Arsenal take big step towards Premier League title, Barcelona’s statement win over Real Madrid, more

Janusz Michallik discusses Arsenal’s derby win over Tottenham and their Premier League title chances. (1:29)

It’s back! The first Marcotti Musings of 2023 is here, and the European soccer weekend offered up plenty to talk about, from Arsenal, Barcelona and Man United getting memorable, morale-boosting wins over their rivals Tottenham, Real Madrid and Man City respectively to more pain at Liverpool.

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Also, Newcastle are for real, Chelsea picked up precious points (while also signing Mykhailo Mudryk, an Arsenal target) and Atletico Madrid‘s top four hopes in LaLiga are fading fast.

It’s Monday, and Gab Marcotti reacts to the biggest moments in the world of football.

Arsenal have been top of the Premier League table since day one, yet many of us expected them to falter at some point. Not least because, well, their pace doesn’t look sustainable: At this rate, they’ll collect 99 points, which would be the second-highest total in league history. And so you find yourself looking at the fixture list and trying to pick out games where they could drop points.

Tottenham away on Sunday was one of those games. It’s the North London derby, Spurs had beaten them the previous season, Arsenal had been held at home by Newcastle in their last league outing, Eddie Nketiah was still starting up front … except it didn’t happen. On the contrary, Arsenal turned in a masterful, comprehensive performance at both ends of the pitch, winning 2-0.

It’s true that the first goal was thanks to a howler by Hugo Lloris and the second was a long-range, low-xG shot by Martin Odegaard (and one that Lloris might have done better with, too). But the attacking display in the first half left Spurs fighting shadows and frankly, they could have scored more.

Mikel Arteta’s set-up — whether you call it a 4-3-3 or 4-2-3-1 — becomes a tricky, asymmetrical unit when Oleksandr Zinchenko steps into midfield, combining with Granit Xhaka and Gabriel Martinelli down the left, while Bukayo Saka has the run of the right wing. It works because the players know their jobs and have fully bought into Arteta’s instructions and are committed to them. It also works because they’ve largely stayed fit: even Gabriel Jesus‘ absence has been successfully weathered thus far, not because Nketiah is anywhere near his level (he isn’t), but because he’s smart and can replicate much of what the Brazilian brought to the table in terms of movement, on and off the ball.

Across the way, Antonio Conte could sit back and point to the xG, individual errors, some excellent saves by Aaron Ramsdale or the absence of Rodrigo Bentancur for an alibi. But if he did, he’d be lying to himself. Tottenham were passive and entirely lacking in the intensity we usually associate with Conte-led sides during the first half. On top of that, they defended deep and narrow, and Arsenal went to town on them.

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Some have criticised him for his substitutions, leaving Son Heung-Min (who was having a major off-day) on the pitch and giving Richarlison only 20 minutes to make an impact. I have less of an issue with that: replacing Son with Richarlison would have left him with no alternatives if he then wanted to send on another striker. Also, sending on Richarlison for a defender would have meant switching to a back four. Conte eventually did that, of course, but you can see how he did not want to go 4-2-4 too early.

Fourth place is now five points away, and Tottenham have to continue to believe they’ll catch somebody. But if they’re going to have a prayer, they can’t put on the sort of display we saw before the break.

As for Arsenal, you’re still looking at the fixture list and figuring out where they might stumble. It’s just that with every week that passes, there are fewer and fewer of those games.

Barcelona manager Xavi says Barcelona freed themselves and did their best after a victory in the Spanish Super Cup final against Real Madrid.

If trophies and wins in big games are what build confidence and belief, then Barcelona just got a massive injection with the 3-1 win over Real Madrid in the Spanish Supercup on Sunday.

It’s the first piece of silverware for Xavi and Joan Laporta in this new Barca tenure, and while the Supercup itself isn’t a measure of much, it still represents the clearing of a psychological hurdle. And, of course, the fact that it came against Real Madrid — who last lost a final back in 2013, when their manager was a certain Jose Mourinho — makes it all the more important. Partly because it’s the age-old rival, and partly because it bursts the whole narrative of mental strength and fortitude and invincibility that surrounds Madrid, particularly after last year’s Champions League run.

That’s the intangible, symbolic side, but to me, more relevant is the performance.

Xavi re-engineered Barca with a 4-2-3-1 formation that saw Gavi given free rein down the left operating not as a traditional winger, but as a kind of roving spoiler, free to link up with Pedri and Robert Lewandowski. The kid — yes, he’s still just 18 — was devastating, but it was Barca’s whole XI that simply outplayed Real Madrid in every area of the pitch.

Barca remain a more fragile construct than they really should be, but Xavi is working to change that. Sunday night was the perfect building block.

Carlo Ancelotti shares the reasons he believes cost Real Madrid’s 3-1 defeat to Barcelona in the Spanish Super Cup final.

As for Madrid, the argument works in reverse. Losing the Supercup doesn’t move the needle — and nobody will care if they deliver in LaLiga and/or the Champions League — but the performance should matter. They were abject defensively (mistakes from Ferland Mendy, Antonio Rudiger and Dani Carvajal cost them dearly) but also on the attacking end in midfield.

Reaction: Gavi, Barcelona humble Real Madrid
Xavi: Gavi’s heart and soul ‘contagious’ at Barcelona
Ancelotti denies defeat was humiliating vs. rivals

This is where alarm bells should go off. When your starting lineup includes both Toni Kroos and Luka Modric, you’re probably better off keeping more of the ball than chasing Barca around, yet they struggled to do that. Eduardo Camavinga had a rough ride and Aurelien Tchouameni was sorely missed (as was David Alaba at the back), but again, you wonder about the depth and range of options in this squad.

It’s not a question of numbers; it’s a question of options that fit together while being able to play the game Carlo Ancelotti wants to play. There’s a Champions League crown and a LaLiga title to defend. And it feels as if the margins are so tight that everything has to go right for it to happen.

Craig Burley believes Man United are in the Premier League title race after their 2-1 win over Man City.

Let’s get the goal out of the way. I appreciate the referees’ fraternity insisting that it should have stood because Marcus Rashford did not touch the ball. I’ll just refer you to Chapter 11.2 of the Laws of the Game, which states that players in an offside position (like Rashford) are to be penalised on becoming involved in active play by “making an obvious action which clearly impacts on the ability to of an opponent to play the ball.”

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TUESDAY, JAN. 17 (all times ET)
Real Sociedad vs. Mallorca (1 p.m.)
Wolverhampton vs. Liverpool (2:40 p.m.)
Forest Green vs. Birmingham (2:40 p.m.)

WEDNESDAY, JAN. 18 (all times ET)
Athletic Club vs. Espanyol (2 p.m.)
Leeds United vs. Cardiff City (2:40 p.m.)
Levante vs. Atletico Madrid (3 p.m.)

As I see it, that’s exactly what Rashford did simply by running after the through-ball and shaping up as if he was going to take a touch, even if he didn’t. His body language and movement directly impacted two opponents: Kyle Walker, who angled his run to stop Rashford, not Bruno Fernandes, and, especially, Ederson, who did not come out to clear the ball. They could not have known Rashford was offside at the time and his actions made them believe he was on.

This is pretty obvious, and hiding behind a different interpretation of the Laws of the Game seems petty and needless. Oh, and by the way, I don’t agree with those who yearn for a simpler time when the referee had more discretion to apply “common sense” and there was less detail in the laws. The law seems pretty darn clear to me: Rashford’s “obvious action” clearly impacted Walker and Ederson’s ability to play the ball.

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That said, United played very well and deserved their three points. Erling Haaland was limited to just two shots and a handful of touches. The CasemiroFred partnership in Man United’s midfield worked. So did Christian Eriksen further up the pitch and Luke Shaw at center-back.

Off the ball, they played with purpose, discipline and organization. That’s on Erik ten Hag who, perhaps realising it’s going to take time to play the football he played at Ajax, is willing to be creative in how he approaches games.

Craig Burley and Luis Miguel Echegaray discuss Man United’s controversial equaliser vs. Man City.

As for City, they looked flat and managed just a single, innocuous shot on goal in the last half-hour. That’s very unlike Pep Guardiola teams. With hindsight, this was probably a game for someone like Ilkay Gundogan, especially once it became obvious how United were going to play.

An eight-point margin at the top of the table, with 20 games to go, is significant in the title race, and Pep knows this. But, presumably, he also knows that if Arsenal are going to be stopped, his crew have the best chance to do it.

Paris Saint-Germain were almost comically poor in Sunday’s 1-0 defeat at Rennes, and you wonder if there’s a post-Qatar effect in play here. Consider their results since the World Cup. They needed an injury time penalty to beat Strasbourg, they lost to Lens, they were unimpressive for long stretches against Angers and now comes this defeat to Rennes.

Sure, there was some rotation of the squad, but they still finished the game with Kylian Mbappe, Lionel Messi and Neymar on the pitch at the same time. Yes, they started the 16-year-old wunderkind Warren Zaire-Emery in midfield, but he wasn’t the problem. They were simply listless and outplayed by a Rennes side long on youth and exuberance, but also tactical nous and game plan.

The gap between PSG and Lens at the top is just three points, and you’d imagine they can kick it up several gears if they want to. But you also imagine Christophe Galtier would have preferred more of a buffer going into the spring when the Champions League kicks in.

Steve Nicol struggles to remember a worse Liverpool performance since Jurgen Klopp took over in 2015.

Jurgen Klopp can be brutally straight when he wants to be, and he left no doubt how he felt following Liverpool’s 3-0 defeat at Brighton, saying: “I honestly can’t [remember a worse game] and I mean all [my career], not only Liverpool, and that’s my responsibility. So that makes it a really low point.”

Obviously Liverpool had a range of players unavailable, but as Klopp himself points out, it doesn’t explain the performance and no, it wasn’t a case of Brighton simply being better. They were — and all credit to Roberto De Zerbi’s crew — but Liverpool’s performance was so abject it is a matter apart. Especially in midfield, where the trio of Fabinho, Jordan Henderson and Thiago Alcantara are supposed to be first choice. This team has multiple issues, but midfield stands out because their work was such a huge part of both their attacking press and as a defensive shield for the back four.

Klopp: Liverpool’s slump is my concern, not transfers

New signing Cody Gakpo made his Premier League debut and, unsurprisingly, had little impact. You wonder too where he fits long term when everybody is fit. Mohamed Salah is locked in through 2025, while Gakpo, Jota, Darwin Nunez and Luis Diaz are all signed at least through 2027. That’s a lot of firepower for three spots, when the midfield feels comparatively undermanned. And, of course, all this plays out against the backdrop of high profile recruitment guys who are gone (Michael Edwards) or going (Julian Ward, Ian Graham) and the club being up for sale.

Milan dozed through a first half against Lecce that saw them two goals down (and it could have been more), before coming back to snatch a 2-2 draw. They’re still second in Serie A, but as Stefano Pioli pointed out, “their approach was wrong.” If by “approach,” he means they were a defensive shambles (especially Pierre Kalulu and Theo Hernandez, who are supposed to be two of their best players) he’s undoubtedly correct.

Read all the latest news and reaction from ESPN FC senior writer Gabriele Marcotti.

The good news is they’re still second, albeit nine points back from Napoli. The bad news is they look like they’re running on fumes.

The knee-jerk reaction to their form is to blame the summer signings for not taking the strain off the regulars. And to be fair, the likes of Charles De Ketelaere, Divock Origi, Sergino Dest and Aster Vranckx have contributed little. Had they come up big, then maybe Pioli could have rotated more, and the team could have maintained the same intensity — both physical and mental, judging from the first 45 minutes in Lecce — throughout the season. But it’s not uncommon for newcomers to struggle in Milan before coming good — just look at Rafael Leao and Sandro Tonali. And there’s reason to believe that at least De Ketelaere and Vranckx (who are 21 and 20 respectively) will come good.

With Mykhailo Mudryk looking set to join Chelsea instead of Arsenal, Steve Nicol thinks the Ukrainian is taking a big risk.

Kai Havertz scored the lone goal that gave Chelsea all three points against Crystal Palace on Sunday, and it meant that instead of one win in their past 10, it’s now two wins in 10 for Graham Potter. It’s nothing to write home about, but it does mean that they’ve averted further descent into crisis.

In the meantime, Chelsea secured the signing of Shakhtar Donetsk winger Mykhailo Mudryk for €70m, a fee that will rise to €100m with bonuses. It’s a steep fee for a 22-year-old with 33 career league starts to his name — and nearly half of them on loan from Shakhtar — while the contract he signed through 2031, with an option for 2032, is a serious commitment, probably designed with Financial Fair Play in mind.

Shakhtar donate $25m of Mudryk fee to Ukraine war effort

Mudryk is one of the most exciting talents on the global stage, albeit somebody who is still somewhat raw and, in that sense, is reminiscent of Sunday’s goal scorer, Havertz, when he arrived.

Bring in the talent, worry about what he can do later. It’s one way to approach things, but it still feels like Chelsea’s biggest needs — midfield and center-forward, with Armando Broja sidelined and Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang already 33 years old and without a start for Chelsea since before the World Cup — remain unaddressed. (Havertz, Chelsea’s de facto center-forward, has said he’s “playing as a 9” rather than describing himself as a No.9, which is an accurate description.)

It would be fun to see how a creative tactical mind like Potter puts these unorthodox pieces together and holds them into a team… if he had the time to do so. But he has no time. Chelsea are midtable, and the fixture list is packed. That’s a big concern, at least for this season.

I think we’ve seen this before: Atletico Madrid dominated much of the game against Almeria, but failed to convert their chances and left two huge points on the road. Alvaro Morata will again get the brunt of the criticism and to be fair, on a day when they played well and created chances, it’s par for the course.

Ordinarily, you wouldn’t be as concerned given a performance like this, but Atletico are a fragile club upstairs and the dropped points mean that while they remain fourth on 28 points, there are five other clubs in the hunt: Villarreal, Betis (both 28, like Atleti), Osasuna (27), Athletic Bilbao and Raylo Vallecano (both 26).

Real Sociedad, who beat Athletic Club this weekend, are flying and are seven points clear in third. They’re unlikely to be caught, which means Atleti need to top their “mini-league” of Champions League spot contenders. If they’re going to do that, they’re going to have to convert what they create.

Alexander Isak came on against Fulham to score a late, late (but deserved) winner for Newcastle, which sees them consolidate third place in the table alongside Manchester United. They’re now 14 games unbeaten in the league and Isak, who has been injured for most of the campaign, gives Eddie Howe a valuable alternative to Callum Wilson up front.

Newcastle are well ahead of schedule in terms of results, and it’s a credit to the work Howe has done. Right now, they’re one of the toughest outs in the Premier League, and they’re doing it with a bunch of holdovers from the pre-Saudi days as well as more recent signings. That’s a testament, above all, to good coaching and work on the training pitch.

With Simone Inzaghi clearly looking ahead to the midweek Italian Supercup against Milan in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, Saturday’s 1-0 home result vs. Verona was a maximum result/minimum effort performance for Inter. In fact, it panned out exactly as you’d want it to. Score early with Lautaro Martinez — who thankfully has put his World Cup misses behind him and has found the net in each of the last three games — and then control the game.

It helped that Verona were poor, mustering a miserable xG of just 0.18. In normal circumstances, you might criticize Inter for not getting a second and giving themselves a greater margin of error. But this season isn’t “normal circumstances” for Inter.