Credit to Author: Gabriele Marcotti| Date: Mon, 18 Sep 2023 12:47:00 EST
The international break ended last week and European club soccer returned in style this weekend, with several big wins and shocking results to discuss. The first Milan derby of the season ended in a thumping 5-1 win for Inter over Milan, Manchester United were humbled 3-1 at home to Brighton, and Barcelona turned in perhaps their best performance of the season in thrashing Real Betis.
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It’s Monday, and Gab Marcotti reacts to the biggest moments in the world of football.
Pragmatism is a bit of a dirty word in football because in the mouth of many pundits, it too often it means “defensive.” But that’s just poor word usage. In reality, it means being flexible, finding the best approach for a particular game and being able to execute that approach. And that’s exactly what Inter coach Simone Inzaghi does.
We’ve seen his entire side play possession, we’ve seen them press, we’ve seen them commit men forward. And we’ve seen them play like they did on Saturday against Milan in the derby: conceding the ball and hitting on the break in the most devastating way en route to a resounding 5-1 victory.
It’s true that, once again, Inter took an early lead, and this sport gets a whole heck of a lot easier when you go a goal up. But it’s also true that they looked in control throughout, even after Rafael Leão pulled one back and their lead was halved.
Let’s also give Inzaghi credit for two other things. The first is simply the reinvention of Henrikh Mkhitaryan and Hakan Çalhanoğlu from attacking midfielders into all-rounders. It dates back to last season, and it’s all the more impressive because both were in the latter stages of their career. That’s not just tactics — it’s down to man management and emotional IQ as well.
The other is how quickly Inter have adapted to the switch from Edin Dzeko/Romelu Lukaku to Marcus Thuram. The Frenchman may be tall and strong, but he has an entirely different skill set from the guys he replaced. And yet, his partnership with Lautaro Martínez has flourished.
As for Milan, this was a kick in the teeth after a promising start to the season. Manager Stefano Pioli is getting hammered for some of his choices and, to be fair, getting right-back Davide Calabria to step into midfield like he was some cross between João Cancelo and Dani Alves feels like a bad idea.
Is it something he feels he has to do because his deepest lying midfielder, Rade Krunic, isn’t the playmaking type? Maybe, and maybe things will improve if and when Ismaël Bennacer is fit again. Until then, if they fall behind against a team that’s defensively disciplined and looks to hit on the counter, Milan will suffer unless they get a moment of magic from their individuals (Leao, Theo Hernández, Christian Pulisic) or a set-piece. And that’s a problem.
Back to Inter. It’s too early to tell whether they can replicate last year’s achievements, and I don’t love what they did in the summer — bringing in old reserve strikers and Benjamin Pavard, for a start — but despite their financial constraints, they look competitive again. A lot of that is on Inzaghi who, once again, is proving how many people were wrong to underestimate him for so long.
Craig Burley blasts the ‘nonsense’ of Manchester United manager Erik ten Hag after their 3-1 loss at home to Brighton.
Manchester United lasted about 20 minutes on Saturday. They took the game to a Brighton side that made six changes from the team that beat Newcastle, looked dangerous and confident with Erik ten Hag’s new-look formation and then conceded against the run of play to, of all people, Danny Welbeck (insult to injury is the technical term). Their reaction soon fizzled, and they were second best again the rest of the way. It finished 3-1 to Brighton; had it been scored on points, like gymnastics, the margin would have been greater.
Credit Roberto De Zerbi and Brighton, sure. What they’ve built is remarkable. But Erik ten Hag has to endure the scrutiny, and he doesn’t help himself when he talks of “fine margins.” Not when he gets spanked at home by a side that cost one-fifth as much to assemble as it cost United in transfer fees for Antony 13 months ago.
Sometimes, more than one thing can be true: Ten Hag is unlucky, but he also had a big hand in United’s implosion on Saturday. He’s unlucky because United is a cauldron of instability (with the ownership situation) and discontent (among the fans), because Harry Maguire is still there, because his two first options at left-back are unavailable, because Jadon Sancho put himself on the naughty step again, because one Mason (Mount) is injured and another Mason (Greenwood) is at Getafe, and because Antony is in Sao Paulo following serious allegations by two different women.
OK, none of that helps, but neither does redrawing the formation so that Diogo Dalot — and not Aaron Wan-Bissaka — is left one-on-one with Kaoru Mitoma. Or conjuring up a diamond midfield scheme that includes Scott McTominay, and which you’ve never played before and presumably (given the amount of wingers on the team) will never play again. Or taking off Rasmus Holland for Antony Martial, whose main purpose at Old Trafford these days seems to be getting booed. Those things are on Ten Hag.
Rob Dawson reacts to loud boos at Old Trafford after Erik ten Hag’s decision to sub Anthony Martial on for Rasmus Hojlund.
United have now lost three of their first five games, which hadn’t happened since the 1989-90 season, when Sir Alex Ferguson nearly lost his job, and they next face a trip to Munich to face Bayern and Harry Kane (fun …) in the Champions League.
Ten Hag is tasked with building while getting results, which is hard enough. If you’re going to focus on one or the other, let it be the first. And let’s not see again the sort of collapse we saw at Old Trafford.
Barcelona were simply devastating in their five-nil annihilation of Real Betis to the point that it could have been their best performance under Xavi.
On a day when everything went right, it was the two late-summer Portuguese newcomers who stole the show: Joao Cancelo and especially, Joao Felix. The former came inside often, adding another playmaking option, while scoring a stunning goal of his own, the latter opened the scoring and his dummy on Robert Lewandowski‘s goal was so good it probably should merit an assist, even though he didn’t actually touch the ball.
I was not a fan of the Jorge Mendes-inspired Ansu Fati for Joao Felix switch and I’m still not sold, though a few more performances like Saturday’s will likely change my mind. There were two main reasons. One is Joao Felix himself. For all his immense gifts, he’s only lived up to his talent in spurts, both for Atletico Madrid and Portugal. He turns 24 in November, his progress should have been steadier than it has been and when things don’t go his way, he has a tendency to become a distraction.
Gab & Juls discuss Joao Felix’s performance in Barcelona’s 5-0 win against Real Betis in LaLiga.
The other is simply resource allocation. It’s true that Atleti are picking up the tab for a chunk of his wages, but he still feels like a pricey add-on. Another left-sided attacker, when you’ve already spent big to acquire Raphinha, didn’t seem to make much sense, especially when, for most of the latter half of last season, you had plenty with two front men and this season could count on Lamine Yamal, Ferran Torres and Ansu Fati as alternatives.
Instead, Barca opted to swap the latter for Joao Felix and you can begin to see why. The Portuguese forward’s versatility gives you a flexibility that Ansu Fati could not provide. On Saturday, he was a de facto second striker, leaving the wide area to Alejandro Balde, and immediately found the right chemistry with Lewandowski.
Assuming Joao Felix maintains his level, is this a long-term solution? I’m still not convinced, because when Pedri and Ilkay Gündogan are fit, you presume they’ll start. And even if one bounces Oriol Romeu (who is still the only genuine defensive midfielder on this team) from the middle of the park, the other will necessarily force Gavi out wide, back to where he was playing last year. And then there will be just two forward slots: one for Lewandowski and one for Yamal, Ferran Torres, Raphinha and Joao Felix to fight over.
Teams need deep squads, sure, but most successful sides have a clear hierarchy as well. Regular rotation is a nice idea, though it’s generally not workable in practice unless you are successful and have a ton of charisma/man-management skills.
Does that describe Xavi? We’ll find out. For now, Barca fans are loving it, and who could blame them?
“WTF” was Jurgen Klopp’s description of parts of the first half, and it’s very apt. Liverpool found themselves down a goal almost straight away and could muster just one shot in the first 38 minutes, by which time they could have been two or even three down.
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SATURDAY, SEPT. 23 (all times ET)
• Borussia Dortmund vs. Wolfsburg (9 a.m.)
• Bayern Munich vs. Vfl Bochum (9 a.m.)
• Middlesbrough vs. Southampton (10 a.m.)
• Osasuna vs. Sevilla (10 a.m.)
• Barcelona vs. Celta Vigo (12 p.m.)
• PSV vs. Almere City (2 p.m.)
• St. Pauli vs. Schalke 04 (2:25 p.m.)
• Richmond Kickers vs. Greenville (6 p.m.)
SUNDAY, SEPT. 24 (all times ET)
• Atletico Madrid vs. Real Madrid (3 p.m.)
Some of the chaos was beyond Klopp’s control — witness the unavailability of Trent Alexander-Arnold and Virgil Van Dijk, with the latter forcing him to give Jarell Quansah his first top-flight start — but some of it, like playing Alexis Mac Allister in front of the back four fresh off the flight from international duty, which included a game at altitude in Bolívia, was down to him.
That said, Klopp was bold in trying to turn things around. He yanked Mac Allister and sent on Luis Díaz, switching to a de facto 4-2-4, with Dominik Szoboszlai and Curtis Jones as his sole midfielders. They found their mojo, Mohamed Salah served up three assists and they won 3-1 (with a bit of good fortune perhaps).
Credit Klopp’s courage, and credit the fact that Salah was true to his word in turning down the lure of Saudi Arabia. But if you’re a Liverpool fan, you’ll be hoping that first half was just a blip.
Yeah the last bit is a joke just to remind us that the guy is a midfielder, not a striker. And, in fact, he had a great chance at the end of this game (and would have had an excellent chance earlier, if Rodrygo hadn’t beaten him to it with an ill-advised overhead kick). The main thing is that Real Madrid’s 2-1 win over a quality side like La Real, with Takefusa Kubo playing out of his skin, leaves them perfect on the season, and that’s not something to be taken for granted when you’re without Thibaut Courtois, Éder Militão and Vinicius.
The trio of absentees, who also happen to be the best at the club in each area of the pitch, leaves a gaping hole, but the good news is that Real Madrid’s midfield showed it can be good enough to make up for it. And role players like Fran García (not a patch on Ferland Mendy defensively, but a very effective provider) and especially Joselu, who hit the woodwork and scored the winner, are there to capitalize on what the midfield builds.
Speaking of Joselu, we haven’t seen a center-forward like him playing regularly at the Bernabeu since the days of Ruud Van Nistelrooy nearly 20 years ago. Carlo Ancelotti loves the added dimension he gives them, to the point that I’m not sure it’s a given that when Vinicius returns he’s going to make way from the starting XI.
Mark Ogden discusses Arsenal’s goalkeeping options after David Raya started ahead of Aaron Ramsdale in their win vs. Everton.
Arsenal did what they hadn’t managed to do at Goodison in years: win. Leandro Trossard scored the game’s only goal, but really the gap between them and Arsenal — even a relatively pedestrian Arsenal — was more than just a single score.
In some ways, the game was overshadowed by the fact that Mikel Arteta dropped Aaron Ramsdale for David Raya. Arteta insisted it was no big deal, just simple rotation: “It’s the same rationale that… Eddie [Nketiah] played instead of Gabriel Jesus,” he said. “I haven’t had a single question on why Gabriel Jesus hasn’t started.”
Arteta even said he might substitute a keeper during a game, perhaps to gain a tactical advantage, just as he would do for an outfield player: “We play with 11 players, we don’t play with ten plus one.”
Arteta may have a point, but he’s also going against 100-plus years of football here. There have been very few examples in history of successful clubs alternating keepers throughout the season and, you assume, there’s a reason for it. Like maybe the fact that fatigue isn’t really an issue for them since they don’t run much (if at all), or the fact that, given the nature of their job, they don’t usually lend themselves to some kind of tactical change the way an outfield player might.
And even if there isn’t, even if it’s just people doing the same thing again and again because they don’t have the courage to do something different and better… well, you still have the problem of how it affects the keepers themselves. Raya and Ramsdale aren’t blank slates; mentally, they have to adjust, and they grew up doing things a certain way.
Is getting them to embrace a new mentality worth the risk? Time will tell. You hope Arteta has fully thought this one through, especially the way it will affect Ramsdale. Whatever else he may be, the Arsenal manager is a brave man.
Mats Hummels entered the history books with a bullet header and a scrambled winning goal in Borussia Dortmund’s 4-2 road win against Freiburg. He has now scored in 16 consecutive seasons, equalling the mark set by Olaf Thon. Whatever else you think of the guy and whether he should even be starting at this stage — goodness knows, I’ve been critical — it’s significant and you can only be happy for him.
Beyond that, it was a big win on the road for Borussia Dortmund and it should alleviate some pressure on Edin Terzic. It showed plenty of character and self-belief, with the final two goals in the 4-2 win coming in the final two minutes. The performance itself was better than in recent weeks, though not yet where they want it to be. And this being Dortmund, they found new ways to engage in self-harm, like conceding two goals in first-half stoppage time, to go from 1-0 up to 2-1 down.
It’s better, I guess, than the Keystone Kops defending we’ve seen on other occasions, but it’s hard to explain how this stuff happens at this level. Still, you take the points — and the positives — and move on.
James Olley wonders what Phil Foden’s best role is after an underwhelming performance in Man City’s win vs. West Ham.
If you only watched the condensed highlights, you might think that this was a close game. West Ham deservedly take the lead, City only equalize 15 minutes from time on a defensive blunder and their third comes in garbage time. All of the above is true, but it ignores the fact that City took 29 shots on goal (with an xG of 3.22), Hammers goalkeeper Alphonse Areola made a string of standout saves, Erling Haaland made some near-comical finishing errors (by his standards) and City simply looked really good. It’s that much more impressive when you consider that West Ham played really well and there were few moments where you can point to them making mistakes.
A shoutout as well to Jérémy Doku, who scored a fine goal and whose speed and dribbling ability gives City a dimension they haven’t had since the days of Leroy Sané in his pomp, pre-injury. (Injuries, of course, have also dogged much of Doku’s young career and you pray he’ll stay fit, because he can be a human highlight reel when in full flight.)
Napoli went into the international break off the back of a bad 3-1 defeat away to Lazio. Until 15 minutes from the end, they were 2-0 down away to newly promoted Genoa, prompting many to think things were going from bad to worse. Late goals from Jack Raspadori and Matteo Politano got them the 2-2 draw, but this was far from the Napoli version we saw last season.
Three players in particular appear to have regressed: Stanislav Lobotka and Andre-Frank Zambo-Anguissa in midfield, and Khvicha Kvaratskhelia out wide. When stuff like this happens, naturally you put the blame on the coach and, of course, Rudi Garcia had a big job in replacing Luciano Spalletti. But that’s a bit of a simplistic reading.
Garcia was never going to be a plug-and-play manager, simply there to impersonate his successful predecessor. He’s finding the right balance and deserves time to do so. And the fact that his side battled back the way they did suggests the players are backing him.
Mark Ogden dissects the problems at Chelsea after their 0-0 draw away vs. Bournemouth.
Five points from five games puts you on pace for 38 points at the end of the season. It used to be the kind of total that got you relegated, though given how the league has evolved — with the poor team getting worse than ever before, as evidenced by the fact that the three promoted sides have taken one of a possible 39 points thus far — it would probably keep you up.
Chelsea manager Mauricio Pochettino said he wasn’t overly concerned by Sunday’s scoreless draw with Bournemouth, a game that was far from impressive and could have gone either way. I tend to agree. When you have 10 unavailable first-team players, it’s tough to draw meaningful conclusions; that said, there are two things I don’t get about the current version of Pochettino’s Chelsea.
One is the insistence on playing Enzo Fernández in the hole, which is clearly not his natural role and limits his range of passing. The other is how, with Ian Maatsen and Ben Chilwell both available, he opted to play Levi Colwill at left-back. Colwill is phenomenal, but surely his future (and arguably, his present) is in central defence.
Presumably, Chelsea agree, otherwise they wouldn’t have gone into the season with three left-backs, none of whom is Colwill.
OK, they were there last year too, simply not playing on this level, but now all three are back to their best and they showed it in the 3-1 win against Lazio.
Dan Thomas is joined by Craig Burley, Shaka Hislop and others to bring you the latest highlights and debate the biggest storylines. Stream on ESPN+ (U.S. only).
Dusan Vlahovic is young and you always felt that once he got some continuity and overcame some of his physical ailments, he’d be OK. With the other two, it’s not just about rebuilding confidence and overcoming injuries; it’s about formation too and here, you need to give Max Allegri some credit. The 3-5-2, with Chiesa free to roam and Weston McKennie at right wing-back, seems obvious now as it frees both up to do what they do best, but it took the club a long time to get there.
Juventus are now second in Serie A and it inevitably raises the question of whether they’re in the conversation for the title. And yeah, they are, no matter how much Allegri tries to play things down. This is a top-four squad in terms of talent and the fact they won’t be playing in Europe moves the needle.
Frankly, those who point to the fact that in the summer they only added Tim Weah and lost a range of big names (Ángel Di María, Leo Bonucci, Leandro Paredes, Juan Cuadrado), plus Paul Pogba (whose future is in doubt) are missing the point. Those five guys may be World Cup winners and recognizable stars, but they contributed very little last season and, in some cases, even less the year before. Juve have moved on — by necessity, admittedly — and putting faith in the youngsters is the way forward.
It is enough to win the title? Maybe not. But it’s enough to be better than last season.
One of the nice thing about Diego “El Cholo” Simeone is that he can be refreshingly blunt. And he certainly was after the 3-0 beating Atletico Madrid took on Saturday away to Valencia — a club that, lest we forget, have an owner who is hated, a fanbase in a state of perpetual agitation and a team of youngsters because (almost) anybody worth shifting for money has been let go.
Simeone said it might have been the worst performance in the 11 years he has been at the club, and it’s hard to disagree. Atletico were a by-word for sterile possession (and they had plenty) against Valencia, Antoine Griezmann was M.I.A., and they even lacked the characteristic bite and intensity you expect. It’s best not to make excuses here, and Simeone knows that.
Janusz Michallik reacts to Tottenham’s thrilling late win over Sheffield United in the Premier League.
This was one of the games in which a weaker team (Sheffield United) frustrate a stronger team on the road and nick a goal to take the lead, leaving the home side sweating late on. Tottenham had enjoyed the better chances and 70% of the possession, but this promised to be another Spursy moment.
Instead, Ange Postecoglou put his faith on the guy he had dropped — the man who had cried a few days earlier after being substituted for Brazil, the striker who said he would seek “psychological help.” That’s right: it was Richarlison equalising with a trademark header in the eighth minute of stoppage time, and then setting up Dejan Kulusevski‘s winner two minutes later.
Whether or not he does seek help is his call, but you suspect days like Saturday can only help his state of mind. And that of Tottenham fans, too.