straws that may or may not have impacted the result, but certainly not the performance.
Let’s credit Atletico first though, shall we? Diego Simeone gave Samuel Lino his first LaLiga start and he was devastating down the left, much like Nahuel Molina was effective down the right. It gave Atletico width, stretching Real’s midfield horizontally, while at the same time the home side’s three midfielders — plus Antoine Griezmann when he dropped off and Mario Hermoso when he stepped up — allowed them not to be overmatched by the more technically gifted opposition. Alvaro Morata had a special night as well, giving David Alaba fits.
Overall, Atletico added quality to their usual intensity with a performance that makes you wonder even more what happened the previous week when they were so poor against Valencia. But a lot here has to do with Real’s dysfunction, made worse by some of Carlo Ancelotti’s decisions.
First off, it takes Real too long to get into games and too often, they concede early. It happened against Atleti, with Alvaro Morata netting after four minutes, and it happened in three of their previous five league games when they conceded against Almeria, Getafe and Real Sociedad, all before the 11th minute. It’s true that they came back in all of those games, but if you continually spot the opposition an early goal, it will come back to bite you sooner or later.
Then there’s Ancelotti’s formation. Going back to the old favorite — the Christmas Tree 4-3-2-1 — isn’t necessarily a bad choice, but the personnel was wrong. Rodrygo is too lightweight at this stage of his career to be up front on his own, let alone against Atleti’s three snarling center-backs. The Jude Bellingham–Luka Modric tandem behind him didn’t get up too much either. Bellingham is still learning a new role at the top of the diamond; having to adjust again to something new in a game like this wasn’t a great idea, and he turned in a dull performance.
Starting Modric, at 38 years old and four days after he played 79 minutes of Champions League football against an opponent like this, was another gamble that backfired. A more rational version of the 4-3-2-1 would have been Joselu up front with Bellingham and Rodrygo behind, which is what we saw in the second half.
Simeone praises ‘sensational’ Morata after Madrid derby win
Atletico Madrid manager Diego Simeone speaks after his side’s 3-1 win over rivals Real Madrid in LaLiga.
Equally, dropping Aurélien Tchouaméni in a game like this — especially when both Modric and Toni Kroos are starting — also didn’t work out. The Frenchman’s physical presence was badly missed and too much of the midfield play was ceded to Atletico.
Now, it’s worth reminding ourselves that Real Madrid had won every game to this point, and they’re only one point off the top of the table. And they’ve done this without their best defender (Éder Militão, out for the season), best forward (Vinicus Jr, who is back in training) and, arguably, their best player, Thibaut Courtois. Militao and Courtois won’t be coming back this season, so it’s a case of making do with what you have.
Ancelotti has been in these situations before, and you wouldn’t bet against his ability to make it work. But when he gets things wrong at the start, you realize just how bare Real’s cupboard is. There’s just not enough talent there to overcome poor tactical decisions from the bench.
Tottenham the happier team after eventful North London derby draw
Why there is ‘no argument’ over Arsenal’s controversial penalty
Steve Nicol and Mark Donaldson debate the awarding of Arsenal’s penalty in their 2-2 draw vs. Tottenham.
It’s not just the fact that it’s a point away from home or that, for long stretches, Tottenham went toe-to-toe with Arsenal or even that, as Ange Postecoglou repeats every game, they’re becoming increasingly comfortable playing the sort of attack-minded, short-passing, high-risk, high-reward game he favours. It’s the fact that they didn’t wilt under pressure and while Jorginho‘s mistake gifted them the equalizer, they kept going until the end, even creating chances in injury time when, perhaps, the Spurs of yesteryear would have settled for the draw.
I don’t know if the draw necessarily means they’re on the same level as Arsenal (though the table says so), but it does show they can compete with them and turn the game into the sort of contest that could have gone either way. Arsenal edged the Expected Goals (1.73 to 1.30), but at the same time both keepers had to make exceptional saves, and there were a bunch of match-turning incidents.
Jorginho’s unforced error, of course, was one that favoured Spurs, but you could also point to Arsenal’s two goals coming out of the blue: another unforced error from Cristian Romero, who sliced the ball into the back of his own net, and the Romero handball that led to the penalty. And as I see it, there was more than a slice of Gooner good fortune when Eddie Nketiah got away with a yellow card, rather than a red, for his late challenge on keeper Guglielmo Vicario.
David Raya got the nod ahead of Aaron Ramsdale — does this mean, after three consecutive starts, that he’s the No. 1, or is that rotation Mikel Arteta talked about still a thing? — and did well. Fabio Vieira was picked ahead of Kai Havertz and contributed little. In fact, hindsight being 20/20, you wonder whether this Havertz in/out business is helpful. He’s a new signing, his confidence isn’t particularly high, presumably you wanted him otherwise you wouldn’t have broken the bank to sign him and, in a physical derby like this one, conventional wisdom would have suggested you pick the German international.
Was Eddie Nketiah lucky not to be sent off vs. Tottenham?
Gab & Juls discuss Eddie Nketiah’s tackle on Guglielmo Vicario in Arsenal’s 2-2 draw against Tottenham.
Declan Rice‘s injury was a major blow that could be anticipated but watching Arsenal create and fail to convert chances with Nketiah and Gabriel Jesus once again raises the old question of whether they should have invested in a striker (or kept the one they had (Folarin Balogun) despite his two penalty misses at the weekend).
And maybe that’s the takeaway. Arteta has far more to think through and unpack than Postecoglou coming out of this game. That huge clash with Manchester City is on the horizon (Oct. 6) and there are still a ton of questions. As for Spurs, they’re playing with house money.
Rousing late comeback from Barcelona, but Xavi (rightly) is far from happy
I’ll say this for Xavi: he doesn’t make excuses. He could be gloating about Barcelona’s late turnaround, with three goals in the final 10 minutes to defeat Celta Vigo, and how his tactical shift and substitutions — coupled with his team’s “personality” — made it happen. He knows better than that. He said Barcelona did not play well in a first half that, but for Marc-André ter Stegen‘s heroics, could easily have seen them three goals down. As it happened, the deficit was a single goal, but the visitors added to it on the break, with the magnificent Iago Aspas serving up the pinpoint assist for Anastasios Douvikas.
There are different ways to concede. The Celta chances in the first half were down to Barca being roundly outplayed. The second goal was getting caught on the counter, which is always a risk when you’re chasing. The ending, with Barca scoring in the 81st, 85th and 89th minutes to snatch the win, was, as Xavi put it, “epic.”
Barca did play a lot better in the second half, even before the late flurry. Credit Xavi for replacing the injured Frenkie De Jong with Gavi and giving the youngster the responsibility of playmaking from deep. The ending, of course, wasn’t anything you can legislate for, other than individual talent and belief. João Félix served up a delicious assist for Robert Lewandowski to make it 2-1, João Cancelo set up Lewandowski for the equalizer and, at the end, the brilliance of Gavi found Cancelo for the winner.
So where does this leave Barca? Brimming with excitement, sure, but also with food for thought given what we saw in the first half. There’s enough firepower to get you out of jams, we know that. The trick is finding the right balance to keep your big guns happy without exposing your rearguard.
This is where Xavi’s Barca remain a work in progress because, against a better opponent or without the miracles from ter Stegen, this win could easily have been a resounding home defeat.
Bruno to the rescue for Man United, but lineup tells you all you need to know about them right now
The difference in Saturday’s 1-0 win was, ultimately, quality and experience. The experience of Jonny Evans to step into midfield and pick out the perfect ball for Bruno Fernandes. The quality of the latter to conjure up a finish as difficult as it was sweet. That, and the fact that Burnley, who were tactically close to perfect for much of the game, failed to close down Evans, giving him all the time in the world to hit that pass.
Hutchison: Man United got a must 3 points vs. Burnley
Don Hutchison breaks down Manchester United’s 1-0 win over Burnley.
In terms of performance, Burnley hit the post, had the upper hand for long stretches in the game and, in fact, might be playing better football than any last-place team in Premier League history. However, the problem is that if you get average players to play well, you can make them a little bit better than they are, but they might well still be worse than talented players who are underperforming. That’s just football.
That said, when you look at this United lineup — a 35-year-old Evans in defense, Sergio Reguilón and Hannibal Mejbri all started — you quickly realize just how far they are from where Erik ten Hag wants them to be and where, really, they should be. The three points buy you time and a bit of a respite before the next test. (United have a Carabao Cup game with Crystal Palace in midweek, followed by a league game at home to Palace on Saturday.)
This is a team that needs to heal and strengthen. (Internally, first and foremost, though more signings may or may not come later.) The three points are a Band-Aid, but you take them, knowing the real work lies ahead.
Kane notches hat trick as Bayern Munich unleash on Bochum in 7-0 romp
Bayern took the pitch against winless Bochum on Saturday like a team with a serious chip on their shoulder. Maybe it was the nitpickers who have been finding fault with them seemingly every week. Maybe it was conceding three goals at home to Manchester United (the current Manchester United, that is). Thomas Tuchel played Eric-Maxim Choupo-Moting in the hole as a No. 10 — that’s right, both Jamal Musiala and Thomas Müller were on the bench — and unleashed the venom of Harry Kane, Leroy Sané and Alphonso Davies in attack.
Kane’s hat trick was impressive, taking his seasonal total to eight in seven games, though my favorite bit was the pass to Leroy Sane to make it 4-0. A shout-out too to Alphonso Davies, whose accelerations and recoveries make him, at times, unplayable, and also Matthijs De Ligt, who might not be Tuchel’s favorite, but took advantage of his start with a commanding performance and a neat goal.
This is what can happen if you make Bayern angry. Of course, it’s one thing to do it against Bochum; it’s another to do it against more serious opposition, and that will be the test of what this team can do.
Mbappe goes off injured, but PSG still dominate Marseille
Are Paris Saint-Germain becoming that little bit less dependent on Kylian Mbappé? Against Marseille on Sunday night, he limped off after half an hour (precautionary ankle issues, apparently nothing serious) and still they dominated the rest of the way en route to a 4-0 win.
It’s true that Marseille have a raft of issues on and off the pitch (which is why they ditched manager Marcelino), but this was a commanding performance and, perhaps for the first time, we saw Luis Enrique’s vision come to fruition. Weirdly, it probably helped that Mbappe came off for Goncalo Ramos, who went on to score two goals.
Obviously PSG are better with Mbappe than without him, but right now, they look more of a team when he’s not there.
Dawson: Man City win vs. Forest should’ve been more comfortable
Rob Dawson reflects on Manchester City’s 2-0 win vs. Nottingham Forest despite Rodri’s red card.
Fifteen minutes into Saturday’s game and it looked like Manchester City were on their way to another routine win, this time against Nottingham Forest. Phil Foden had given them the lead (with Rodri providing a peach of a buildup pass) and Erling Haaland had made it 2-0. (By the way, it’s rather mind-blowing given the amount of chances he’s blown of late that he still has eight goals in eight appearances in all competitions.)
Then, early in the second half, came Rodri’s tussle with Morgan Gibbs-White and his subsequent red card after he lifted his hands to the Forest player’s throat.
Pep Guardiola admitted after the game that he was “angry” with him and that the Spaniard had apologized. He’ll likely be suspended for the next three games — most importantly, the third of those is Arsenal away in the Premier League. It’s a big deal because the natural alternative to Rodri is Kalvin Phillips, whose City career really hasn’t taken off since his big move from Leeds in 2022.
Will Pep trust in Kalvin, or will we he reorganize the midfield? It’s a big call, and one you don’t want to get wrong. Especially since Rodri, who played more games (68) than anyone in the 2022-23 campaign, is perhaps the closest to an indispensable player City have.
Rafael Leão gives Milan three points, but he still has his critics
Rafael Leao scored a trademark goal to give Milan a 1-0 win over Verona, which provides a dose of tranquility after the club were held 0-0 at home by Newcastle in the Champions League and soundly beaten 5-1 last weekend by Inter in the derby. And yet, in some quarters, he’s still called out for not doing enough, most notably by former Milan boss, Arrigo Sacchi.
When someone like Sacchi — with his back-to-back European Cups — talks, you’re bound to listen, but it doesn’t mean he’s right. Yes, Leao can still grow as a player, both off the ball and on it. And yes, the attempted back-heel against Newcastle was foolish and you never want to see that again. (It’s the typical thing where, if you do it, you have to score.)
But Leao already has three goals in five games this season, all of them from open play. He’s doing his part and, frankly, derby aside, Milan have been solid, despite injuries and despite the addition of a bunch of new players. There’s room to get better, but let’s not make something out of nothing.
Darwin Nunez guides Liverpool past West Ham, for better or worse
Nicol delighted by a ‘real Liverpool performance’ in win vs. West Ham
Steve Nicol reflects on three points for Liverpool, as they take down West Ham 3-1 at home.
In the same game this weekend, Darwin Nunez conjured up one of the ugliest misses you’re likely to see this year and applied a subtle touch to put Liverpool ahead for good against West Ham — Diogo Jota would add a third in the 3-1 win. It’s the mark of a striker who doesn’t dwell on misses and just keeps going. It’s fair to ask whether he’s living up to the massive investment (both wages and fee) in his services, but if history ultimately determines he’s a dud, it won’t be because of lack of effort or intensity on his part.
Sunday’s victory was far from straight-forward against a West Ham side that continues to be underrated by many. (No, they didn’t crumble just because Declan Rice left.) If anything, it’s a testament to the way Liverpool combined quality and resilience in a game that probably could have gone either way (Alisson, again, made two massive saves).
The Reds are still a work in progress and it’s curious that Jurgen Klopp hasn’t yet transitioned away from playing Alexis Mac Allister in front of the back four. The Argentine was effective — and, in fact, delivered a gorgeous assist for Nunez’s goal — but you feel his future at Anfield is elsewhere in midfield. However, we might not see that on a permanent basis until next season.
Bayer Leverkusen stay joint-top with another goal-fest
OK, so newly promoted Heidenheim aren’t the sternest test, but Bayer Leverkusen, despite conceding an early equalizer, looked solid at both ends of the pitch en route to a 4-1 win. We know they can — and will — score: they’ve notched 31 goals in seven games, including clashes with big boys like Leipzig and Bayern.
But what stands out is their xG from open play of 0.67, which is in line with that of Borussia Dortmund and Bayern and fourth best in the Bundesliga. They also manage to concede the second fewest shots in the league, while being right at the top of the table in most pressing metrics.
Xabi Alonso is the toast of the Bundesliga right now and the way he has seamlessly integrated the many newcomers — Granit Xhaka, Alex Grimaldo, Jonas Hofmann and Victor Boniface — is a testament to the coaching work done in preseason.
Juventus sunk in Szczesny nightmare as Allegri reframes expectations
I don’t know if Wojciech Szczesny will remember the 4-2 defeat away to Sassuolo as his worst performance as a professional keeper. It certainly felt that way, from the hideous fumbling on the first goal, to the lame parry on the third goal, and then whatever-in-the-heck he was doing on the fourth and final goal. (Yeah, blame Federico Gatti for the blind back-pass, but it was Szczesny’s job to get back between the sticks.) But his horror show shouldn’t detract from failings up and down the side, especially in midfield. Indeed, other than Federico Chiesa and a couple of others, everybody seemed to struggle against Sassuolo.
Max Allegri did his best to try to temper the mood in his own way. “We weren’t world-beaters a week ago when we won, we aren’t terrible now,” he said, dusting off his old book of cliches. “We’re not a team that’s supposed to fight for the Serie A title: we’re at best trying to finish top four and that would be a tremendous feat.”
Would it, though? Really? Juventus still have by far the highest wage bill in Serie A, some 40% more than Inter in second place. And they don’t play European football, which means they have plenty of time to prepare for each game. Oh, and they have the joint-highest paid coach in Serie A: Allegri himself. Presumably he’s supposed to add value, too.
Allegri is reframing expectations, and not for the first time either. You’d hope folks are seeing through it.
Dortmund enjoy a convincing win, but which is the real BVB?
Borussia Dortmund bounced back from their Champions League defeat with a 1-0 win over Wolfsburg. More than that, it was a commanding and convincing performance — more so than the scoreline suggests. Here’s the thing, though: in terms of figuring out how good Borussia Dortmund are and what the season may hold, I’m not sure how far further forward we are.
Edin Terzic again went with the back-three formation we saw in Paris, but then made no fewer than six changes to his lineup. Some of it might have been fitness, some of it might have been rotation — fine. But with so much upheaval, how are you going to build chemistry?
Osimhen grumpy as Napoli drop points again
Napoli’s scoreless draw away to Bologna leaves them seven points off the top of the table, which is a massive comedown for a side that won Serie A by 16 points last season. Truth be told, Napoli didn’t play poorly — they simply didn’t take their chances, especially Victor Osimhen, who hit the woodwork and (badly) missed a penalty.
These were fine margins because a victory would have meant the big talking point after this game would have never occurred if either of Osimhen’s chances had been converted. Instead, when he was replaced by another center-forward, Giovanni Simeone, he reacted angrily, loudly questioning coach Rudi Garcia and why he wasn’t playing with two strikers.
Osimhen may well be correct — a Simeone/Osimhen partnership could have been the answer there — but you can’t call out your coach in public like that (even when he’s wrong). It’s the last thing Napoli need right now.
Chelsea fall again, with Nico Jackson emblematic of Pochettino’s call for “growth”
Nicol: Chelsea recruitment completely wrong
Steve Nicol criticises Chelsea’s recruitment after another poor performance saw them lose 1-0 at home to Aston Villa.
I’m not sure what’s more remarkable. Is the fact that Chelsea, despite all that spending, are far closer to the relegation zone (two points away) than they are to the Champions League spots (nine points away)? Or is it that Nico Jackson has somehow contrived to collect five yellow cards in six games and will now be suspended?
Chelsea weren’t terrible in Sunday’s 1-0 defeat at home to Aston Villa (they weren’t great either) and yes, they missed chances, and Malo Gusto‘s red card might have been a yellow. You can deal with missed chances (heck, at least you’re creating them), but there is a naivety to this team that you can’t excuse just through youth and injuries. It speaks to the usual problems: poor squad construction and odd choices that backfire (like benching both left backs for a center-back wide left or insisting on Enzo Fernández in the midfield hole).
Mauricio Pochettino said it’s time for his players to “grow up.” He’s right, but he’s the guy paid to lead the way.
Dimarco wonder-strike keeps Inter Milan top and perfect in Serie A
Top of the table vs. bottom of the table (and having just changed managers) means that Inter winning away to Empoli is not a surprise. But it’s significant that, after really struggling against Atletico Madrid at home in midweek, Simone Inzaghi’s crew put in a very good performance, rather than simply managing the game. And yes, it was a good performance, though the goal only came via a gorgeous long-range effort from Federico Dimarco.
Inter created plenty and conceded very little. Dimarco has started this season like he began the last: as one of the most effective attacking fullbacks around. Best of all, he’s fearless and that’s something a side like Inter, with all their foibles, need.
And finally… #BasDostWatch
This concludes the latest instalment of #BasDostWatch.