Arsenal quality outshines Liverpool, more: Marcotti recaps the weekend

Another big weekend in Europe’s top leagues didn’t disappoint when it came to major moments, significant results and plenty to review. In England’s top-of-the-table clash between Liverpool and Arsenal, it was the Gunners who rose to the occasion and wrapped up a 3-1 win that opens the door not just for them, but Man City in the pursuit of first place. In Spain, Real Madrid might regret not beating derby rivals Atlético in an enthralling 1-1 draw, while Bayer Leverkusen remained in charge of their Bundesliga title push with a win over Darmstadt that sets things up nicely for next weekend’s huge clash with Bayern Munich.

Elsewhere, there were talking points galore for Barcelona, Manchester United, Tottenham, Inter Milan, Juventus and Girona among others.

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

This was very much a “must-win” rather than a “can’t lose” game for Arsenal, and Mikel Arteta’s crew delivered with a 3-1 win. If you only saw the goals, you’d conclude that this was a weird, error-strewn game and if all you focus on is scoring, you’d be right. And if you’d never seen or heard of Virgil van Dijk and Alisson before, you might even conclude that they are walking liabilities and not two of the best in the world in their respective positions over the past five years.

Everybody has bad games, and these two had stinkers. (They weren’t the only ones.) It’s not just the mix-up on the second goal, it’s also arguably the first goal, scored by Bukayo Saka, and definitely the third. But those errors shouldn’t be the lens through which we view this game; take them out of the mix, and Arsenal thoroughly outplayed Liverpool.

Going back to the double pivot in midfield, with Jorginho alongside Declan Rice, was a masterstroke from Arteta. You may not want to use Jorginho in every game, but in certain matches against certain opponents (Liverpool being an obvious one), he’s exactly what they need and like Rice, he was among the best players on the pitch. It also offered a defensive platform that limited Liverpool to just three shots in the first half (none of them on target) and an xG of 0.11, before Gabriel’s bizarre handball own goal levelled the score.

Then there’s Kai Havertz. We don’t know if he would have started with a fit Gabriel Jesus, but I like to think he would, because he would’ve been the right choice. Like the Brazilian, Havertz is a pressing and movement machine; unlike the Brazilian, he offers size, strength, just the right amount of nasty and an aerial threat. He was devastating and played a big part in neutralizing Liverpool.

Before we’re too critical of Jurgen Klopp, who admitted they were poor, we need to remember that they were without Dominik Szoboszlai, Mohamed Salah and had a half-fit Darwin Núñez starting on the bench. That’s a big chunk of missing firepower there. Does it justify the mistakes we saw — and like I said, it wasn’t just Alisson and Van Dijk … you can chuck in Trent Alexander-Arnold and Cody Gakpo too — both individually and collectively? No. But it helps to explain them.

Maybe with better options, Klopp might have found a way to get back into the game without being gifted a goal at the end of the first half. More likely, on a day like this, against an Arsenal side playing like this, he would not have done so.

I argued for a long time that Real Madrid were playing with fire in deciding not to sign another central defender after season-ending injuries to Éder Militão and David Alaba. So much so that I even thought Carlo Ancelotti’s nose was growing when he told us they wouldn’t, and that they’d be just fine with Aurélien Tchouaméni and Dani Carvajal backing up Antonio Rüdiger and Nacho.

Nope, he was true to his word and on Sunday, Real Madrid paid the price with that late Marcos Llorente equalizer that saw him unmarked between Carvajal and Nacho.

I’m not pinning it on them — they do what they can — but there’s a reason why Carvajal, at 5-foot-8, has played right-back his entire career. There’s also a reason why Nacho has started just 168 first-team LaLiga games for the club in the 14 years he has been in the squad: he’s a utility player, even more so now that he’s 34. Yet with Tchouaméni (who, lest we forget, isn’t a central defender either) out, Ancelotti had no options.

(In fact, I wonder what would have happened if Nacho had gotten injured. Would he have sent on Fran García, moved Ferland Mendy into the middle and played a small-ball defensive duo? Would he have asked Toni Kroos to drag his 34-year-old backside deeper? Or maybe Kepa, who is tall, could have played there?)

That said, it was an unlucky break and it cost Real Madrid two points in what was otherwise a very solid performance. After Vinicius was a late injury scratch, Brahim Díaz came in and offered a man-of-the-match performance. Real Madrid probably should have had a second, and maybe a penalty too (especially for the foul on Jude Bellingham). If they can navigate past Girona unscathed on Saturday (1 p.m. ET, stream live on ESPN+), they’ll take one giant step towards the Liga title.

As for Atlético, Diego Simeone’s lineup bingo meant Reinildo, Samuel Lino and Pablo Barrios were left out of the starting XI. The plan worked in terms of keeping the game close and creating the odd chance — less so in terms of looking like the likelier winner. In the end, it took an incident for them to score, but by that point Real Madrid were ahead. You wonder also if with the big Copa del Rey semifinal against Athletic Bilbao coming up on Wednesday (3:30 p.m. ET, stream live on ESPN+), there wasn’t some load management going on too.

In the end, this game finished 1-0 to Inter and while it could have taken a different turn if Dusan Vlahovic’s control had been less leaden, there was little doubt who was the better team on the day (and for much of the season). Inter could have scored more — goalkeeper Wojciech Szczesny was immense — and it felt as if Max Allegri’s game plan (which we’ve seen before) was simply to keep things as tight as possible and wait for something positive to happen.

It’s hard to understand because when you’re conceding chances and only rarely creating them, it means you’re being outplayed and, odds are, you’ll give up a goal soon. And that’s pretty much what happened, as the midfield trio of Hakan Calhanoglu (one of his best games in an Inter shirt), Nicolò Barella and Henrikh Mkhitaryan ran rampant. Allegri’s approach seems all the more bizarre when you consider he only sent on Federico Chiesa (a more natural counterattacker than the youngster Kenan Yildiz, who struggled on the night) with 24 minutes to go and only switched to a back four with two minutes left.

Allegri’s conservatism is hard to square away considering that it was Juve who were chasing, Juve who were getting pummeled and Juve who were losing (and for whom a draw wasn’t a great result anyway). The result means Inter are now four points clear with a game in hand and the head-to-head advantage. It’s still Inter — which means they can still self-destruct — and there’s still a long way to go, and they’ve got European football and blah-blah-blah … but this is one giant leap toward the Scudetto here.

Sometimes more than one thing can be true. Sometimes you can win big — and it was a big win, because they leapfrogged West Ham in the table — and it can be more down to your opponent’s profligacy and mistakes than your own brilliance. United won 3-0 but, particularly in the first half, struggled to impose themselves (despite taking the lead) against a West Ham side that hasn’t won since December.

United’s shortcomings are nothing new and it’s only a reminder of how much work Erik ten Hag and the club need to do. But if you’re going to try to build something (or rebuild, in this case) it helps to have a positive vibe — three wins on the bounce, although they conceded three against Wolves and two against, ahem, Newport County in the FA Cup — and a hopeful outlook.

The latter came organically with the photo of Kobbie Mainoo, Alejandro Garnacho and Rasmus Højlund sitting together. Less than 60 years old combined and with plenty of promise, the trio is something tangible for which United fans can get excited and which, knock on wood, might last a good decade or more.

That still image is worth hours of ten Hag speeches and postgame comments in terms of messaging. Hopefully he uses it to his advantage.

Lamine Yamal, Ilkay Gündogan and Robert Lewandowski (who scored his first LaLiga goal since Dec. 10) were on target as Barcelona rolled to a 3-1 win away to Alavés that helped consolidate them third place. They didn’t play particularly well, but there are plenty of mitigating factors, starting with their many injuries (10, if you count Marcos Alonso) and continuing with the fact that Xavi experimented with Andreas Christensen in midfield. (I’m not sure it’s something worth revisiting, though it might depend on the opponent).

But Barca remain angry about the state of officiating in LaLiga, with Xavi openly saying his club is paying for the Negreira case. He was incensed not just by Vitor Roque’s second yellow, which was Charmin soft at best, but by what he sees as broader trends in the league. (The fact that Girona had two players pick up yellows, meaning they’ll be suspended for the big clash against Real Madrid next weekend, does little to calm nerves).

The sooner the Negreira case is resolved, one way or another, the better off everyone will be.

Bayern Munich and Thomas Tuchel delivered the sort of performance that was as impressive as it was important against Borussia Monchengladbach. Impressive, because they looked sharp and committed and created a ton of chances. Important, because they went a goal down at home (because of a Manuel Neuer blunder), because faith in Tuchel was ebbing and because the victory means they have a chance to leapfrog top-of-the-table Bayer Leverkusen next weekend.

Having Noussair Mazraoui back in the squad helped — in the space of a few days, between his return from the Africa Cup of Nations to the signing of Sacha Boey, they went from having no viable right-backs to having two. So did the fact that the other full-back, Alphonso Davies, produced a barnstorming shift down the left (after some poor outings) and Thomas Müller did his fine wine routine in his 500th appearance for the club. (You shouldn’t bank on him doing this all the time, but while he’s there, it’s nice to have him).

And then there’s 19-year-old Aleksandar Pavlovic, who scored in his second straight game and was dominant in central midfield. Hopefully he’ll be the guy who will quell Tuchel’s “number six” obsession so he can leave Joshua Kimmich alone when he returns to fitness.

It should have been all downhill for Spurs away to Everton when Richarlison gave them the lead after just four minutes and — after that scrambled equalizer — Richarlison scored again against his old club to make it 2-1. Everton may be steely under Sean Dyche, but when you have better players and lightning-quick forwards, playing with a lead ought to make things easy.

Not for Spurs. They failed to take a single shot in the last 20 minutes and as was the case with both goals, they conceded on a set piece, the latter coming in injury time. Sure, goalkeeper Guglielmo Vicario isn’t built like Dwayne Johnson and he gets targeted, so surely he needs help in the form of a nasty center-back — both Radu Dragusin and Cuti Romero will do in the nasty department — removing whatever obstacle the other team puts in front of him on set pieces.

Just as worrying as the weaknesses in these situations is the fact that Spurs have conceded no fewer than eight goals after the 90th minute. Ange Postecoglou doesn’t need me to tell him that games last until the final whistle. Maybe it’s fresh legs or maybe it’s a kick up the backside, but falling away like this will cost you come the end of the campaign.

It’s three points, so you take it, but in some ways, Milan’s trip to Frosinone felt a lot like their last road game, away to Udinese. Upper hand for much of the match, some silly mistakes and then falling behind only for some Luka Jovic heroics (yes, that Luka Jovic) to turn it around for a 3-2 win.

Break it down into episodes, and you’ll note that while the penalty Milan gave away is somewhat harsh and Mike Maignan was uncharacteristically lax on the second goal, Stefano Pioli’s crew still scored three goals. What strikes me, though, is how uneven this side is. Rafael Leão and Olivier Giroud looked good; so did Jovic and Ismaël Bennacer off the bench and Matteo Gabbia at the back, while the likes of Tijjani Reijnders, Yacine Adli and Theo Hernández were comparatively subpar.

It’s great to have depth, but Pioli wants Milan to be a collective force, not a side that holds its own until somebody does something special (and it’s often a different guy each time). There’s still work to be done.

The inquest to determine what went wrong at Chelsea will require a deep dive, and make no mistake about it — there are plenty of responsible parties.

On Sunday, during the 4-2 defeat to a Wolves side that hadn’t won away from home in the league since October, fans vented their frustration at the owners (chants of “Roman Abramovich” echoed around the ground), the manager and themselves (this time it was a call-and-response with traveling Wolves supporters: when the visitors sang “You’re f—ing s—!” Chelsea replied with “We’re f—ing s—!”).

Amid this wild display of negativity, Wolves played well, but Chelsea did their part and the damage could have been even worse based solely on the number of times Moisés Caicedo gave the ball away.

This time, Pochettino didn’t hide behind having a young team or injuries, he simply apologized, though hopefully his apology wasn’t just on behalf of the players. Because sure, some — maybe most — might not be worth what the club paid for them or they may not be playing to their potential (or both), but the lack of chemistry, patterns of play and movement? That’s the manager’s responsibility.

With a German Cup quarterfinal coming up on Tuesday against Stuttgart (2:30 p.m. ET, stream live on ESPN+), Xabi Alonso mixed it up a bit for the trip to lowly Darmstadt, with Nathan Tella and Borja Iglesias coming in for Jeremie Frimpong and Patrik Schick. (The latter, of course, is himself the backup for the injured Victor Boniface.) Both players were making debuts (Tella in a Bundesliga starting XI, Borja having just arrived from Betis) and both seized their chance.

Tella — who, lest we forget, is 24 and has never been a starter on a top-flight side — scored two goals. Borja, despite seeing his minutes dry up at Real Betis before his move, did a lot of the dirty work up front and opened channels for his teammates.

The star of the show was still Florian Wirtz, as you’d expect, but kudos to the back line as well. Still without Edmond Tapsoba (who came on as a sub) and Odilon Kossounou (who was having a tough time at the AFCON), they held Darmstadt to a 0.01 xG in the second half (after some mistakes before the break).

Xabi Alonso couldn’t have asked for a better prep ahead of the cup clash and next weekend’s top-of-the-table encounter with Bayern.

Girona were missing some big pieces (namely David López and Artem Dovbyk) against Real Sociedad, but they nevertheless ferreted away in a game that could have gone either way if not for one big officiating decision. Yangel Herrera’s goal was called back and disallowed for a foul that happened a full 40 seconds earlier — 40 seconds in which Real Sociedad touched the ball not once, but twice.

Now, I’m sure there’s a textbook definition of what constitutes a phase of play — or maybe there isn’t … who knows? — but 40 seconds is a long time to rewind the tape. And when the defending team clears the ball not once, but twice, surely the situation ought to reset?

It’s not just the two points dropped, it’s the fact that Herrera and Daley Blind were booked and now will miss the big clash against Real Madrid next week. The fairytale is hanging by a thread.

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