Happy holidays to one and all! The gift of soccer kept giving this weekend, with the title race in the Premier League taking shape. Arsenal played Liverpool at Anfield to an entertaining 1-1 draw, and Manchester City sit six points off top spot with a game in hand. Tottenham Hotspur are back in fourth (for now) after a win over Everton. In Serie A, the youngsters at Juventus helped secure a win to keep them second behind leaders Inter Milan. All while AC Milan continue to struggle with injuries and dropped points again.
In LaLiga, Diego Simeone’s Atletico Madrid clinched a much-needed win over Sevilla to go into the new year in third. And finally, Man City’s Julián Álvarez capped off an amazing year since the 2022 World Cup by winning the Club World Cup as well.
It’s Monday, and Gab Marcotti reacts to the biggest moments in the world of football.
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Break it down to a series of incidents and, of course, Liverpool will feel they should have had all three points, between the Martin Odegaard handball (that VAR didn’t deem fit for an on-field review) and the counter attack that ended with Trent Alexander-Arnold smacking the ball off the crossbar.
Football isn’t only about highlights, though. And over the course of 90 minutes, I think both managers can find plenty of positives. Regular readers will know I’ve felt that Liverpool have managed to go top without quite firing on all cylinders and that there was plenty of room to grow. They showed growth in this game. While the final third was maybe a bit lacking, we saw plenty of the Liverpool of old in the way they engaged Arsenal and transitioned with purpose.
Plus, some of the new tweaks, such as Alexander-Arnold moving centrally to become the deep playmaker and not just for the pinpoint pass that led to Mohamed Salah’s goal. Alexander-Arnold in that role is all the more important because of Alexis Mac Allister’s absence: Wataru Endo has plenty of attributes, but range of passing isn’t among them.
As for Arsenal, a point at Anfield is a massive confidence boost for Mikel Arteta’s young side. Both Salah’s goal and the Alexander-Arnold chance were the result of individual errors — Oleksandr Zinchenko getting beaten too easily and Liverpool marching right up the pitch off an attacking corner — of the sort that can be more easily ironed out than systemic flaws. Declan Rice may be more fruitfully deployed further forward in some games, but he showed enough press-resistant qualities to sit in front of the back four against a side that presses extremely well.
The Kai Havertz-Odegaard tandem has room to grow too, of course, but the more minutes they get on the pitch together, the more quickly that will happen.
Most would still assume Manchester City are favourites, but until they make up the ground, Liverpool and Arsenal confirmed that they’re firm title contenders, maybe more. As a neutral, a legitimate three-way race would be a real treat after so many years of City dominance.
It’s been one of the big talking points around Milan all season long: muscular injuries. Every club get some; Milan, they claim, have had more than 20 (a record, according to Italian media, though I’m not sure who gets the exciting job of counting them.) And because there’s a perception that muscular injuries are down to physios and fitness guys and therefore, to some degree, within a club’s control, fingers are being pointed.
That’s fine, and there’s no doubt Milan have had a ton of absentees this season (and when you have guys out, it impacts those who do play, because you can’t rotate your squad as much and folks get tired and worn down.)
But that can’t be the excuse against Salernitana, who are bottom of the table yet held Milan to a 2-2 draw (and only because Luka Jovic — of all people — grabbed a late equalizer.) True, without Mike Maignan’s blunder they would have won this game (and I’m going to give “Magic Mike” a pass, because he makes few of them.) But that match reflected what has happened far too often this season: the big guns (Rafael Leão and Theo Hernández) misfiring and failing to be difference-makers.
It’s a team game, yes, but there’s a reason the big stars get paid the big bucks.
The 2-0 defeat away to West Ham makes it 13 losses in all competitions this season for Manchester United, which is the most since 1930. They’ve gone four games without scoring, and that hadn’t happened since 1992. And only Sheffield United have scored fewer goals in the league. Miserable stats like these are all over social media, but in some ways they don’t affect the basic fact for manager Erik ten Hag: to keep his job, United have to move up the table and show signs of progress on the pitch. That part is simple.
What has been frustrating for all involved at Old Trafford is how long it has taken for Jim Ratcliffe’s acquisition of 25% of the club to be completed. Now it has been announced, major decisions — on Ten Hag, club structure and a new recruitment team — can start to be made. But it won’t help in January. The deal still needs to be ratified by the Premier League, which will take six to eight weeks, so Ten Hag won’t get much support in the January window. He just has a month to prove himself worthy to the new guys.
Lecce are mid-table and came into San Siro fresh off a five-game unbeaten run which saw them take points off two top four sides, so the Inter game was by no means a foregone conclusion, especially since the Nerazzurri were coming off their own disappointment after getting knocked out of the Coppa Italia in midweek.
But Inter have a toughness and a mental fortitude that enabled them to make quick work of the opposition, with Yann Bisseck (quickly becoming one of their more reliable defenders) and Nicolo Barella bagging the goals in the 2-0 win. Barella’s goal came after a magical backheel assist from Marko Arnautovic. The big man still hasn’t scored for Inter in the league (14 appearances — dating back to his first stint — and counting), and I still think it would make sense for Inter to pick up another forward. But Saturday was a reminder that his game is about far more than goals.
Following the 3-3 draw against Getafe (and the defeat away to Athletic Club, which saw them battered), all Atletico Madrid boss Diego Simeone wanted for Christmas was three points against a Sevilla side enjoying the Quique Sanchez Flores bounce. He got them, without impressing much in a 1-0 win but, given the circumstances, it really doesn’t matter.
Atletico looked tired and in need of a pick-me-up. Maybe they’ll get it over the holidays. Certainly the return of Reinildo after 10 months out is a big plus for a defence which has struggled this season (Caglar Söyüncü’s silly red card was just the cherry on top.) Reinildo was one of the best defenders in LaLiga before his injury last February and can revitalise the back line.
OK, 12 months and five days, to be precise. In that timeframe, Álvarez not only won the World Cup with Argentina and the treble with City, he can now add the Club World Cup to his collection. Foregone conclusion? Maybe, but the fact that Pep Guardiola went through the trouble of wearing a tie (when does that ever happen?) and gushed about creating history “that will last forever” tells you that it mattered to him.
It may be just another hoop to jump through if you want to call yourself world champions (rather than hypothetical ‘best in the world’) but City duly got it done. The game underscored the contrast between Fluminense and Manchester City. Not so much in terms of technique — City have the edge, sure, but Fluminense can play — but in terms of conditioning.
City outran and out hustled the opposition, who looked spent at half-time, let alone at the final whistle. That will happen when two of your back four are 35 (Marcelo) and 40 (Felipe Melo) respectively. But also when you’re simply unaccustomed to playing at this pace.
Max Allegri’s views on youngsters are well chronicled, going back to his “categories” speech: he’s the sort of old-school manager who believes players belong in tiers, and reputation and experience matters. But Juventus’ financial straitjacket has forced him, however reluctantly, to put his faith in young players — Hans Caviglia, Samuel Iling Jr, Fabio Miretti and Nicolo Fagioli (before his ban) — have all had playing time in the past year and they’ve done their part.
The latest is 18-year-old Kenan Yildiz, who opened the scoring with a peach of a goal in the 2-1 win over Frosinone on Saturday that keeps them second. It may not have been his choice, but Allegri is making the best of it. And while there are still many flaws in this Juve team, they’re right up there in the table. Sometimes, if you’re intelligent (and Allegri is anything but stupid) you see setbacks as opportunities and you make the best of them.
The capsule review of Ange-ball this season is that Tottenham attack en masse and catch opponents out, but are “naive” defensively. I hate that word, “naive.” It’s a football cliche that gets used to describe teams that leave the backline undermanned and concede goals. And it’s stupid, because it’s not naivete, it’s a choice a manager makes, weighing up the pros and cons.
Manchester City aren’t “naive” when they leave their central defenders one-on-one on the counter because everybody else is attacking: it’s that their manager figures he’s better off committing players forward and trying to outscore the opposition.
It’s the same drill with Tottenham. Ange Postecoglou plays this way because he thinks it gives his team the best chance to do well, not because he “lacks wisdom, judgement or experience.” You can debate whether it’s the right approach, but, right now, they’re fourth in the table despite a long injury list that includes James Maddison, Micky van de Ven, Ivan Perisic and Rodrigo Bentancur (plus Cristian Romero, who has been in and out all season.)
On Saturday, they beat Everton 2-1 and could have conceded a late equaliser. If they had, I guarantee you Postecoglou’s “naivete” would have been trotted out. Again. And, again, it would have been wrong.