Man City’s greatness is down to players, Guardiola. Plus, LaLiga must act on Vinicius abuse

The weekend in European soccer was full of title celebrations in some leagues and champagne kept on ice in others, so where do we begin? Arsenal’s defeat meant Manchester City were crowned champions before beating Chelsea on Sunday, while Barcelona got to enjoy their LaLiga title despite losing to Real Sociedad. There was also the ugliness at Valencia, where Real Madrid lost and star forward Vinicius was subjected to more racial abuse.

Things are less clear-cut in the Bundesliga, as Bayern Munich’s defeat vs. RB Leipzig and Borussia Dortmund’s huge win at Augsburg have put BVB two points clear heading into the final weekend. Elsewhere, there were talking points for Manchester United, Tottenham, Liverpool, Inter Milan and 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.

It turned out to be rather anticlimactic, like one of those Netflix crime dramas that are churned out way too fast where you know exactly what’s going to happen well before the final few episodes. Arsenal’s 1-0 defeat at Nottingham Forest on Saturday mathematically gave the title to City, turning Sunday’s match against Chelsea — a 1-0 win in which Pep Guardiola essentially played his B-team — into a formality and the postmatch into a celebration, complete with festive and spontaneous pitch invasion.

It’s City’s third straight Premier League title, their fifth in sixth years and their seventh in the past 12, starting with the “Aguero moment” at 93:20. They defined the Premier League in the previous decade and are on their way to defining it in this one.

– Ogden: Why it’s hard to celebrate Man City’s dominance

Of course, there’s an elephant in the room. Some Manchester City fans will get annoyed at the mere mention of it, and it has to do with the club’s ownership and the way they have dealt with financial sustainability regulations over the past 10 years. They were found in breach of the rules in 2014, they were banned for two years in 2020 and while the Court of Arbitration for Sport overturned the ban (saying the charges were either unproved or time-barred), City were issued a record fine for obstructing the investigation. And, of course, the Premier League has charged them with over 100 counts of financial malpractice from 2009 to 2018 — if they are proved, in theory, City could be expelled from the league.

Here’s the thing, though. You can separate the two things: the job Guardiola, the club and the players have done on one hand, and who the owners are and how the club may or may not have violated rules on the other.

It’s entirely legitimate to have an issue with the owners, and the “state-owned” club tag matters, I think — especially since this isn’t a place with democratic elections. This is an absolute monarchy that chose to take a portion of the country’s riches and spend it on Manchester City. You may be OK with it, you may not be. Nobody held a referendum on whether it was good use Abu Dhabi’s money.

And yes, it’s rational to believe that City benefits from massively inflated sponsorships from companies owned by or related to Abu Dhabi.

Does it violate rules? Read the 2014 judgement and the 2020 CAS ruling and make up your own mind.

Is it likely they’re violating the spirit of the law? Possibly.

It is possible that they’ll be hit with some sort of massive punishment from the Premier League? Maybe, though given the diabolically slow pace of the deliberations — made slower by City’s many legal challenges — we won’t know for a very long time.

All of the above is part of the City story, and it’s pretty much indisputable that, without Abu Dhabi’s support, they would not have grown into a position where they can compete with Europe’s traditional elite.

However, it’s worth putting all of this into material context. City’s spending on wages and transfer fees is huge, but no more than the rest of Europe’s elite. For most of the past decade, City have been in the top five or six in Europe in terms of salaries and net transfer spending, but rarely No. 1 or 2.

In other words, they haven’t spent more than the superclubs, they’ve simply spent better. In fact, they’ve been a better-run club from a sporting perspective at pretty much all levels.

They moved out a trio of players last summer — Raheem Sterling, Gabriel Jesus and Oleksandr Zinchenko, all of whom had been key contributors — for some $150 million in transfer fees. In the case of Sterling and Jesus, it enabled them to not offer pricey, long-term contracts that would have taken them into or close to their 30s, the age when players typically start to decline.

Their three summer signings cost roughly the same as what they got back from that trio. And sure, Kalvin Phillips offered little this season, while you can say Erling Haaland was a no-brainer or that they paid mega-commissions to get him (but then he was a no-brainer for any other big club too).

But how about Manuel Akanji? They paid less than $20 million in fees for his services, and he was widely regarded as a guy who had once been a prospect but, at 27, had never really kicked on. Yet he was not only a mainstay this season, he also found himself playing plenty of left-back, a role he hadn’t covered before.

And that’s one of the value-adds Guardiola brings: he makes players better. Would Akanji, Bernardo Silva, Jack Grealish, Kyle Walker, Ilkay Gundogan, John Stones, Rodri, etc. be the players they are now if they had never joined City? My guess is no.

Guardiola has two other strengths worth noting. We talk a lot about managers having “philosophies” and “styles of play,” but few have evolved with the times the way he has. His Barcelona side was different from his Bayern side, which was different from his early City teams that, in turn, are different from this season’s version. What seemed like mainstay ideas — full-backs stepping into midfield, possession and cutbacks, no offensive terminus — are no longer part and parcel of his approach. Some concepts and principles remain, but the way his team executes them changes based on personnel, situations and opponents. That’s the mark of a great coach: the right level of pragmatism.

The other strength is his use of the collective. Haaland and Kevin De Bruyne are the closest this team has to superstars, yet it’s not all about them. Sure, Haaland is great and scored 36 Premier League goals this year (and counting), but they won the league last season with roughly the same points and a centre-forward, Gabriel Jesus, who scored all of eight goals. In 2018-19, De Bruyne missed most of the campaign and started only 11 games: they won the league with 98 points, the second-highest total in history.

The bottom line? There are definitely serious question marks over how City got to the position where they could compete with the elite, but once there, they have not been significantly better resourced than Europe’s other superclubs. They’ve simply proved to be smarter and better than most. And it’s OK to celebrate and admire that part.

The latest racist abuse directed towards Vinicius in Real Madrid’s 1-0 defeat away to Valencia has brought the issue back to the fore. Unfortunately, these incidents are often an opportunity for soapboxes and point-scoring. There are broader conversations to be had, but the immediate priority, at least in the football sphere, should be to figure out the right concrete steps to eradicate this behaviour.

– Reaction: Real’s slump continues, but Vinicius gets first red card amid more racial abuse – WATCH: Game pauses as Vinicius points out abusive fans (U.S. only)

What do I mean by soapboxes? Big reflections on racism as a societal problem, whether in Valencia, in football or across Europe, for starters. Or whether the use of racist language is the same as racism, which is often systemic and inaudible. These may be good topics to debate in an academic or political setting, but for football they’re a waste of time and sit far above the sport’s pay grade. I don’t want football clubs to solve the problem of racism any more than I want a president or prime minister to play centre-forward for my football club.

Different institutions have different roles; while society and government battle to solve a problem that has dogged us for centuries, football can’t wait. It needs to act now, based on what works and what doesn’t, with concrete steps. (I’ll get to what I think those steps are in a minute.)

We also don’t need point-scoring. LaLiga president Javier Tebas was going tit-for-tat on social media with Vinicius after the match: saying he’s ill-informed and pointing out that he was a no-show after asking for meetings with league officials ranks somewhere between the ill-timed and the offensive. It’s true that Tebas’ job is to defend LaLiga, but a shred of understanding and support for a player who has been racially abused would have been a far better look.

Doubling down the next day by saying Vinicius was being unfair and that “cases of racism are an extremely rare occurrence” may or may not be true, but it’s certainly tone-deaf. And by the way: if, as Tebas points out, there were only nine cases and eight were against Vinicius, they’re certainly not “extremely rare” to him. In fact, that equates to roughly one incident every other away game.

– Real Madrid file complaint over Vinicius abuse
– Vinicius: Racism ‘normal, encouraged’ in LaLiga

What should football do then? For starters, identify the fact that there are different solutions for different situations. A player being directly targeted by a small number of readily identifiable supporters during a game — as happened on Sunday, when Vinicius pointed out the guys who were abusing him — can and should be dealt with directly. Send in security and remove the abusers.

There are LaLiga observers in the stands whose job it is to collect evidence. Use the evidence to get their club to ban them. That should be straightforward and, frankly, easy to implement.

Currently, LaLiga’s approach is to collect evidence against the alleged miscreants and pass it on to law enforcement so they can then be prosecuted for hate crimes. That’s great, except dealing with it via the courts takes time and as we’ve seen in the past, sometimes these folks never get prosecuted. By all means, set the legal wheels in motion, but in the meantime, let’s make sure these people do not set foot in a stadium. And while LaLiga may say it doesn’t have the power to issue bans — hence Tebas’ references to operating “within our remit” — there is no reason why clubs can’t ban their own supporters in these circumstances, or why LaLiga couldn’t fine or punish the teams if they refuse to do so.

The other situation is when a large group of supporters engage in a racist chant. In these situations, unless you bring in the military, you’re not going to be able to eject hundreds of people straight away. Real Madrid boss Carlo Ancelotti felt that is exactly what happened in Valencia. The club denied the allegation, replying that he was mistaking one word for another. You may have seen the videos — judge for yourself — but when this happens, the referee has the right (and the duty) to apply the anti-racism protocol, suspending the game until the chants stop and, if necessary, taking the teams off the pitch.

It may be unclear exactly what was chanted and how many were involved from watching video, but it should be crystal clear to LaLiga’s observers in the stands. They can assess how many were involved and what was said, information that LaLiga can use to apply punishments such as full or partial ground closures.

Italian football has a long history of similar (if not worse) problems, but the two-tier approach seems to be showing results or, at least, it did when Romelu Lukaku was racially abused in the Coppa Italia game between Inter and Juventus in Turin. Juventus immediately identified two of the worst offenders and gave them maximum bans: life for one and 10 years for the other, because he was a minor. They also collected evidence and passed it on to law enforcement, who issued no fewer than 174 banning orders. (It should be noted that Juventus can do this because their ground has a state-of-the-art audio/video security system, the kind used at airports to stave off terrorist threats. It should be required at all top division grounds in Italy and Spain.)

It hasn’t “fixed” the problem in Serie A, of course, and it remains to be seen if other clubs will follow Juventus’ lead, but it’s an example of concrete steps that can be taken and that can make a difference. Certainly more so than simply passing paperwork on to law enforcement.

Tebas is, rightly, worried about the reputational damage to LaLiga. The best thing he could do to protect it is show solidarity to Vinicius and announce concrete steps like the ones above.

After 10 consecutive titles, could Bayern not win the Bundesliga? With just 90 minutes in the 2022-23 campaign, the answer is no longer in their hands. And they can blame it on the ugly collapse Saturday against Leipzig.

Bayern took the lead with a nifty move finished by Serge Gnabry, missed a sitter via Kingsley Coman and then basically collapsed after roughly half an hour. (The xG from the 28th minute on favoured Leipzig: 2.26 to 0.66).

The 4-on-1 counterattack — off a set piece, no less — that led to Leipzig’s equaliser was almost comical. Benjamin Pavard conceding a penalty for the Leipzig lead confirmed why he’s the ultimate feast-or-famine defender. And the sight of Bayern fans abandoning the Allianz Arena early showed just what they think of this side right now.

You can dump all the blame on Thomas Tuchel if you like — and, to be fair, even with all the mitigating circumstances, it was legitimate to expect more, like not experimenting during a title race. But fingers also have to be pointed at those behind the ill-fated sacking of Julian Nagelsmann. Tuchel has collected as many defeats in 50 days (4) as Nagelsmann did in his last 400 on the job.

Sporting director Hasan “Brazzo” Salihamidzic insists he and CEO Oliver Kahn made the move “in good faith.” Well, you’d hope that’s the case. He also said they “had to act,” which makes you wonder what terrible things — other than riding his skateboard — Nagelsmann did behind the scenes. Seriously: what exactly did he do that warranted his sacking when they were on their way to a potential treble? And even if he wasn’t the right man, why couldn’t they wait until the end of the season?

The risk now is that, in addition to the vast expense that came with sacking Nagelsmann, they’ve also ended up undermining Tuchel as well.

Erik ten Hag can breathe a sigh of relief. Sunday’s win at Bournemouth, coupled with Liverpool’s draw, means Manchester United will almost certainly be in the Champions League next season. And when you look back, it will be on merit too.

In a season where the newcomers have been mixed (Lisandro Martinez and Casemiro, who scored the game’s only goal and a beaut at that, have been good, but Antony and Tyrell Malacia not so much), where the first half was spent dealing with the Cristiano Ronaldo situation, where injuries hit late and hard, Ten Hag gave United fans hope and achieved more than the minimum target: it feels like the direction of travel is the right one. Oh, and they also won a trophy (the Carabao Cup) and have a shot at another one, the FA Cup, against Man City on June 3.

– Reaction: Man United, Liverpool still battling for top four
– Ten Hag hails Casemiro’s ‘massive’ impact on Man United

There is still a long way to go and there is still ton of uncertainty, starting with the ownership situation. But for the first time in a really long time, there is very little debate that the manager is the least of the club’s concerns. In fact, they seem like they’re in safe hands.

Simone Inzaghi rotated his Inter team heavily, making eight changes from the squad that beat Milan in the Champions League, and the upshot was a 3-1 defeat away to Napoli. With the Coppa Italia final coming up on Wednesday, it was very much a calculated risk, but any hopes that Napoli — who won the title ages ago — would let up were dashed.

To be fair to Inzaghi, he paid a hefty price for Roberto Gagliardini’s silly sending-off — 41 minutes, 5 fouls and 2 yellow cards — but Napoli had the upper hand even at 11 vs. 11. Inter still control their own destiny, of course — the gap over Milan is two points — and there is no guarantee the regulars would have done better. But it shows how Napoli aren’t going to gift points due to over-celebration and that squad rotation away from home against other big clubs brings its own perils.

As for Napoli, plenty are reporting that the relationship with Luciano Spalletti is about to come to an end. To me, it frankly feels grotesque that you can have the sort of season Napoli had and change managers for what reportedly is hurt feelings and nothing more. Here’s hoping he and Napoli president Aurelio De Laurentiis both have a change of heart.

OK: it was by no means clear that Borussia Dortmund would take advantage of Bayern’s defeat earlier in the day when they took the pitch away to Augsburg on Saturday evening. Their away record in the Bundesliga isn’t great, they were missing Jude Bellingham, their driving force in midfield, and hey, it’s Dortmund: few teams are as self-destructive when it matters most.

But they held their nerve, aided by Felix Uduokhai’s red card in the first half and emerged 3-0 winners. Sebastien Haller scored twice (he has five in his past three starts) and Raphael Guerreiro did his best Bellingham impersonation in the middle of the park.

If they can equal or better Bayern’s result next weekend — they host Mainz, who have nothing to play for — they will be crowned champions no matter what. Few could have imagined this the way their campaign started.

Tottenham Hotspur ended their home campaign with a 3-1 defeat to Brentford on Saturday, which left fans jeering and booing Daniel Levy, and plenty wondering whether we had seen the last of Harry Kane, who notched his 28th league goal of the season, in a Spurs shirt at White Hart Lane.

Spurs were still in fourth place when they parted ways with Antonio Conte on March 26. They’re now eighth, having taken just eight of a possible 27 points since then, and they may well miss out on European football altogether. It doesn’t mean moving on from Conte was a mistake; it just means things got markedly worse after his departure.

Inevitably, the question of Kane’s future raises its head again. I’ve been pretty vocal in saying that he has earned the right to make his own choice. If he opts to leave and the club receive the right sort of fee, the change can provide a launchpad for a much-needed rebuild. But it’s nonsense to say that he has to leave and that he’s showing a lack of ambition if he doesn’t.

Sometimes playing for the club you love means more. Or, to quote Francesco Totti, “One title at Roma is worth 10 at Real Madrid.” If that’s how he feels, so be it. It should be entirely up to him.

Real Sociedad beat Barcelona 2-1 at Spotify Camp Nou to all but seal their place in next season’s Champions League. The freshly crowned champions looked distracted and sluggish, which is more than understandable — their work was done, they proved their point in winning the title — but it was still jarring to see a side that had defended so well at home concede as many goals in 90 minutes (two) as they had all season long in LaLiga.

– Reaction: Barcelona get their trophy, Real Sociedad get the result

Jules Kounde was caught on the ball for the first, allowing Alexander Sorloth to score, and the big Norwegian somehow made himself invisible on the counterattack for the second as he was as unmarked in transition as you are likely to see anyone be. Robert Lewandowski did score a late goal, which means, barring an improbable Karim Benzema comeback, he will probably add a LaLiga scoring title to his collection of silverware.

Like I said, it doesn’t matter. But seeing them so off the pace is just a reminder of how focused and effective they’ve been this season, especially at home.

Roberto Firmino said farewell after eight seasons to Anfield by coming off the bench to score Liverpool’s equaliser against Aston Villa on Saturday. It was his 10th league goal of the season — not a bad return for a guy with only 12 starts — and in the grand scheme of things, it changes little. It would take an epic implosion from Newcastle and Manchester United, both of whom have a game in hand, for Jurgen Klopp’s crew to grab a Champions League place.

It’s probably a fair finish for Liverpool who, lest we forget, were in 10th place as late as February. As for Firmino, he was a class act and will forever be remembered as one-third of a legendary strike force with Mohamed Salah and Sadio Mane.

– Klopp: We’ll make Europa League our competition

From the club’s perspective, it’s probably the right move: Firmino turns 32 later this year and they extended Salah while adding Diogo Jota, Darwin Nunez and Luis Diaz in the past year. But there’s no doubt that he’ll be fondly remembered.

Milan fans were likely worried that the Champions League elimination at the hands of Inter would have a knock-on effect and cost the team a place in next year’s competition. In situations like these, playing an already relegated Sampdoria helps: Milan won 5-1, with Olivier Giroud bagging a hat trick.

Despite turning 37 in September, the Frenchman will stick around next season. That’s great news — Giroud is a consummate pro and even when he’s not having a great game, he finds ways to contribute — but it’s evident Milan need to find another striker.

The win leaves them two points behind fourth-place Inter, with a huge game coming up next weekend against Juventus. With Lazio winning on Sunday away to Udinese and seemingly clear — they’re four points ahead of Milan — it looks like it will be a Milan derby for a place in the Champions League. Assuming, of course, Juve’s points penalty isn’t reinstated and they slip out of the top four: a decision is expected Monday evening, and Juve will be able to appeal.

Arsenal’s defeat to Nottingham Forest on Saturday handed Manchester City their inevitable title a day early. In the grand scheme of things, it was pretty much meaningless in terms of the result, at least for Arsenal — the points enabled Forest to avoid relegation, which is quite remarkable given the massive turnover at the club and the fact that they started the season with eight defeats in their first 11 games.

– Reaction: Loss at Forest shows how far Arsenal have to go

It made sense, then, for Arteta to experiment with a new setup as Thomas Partey deputized at right back, with Jakub Kiwior switching to the left. It didn’t quite work out as planned, but it’s telling that Kieran Tierney (who played the last half-hour) could not get the start even in these circumstances.

Kylian Mbappe was on fire early against Auxerre away this weekend, scoring two goals to give Paris Saint-Germain a 2-1 victory. They take his seasonal total up to 40 (two shy of his career best) and his Ligue 1 total to 28 (he’s two ahead of Alexandre Lacazette). On the flip side, we saw what we’ve seen far too often from PSG this season: they take the lead and then in effect stop playing in the second half.

With Lens also winning this weekend, PSG will have to wait until Saturday to be crowned champions, away to Strasbourg. It’s a formality: PSG would have to lose both of their remaining games, Lens would have to win both of theirs and there would need to be a nine-goal swing in goal difference… not going to happen.

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