Phew: another great weekend of European soccer is more or less complete, as we said “Wilkommen” to the German Bundesliga and “Ciao!” to Italy’s Serie A in opening their seasons this weekend. As if that wasn’t enough, the Premier League — Spurs over Man United, Chelsea losing to West Ham — and LaLiga also gave us plenty to talk about.
– Stream on ESPN+: LaLiga, Bundesliga & more (U.S.)
It’s Monday, and Gab Marcotti reacts to the biggest moments in the world of football.
No: it’s not about the result, and it shouldn’t be. Tottenham beat Manchester United 2-0, sure, but the visitors had a raft of chances in the first half that could have turned the game. They had more shots on goal, matched them for shots on target and won the xG battle. And lest we forget, Spurs’ second goal was a freakish own goal.
Nope, it’s about the performance and about expectation. Spurs conceded chances because under Ange Postecoglou, this is a far more attacking team. They’re OK with deploying attacking full-backs on both flanks, often leaving Mickey van de Ven and Cristian Romero on their own to deal with the break, because they think it’s best to defend in the opposition half. It’s the way they want to play and you’re already seeing that identity.
Sure, it’s a work in progress — Van de Ven can look clunky at times, Richarlison needs to find his mojo, some of the movement up front needs to be refined — but there’s a clear path.
That path is a lot less clear with United. If this game was close for a long time, it’s because, pound-for-pound, they generally have better players than Spurs, not because the performance is anything to write home about.
Mason Mount is supposedly there to do what Christian Eriksen did last season, but you wonder if turning him into a guy who can drop alongside Casemiro is really a worthwhile project or if he has the range of passing to be the press-breaker Eriksen was. Marcus Rashford at center-forward is not a viable long-term solution, Antony is still a roller coaster on the right, and Lisandro Martínez has had his worst two outings in a United shirt in the past two games.
For Spurs, Postecoglou just arrived and is integrating four new starters plus an entirely different style of play. Ten Hag is dealing with the same guys as last year plus Mount, and he’s in his second season. It’s not a good sign that Spurs looked further along than United did on Saturday.
A Sunday visit from Cadiz was probably not what Xavi would have wanted for Barcelona’s home debut at the Montjuic Olympic stadium, their temporary new ground while the Camp Nou is refurbished. It means facing an opponent that is well-drilled, compact and comfortable in packing the box and hitting on the break.
On top of that, Xavi himself was suspended as was Rafinha, his best weapon at unlocking dense defensive schemes. Ronald Araújo was unavailable too, as were two of his defensive summer reinforcements (Marcos Alonso and Iñigo Martínez), whom Barca have not yet been able to register due to the same financial vagaries that have made life difficult in recent seasons. Add the unfamiliarity and size of the Montjuic — it holds less than half the crowd of Camp Nou — and you had a recipe for dropped points.
So it probably shouldn’t be surprising that Barcelona’s winner only arrived at the very end — Ferran Torres would add a second in garbage time to make it 2-0 — of a game that turned out to be very awkward for the Spanish champions. Cadiz had a couple of solid chances (Marc-André ter Stegen made one exceptional save), along the way, to make things even more nervy.
On the flip side, this was a deserved win. And while there are areas that need improvement (Robert Lewandowski doesn’t look 100 percent yet, for example), the debut for Lamine Yamal, barely a month removed from his 16th birthday, lent plenty of weight to the “if you’re good enough, you’re old enough” argument.
If you look at his face, you can tell he’s a boy in his mid-teens; if you zoom out and watch him from afar, you see a man both in body and in mind. You occasionally get youngsters who are technically sublime; sometimes they have the physicality and athleticism to go with it. But it’s exceedingly rare to see this sort of game intelligence and decision-making from a kid his age.
I was hugely skeptical when Xavi brought Yamal into the first team last season, but on the evidence of his first two outings this season, there’s no reason he should not get regular playing time.
I was hoping it would be Ansu Fati who would make Barca fans say “Ousmane who?” It might end up being Yamal.
At this stage of the season, when you’ve got clubs with new managers and plenty of player turnover, you only really get glimpse of what a team is trying to do. Seven of Chelsea’s starting XI against West Ham weren’t here this time last year, and one of those who was, Carney Chukwuemeka, played all of 354 minutes last season.
Of Chelsea’s three most expensive signings in this summer’s window, two have yet to play (Christopher Nkunku because he’s injured, Romeo Lavia because he just arrived). The third, Moisés Caicedo, had a tough half-hour on his debut as a substitute. Any sort of conclusions drawn have to come with a bucket of salt; that said, it was jarring to see how different Chelsea looked before and after the break in the 3-1 defeat.
The Blues were sharp in the first half, creating chances and looking tidy, and they would have gone in at the break with the lead if not for Enzo Fernández’s missed penalty. Yet they were disjointed and chaotic in the second half, a drop in performance that can’t be explained away by West Ham’s prowess or by Mykhailo Mudryk replacing the injured Chukwuemeka.
Mauricio Pochettino has a laundry list of things to work on. He can draw encouragement from Raheem Sterling looking fit and sharp, from Nico Jackson being ahead of the curve, from the fact that there is no way that Caicedo will play like this all year. It’s baby steps, for now. Best to build on that first-half performance than fret too much about the defeat, because it’s going to be a loooooong way back.
You don’t want to get carried away because RB Leipzig — who walloped Bayern in the Super Cup — could have snatched a draw (and won the xG battle). But man, Bayer Leverkusen looked exciting in their 3-2 win over Leipzig and just as importantly, they look like a side that can still get better.
Sure, you still have the defensive foibles, but Granit Xhaka’s arrival should add some savoir faire to the middle of the park. Alex Grimaldo is exactly the sort of attacking fullback Xabi Alonso craves and Josip Stanisic (who is joining from Bayern on loan) can do some of the same things on the opposite flank. Victor Boniface looks like a handful and most of all, Florian Wirtz, despite being just 20, appears ready to live up to his talent after being slowed by injury last season.
It’s the nature of the Bundesliga that Leverkusen — like Leipzig (Nkunku, Josko Gvardiol, Konrad Laimer, Dominik Szoboszlai) and Borussia Dortmund (Jude Bellingham, Raphaël Guerreiro, Mahmoud Dahoud) — lost a big piece like Moussa Diaby over the summer. But they’ve reloaded nicely and if Xabi Alonso continues his progress in his first full season as coach, they may just end up being Bayern’s biggest threat.
Seriously! It has long been a bugbear of mine. Clubs today pay tens of millions to coaches who don’t just pick starting lineups — they conjure up philosophies and schemes. And if you ask them, they’ll tell you that it takes time — mostly on the training pitch — to turn those schemes into reality.
Pep Guardiola found out on Sunday that Kevin De Bruyne would be out for four months. The next day, he learned that Bernardo Silva would be unavailable for the European Super Cup trip to Athens to face Sevilla. He and the team returned to Manchester at 4 a.m. on Thursday and on Saturday night, he drew up a scheme that had Julián Álvarez playing in the hole and Manuel Akanji (!) stepping into midfield into what we now call the “John Stones role.” (While he did spend some time there against Sevilla in the second half, that was impromptu: this felt studied.)
It worked a treat against Newcastle. Not necessarily because the opposition were poor — they weren’t — but rather because City were without three of (arguably) their top five performers from last season (and with a fourth, Erling Haaland, who didn’t quite have his shooting boots on) didn’t miss a beat. It’s not just about “next man up” mentality; it’s about versatility and the ability to adapt on the fly.
How and when did Pep teach this? Beats me or, rather, I know the old football-speak cliches, about how great players find ways of playing together and how you teach concepts, not schemes, so it’s easier to adapt. Fine: it’s still impressive, and if it were that simple, more managers would do it successfully.
City are still short as I see it, hence their interest in Lucas Paquetá and the imminent arrival of Jérémy Doku (hugely talented and not an obvious fit for a Pep team, but with that guy at the helm, you never know). But, for now, they look well on their way to retaining their trophy (make that trophies — most of them, anyway).
As for Newcastle, Eddie Howe may well turn this into a confidence-building exercise (at least the second half) while reminding his players just how long the road ahead continues to be. What’s evident is that the players have bought into what he’s selling and that can only be a good omen.
Talk about hitting the ground running. After last week’s masterclass, Jude Bellingham served up two more goals and an assist for Vinicius in Real Madrid’s 3-1 win over Almeria, and it was a victory that was much more hard-fought than the scoreline suggests after they went down a goal early. But you want your stars — especially those who cost north of 100 million — to take charge, and that’s what Bellingham did.
Carlo Ancelotti is still finding the balance and it remains to be seen whether, after years of a 4-3-3 formation, his version of a 4-3-1-2, with Bellingham behind Rodrigo and Vinicius, is going to work. The idea is to allow for Bellingham’s trailing runs into the box, effectively turning him into a sort of withdrawn center-forward (and, certainly, his header for the second goal was of the “target man” variety).
Rodrygo can cope in that role; the question is how well Vinicius can adapt to receiving the ball in traffic, rather than having spaces in which to run. There’s always the old Plan B — a 4-3-3 with Fede Valverde wide right — but Ancelotti is right to try this. If it works, it could be devastating.
Forget the scoreline, though sure, it was hugely impressive that Juventus were able to race out to a 3-0 half-time lead away from home against Udinese. More important — and more impressive — than that is that for the first time (at least the first time I can remember) in two years, we saw Max Allegri’s team do something that doesn’t come natural to him: take the game to the opposition, play in the final third and create chances.
The Debbie Downers out there will point out that the first goal was a deflected long-range strike and the second a penalty for a debatable handball. They’ll also note that Juve’s intensity and drive dropped in the second half. Whatever. Juve fans needed a lift and a performance like this one is encouraging, as was seeing Federico Chiesa in full flight again and Dusan Vlahovic stomping his way around the pitch.
Allegri learned last year that yes, his youngsters can be trusted. Maybe this is the year in which he learns that there’s a reason virtually every top side in Europe tries to play attacking football most of the time.
Luis Enrique decided to keep his big guns on the bench until five minutes into the second half, when he sent on the newly available Kylian Mbappé and Ousmane Dembélé.
It may have been prearranged, or it may have been a nod to his starting XI. Whatever the case, PSG’s horrendous first half against Toulouse showed the obvious: for now at least, this team is pretty toothless without those two. Goncalo Ramos needs service (and he got none), Lee Kang-In is a work in progress and Vitinha isn’t a winger.
Mbappe came on, won a penalty and converted it to give PSG the lead. Dembele gave you the sense that anything can happen when he got the ball. That’s good, though it still feels like you have two uber-soloists in what is supposed to be an ensemble cast (especially in Luis Enrique’s vision of the game). Less good was Achraf Hakimi needlessly giving away a late penalty that Zakaria Aboukhlal slotted away as the game finished 1-1.
Two games, two points, no goals from open play. If you’re PSG, the only way is up.
The thing about Victor Osimhen is that he does not appear to be rattled by off-the-pitch issues, like the interminable negotiations over his new contract, which should end up with a hefty raise and a release clause (or, more likely, two release clauses, one valid for European clubs, and one aimed at Saudi Arabia). He scored two goals in Napoli’s 3-1 win at Frosinone and could have had more.
Can Napoli weather the departures of Luciano Spalletti on the bench and Min-Jae Kim at the back and repeat as champions? Conventional wisdom would say no, but with Osimhen on this form, Piotr Zielinski apparently sticking around, Gabri Veiga possibly on his way in and Khvicha Kvaratskhelia (who missed the opener) presumably only getting better, you’re tempted to say “Why not?”
A 3-1 win against a Bournemouth side that looked really good for stretches under Andoni Iraola is not to be sniffed at. Especially when your front three all find the back of the net and, perhaps most importantly, Luis Díaz looks ready for a breakout season after last year’s injury-slowed campaign. And especially when you do it with Alexis Mac Allister forced by necessity into the holding midfield role. The Argentine got sent off — perhaps harshly — and by the time he returns, Wataru Endo will be in his place so he’ll be free to do what he does best.
Endo won’t solve Liverpool’s midfield issues on his own, and there’s no escaping the fact that he was their third-choice target, but he’ll bring some balance. That midfield will take time to fix, but at least the pieces are there.
More of a concern are the wobbles at the back, which could have seen Bournemouth score a couple more goals. The midfield has an alibi: it’s brand-new and there are square pegs in round holes. The back four does not. They’ve been together long enough that you’re entitled to demand some chemistry.
The good news for Inter is that their summer wheeling and dealing — out go André Onana, Edin Dzeko, Romelu Lukaku, Milan Skriniar and Marcelo Brozovic, among others, while in come Yann Sommer, Carlos Augusto, Marcus Thuram and Davide Frattesi, among others — has left them not much worse off on paper and with a €30 million surplus available to further strengthen. The bad news is that they seem intent to spend it on Benjamin Pavard.
He’s a World Cup winner, sure, and has plenty of experience, fine, but that is a lot to pay for a 27-year-old who is one season away from free agency. It was a lot for Manchester United — which is why they didn’t make the move — and it’s even more for Inter, who are nowhere near as financially solid.
On the flip side, Lautaro Martínez look sharp and ready to go, notching both goals in the 2-0 win over Monza on opening day. It’s critical that he finds the back of the net, too, because Inter’s other attacking options (Thuram and Marko Arnautovic) appear to be a downgrade, at least in the short term (Thuram obviously has an upside) over the guys they replaced.
It took a late Donyell Malen strike for Borussia Dortmund to get the three points against a feisty Cologne in a game that showed what we already knew: there’s a Jude Bellingham-shaped hole in that midfield. Manager Edin Terzic evidently needs to find some balance — Marcel Sabitzer can do only a fraction of what Bellingham did — in the middle of the park and it’s taking a while to do so.
Unusually (given that this is Dortmund we’re talking about) the back line held up fairly well, including newcomer Ramy Bensebaini at left-back. Up front, we didn’t see much until the end, but that may have had more to do with Julian Brandt getting sucked inside and that midfield too often being overrun.
It’s way early, but you get the sense that it will be difficult to emulate what they accomplished last season.
I was excited to end the weekend with Atletico Madrid’s visit to face Betis. Antoine Griezmann vs. Isco, last season’s MVP vs. the Comeback Kid. Both had their moments, but the game petered out in high heat to a 0-0 draw with a single shot on target.
That’s what happens when you play the game — even at half past nine in the evening — in Seville in August. Some were more affected than others (you hope that Memphis Depay and Marcos Llorente’s listlessness was down to the heat), but what should have been a highlight of the weekend turned into a dud. Still, if you’re Diego Simeone, it’s not a bad away point.