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What a weekend! It feels like we say this every weekend, but it was especially true here. Liverpool and Manchester City put on a show, Atletico Madrid (in particular Luis Suarez) made a statement vs. Barcelona and Cristiano Ronaldo made a scene after Manchester United‘s frustrating home draw vs. Everton. Elsewhere, Bayern Munich were beaten (but don’t worry), Borussia Dortmund won (and they should worry), Real Madrid lost again and Paris Saint-Germain‘s billion-dollar team was humbled by Rennes.
It’s Monday, and Gab Marcotti reacts to the biggest moments in the world of football.
Jump to: Liverpool-Man City | Suarez beats Barcelona | Bayern lose | Milan are back! | Real Madrid woe | Ronaldo’s sulking | PSG misfire | Dortmund need a Plan B | Arsenal need time | Lucky Inter | Leverkusen keep rolling | Napoli still perfect | Chelsea’s depth steps up | Locatelli lifts Juve | Son stars for Spurs
Talent runs rampant when Liverpool play Man City
It finished 2-2, but unless you were a fan of either club, the result wasn’t the main thing. What mattered to most neutrals at the final whistle was the spectacle to which we had been treated by Jurgen Klopp, Pep Guardiola and their players. From Mohamed Salah‘s goal and weak-foot finish, to the Bernardo Silva run and shimmy that set up Phil Foden amid a crowd of red shirts, there was so much to please the eye.
But make no mistake about it, this wasn’t just about entertainment, technical ability unleashed or even the aesthetic smorgasbord it was. This was putting talent at the service of a game plan. Guardiola mixed it up, deploying Jack Grealish at center-forward — almost as if to troll the “recognized striker” brigade. City dominated a first half that finished scoreless, but could easily have seen them a couple goals up at the break. It’s not that Liverpool were poor in the first 45 minutes, it’s just that City were superior by several orders of magnitude.
Then came the break and Liverpool got back into the game, powered by an irrepressible Salah, who set up Sadio Mane‘s goal and then notched his own “Goal of the Season” contender. Both times City equalized, first with Foden, then with Kevin De Bruyne. And then, heading to injury time, came Rodri‘s last-ditch block of Fabinho‘s shot, sealing the 2-2 draw.
View the game strictly through the lens of merit and City deserved three points. Not just for the chances created (Alisson had to make several more super saves, De Bruyne sent a wide open header over the bar), but because James Milner stayed on the pitch rather than being sent off.
Milner was deputising for the unavailable Trent Alexander-Arnold and he had one of the roughest afternoons of his (recent) career, with Foden repeatedly getting away from him. Milner was booked once and he twice escaped an additional booking: once when Foden was through at the edge of the box (referee Paul Tierney didn’t even see a foul) and once when he hacked down Bernardo Silva, who did a 180 in the air and landed, literally, on his head.
Milner is a tremendous professional and a very likeable man whose selflessness and versatility, at age 35, are commendable. But that doesn’t change the fact that he was very lucky not to have been sent off (you hope it was just Tierney getting it wrong rather than some misguided attempt by the referee “not wanting to spoil the game” by keeping it 11 vs. 11). With a man advantage, it would have been hard to see City not taking home all three points. But that’s the sort of cold analysis that doesn’t seem right after what these two teams served up. Better then to talk about the performances.
Julien Laurens struggles to understand why some fans spoil games of football by abusing or spitting at the opposition.
Liverpool started slow, but reacted well, which is what you expect from teams of this caliber. Alexander-Arnold was missed as was, especially in this sort of game, the calm and quality of Thiago Alcantara. But they were fearless, committed and, crucially, unflustered, even after enduring that rough first half. That’s the sort of quality you see in champions.
As for City, it’s important to put this in context. In the past week they faced Chelsea, Paris Saint-Germain and Liverpool — as good a trio of opponents as they’re likely to face this season. They beat Chelsea, lost to PSG and split the spoils with Liverpool, but in each game, they showed the ability to outplay quality opposition for long stretches. And, in a very Pep way, each time they did it with an entirely different look.
At Stamford Bridge, Foden led the line, with Gabriel Jesus and Grealish wide. In Paris, it was Grealish and Riyad Mahrez wide, with Raheem Sterling through the middle. And at Anfield, it was Grealish in the center-forward role, flanked by Foden and Gabriel Jesus. When you can throw so many different looks at the opposition without a drop in performance, you’re on to something special.
It was unmistakable. Having made it 2-0 against his former club, Luis Suarez initially didn’t celebrate — he’d later say it was a mark of respect for Barcelona, where he spent six seasons. Then, as he jogged back, he put his hand to his ear, middle fingers folded in, thumb and pinkie extended in the classic “telephone gesture.” The reference was obvious. It was Ronald Koeman, in the summer of 2020, who told Suarez — then a Barca player — over the course of a two-minute phone call that his services were no longer needed at the club. Not only did Suarez end up leaving for nothing, and joining Atletico, but Barca literally paid him several million just to go away.
It’s obviously not all on Koeman — Barca were (and are) hemorrhaging money, Suarez was on a big contract, the decision was clearly made above the manager’s head — but it was the Dutchman’s voice that Suarez heard on the phone. And that was more than enough.
Ale Moreno saw nothing from Barcelona to suggest the players ever believed they could beat Atletico Madrid.
In the grand scheme of things, this ignominy is at the bottom of Koeman’s laundry list of problems. It’s not so much the league table — defeat to Atletico leaves them eighth, but if they win their game in hand, they’re fourth — but the Champions League performances (two games, two defeats, zero goal scored and seven conceded) and the one victory in their last six in all competitions. And it’s that intangible sense that the only reason that he’s still in a job is because Barca remain close to insolvency and firing Koeman and hiring a replacement costs money — money they’d rather not spend unless they absolutely have to.
As for the game itself, Koeman’s decisions on Saturday blew up in his face. He stuck the youngster Nico alongside the veteran Sergio Busquets, with Frenkie De Jong out on the right. The idea, you presume, was to slow down Yannick Carrasco, Joao Felix and Thomas Lemar; it did no such thing and, in fact, that’s where Atleti’s first-half goals came from.
Why you would reinvent arguably your most important player in a role he’s never played before is one of the many mysteries of Koeman lore. By the time he fixed it at the break, sending on Sergi Roberto, Atletico were 2-0 up and more than comfortable sitting back.
It’s tough to know where you go from here. There were bright spots that maybe shouldn’t be forgotten. Philippe Coutinho started again and actually looked quite dangerous (though, again, he’s the guy who came off to make way for Ansu Fati with half an hour to go). Fati himself, you hope, will be ready to start after the international break. And sure, this wasn’t a game Barca expected to win (or even get points from), but the sense that Barca don’t score unless Memphis Depay wears his super hero cape, and Barca won’t keep opponents out no matter how many guys Koeman sticks in front of his defence, is hard to shake.
As for Atletico, Simeone deserves a ton of credit both for reading the game correctly — dropping Antoine Griezmann was overdue, but still took courage, as did trusting Joao Felix — and for, lest we forget, generating their first convincing 90-minute performance since August. Yes: between late goals, lucky breaks and refereeing errors, it had been that long since they logged such a comprehensive victory.
Call it the randomness of football. A late Filip Kostic goal meant Bayern were defeated at home by Eintracht Frankfurt. The visitors deserved the win for the intensity, energy and quality they displayed. At the same time, Bayern did not play poorly and, in fact, this game could have gone either way. Yes, both things can be true.
Given the perfectionist Bavarian media, you imagine some will question Julian Nagelsmann’s lack of rotation, or whether Niklas Sule can be an efficient right-back against opponents who sit deep. And sure: when you give up a lead at home and you’re Bayern, there will always be criticism. But as I see it, Kevin Trapp made some unbelievable saves, Bayern created plenty of chances and, as the old cliche goes, the other guys are also trying to win.
So Bayern may as well take it on the chin and move one. As long as it doesn’t become a habit, there’s no reason to be concerned.
Milan’s young guns take down Atalanta as well
Fresh off a crushing — and controversial — Champions League defeat to Atletico Madrid, the last team you’d likely want to face are Atalanta and their mile-a-minute intensity, which Pep Guardiola famously compared to a “trip to the dentist.” But this Milan side, as their coach Stefano Pioli put it, manage to be young without “acting young” and their win over Atalanta was more comprehensive than the 3-2 scoreline suggests.
The likes of Fikayo Tomori, Mike Maignan, Brahim Diaz, Theo Hernandez and Rafael Leao again looked impressive, though for me, it was Sandro Tonali who stole the show, showing just why folks raved about him when he was a teenager, comparing him to one Andrea Pirlo.
They’re also confounding the critics, and it’s worth reminding themselves that they’re doing it without Gianluigi Donnarumma (by choice) as well as Zlatan Ibrahimovic and Olivier Giroud (by injury). Their decision to trust in youth and quality rather than big names is being rewarded with their best start in 17 years.
You wonder what happens when Ibrahimovic returns. He’ll get into the team you imagine, but in many ways this is no longer Zlatan’s Milan. It’s a different side. And if they’re going to succeed, it’s likely he’ll have to adapt to them rather than the other way around.
Real Madrid beaten as their hunt for balance continues
Luis Garcia explains where Real Madrid fell short in their shock 2-1 defeat against Espanyol.
I’ve lost count of the different versions of Real Madrid that Carlo Ancelotti has served up this season. Against Espanyol on Saturday, he brought Lucas Vazquez back at right-back, moved Nacho inside with David Alaba wide, dropped Casemiro and played a 4-4-2 with Toni Kroos and Luka Modric flanked by Fede Valverde and Eduardo Camavinga. The outcome was a 2-1 defeat that could have been heavier if not for Karim Benzema‘s solo effort and what Ancelotti himself described as Madrid’s “worst performance of the season.”
It certainly was far worse than the shock defeat against Sheriff Tiraspol, a match Real Madrid dominated.
You can see what Ancelotti was trying to do in alternative solutions for when Casemiro needs a break (he was on the bench and, based on his recent performances, he most definitely needed one). It’s just that even with so much talent, you still need chemistry and, at the very least, time together on the pitch.
Taken individually, all his moves, to varying degrees, make sense. Taken collectively, they backfired badly against a well-organised Espanyol. The good news is that they’re still top. The bad news is that at some point he’s going to need to settle on some sort of backbone for this team.
Glum Ronaldo overshadows Man United’s home draw vs. Everton
Stevie Nicol has doubts over Man United’s squad depth as they give up a lead in their draw with Everton.
When you sign Cristiano Ronaldo and he doesn’t start and you don’t win, you know what’s coming. Just ask the three guys who coached Juve in the past three seasons. Ole Gunnar Solskjaer knows this, and he probably knows that the fact Ronaldo looked disconsolate at the final whistle after the 1-1 draw with Everton has more to do with the home draw than the fact that he came on as a substitute. And that giving him the occasional time off is not just inevitable; it’s the right thing to do at age 36.
More problematic, as I see it, were the defensive wobbles from a back line that was only missing Harry Maguire, and a starting XI missing not just Ronaldo, but Paul Pogba and Jadon Sancho, too. Along with Bruno Fernandes, those are United’s most gifted individuals. What made him think Everton would be such pushovers that he could easily dispense with their services?
Gab Marcotti feels Ole Gunnar Solskjaer needs to stay humble to keep Manchester United fans on his side.
Picking Anthony Martial down the left ahead of Sancho is especially perplexing. United’s record signing has started just one Premier League game since August. Against Rafa Benitez’ predictably organized defensive system, one would have thought Sancho’s individual trickery and creativity would be a better fit than Martial, who these days is much more a forward than a winger anyway.
Who knows? Maybe it suits Solskjaer that folks are needlessly focusing so much on Ronaldo’s body language that they’re overlooking United’s other shortcomings in this game.
Reality bites for Messi, Neymar and Mbappe
Maybe, in the grand scheme of things, it doesn’t really matter since prior to Sunday’s 2-0 defeat at Rennes, PSG had won all eight of their games in Ligue 1. They still have a six-point lead and it’s early October. So why not take the afternoon off against Rennes, who had won just once since August?
It certainly looked as if that’s what Neymar did. Lionel Messi hit the woodwork, but also faded as the game wore on. Kylian Mbappe at least showed some bite after missing a sitter, but goals just before and just after the break condemned PSG. This is something Mauricio Pochettino will have to deal with as the season goes on: with those three guys up front, some games will be boom (a moment of genius) or bust (when’s the next Champions League fixture?).
Maybe the solution will necessarily be more rotation and days off, especially after Champions League fixtures and before international breaks, perhaps with more room for Mauro Icardi. Otherwise, the risk is more days like Sunday, which might not affect who wins the Ligue 1 crown, but is simply deflating.
Julien Laurens explains all about Kylian Mbappe’s future after the forward confirmed he asked to leave PSG in July.
Three points, but no Plan B for Dortmund vs. Augsburg
Erling Haaland is one of several players unavailable to Borussia Dortmund and coach Marco Rose right now. And because it’s not as if there’s an off-brand Haaland alternative waiting to come off the bench, when he’s not there, Dortmund necessarily need to play differently. That’s not easy to do, but hey, you’re managing in the Bundesliga, your club moved heaven and Earth to get you, you’re Marco Rose — get it done.
Only he hasn’t, and it didn’t work again for the visit of lowly Augsburg. Marco Reus hit the woodwork and Dortmund took plenty of shots, but they did little in terms of attacking fluidity and were helped by a goalkeeping error and the gift of an early penalty. This team is nowhere near their ceiling and there’s still lots of work to be done, both with Haaland and without him.
Arsenal revival continues, but Brighton draw reminds us they need time
Steve Nicol explains why Arsenal can be happy with a well-earned point at Brighton.
It might seem counter-intuitive to speak of an Arsenal revival on a day when Brighton outplayed them for long stretches in a 0-0 draw, and on a day when they created little on the attacking end (thanks to a poor day at the office from Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang), but this was the sort of game you could easily see them lose earlier in the campaign.
That they didn’t and, in fact, might even have won if Emile Smith Rowe had made a different choice late in the match, speaks volumes about how far they’ve come… and how far they have yet to go. Brighton may not be better than Arsenal man-for-man, but they are a better side right now; they’re a more cohesive unit and better coached, too. The operative words being “right now.”
Mikel Arteta has work to do, but the spirit seems to be there and the raw material. It’s a long way back to the top four, let alone the top.
Inter Milan ride luck — and quadruple change — to beat Sassuolo
For nearly an hour, Simone Inzaghi’s Inter got battered by Sassuolo. (By the way, coach Roberto De Zerbi may have gone, but Alessio Dionisi continues in the same vein, making them one of the most attractive and entertaining sides in Serie A, if not all of Europe.) They went a goal down, Samir Handanovic had to make a stellar save to deny Jeremie Boga and then Handanovic himself was very lucky not to be sent off after colliding with Gregoire Defrel outside the area.
Inzaghi made a quadruple change, sending on Edin Dzeko, Fede Dimarco, Matteo Darmian and Arturo Vidal, and the impact was immediate. Dzeko equalized with his first touch and won the penalty that Lautaro Martinez converted for the 2-1 win.
When stuff like this happens, a coach looks like a genius. But you can’t erase the first hour or so either, nor can you count on Dzeko, who is 35, to save you time and again.
Don’t look now, but Bayer Leverkusen are joint-top of the Bundesliga
But for a draw on opening day and a wild 4-3 defeat to Borussia Dortmund, Bayer Leverkusen have won every game this season and the streak continued with a 4-0 trouncing of Arminia Bielefeld. It was enough to lift them to the top of the table alongside Bayern, and it shows just what an impact Gerardo Seoane has had since joining from Young Boys in the summer.
Can they stay at or near the top? It will be tough against better-funded and more talented opposition. But Leverkusen continue to grow and, certainly, a top four finish feels like an attainable goal.
Napoli still the only perfect team in Europe’s big five leagues
You wouldn’t have expected it after a summer that saw them make only one significant signing (midfielder Andre Zambo Anguissa on loan from Fulham), while replacing a popular manager (Rino Gattuso) with one who is more of a misunderstood genius-type (Luciano Spalletti). But after coming from behind to beat a tough Fiorentina side, 2-1, Napoli have seven wins from seven games and sit atop of Serie A.
Spalletti deserves praise for how quickly he’s connected with his players, but also for putting so much trust in them. Victor Osimhen, fit again after missing nearly half the campaign last season, obviously grabs the headlines, but players like Lorenzo Insigne (despite his contractual dispute), Fabian Ruiz and even Kalidou Koulibaly look positively regenerated by Spalletti.
Yes, coaching does matter, and the lesson here is evident. Too often, when a new manager comes in, debate focuses on whether the club will “back him” and what new players he’ll sign. First and foremost, the criteria ought to be whether he can do a better job than his predecessor with the guys who are already there.
Late goals and squad players deliver hard-fought win — and first place — for Chelsea
Steve Nicol explains Thomas Tuchel’s surprising decision that proved a masterstroke in Chelsea’s win.
I’m not sure what it says about Chelsea that they really haven’t had a convincing 90-minute performance since August, and yet they now sit atop the Premier League. On Saturday, against Southampton — a team that lost Ryan Bertrand, Danny Ings and Jannik Vestergaard over the summer — they put together a 3-1 victory, facilitated by two late goals and a lineup that suggests Thomas Tuchel is ready to use more of his squad in an effort to jolt the European champions into life.
Trevoh Chalobah, Ruben Loftus-Cheek, Ben Chilwell and Callum Hudson-Odoi all started (and Ross Barkley came on as a substitute), and maybe it’s what they needed after back-to-back defeats against City and Juventus in the Champions League. Of the above quartet, Chalobah may end up getting the most playing time, Chilwell may be the most expensive and Hudson-Odoi may have the biggest long-term upside, but it’s Loftus-Cheek who is the most intriguing.
Tall, strong and powerful, but blessed with a delicate touch, he’s the guy who never made the transition from teen prodigy to first-team regular at a Champions League-caliber club. When that happens, you often get the tag of “lazy” or “injury-prone,” but he looked fit on Saturday and, crucially, he has a very different skill set to Chelsea’s other midfielders. Whether it’s offering an alternative to Mateo Kovacic or N’Golo Kante or, possibly operating further up the pitch, Loftus-Cheek may well end up having the biggest long-term impact out of Saturday’s quartet.
Locatelli powers Juventus to fourth win in a row
Right now, Juventus are about two things: results and individual growth. The latter is important because in the absence of Paulo Dybala and Alvaro Morata, it’s critical that the kids they put their faith (and resources) in show they can grow in the face of adversity. Federico Chiesa and Manuel Locatelli (who scored the late winner against Torino) are doing just that. The others will need to catch up.
As for results, they’ve always been Allegri’s (and Juve’s) bread-and-butter, and the 1-0 win over Torino makes it four wins in a row. It also ended the horrific run of 20 games without keeping a clean sheet.
It was far from a sparkling performance — more the old-style defend-and-counter against Ivan Juric’s aggressive Torino — but it does alleviate the pressure and offers time and room to grow, which is just what Allegri needs in the post-Ronaldo Era.
Son shows that rumors of Spurs’ demise are vastly exaggerated
It was all set up for the wheels to come off. A week after humiliation in the North London Derby, there were protests against owner Joe Lewis and chairman Daniel Levy. Aston Villa were in town, fresh off wins over Everton and Manchester United and a solid performance away to Chelsea. Oh, and the international break was around the corner — that time when clubs like to change (or threaten to change) their managers.
Yet Spurs showed plenty of bite and plenty of fight in their 2-1 victory. Heung-Min Son was in fine form, showing he can be near unplayable when in full flight. But many of the players who, supposedly, had lost faith in Nuno Espirito Santo, from Tanguy Ndombele to Cristian Romero, turned up on the day. Nuno may or may not be the right guy to lead this team, but on Sunday’s evidence, the players are still on board.