June 22, 2024

Well, well, well: heading into the international break, we were served up a treat across European football this past weekend and plenty to talk about until league play returns in 10 days. Chelsea and Manchester City played out a thrilling and chaotic eight-goal game, Bayern Munich briefly flirted with disaster against Heidenheim (and Harry Kane scored twice), while Barcelona shrugged off some tough performances with a comeback win over Alaves that still leaves plenty of questions about Xavi and this squad.

Elsewhere, there were talking points galore for Arsenal, Liverpool, Juventus, Paris Saint-Germain, Borussia Dortmund and many more.

– Stream on ESPN+: LaLiga, Bundesliga & more (U.S.)

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

Chelsea 4-4 Man City was entertaining, error-strewn and epic

The legendary Italian football writer Gianni Brera used to say that the perfect game is always 0-0 because there are no mistakes. Mistakes, however, are part of football, and part of playing well is forcing your opponent to commit errors: heck, that’s the whole point of the high press. What struck you about Sunday’s wild 4-4 draw between Chelsea and Manchester City at Stamford Bridge is how many unforced errors we saw from people who don’t ultimately make them.

Think Josko Gvardiol in the buildup to Raheem Sterling‘s goal. Think whoever was supposed to pick up Thiago Silva for his goal. (Not that it wasn’t a great header: it was.) Think Thiago Silva misjudging the flight of the ball and letting Manuel Akanji get a free header for his goal. Think Éderson parrying the ball straight back into Nico Jackson’s path for his goal. And then, the most grotesque mistake of all: whatever Rúben Dias was trying to do when he felled Armando Broja for the penalty that Cole Palmer converted in the fifth minute of injury time.

You can nitpick and find more. And by the way, this in no way diminishes what Chelsea achieved in the game. The penalty incident with Haaland could just as easily gone the other way, while Rodri‘s goal was the result of a double deflection. It does raise the question of whether all these individual blunders — especially, City’s, because we’re less accustomed to them — are a function of happenstance or if there’s something deeper going on.

I’d lean towards the former and, if so, Pep Guardiola has less to be concerned about. Mistakes will happen, even to top performers, and, in some ways it’s better to get a bunch of them out of your system in one game, especially if you can come away with a point. If, on the other hand, this was down to City somehow not being prepared or taking Chelsea too lightly? Well, then it’s another matter. Guardiola and the staff will know.

As for Chelsea, this should be a draw that feels like a win not because of the incidents, but because of the intensity, cohesion and effectiveness of what Mauricio Pochettino set out to do. There’s no question the players are buying into it — though it’s not hard to get motivated against Manchester City — but performances like these also give a buzz to the home crowd, and that matters to a fan base that’s seen them record just one league win out of their last seven games.

I get a little skeptical, though, when folks start getting carried away about this being a young team that can grow together, because I genuinely don’t think the ceiling for some of these players (Robert Sánchez, Jackson, Axel Disasi) is quite as high as some believe. But the vibe is good, Pochettino has shown the ability to connect with individuals (Raheem Sterling, Connor Gallagher… Mykhailo Mudryk and Marc Cucurella) who, for one reason or another, were thought to be damaged goods, and he’s given Chelsea an identity. Maybe one that’s decidedly more blue collar than you’d expect given the money spent, but, still one they lacked for much of last season.

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Laurens: Guardiola will be horrified by Man City’s performance vs. Chelsea

Mark Ogden joins Gab & Juls to react to Manchester City’s 4-4 draw against Chelsea.

A final word on Palmer. I did not think he’d be such a natural fit at Chelsea, but his technical ability, vision and cool head are exactly what they needed. Beyond that, the tale of the Mancunian boy who enters Manchester City’s Academy at age eight, progresses through the ranks into the first team, leaves at age 21 and, in his first game against his old club, converts a penalty to get a result deep in injury time is almost too good.

It’s stories like these that are part of what make us love the game.

Three points, but plenty to worry about for Barcelona

I’m in the minority who think Barcelona played reasonably well in the Clasico, so with the 2-1 win over Alaves I make it three straight games of underperformance. That they won two of those three games with late strikes (Ronald Araújo scored in injury time against Real Sociedad, while Robert Lewandowski‘s two goals gave them the victory over Alaves) dampen the pain a bit, but Xavi has to be concerned.

They went down straight away against Alaves when Samu Omorodion scored in the first minute — and Barcelona had been the ones to kick off — and he could have had a hat trick by half-time. Defensively, Jules Koundé really struggled, as did Iñigo Martínez. The midfield offers very little without Gavi, even with João Cancelo stepping inside from his emergency left-back position.

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Why are Barcelona struggling under Xavi this season?

Gab & Juls debate why Barcelona are struggling to replicate their form from last season.

Lewandowski’s brilliant header and subsequent penalty brought home the three points — and it’s a good sign that his goal drought is over after 50 days — but if you’re Xavi’s Barcelona, you simply can’t create just 0.59 worth of open play xG against a side like Alaves. It could have been worse if, late on, Abdel Abqar hadn’t been offside when Oriol Romeu handled in the ball in his own penalty area.

Xavi admitted that Barcelona need to improve and find their “positional play.” That’s part of it, but I think it’s a personnel issue as well. Some of the guys — including João Félix — who were carrying the side a month ago are struggling now. He has options on the bench; it’s just a question of finding the right ones to make it all fit together.

Even with second string and making silly mistakes, Bayern too strong for Heidenheim

Thomas Tuchel mixed it up — partly by choice, partly by necessity — for the visit of Heidenheim. We saw Bouna Sarr (at left-back) make his first league start in two-and-a-half years, we saw the wunderkind Aleksandar Pavlovic make his first start ever, we saw Serge Gnabry get another crack ahead of Kingsley Coman. We did not see Joshua Kimmich, Leon Goretzka, Matthijs de Ligt or Jamal Musiala, which is another way of saying this isn’t “proper Bayern.”

And yet it looked easy as two Harry Kane goals propelled Bayern to a 2-0 lead — so easy, in fact, that you wonder about the two blunders in the space of three minutes that allowed Heidenheim to make it back to 2-2. By that point, Tuchel had already made three substitutions and he looked at annoyed at the prospect of his team needlessly making things hard for themselves. But Bayern’s second-string — and the holdovers still on the pitch, from Kane to the magnificent Leroy Sané — quickly righted the ship, with goals from Eric-Maxim Choupo-Moting and Raphaël Guerreiro sealing the 4-2 win.

Takeaways? For all the injuries and inconsistencies, Bayern are deep. A fit Guerreiro can be a game changer. Konrad Laimer, scoffed at by some for a few of his early performances, gives you legs and tactical intelligence. Choupo-Moting and Matys Tel are legit striking options off the bench. In other words, there’s plenty of margin for error, which may explain why, despite the tensions and mistakes, they’re still second in the Bundesliga and ready to pounce.

A final word on Harry Kane. It’s now 21 goals in all competitions, meaning he has passed the 20-goal mark for the tenth consecutive season. His most prolific goal-scoring campaign was in 2017-18, when he notched 41 in 48 appearances; his 21 thus far have come in just 16 games, and he’s on pace to shatter that mark.

Manchester United gut it out against Luton and Ten Hag is optimistic

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Dawson: Man United look vulnerable despite Luton win

Rob Dawson still has concerns for Manchester United despite their 1-0 win vs. Luton Town.

Manchester United may have their flaws — and let’s face it, there are many right now — but on Saturday, they showed the ability to get into a scrap and overpower a newly promoted opponent on their own turf. And no, as Erik ten Hag will tell you: “Even after all the setbacks we deal with, we are still in a position near the top four … that’s reason to be optimistic.” He’s obviously a glass half-full type of guy and, to be fair, there’s little point to generating more negativity at this club.

Luton did what you’d expect a newly promoted club with a shoestring budget to do away at Old Trafford: they were physical, they sat deep and they scrapped. United didn’t play particularly well, but they didn’t panic — even when Rasmus Hojlund missed a sitter, even when they were forced to defend tooth an nail in injury time. That’s something or, as Ten Hag might say, that’s “not nothing.”

The winner came from Victor Lindelöf (mind-blowing stat: the last forward or winger to score in the league for United at home is … Jadon Sancho) who poked home a rebound. At this stage, you’ll take it, especially since that “near the top four” thing is a bit of a stretch — five points with less than a third of the season gone is not “near” — and this group’s season (and possibly Ten Hag’s future) will likely be determined by what happens in Istanbul against Galatasaray in a must-win Champions League game after the break.

Dimarco’s goal-of-the-season contender powers Inter past Frosinone

If you haven’t seen the highlight, check it out. Fede Dimarco’s strike — and yes, it was a shot on goal — from the left touchline traveled an improbable 56 meters with purpose to give Inter the lead. It’s the sort of goal you only score if you have oodles of confidence (both in yourself and from your coach) to go with your ability, and it sent Inter on their way to a 2-0 lead over Frosinone that sees them stay top of Serie A.

Dimarco’s strike will rightly overshadow just about everything else, but it’s worth noting how, right now, Inter’s midfield is operating at a different level. And this despite the departure of Marcelo Brozovic, the man who supposedly made everything tick, for Saudi Arabia in the summer.

Hakan Çalhanoğlu has stepped into his shoes and Inter haven’t missed a playmaking beat. Credit Calhanoglou and credit Simone Inzaghi for making the tweaks to a transition that, on paper, looked far from seamless.

Arsenal show personality and bounce-back-ability vs. Burnley

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Do Arsenal really have the firepower for another title challenge?

Shaka Hislop reviews Arsenal’s performance after they won 3-1 win vs. Burnley.

It’s not just that they beat Burnley or a free-falling Sevilla this week. It’s more the fact that, for a club missing some key pieces — Martin Odegaard and Gabriel Jesus spring to mind — and coming off the traumatic defeat to Newcastle (replete with Mikel Arteta’s post-match rant and club statement the next day), those were larger stumbling blocks than they appear. In both cases, the club put together a convincing performance to go with the wins.

Credit Arteta for navigating this moment well. He may be stubborn on some issues (the goalkeeping situation isn’t the only one), but the flexibility he has shown in midfield, bringing back Jorginho as a playmaker and pushing Declan Rice forward alongside Odegaard (when fit) or Kai Havertz (against Burnley) was a logical and much-needed step. Rice is a huge talent, but he lacks Jorginho’s experience and creativity and against certain opponents, they’re non-negotiable.

A word on Fabio Vieira: that red card was both stupid and unnecessary. He’s 23 — no longer a teenager. He has a real chance of getting meaningful minutes in Arsenal’s midfield rotation, but he won’t get there with poor decisions like that one.

We had seen Rodrigo and Vinicius together up front this season, but always with Jude Bellingham behind them. So it was interesting to see what it would look like with Brahim Díaz — who is a genuine attacking midfielder with a wholly different skill set — replacing the Englishman.

The final score — a 5-1 win, with Vinicius and Rodrygo bagging two goals each and the latter also recording two assists — would suggest things worked very well and for long stretches, they did, although with both Vinicius and Diaz gravitating left it did feel lopsided at times. Still, on the attacking end, it’s fun to see that chemistry grow.

On the flip-side, Valencia could have scored a couple more goals if not for some sterling work from Andriy Lunin, filling in for Kepa Arrizabalaga (who is, of course, himself filling in for Thibaut Courtois). His two close-range stops from Hugo Duro proved decisive in keeping the home side with their nose in front.

Throw in a tremendous goal from Dani Carvajal — it’s always nice to see a fullback show off “No.10” type skills — and it’s not surprising that Carlo Ancelotti was beaming after the game: “I have so many good players that sometimes it feels unfair to other managers…”

Not many coaches would say stuff like that and mean it.

Darwin Núñez is unconventional, but it works for Liverpool

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Why Liverpool’s season is still only 7/10

Steve Nicol has his say on Liverpool’s season after they beat Brentford 3-0 at Anfield.

I’m not a natural Darwin Nunez guy. It’s nothing personal; it’s just that I generally like my center-forwards to be cool finishers, and that’s not really his thing. And if they’re not cool, prolific finishers, then I can live with them being creative, intelligent passers like Roberto Firmino, the guy who played up front for Liverpool before him.

Nunez is neither, but what he brings to the side is size, physicality, uncommon speed and a prodigious work-rate. It suits Liverpool to a tee, and it’s no coincidence that Jurgen Klopp waxed lyrical about him after the 3-0 win over Brentford. Lining up alongside Mohamed Salah and Diogo Jota (both of whom scored), he was the lynchpin of a trio that wreaked havoc to Brentford’s buildup, protected the midfield and generally wreaked havoc on a day when Liverpool were less smooth than usual.

So what if he strays offside or snatches at chances? There are plenty of other guys to score goals, and his presence makes them better. Some see Nunez as some kind of unpolished gem who will develop into a Uruguayan Erling Haaland or something. I’m not sure he will, but his value to Liverpool will only grow along with his chemistry with Salah and others.

Kylian Mbappé bags a hat trick against Reims, but Luis Enrique wants more from him … and he’s right

On the surface, there’s nothing to see here. Paris Saint-Germain beat Reims 3-0 on the road to regain top spot in Ligue 1 and Kylian Mbappe scored all three goals: a worldie to start, and then two more to finish off counterattacks. Some coaches would coddle their superstar in these circumstances, especially since he’s due to become a free agent in June and has scored 15 goals in 15 games in all competitions this season.

Luis Enrique is not most coaches. He wasn’t necessarily critical of Mbappe, but he talked about how he wants him to do more and contribute more, especially off the ball. And to me, it makes sense. Not just in a “challenge-your-star-to-be-the-best-possible-version-of-himself” sort of way, though there’s that too.

The reality is that for PSG to retain Mbappe, they will need to make a huge financial commitment. Luis Enrique getting Mbappe to operate as a cog in his machine — rather than a cherry on top who wins games singlehandedly — is going to move the needle in terms of what the club are prepared to offer. If Mbappe doesn’t rise to the level his coach expects, it will be easier to say “adieu” come next season.

Juventus make it five wins in a row, but is this what Allegri wants?

At home, against a Cagliari side that only won their first game of the season just before Halloween, it was the post stopped the visitors from grabbing a point in a game that saw them 2-0 down 15 minutes from the end. And this was a the end of the game in which Juventus seemed to almost only create (and certainly only score) from set-pieces.

I don’t have an issue with that kind of football — take no chances, nick a goal and then defend like your life depends on it — when it works. But Juventus — even with everything they’ve been through, even with the absences of Adrien Rabiot and Danilo, with Dusan Vlahovic and Federico Chiesa half-fit (but when is he ever fully fit?), and with Paul Pogba and Nicolo’ Fagioli suspended — should not be hanging on for dear life at the end of games. Not like this, and not against Cagliari.

They’re second in the Serie A table after telling everyone that fourth place would already be a stellar achievement this season. Fine. In terms of results, they’re getting it done. In terms of performance, they’re nowhere near where they should be. And that’s an issue because they don’t want to be back to square one at the start of next season.

Fun while it lasted? Spurs lose players and points at Wolves

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How much does late Wolves loss hurt Tottenham?

Shaka Hislop joins Mark Donaldson to discuss Tottenham’s performance after their 2-1 loss to Wolves.

The international break will be an ideal time for Tottenham Hotspur to regroup and figure things out, as back-to-back defeats over the past eight days mean they slip from first to fourth. And while the top of the table is just two points away, the loss of momentum is as palpable as the loss of players: Mickey van de Ven and James Maddison (injured), plus Destiny Udogie and Cristian Romero (suspended).

Saturday’s 2-1 defeat at Wolves came after they took an early lead and was thoroughly deserved. Never mind the fact that they conceded two goals in injury time, which is soul-destroying — consider the fact that after Brennan Johnson‘s early goal, a full 48 minutes passed before they took another shot (Ben Davies‘ header deep into first-half injury time).

Ange Postecoglou’s game relies on chemistry, and when three of your back four are starting their first or second game of the season, it’s going to be missing, just as Maddison’s creativity was missed. Credit to Wolves for taking full advantage.

A draw that feels like defeat for rattled Milan

You just beat none other than Paris Saint-Germain in the Champions League. You’re 2-0 up on the road in the first half against a side, Lecce, that’s taken two points in their last seven games. And you’re the defending champions. Easy-peasy, right?

Not if you’re Milan away to Lecce.

The Rossoneri somehow stopped playing in the second half, managing just four shots on goal for a combined xG of 0.21. They lost Rafael Leão to injury, while Olivier Giroud got himself sent off in injury time. By that point, Lecce had battled back to 2-2, and the home side nearly took all three points: Milan were fortunate that the referee spotted a rather dubious “foul” from Roberto Piccoli in the buildup to what would have been his game-winning finish.

The numbers are ugly: it’s now one win in six in all competitions for Milan. And while they really only played poorly away to PSG (understandable) and at home to Udinese, the fact that they let games slip away against Napoli, Juventus and now Lecce stings. Focus has shifted on the many injuries and, sure, that plays a part. But these late collapses can’t be simply down to the lack of rotation or fresh legs, can they?

Bayer Leverkusen roll on and it’s 49 of a possible 51 points this season

Yeah, you read that right. Xabi Alonso’s crew have won every single game they’ve played this season except one, a 2-2 draw away to Bayern. On Sunday, they dispatched Union Berlin (who, on the other hand, have taken one point out of a possible 42 in their last 14 games in all competitions) to stay two points clear at the top of the Bundesliga.

Alex Grimaldo confirmed his status as one of the best goal-scoring fullbacks around, taking his seasonal total up to eight, while Nathan Tella came off the bench to score another gem late on.

That little blip we fretted about a few weeks ago in their games against Freiburg and Hoffenheim? There was no sign of that on Sunday, though maybe it’s because Union really are that bad right now.

Atletico Madrid‘s subs make all the difference in comeback win vs. Villarreal

Atletico were always going to be favoured at home against a Villarreal side who had just sacked their manager, Pacheta, and yet they took an early beating. Goalkeeper Jan Oblak was forced to make several big saves, while Gerard Moreno gave the visitors the lead after a stunning team goal that ought to be shown to anyone questioning why teams build from the back to break the press.

Axel Witsel grabbed the equalizer just before the half, but it was Diego Simeone’s substitutes — Marco Llorente, Samuel Lino, Ángel Correa and Pablo Barrios — who really kicked it up a notch in the second half, enabling Atleti to score twice more en route to a 3-1 win.

Diego Someone has a deep bench and real options and if they win their game in hand, they leapfrog Barcelona into third place. He’ll need it if they’re to mount a real challenge in LaLiga.

Dortmund hammered by Stuttgart as Guirassy returns (and scores)

I suspect some folks rather overreacted to Borussia Dortmund’s win over a depleted Newcastle side in the Champions League last midweek. Against Stuttgart, Dortmund looked far more like the team that got thumped by Bayern — only worse, in some respects. When Dortmund are like this, they don’t press and they don’t look comfortable sitting either, which is horrid place to be.

Even after Niclas Füllkrug gave them the lead with their only shot of the game, they looked doomed and if anything the 2-1 scoreline to Stuttgart was generous — Stuttgart missed a penalty and a host of other chances.

So it’s back to the drawing board for Dortmund manager Edin Terzic, though credit Stuttgart and Serhou Guirassy, who came on and notched the much-deserved winner. Only Harry Kane has scored more league goals than Guirassy in Europe’s Big Five leagues this season, and he’s had the benefit of three more starts.

Girona come from behind again… they just won’t go away

Yes, they’re still top of LaLiga and, yes, they once again came from behind. Míchel‘s upstarts conceded away to Rayo Vallecano inside of five minutes, but then subjected their opponents to a barrage of shots and eventually came away with a deserved 2-1 win that sees them stay in first place. Oh, and they may have over-performed Expected Goals in previous outings, but there’s no argument here: they put together an xG of 4.02, thoroughly dominating Rayo.

The question of “can it last?” will endure all season long, so let’s take the easy way out here, shall we? Every team they’ve beaten this season ranks eighth or below in LaLiga. The two time they’ve faced sides in the top seven, they lost to Real Madrid and drew with Real Sociedad. I’m withholding judgment until they’ve played everybody at least once.

Rudi Garcia’s time is up at Napoli … but it wasn’t Sunday’s defeat that did it

You may think losing to little Empoli at home after conceding a goal deep in injury time and enduring the insults of a furious Stadio Maradona is what led to Rudi Garcia’s sacking. I get the sense he might have gone even if they had drawn or even won that game. Napoli may be fourth in the Serie A table — and without Victor Osimhen — but lest we forget, they were ready to fire him going into the last international break as well.

Too many breakdowns in personal relationships, too far of a drop from the team that dominated Serie A last season (and really only lost Min Jae Kim among major contributors) and too poor a home record: just two wins in eight in all competitions, the most recent one in September. And when Napoli president Aurelio De Laurentiis let it be known that Garcia was his “fifth choice” anyway, you knew this was unlikely to end well.

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