What a weekend of fun we had across Europe! There were big wins for Chelsea, Liverpool and Manchester City in the Premier League, a big fight in Ligue 1 that will resonate for some time, and some off-field drama involving Cristiano Ronaldo‘s status at Juventus. Also we saw Barcelona, Man United and Real Madrid battle to frustrating draws, a bit of good luck for Atletico Madrid and some mild panic (maybe) for Bundesliga front-runners Bayern Munich and Borussia Dortmund.
It’s Monday, and Gab Marcotti reacts to the biggest moments in the world of football from the past weekend in Europe.
Jump to: Lukaku rocks Arsenal | Ronaldo drama? | Nice-Marseille brawl | Man United’s bad habits | “New” Inter roll | Elliott stars for Liverpool | Real Madrid’s wild night | Abraham a hit for Roma | Barcelona stumble | Gnabry rescues Bayern | Man City OK without Kane? | Correa leads Atletico | Alli steps up for Spurs | Dortmund shouldn’t panic
Thomas Tuchel likely couldn’t have asked for a better debut from Romelu Lukaku, his pricey new attacking juggernaut.
It’s not just the fact that the Belgian international road-graded and rag-dolled Pablo Mari and Rob Holding seemingly at will, or that he held up play and dispensed service just as advertised. It’s the fact that Chelsea went from having Timo Werner and Christian Pulisic in the front three to Lukaku and Kai Havertz without missing a beat. When you can seamlessly swap in two players with entirely different characteristics and maintain your tactical shape and pressing patterns more or less seamlessly, that’s a “W” for any coach.
Defensively, Chelsea were largely untroubled, bar a few occasions after the break, and in midfield, Mateo Kovacic and Jorginho looked in control as usual. Chelsea seemed equally comfortable with or without the ball, and it felt as if they could turn it up several notches seemingly on command. Whatever else you think of Tuchel, his ability to impart huge amounts of tactical knowledge in a short period time (like he did at Paris Saint-Germain) is impressive. The challenge now will be making the right decisions in terms of man management and game management for the rest of the campaign.
Of course, some will point out that it’s hard to tell where Chelsea’s prowess ends and Arsenal’s deficiencies begin.
Most disconcerting to me was how unprepared they looked in dealing with two basic bread-and-butter Chelsea threats. Marcos Alonso and Reece James are attacking wing-backs — you need to make allowances for that, whether by having a central midfielder drop into the backline and your full-back come across, or by having a winger track back or, in some cases, your holding midfielder go wide. Far too often Arsenal did none of those things, particularly on Kieran Tierney‘s flank, and he was far too exposed against James, who notched a goal and an assist.
– Weekend review: Lukaku, Depay stand out and Kane returns
The other was the ball into Lukaku. The number of times Chelsea found him not through the air, but with bog-standard north-south balls along the ground, was frankly disconcerting. Yes, he’s big and strong and if your central defender tries to cut in front of him, there’s a real risk that he’ll turn you. But that’s why you have another plan, whether by dropping a central midfielder to help in front or by putting more pressure on the ball up the pitch, which, I guess, is what Mikel Arteta was trying to do. Only none of it happened.
In Arteta’s defense, there were a number of absentees, from Thomas Partey to Gabriel, from Ben White to Martin Odegaard (who was registered too late for kickoff after his move from Real Madrid). But these were tactical flaws, not just shortcomings in terms of individual quality (though there was plenty of that too).
Arteta continues to talk of a spirit that “can’t be broken” and remains bullish. He’s right to do so; getting depressed does nobody any favours and obviously, there are deeper issues in terms of how this squad was put together, which is why he can’t be the only scapegoat. But what Arsenal need now is an improvement of performance in their next outing — improving results will be tough given they’re playing Manchester City — cutting out some of the basic errors that have cost them dear thus far. After that, it’s Burnley and Norwich, and if things still don’t turn around by that stage, it will get very ugly very quickly.
Juventus drop points, Ronaldo benched… but ‘nothing to see here’?
Gab Marcotti analyses the transfer rumours surrounding Cristiano Ronaldo and explains how this saga might conclude.
The club said it was a “shared decision,” with Ronaldo and coach Max Allegri deciding that he should not be in the starting lineup as this would have been his first game since the Euros, and he wasn’t quite match-fit yet. Meanwhile, club official Pavel Nedved insisted there was no backstory and it had nothing to do with his future.
There are two reasons few bought his explanation. One is that (as clubs often do) if you’re going to bench someone like Ronaldo, you normally brief the media the day before or even that morning, just to take the sting out of the speculation. The other is that there was the small matter of Ronaldo’s Instagram post (the one that mentioned Juventus zero times) and the El Chiringuito report.
Ronaldo came on with 30 minutes to go and, in so doing, showed that not only was he fit, but that any suggestion Juve were sparing him to avoid scuppering some hypothetical move away was nonsense. He scored what he thought was the winner with one of his trademark, perfectly timed headers, but it was ruled out for a marginal (though correct) offside.
Afterward, Allegri said the benching was his decision: “I figured it’s very early. Like many other players, he’s not yet at 100 percent. Against Udinese we needed quick forwards who could run behind … so I told him to sit out and he was fine with it.”
Is the speculation over? Probably not. For the reasons outlined in my column last week, it’s unlikely this will go quiet just like that. Ronaldo is too big, and there is too much money involved. But equally, unless he decides he wants to leave and can find a club willing to fork out a fee — maybe not quite the roughly $30m Juventus need to break even on his amortization, but not nothing, either — odds are he’ll still be a Juve player come Sept. 1.
As for the game itself, Juve’s night was marked by two dreadful errors from Wojciech Szczesny, which resulted in two goals conceded. You can’t legislate for individual mistakes, especially ones this craven, so you move on. Paulo Dybala, still waiting for a new contract, looked very sharp and Juve showed plenty of mettle. The midfield remains an issue, but it should improve once Manuel Locatelli starts, rather than merely coming off the bench.
Gab & Juls explain the punishments they’d like to see after crowd trouble forces Nice vs. Marseille to be abandoned.
We’ll see how French authorities deal with the fallout from the abandoned game between Nice and Olympique Marseille Sunday night. There’s a fierce rivalry between the clubs and matters came to a head after Marseille’s Dimitri Payet was struck by a bottle thrown from the stand containing the Nice Ultras. Payet threw it back into the stands (and then followed up by throwing another, for good measure), which led to a pitch invasion and a full-blown melee involving players from both teams as well as some Nice supporters.
You can find the video if you want, but suffice to say nobody covered themselves in glory here.
Unless new evidence emerges, there have to be serious bans for a number of Marseille players, including Payet, Matteo Guendouzi and Alvaro Gonzalez — not to mention Jorge Sampaoli, who at one point, seemed intent on fighting anybody within reach. (It’s a good thing OM legend Basile Boli was around to keep him at bay.) And there has to be stiff action against Nice, of course. A points deduction and, sadly for their supporters, the closure of the Allianz Rivera for a good number of matches feels like the minimum here.
So let’s allow the investigators to do their thing. In the meantime, they also need to clear up what happened when Marseille refused to come back on to the pitch. Punishment for not coming back out — unless you can somehow prove that conditions had changed — seems excessive.
French football probably wants to forget this night of infamy, but the only way you move on is with a full, transparent investigation of the sort that holds everyone to account.
Man United show bad habits against Southampton
Julien Laurens plays the role of Paul Pogba’s agent and offers his best advice to the midfielder.
The problem with United last season was that too often, they were a side that allowed the opposition to set the tone. Sometimes, it was fine, because they have better players than most of their opponents. Sometimes, it was OK because this is a good counterattacking team with fleet-footed forwards and set-piece specialists. But other times, it became a problem because United couldn’t make their areas of advantage count, and that’s pretty much what happened in the 1-1 draw against Southampton.
Ralph Hasenhuttl’s team are, on paper, much diminished following the departures of Ryan Bertrand, Danny Ings and Jannik Vestergaard and yet, rather than controlling the tempo, United allowed them to impose their frenetic pace on to the game, especially in midfield. And so Fred and Nemanja Matic ended up doing things they’re not very good at doing (simply put). Throw in Anthony Martial having a stinker and a bad mistake from Harry Maguire toward the end, one that could have cost them the game, and it was a Sunday to forget.
Ole Gunnar Solskjaer needs to find a formula for games like these matches in which you can’t allow the opposition to drag you down to their level. Sure, things will presumably improve once Jadon Sancho begins to start regularly and once Marcus Rashford returns. And yes, maybe with different personnel decisions — like playing Mason Greenwood up front — this could have turned out different too. But the overriding sense is that, unless they score first and hit on the counter, it’s very difficult for United to dominate games like these. It’s been a bad habit they’ve had since Solskjaer arrived, and it’s one that’s difficult to shake.
Any positives? Paul Pogba showed, again, that he can be a difference-maker. But then, most of us already knew that …
Antonio who? Romelu who? Inter Milan start with a bang
Inter aren’t my preseason choice to defend their Serie A title. It’s not a knock on them; it’s simply the fact that, as I pointed out on the FC show, there’s a whole series of downgrades throughout the team. Edin Dzeko, Denzel Dumfries and Hakan Calhanoglu are unlikely to offer as much as Lukaku, Achraf Hakimi and Christian Eriksen. And Simone Inzaghi, especially in his first season, is unlikely to match Antonio Conte’s second season.
That said, they were devastating out of the gates against Genoa, winning 4-0. Admittedly, they’re a side who aren’t very good to begin with and, on top of that, are largely incomplete, but still, as the old cliché goes, you can only beat what’s in front of you.
When you score twice in the first 15 minutes, things suddenly get a lot easier, but give Inzaghi credit for insulating Inter from a lot of the off-the-pitch problems they went through this summer. Also: keep an eye on Stefano Sensi. Injuries limited him last season, but he could be a real value-add this season, whether in a more advanced position, like on Saturday, or in midfield.
Liverpool‘s Elliott shows that labels are just that
With goals in back-to-back Premier League games, Janusz Michallik says Jota has to start vs. Chelsea.
Last week I talked about how Liverpool might fill the void left by Georginio Wijnaldum. Sure, Fabinho is now free to play in midfield, but you still have to deal with Jordan Henderson (who is a year older), James Milner (who turns 36 in January), Thiago Alcantara (who has barely started half his club’s league games over the past two seasons), Curtis Jones (who is still young) and the duo of Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain and Naby Keita who, for different reasons, have contributed little.
Given how demanding (and important) the midfield is in Jurgen Klopp’s set-up, how far Liverpool go this season would largely depend on how often he can find a viable trio out of the names mentioned above, but Saturday’s 2-0 win over Burnley introduced another candidate into the mix: 18-year-old Harvey Elliott.
You may remember Elliott as the youngest player ever to appear in a Premier League game when he came on for two minutes for Fulham against Wolves in May 2019, aged 16 years and 30 days. Back then, he was a slight winger and that’s the position he’s mostly played since, including last year’s loan spell at Blackburn. But against Burnley, he was in a midfield trio with Henderson and Keita and flourished.
I have no idea if this is where he will make his career, but let it serve as a reminder that, especially with young players, we too often get stuck on labels and forget that footballers are there to be molded.
Real Madrid endure wild night vs. Levante
Alejandro Moreno dives into Vinicius Junior’s performance in Real Madrid’s draw with Levante.
For the neutral, Sunday night’s 3-3 draw between Real Madrid and Levante was entertaining. For the Madridistas, not so much. Real Madrid took a 1-0 lead in the first half (Karim Benzema setting up Gareth Bale when he probably could have finished himself) and, interestingly, Isco (despite being out of contract, despite his peculiarities) was running the show in midfield. It’s evidence that Carlo Ancelotti will work with what he has and nobody will be frozen out.
Then came the defensive horror show (coupled with a general lethargy at the other end) that saw Levante go 2-1 up (the second was a good finish, sure, but note how Lucas Vazquez totally loses Jose Campana). Vinicius Junior came on and equalised, and you expected Madrid’s winner… but instead, another defensive blunder and Levante were ahead again, before another Vinicius goal — this one a sublime finish — levelled it at 3-3. It stayed that way even after Levante went down to 10 men and had to put an outfield player between the posts.
You don’t expect players like Casemiro, David Alaba or Nacho to make these sorts of errors, and you expect it even less when they all come in one game. My guess is that this will concern Ancelotti less than the general drop in level and intensity after the break, when Madrid seemed to stop playing for a good 15 minutes or so. Amid the positives (Isco and Vinicius having already equalled his goals total from last year’s Liga), that’s the one negative to worry about.
Abraham delights Mourinho and Roma
Unlike the guy who (in some ways) replaced him at Chelsea, Tammy Abraham didn’t score on Sunday in Roma’s 3-1 win over Fiorentina. But he did just about everything else, setting up two goals, hitting the woodwork, tying up defenders and providing a continuous and physical threat behind the back-line. A “handful” is what you’d call it, in layman’s terms.
It’s exactly what Mourinho wanted from him, and the prospect of Abraham teaming up with 20-year-old Nicolo Zaniolo (who was harshly sent off) has Roma fans dreaming big. The game did set up nicely for Roma since Fiorentina keeper Bartłomiej Dragowski was sent off in the 17th minute. But as Mourinho pointed out, they performed better 11 vs. 11 and 10 vs.10 than they did with a man advantage.
As ever with Mourinho at this stage of his career, you’re not sure what you’re going to get over the long term — it’s not lost on anyone that his relationships tend to go south after a couple years, sometimes sooner. But for now, he’s hitting all the right notes and clicking with the Roma fans, and Abraham is a big part of that.
Barcelona stumble and Koeman faces Messi issue
Alejandro Moreno shares his thoughts on Barcelona’s 1-1 draw vs. Athletic Bilbao in LaLiga.
A week ago, many of us were full of praise for Barcelona’s first Lionel Messi-less league performance (and a 4-2 win) against Real Sociedad. On Saturday, they traveled to San Mames, to take on another quality side in Athletic Bilbao, and it was a wake-up call.
Against an opponent who, despite a bunch of absentees, were definitely fired up — partly by the return of supporters, partly because, well, it’s Athletic Bilbao — Barca struggled not just to impose themselves, but to get out from the back. Some will say that Eric Garcia — who was told before kickoff that his grandfather had died — should not have played. Well, he did, and he was poor. Things got worse when Gerard Pique had to come off after half an hour.
Inaki Williams, who seems to do everything well except finish, could have had a hat trick. As it happened, somehow, Barca were still in the game late on and could even have escaped with the three points. Memphis Depay scored a great goal (and missed what looked like an easier chance shortly thereafter) and Frenkie De Jong hit the crossbar, but a draw was a more-than-fair result.
After the match, Ronald Koeman was asked whether Barca’s opponents feel more confident knowing facing them now that Messi is gone. “It’s true. I don’t like to keep talking about this, but he’s the best in the world. Rivals are more fearful facing a team with Messi. You notice he’s not there. We know this, but we can’t change it,” he said.
Questions like those are lose-lose for Koeman. The only way to answer them are either by lying or by sounding like Captain Obvious (he chose the latter). The sooner he can get enough out of his team that he’s not asked about Messi, the better. And in Bilbao this weekend, they took several steps back.
Sane booed, but Musiala and Gnabry rescue Bayern Munich
Bayern manager Julian Nagelsmann made his home debut in front of supporters against Cologne, and things did not go to plan … to the point that there was booing after a scoreless first half (with Leroy Sane particularly targeted, which he described as “not helpful”). We saw the first tactical tweaks — Tanguy Nianzou at right-back, but really forming a de facto back three with Niklas Sule and Dayot Upamecano central — and it’s something that understandably still needs work. At the other end, we saw little in the first half, other than a Thomas Muller chance on the counter.
Business picked up after Jamal Musiala came on for Sane, and after going up 2-0, you figured Bayern would cruise to a comfortable win. Instead, in the space of a three minutes it was 2-2 thanks to some wretched defensive errors. Gnabry then scored the winner, but there’s plenty for Nagelsmann to think about.
There were concerns about Bayern’s depth last season. In that sense, things have hardly improved. It feels as if the idea is to put faith in Nagelsmann’s ability to conjure up tactical solutions or push youngsters. No doubt it’s (partly) a function of the pandemic, but it only makes his job tougher and, for it to work, it will require more patience — the sort you don’t always get at Bayern.
Man City just fine without Kane … at least against Norwich
Janusz Michallik assesses Jack Grealish’s home debut, and picks out his star player.
An open “footballing” side like Norwich were always going to be fodder for a Manchester City team with a chip on their shoulder following the opening day defeat at Tottenham. And so it was, as Pep Guardiola’s crew cruised to a 5-0 win against an opponent that managed just one shot on goal.
Jack Grealish opened his goal account for City, but in some ways the most devastating attacking player was Gabriel Jesus, deployed wide right with Ferran Torres through the middle. You wondered if it was a hint that Guardiola sees Jesus more as a winger and Torres more as a front man at this stage, and he alluded to the fact that “Torres always moves towards the goal” whereas Gabriel Jesus “was better at receiving the ball wide.”
Does it mean Torres is keeping Kane’s spot warm? Maybe. But I also suspect that, given the lack of speculation around a Plan B, Guardiola will feel he’s fine with what he has even if Kane doesn’t arrive, and it’s preferable to getting a center-forward just for the sake of it.
Avenging Angel Correa and a slice of luck power Atletico Madrid
Luis Garcia discusses Angel Correa’s quick start for Atletico Madrid in LaLiga as Luis Suarez returns to fitness.
It was far from a vintage performance against Elche for Atletico Madrid on Sunday. In fact, it felt a little bit like the Atleti of old — the grind-them-out kind — with the difference that their only goal didn’t come from a set piece or a counter, but rather a colossal blunder from Elche keeper Kiko Casilla.
– Report: Correa the hero as Atletico beat Elche
Luck? You make your own, Simeone might say, but somebody has to be there to benefit and in this case, again, it was Angel Correa. The Argentine has scored all of Atleti’s goals this season; he also scored some big ones down the stretch as they won the title last year. He’s carrying them right now offensively while they wait for Luis Suarez to be fully fit, for Joao Felix to return and for the new striker (probably Hertha’s Matheus Cunha) to materialize.
Regenerated Dele Alli powers Tottenham
Don Hutchison delves into what Manchester City needs to do to get a deal for Harry Kane over the line.
Tottenham have two wins from two games in the most minimalist fashion. After edging past Man City last week, their 1-0 victory over Wolves came thanks to a penalty duly converted by Dele Alli, who feels more central to the club’s plans than at any time in the past few seasons.
Alli dealt with injuries and off-the-pitch issues — and let’s face it, he didn’t seem to be top of Jose Mourinho’s Christmas card list either — and that’s why, after starring under Mauricio Pochettino in 2016-17 and 2017-18, he made just 50 league starts over the next three seasons. But he has versatility, energy and quality (and a new haircut), and that’s just what Dr. Nuno ordered in terms of linking midfielder and attack.
“Like a new signing” is a well-worn cliché (memorably trotted out time and again by Arsene Wenger, usually referring to Jack Wilshere or Aaron Ramsey) but in Alli’s case, it applies. He might even, in status if not position, help fill some of the Harry Kane-shaped hole should the striker depart.
Give Dortmund the benefit of the doubt … for now
I was ready to slam Dortmund for all of their shortcomings in Saturday’s 2-1 defeat against Freiburg.
Plenty of sterile possession. A dip in intensity off-the-ball (which shouldn’t happen with the young legs in this side). Very little creativity in the middle of the park (other than the odd Jude Bellingham moment). And the usual defensive wobbles at the back (yeah, Felix Passlack again, but not just him).
And then I reminded myself that Marco Rose couldn’t have become a bad coach overnight (OK, maybe not overnight, let’s say since last January, since he had plenty of stinkers at Gladbach, too). That many of these guys have had very little time together on the training pitch: it’s not just a fitness issue, it’s a chemistry issue. That new forward Donyell Malen just arrived. And that, hopefully, Axel Witsel won’t be playing too much more center-back this season: at some point, the plan has to include Mats Hummels and/or Emre Can.
So yeah, they get the benefit of the doubt — for the time being, at least — but Saturday has to be a low-water mark and not the norm.