Another thrilling weekend in the European football world gave fans plenty to talk about. Rafael Leao led AC Milan to victory over Inter, Erik ten Hag’s Manchester United ended Arsenal‘s win streak, Erling Haaland hit the 10-goal mark in just six Premier League appearances, and Liverpool, Chelsea and Bayern Munich show signs of worry, to name a few. Meanwhile, Real Madrid‘s trust and investment in their youngsters is bearing fruit as Rodrygo, Vinicius Junior, Aurelien Tchouameni and Eduardo Camavinga all delivered solid performances.
It’s Monday, and Gab Marcotti reacts to the biggest moments in the world of football.
Jump to: Leao shines in derby | Ten Hag’s tough calls | Barca’s newfound rhythm | City held by Villa | Bayern draw again | Chelsea’s derby win | PSG’s squad rotation | Liverpool’s midfield worries | Real Madrid’s youngsters | Allegri must lift mood at Juve | Richarlison’s role at Spurs | Kvara-mania at Napoli | Atletico struggle | Bas Dost delivers
Rafael Leao and Mike Maignan lead Milan to Huge win in rip-roaring Derby
One of the aspects that defines Stefano Pioli’s Milan is the ability to come back into games. And, having gone a goal down to Marcelo Brozovic‘s strike in the derby, they did just that, first exploiting Hakan Calhanoglu’s mistake and then riding Rafael Leao’s sparkling form to a 3-2 win. This is Milan picking up where they left off last season: intense, determined, hard-working, able to find the sparks of quality when it matters, even when things aren’t going quite right. And, let’s be very clear, a number of Pioli’s starters had rough rides.
From Charles De Ketelaere (who made a mistake for Inter’s opener and was otherwise subpar) to Fikayo Tomori (who could have done better on most goals) to the likes of Theo Hernandez and Junior Messias, who had quiet games. But that’s one of the hallmarks of this Milan side. Most of the players, even on off-days, still contribute with their work off the ball and set a platform for others to make the difference. On Saturday it was Sandro Tonali and Ismael Bennacer in the middle of the park, it was Maignan in goal and it was Rafael Leao up front, whose footwork and creativity befuddled Inter’s back line.
The Portuguese forward has a contract that expires in 2024 and it feels as if he has only scratched the surface of his potential. Milan will want to lock him up and it will be interesting to see how the club’s new owners, RedBird Capital approach this. The previous regime often took a hard line with “take-it-or-leave-it” offers for free agents to be like Gigio Donnarumma, Calhanoglu and, most recently, Franck Kessie. They were vindicated on the first two, the jury is out on Kessie as it’s only been a few weeks.
As for Inter, you’re tempted to despair at the defensive errors and, to be fair, Stefan De Vrij and Alessandro Bastoni had a very rough time with Leao. (Samir Handanovic wasn’t great either, but that’s old news these days). Simone Inzaghi also got stick for starting Joaquin Correa instead of Edin Dzeko (the big man came on and scored) and for waiting more than an hour to make his substitutions. I have less of an issue with Inzaghi’s choices. Inter have Bayern coming up next in the Champions League and, with Romelu Lukaku out, you imagine they’ll start Dzeko: at 36, consecutive starts in big games might not be a good idea.
More of a concern, I think, is what happened in the middle of the park, where Nicolo Barella and Calhanoglu were overrun, which only made the back line’s job tougher. The worst thing Inter can do now is despair. Because, lest we forget, they were facing the defending champions without their lynchpin, Lukaku, and this defeat would have been a draw or maybe even a win without those stellar Maignan saves late in the game. Not to mention the fact that as of right now they’re still just two points off the top in what promises to be a very tight Serie A race.
Ten Hag’s big calls pay off as United stop Arsenal’s winning run
Craig Burley thinks Antony has room to improve despite a positive start with a goal on his debut for Manchester United.
Say this for Erik ten Hag: the man has guts.
At home to Arsenal, who had won every league game this season, he had no qualms about leaving Casemiro out of the starting lineup for the third straight game, benching Cristiano Ronaldo (and, for those keeping score at home, it’s now four straight appearances on the bench for him, the longest run since 2005) and, perhaps most of all, chucking Antony, the €100 million man, straight onto the pitch. Ten Hag could have received plenty of criticism for each of those moves, but, of the three, Antony’s inclusion was perhaps the most surprising. The Brazilian had two training sessions under his belt and hadn’t actually played a game in three weeks, owing to his efforts to force a move away from Ajax.
These are the sorts of calls that can blow up in your face. But his courage was rewarded: Antony dispensed some early eye candy and then opened the scoring in the first half. He made a tangible contribution and offered more than a glimpse of what’s to come. Ten Hag is also showing that he’s far more pragmatic than many expected. We got so worked up talking about footballing philosophy and tactical vision that we sometimes forget that there’s a realpolitik that informs most coaches’ actions, especially when things get tough. And in this case, in the four consecutive wins, this has meant a United that looks nothing like what we saw at Ajax.
The numbers bear this out. Ajax averaged 62% possession in the Eredivisie last season. United, in the four wins, managed 42%. Ajax led the league in passes per defensive action (a good measure of how much a team presses) with 5.36; United are second-to-last with 13.36. Ajax were near the bottom in terms of counter-attacking shots (0.76), United are near the top (1.67). This is a bit like hiring a world-renowned sushi chef only to have them serve you a burger; a delicious burger, mind you, but definitely not what you expected.
Going forward, the elephant in the room is whether United can continue to get results playing this way. Logic would suggest not. It’s alien to Ten Hag, the squad isn’t really built for it and unless you score first, the risk is that you end up drawing a bunch of games. How well he handles that transition into a more proactive, front-foot team (like he had at Ajax) will determine how his — and United’s — season pans out. And it won’t just depend on Ten Hag giving them different instructions, but rather how well his players — especially those who, like Diogo Dalot and Marcus Rashford, have thrived since his arrival — adapt to what will essentially be, tactically speaking, a handbrake turn.
As for Arsenal, I thought they played very well for most of the game, but paid a price for individual errors. I’m not sure it’s a case of them being naive so much as mistakes happening at the wrong time, in the wrong areas. And, perhaps, Mikel Arteta getting a bit too worked up with that triple substitution with 15 minutes to go. I get that he was chasing the game, but turning his team inside out when they were a goal down and had United under pressure seemed a bit rash with the benefit of hindsight.
There are a ton of positives for Arteta to take from this game, though, and you hope the confidence will only increase. The sort of mistakes Arsenal made were mental errors, not the kind that come down to not being good enough. And that’s an important message for Arteta to send. Plus, there’s a parallel universe where Gabriel Martinelli‘s goal is allowed to stand. (Personally, I thought it was a foul, though I’m not clear on why it took Paul Tierney so long to work it out.)
We saw another side to Barcelona and it bodes well for Xavi. They traveled to Seville to face an opponent up against the ropes, stuck on a single point and with an angry fan base. Predictably, perhaps, Julen Lopetegui sent his troops out to try to shock Barca from the start, piling on the pressure and playing with intensity. For a while, it worked. Sevilla created chances (Marc-Andre ter Stegen was sensational on Ivan Rakitic) and at one point, they actually had 70% possession. But when you play like that, you expose yourself to the counter, and having weathered the early onslaught, Barca let their superior quality shine through, scoring twice before the break to put the game out of reach (and they could have had more in the second half).
Robert Lewandowski scored again — which is not news — and ter Stegen (after a rough ride last season) looks to be on his way back to top form. What struck you though was the maturity Barca showed and the willingness to hunker down when they needed to. It doesn’t fit the stereotype, but it does give them a whole new dimension. A word on Jules Kounde too. He has apparently indicated that he enjoys playing in the middle rather than right back. With Hector Bellerin not in the squad, he played the first half on the right before moving centrally in the second, which, you’d imagine, will be his long-term home. He still managed to deliver a luscious assist for Lewandowski. When you can play, you can play.
Haaland hits double figures, but City held by Villa
Janusz Michallik explains how Aston Villa held Manchester City to a hard-fought draw.
Pep Guardiola didn’t react to Manchester City‘s draw away to Aston Villa and under-pressure boss Steven Gerrard by tearing his hair out. (And not just because there isn’t much there.) He simply said they had chances to score but didn’t take them: “It’s football, it happens.”
Undeniably true, but knowing what we know now, City would be top with three points. And on the day, for all of City’s dominance (they conceded just three goals and capitulated to a Leon Bailey wonderstrike), they looked less sharp, especially Rodri in front of the back four, than they usually do. The good news? Kevin De Bruyne and Erling Haaland’s understanding continues to grow and the big Norwegian is now in double figures, scoring his 10th goal of the season. Maybe Guardiola is right: no reason to be fussed if that guy is simply going to get better.
Defensive errors, standout keeping performances … déjà vu as Bayern drop points again
Another week, another 1-1 draw for Bayern Munich, this time on the road against Union Berlin — who, lest we forget, may be the feel-good underdog from the capital, but are level on points with Bayern and are unbeaten in twelve league games. Still, the script was similar to what we saw against Borussia Monchengladbach a week ago. We saw Bayern go down early to a defensive error (losing Sheraldo Becker on the free kick), we saw them equalise and uncork a ton of shots and we saw an opposing keeper make some unbelievable saves (Frederik Ronnow wasn’t quite as out-of-this-world as Yann Sommer last week, but not far off either).
My instinct is to point to the usual statistical markers (Bayern had more xG — 1.54 to 0.33 — more shots — 21 to 7 — and more possession — 74% to 26%) and suggest there’s no reason to worry. That said, Julian Nagelsmann, ever the nitpicker, did note that his team’s energy levels were down compared to earlier outings. He may have a point. Dropping Thomas Muller — with hindsight — probably didn’t help: Jamal Musiala is simply a different kind of player. That said, at some point Bayern need to wean themselves off Muller, who turns 33 next week.
Chelsea scrape derby win, but still no performance amidst VAR-pocalypse
Dale Johnson says there is a long way to go for people to trust Premier League referees again after a weekend of catastrophic VAR decisions.
Thomas Tuchel mixed things up for Chelsea against West Ham, possibly to give some guys a breather ahead of the Champions League, possibly to freshen things up. We thus saw Kai Havertz and Mason Mount make way for Christian Pulisic and Conor Gallagher respectively, while Wesley Fofana made his debut at the back. It’s going to take more than that to fix what ails Chelsea right now though, because in a physical and contested first half, they didn’t manage a single shot on target (and for the entire game only cobbled together an xG of 0.77).
Business picked up once Armando Broja came on (and later, Havertz too), but the turning point came courtesy of Ben Chilwell down the left, who replaced the ineffective Marc Cucurella. You can praise Tuchel for making the right substitutions (all three men played key roles in both goals in the 2-1 win) or question why he got it wrong in the first place. In some ways Chelsea were fortunate to come away with all three points. Michail Antonio hit the woodwork late on, and of course, Maxwel Cornet’s equaliser was disallowed (after VAR intervention) for the incident between Jarrod Bowen and Edouard Mendy.
It was controversial, and personally, I wouldn’t be scandalised if it had gone either way since what we’re judging, ultimately, is whether Bowen made enough of an effort to avoid Mendy. But I do think, given the way VAR is supposed to work, the only way referee Andy Madley should have been called to the screen for the on-field review is if he failed to see Bowen’s trailing leg make contact with Mendy. If he did see it and didn’t think it was a foul in real time, I don’t see on what basis VAR Jarred Gillett can tell him: “Mate, take another look, Bowen clearly left his leg in there to foul Mendy, the contact was neither accidental nor incidental.”
This is an obvious case where, if the conversation between VAR and referee were made public — even after the game — we’d all be better off. Folks may still be upset, but at least we’d know for what.
Neymar started each of Paris Saint-Germain’s first six games of the season (counting the French Super Cup) so it’s not surprising that Christophe Galtier gave him a breather away to Nantes, sending him only for the last half hour. (I doubt he has ever started that many games in a row since arriving in the French capital back in 2017.)
In his absence, Kylian Mbappe and Lionel Messi did the heavy lifting: two goals for the former and two assists for the latter. It helped that Nantes went down to ten men after 24 minutes and perhaps also that PSG weren’t in a mood to run up the score. But keep an eye on Galtier’s rotations (he did it in the last few games). They could prove critical in pursuing the one trophy they really want: the Champions League.
Liverpool held in Merseyside derby … do enough to win, but worry in midfield
Janusz Michallik points the finger at Mohamed Salah & Trent Alexander-Arnold after Liverpool are held by Everton.
The Merseyside derby played out the way many of these clashes do: tons of intensity, not as much quality, with the more talented side — Liverpool in this case — slipping to the level of the opposition. Liverpool hit the woodwork three times and this game could easily have broken their way, but then Everton also rattled the frame of the goal and Conor Coady‘s late strike was (correctly) disallowed for a close offside. And on a different day, with a different referee, Virgil Van Dijk may well have been sent off.
The upshot is that this is the worst start of the Jurgen Klopp era in terms of points. That matters because it’s how we keep score, but what matters more is the performance. And here again the weak spot is in the middle of the park, where the absences of Thiago Alcantara and Jordan Henderson (and potential replacements like Curtis Jones, Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain and Naby Keita) weigh heavily.
Fabio Carvalho got to audition in that role and this probably wasn’t the game for that. Klopp will need to find a solution here, because there’s a tough and fixture-congested period ahead. Might it be Arthur, who arrived on loan from Juventus? Possibly, though he’s coming from three tough seasons in which we’ve only seen glimpses of what he can do. Right now, if he simply gives Liverpool minutes and a live body, it’s already a plus. Anything more is gravy.
Kids drive Real Madrid past Betis … best possible news for club
Real Madrid returned to the Bernabeu to face Betis, LaLiga’s only other perfect side to that point and emerged as 2-1 winners. Carlo Ancelotti’s men did get the breaks — William Carvalho and German Pezzella were unavailable and Nabil Fekir went off after ten minutes — but they fully deserved their victory. And the twist here is that Ancelotti leaned on the youngsters — wingers Rodrygo and Vinicius, both of whom scored — as well as Aurelien Tchouameni and Eduardo Camavinga in the middle of the park (plus Fede Valverde, when he came on).
At some point, Real Madrid will need to transition away from the Luka Modric–Toni Kroos–Karim Benzema generation, and on a day when Modric and Benzema were quiet (and Kroos was on the bench) it was important for the others to step up. It’s critical, in fact, because there is no quality alternative to Benzema up front. Ancelotti, ever the club man, disagreed, rattling off the many alternatives (Mariano Diaz, Eden Hazard, Rodrygo, Marco Asensio) when asked, but if you looked closely, you probably saw his nose growing ever so slightly.
Allegri’s comments do Juventus no favours after drab draw
It’s hard to tell what was more disappointing about Juventus’ 1-1 draw away to Fiorentina, which could easily have been a defeat if Luka Jovic had buried his penalty. Was it the fact that Juventus didn’t manage a single shot after minute 28? Was it the fact that, at half-time, he sent on a defender (Mattia De Sciglio) for a winger in Angel Di Maria? Was it the fact that Dusan Vlahovic stayed on the bench for 90 minutes?
Was it the fact that based on average positions Juve’s wingers sat deeper than Fiorentina’s fullbacks (who, incidentally, aren’t Cafu and Roberto Carlos but Dodo and Cristiano Biraghi)? Was it Allegri telling his players to slow things down and defend the draw late in the game? Was it his postgame comments, when he referenced the Champions League and said it wasn’t about PSG, and the game they needed to worry about winning was against Benfica?
The draw leaves Juve just two points off the top, which will become four if Atalanta win away to Monza on Monday night. And, yes, they’ve had plenty of injuries. But what gets you are the vibes Allegri sends out: they feel so negative, so conservative, so defeatist, so out-of-step with the current game. He needs to lift the mood in double-quick time.
Richarlison is Tottenham’s value added as Spurs beat Fulham
Janusz Michallik says Tottenham are looking exactly like an Antonio Conte team after beating Fulham.
There’s a view that Antonio Conte doesn’t like rotating much, which makes sense for a guy who’s so big on chemistry and muscle-memory patterns of play. Some of that is down to the fact that some of his greatest recent success (the Premier League title at Chelsea and the Scudetto at Inter) came in seasons when there was no European football for his team or when they were knocked out before Christmas.
But Conte can read a fixture list as well as anyone. And he knows that the unprecedented fixture congestion between now and the World Cup in November (and the fallout after it) makes load management a necessity. That’s why he pushed so hard for Richarlison, a guy who he believes can slot in any of the front three roles. And that’s why, in the 2-1 win over Fulham, we saw Clement Lenglet and Richarlison make their debuts as starters, while Ryan Sessegnon returned in place of Ivan Perisic down the left.
Spurs played well and could have scored more (Son Heung-Min, whose finishing hasn’t been great of late, still hasn’t scored but looks on his way back) and the finale was needlessly nervy. But Richarlison clearly gave them another dimension in terms of drive and intensity, and the yellow card he got for celebrating a goal that was later disallowed is fun footnote (for the neutral, less for him). He may not be first choice, but he’ll get plenty of minutes.
I have no idea if Khvicha Kvaratskhelia can continue playing at this level, but few young newcomers this side of Erling Haaland have had such an immediate impact on a league. He and Victor Osimhen ripped Lazio to shreds on the road and the young Georgian displayed his full repertoire of pace, technique, intensity and physicality, all in a compact package.
Lazio boss Maurizio Sarri had a meltdown after the game and made some serious comments about the match officials. He was angry that Mario Rui wasn’t sent off for an elbow on Mattia Zaccagni (fair enough, it should have gone to VAR) but then he doubled down saying it was either “incompetence or bad faith” and talking about how somebody told him in the tunnel pregame that the referee was going make Lazio “pay” in this game.
It seems pretty obvious that Sarri’s comments need to be investigated. You can’t make accusations like that without being able to back them up. Next time, rather than talking about mystery figures who appear in the players tunnel brandishing threats, how about ensuring you put together more than 0.37 xG at home?
Sarri is, in some ways, a coaching genius. But he let himself down badly with his postgame words.
Atletico settle for a point, but Griezmann “load management” is grotesque
Atletico Madrid turned in one of their better performances of the season in the away draw to Real Sociedad. It was very much a “trap” game against an opponent that can blow hot and cold, but is often a tough out at home. Both sides had chances, but Atleti had the better ones and will rue not killing off the game after taking an early lead through Alvaro Morata.
That said, the Antoine Griezmann situation is a sad reflection on the state of the game and the club (and the folly of the previous Barcelona regime). You may recall that Barcelona, in a desperate effort to get Griezmann and his salary off the books in the summer of 2021, sent him to Atletico Madrid on a two-year loan. But there’s a rider: if he plays more than a certain proportion of minutes, then the deal becomes permanent and Atletico have to pay Barcelona €40 million.
The exact conditions haven’t been disclosed and reports vary on what those conditions are, but it seems pretty evident that the club are actively limiting his minutes. After all, Atletico don’t want to have to pay Barcelona €40m for a guy who’ll be 32 next summer (and will have another year left on his hefty contract). If they keep him, they’d much rather negotiate a fee with Barca, one which will almost certainly be far lower than €40m.
The “victim” in all this — especially in a World Cup year — is Griezmann himself. He’ll be rested come November, but how match-fit he’ll be remains a question mark.
Bas Dost started for Utrecht and scored in their 4-3 away victory against Fortuna Sittard. He now has four goals in five appearances for Utrecht and is on pace to score 38 goals in the Eredivisie. This concludes this installment of #BasDostWatch.