Arsenal edge Man City in tactical battle, Barca drop points, more: Marcotti recaps the weekend

Arsenal edge Man City in tactical battle, Barca drop points, more: Marcotti recaps the weekend
  • PublishedOctober 9, 2023


The international break begins this week, but fear not: the European soccer weekend gave us more than enough to talk about over the coming days, with talking points galore across the continent. Arsenal got a huge win over Manchester City to further affirm their Premier League title credentials, while Jude Bellingham continues to score and impress for Real Madrid in equal measure as they sit atop LaLiga.

Elsewhere: Barcelona fought back for a late draw, Man United fought back for a late win, Tottenham continued to impress in the Ange Postecoglou era, Liverpool showed progress in a draw at Brighton, and Stuttgart’s Serhou Guirassy‘s incredible scoring form kept going vs. Wolfsburg. There were also lessons learned for Milan, Juventus, Atletico Madrid, Paris Saint-Germain and more.

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

Arsenal get three points vs. Man City in game where Arteta and Guardiola tried to out-psych each other

It came down to the shape of Nathan Aké‘s face. When Gabriel Martinelli‘s shot late in the second half caromed off Ake and past Éderson, giving Arsenal the one-nil win over Manchester City, it was a reminder that small, fortuitous things change games, one way or the other.

It was a fair result for what we saw on the pitch in a game that offered few highlight-worthy moments — you knew that when commentators described it as “engrossing” or a “chess match,” it probably wasn’t much of a TV spectacle. City just shaded the expected goals (0.51 to 0.50), but most that was in the first five minutes thanks to the complicity of David Raya. Indeed, from the sixth minute on, City managed just two shots for a combined 0.12 xG, which is very un-City like.

Arsenal didn’t have great chances — Bukayo Saka was sorely missed from their lineup — but they had more of them and felt that little bit more incisive. Throw in the fact that Mateo Kovacic should probably have been sent off and, to me at least, it seems evident Arsenal deserve their place at the top of the Premier League.

Just as interesting is how both master (Pep Guardiola) and apprentice (Mikel Arteta) tried to outwit each other with tactical and personnel curveballs.

City replaced the suspended Rodri — by the way, his absence shows just how critical he is to this side and how boneheaded his red card against Nottingham Forest was — with Bernardo Silva as a sort of deep-lying playmaker, and got Nathan Ake and Josko Gvardiol to play musical chairs. Neither really worked: Bernardo may be effective in that role one day, but it’s certainly not now and Gvardiol wide without Saka running at him felt like a waste. Dropping Jack Grealish and Jérémy Doku (the latter came on, the former didn’t) seemed counterintuitive in a stalemated game like this, when their ability to improvise and win free kicks might have come in handy.

Arteta’s big call was giving Jorginho his first league start alongside Declan Rice, presumably in an effort to keep the ball in midfield. It didn’t quite yield the desired result, at least in terms of generating possession that wasn’t sterile. Would Kai Havertz or Fabio Vieira have yielded different pressing patterns and, maybe, better results? We don’t know, but you suspect the threat of that is what prompted Guardiola to play Bernardo Silva deeper in midfield.



Ogden calls for consistency after Kovacic’s ‘straight red’ tackle

Mark Ogden calls for consistency from VAR after Mateo Kovacic’s “reckless” tackle on Martin Odegaard.

Raya ahead of Aaron Ramsdale isn’t really a big call in the sense that whatever he says, it’s pretty evident he has made his decision. Arteta may have talked about rotating keepers when he first dropped Ramsdale, but the truth is he hasn’t played a minute since week four (other than the League Cup, which is designed for reserve keepers), meaning it’s the sort of rotation where one guy sits and stays seated.

The issue isn’t so much Raya or Ramsdale as it is what they’re asked to do. Raya didn’t look good playing out from the back, presumably Ramsdale would have been worse if he’d done what Raya did (or tried to do).

Arsenal’s win is obvious a massive confidence boost for the side, especially coming a few days after the defeat at Lens in the Champions League. For City, other than reestablishing that Erling Haaland isn’t on top of his game right now and Rodri is their most difficult piece to replace, the main takeaway has to be that if they play like this, with this personnel, the perception at least will be that the rest of the league is closing the gap. Guardiola will want to change that after the international break.

Barcelona drop points as Lamine Yamal makes history (again)

Barcelona played well, according to Xavi, speaking after Sunday’s 2-2 draw at Granada. If he was talking about parts of the second half or the fightback and personality they showed in coming back from two goals down — fine, the glass if half-full. But if he’s speaking more generally, it’s hard to agree: it’s still Granada, who have won just one game all season and it’s still Bryan Zaragoza who suddenly turned into some kind of phenom against them. The little man scored inside a minute, added a second in the first half and hit the post for what would have been an upset for the ages late in the game.

Obviously injuries played their part — a huge part. In addition to Pedri, Robert Lewandowski, Raphinha and Frenkie De Jong, Barca also lost Jules Koundé at the end of the first half: he was replaced by Ronald Araújo, who finished the game at center-forward because there was literally nobody left. But you still expect Barca to maintain their shape and their discipline better than they actually did.

Highlights: Barcelona fight back for Granada draw (U.S. only)

Oh, and while we’re at it, Sergi Roberto‘s equalizer was made that much more simple because two Granada players (Jesús Vallejo and Jose Maria Callejon) figured the best way to defend was to run into João Félix and then throw themselves to the ground.

The good news? Well, other than the character shown (though that should be a given), Joao Felix continues to grow and the gap with the top remains just three points. That’s not nothing. Time to nurse wounds over the break and come back stronger.

Liverpool show progress at Brighton, but still not enough



Michallik: It seems like Liverpool have to go behind to start playing

Janusz Michallik explains why he was disappointed with Liverpool in their 2-2 draw with Brighton.

Jurgen Klopp said the 2-2 draw with Brighton was a fair result. Yeah, João Pedro fluffed an open chance for a winner, but then Liverpool sort of gifted the opposition two goals, so it all comes out in the wash. I’m not sure Roberto De Zerbi would agree, but at least Klopp can be comforted by the fact that despite limited options (Curtis Jones and Diogo Jota were suspended, Cody Gakpo injured), the guys he sent out executed most of what he wanted them to do for most of the game.

It’s just that Brighton, seemingly no matter who plays (over the past month they’ve made an average of six changes per game), always show chemistry and attacking intent. I’m not sure how De Zerbi does it — isn’t the point of starters that they’re better than your reserves? — but it works, almost as if the crest of the jersey matters more than the name on the back.

The good news is you won’t play Brighton, who are not a good match for Liverpool, every week. The bad news is that there is still tons to work on defensively.

Bellingham in Cristiano Ronaldo territory, but Vinicius Jr. may be the real key for Real Madrid

Jude Bellingham’s vertical ascent shows no signs of stopping. He bagged two goals in Real Madrid’s 4-0 thumping of Osasuna — good enough to keep them top of LaLiga — bringing his seasonal numbers to 10 goals in 10 games, just like a guy named Cristiano Ronaldo, back in 2009, his first season with the club.

However, there are a few differences. Cristiano was 24 and had already won a Ballon d’Or. Bellingham turned 20 over the summer. And unlike Cristiano, he’s a midfielder, not a forward. It’s hard to think of anyone in recent years so devastating, so young on such a big stage.

Carlo Ancelotti learned a few things — good and bad — from this game. They went ahead straight away, but then seemed to fall asleep and Osasuna nearly equalised before the break. In the second half, they unleashed hell on the visitors and could have scored five or six (Joselu missed a penalty as well). Aurélien Tchouaméni showed he can play center-back if needed and Ferland Mendy is serviceable, but maybe most interesting was the performance of Vinicius.

When Karim Benzema left and Kylian Mbappé didn’t arrive, it seemed obvious that Vini would need to step up. It hasn’t been smooth, partly due to his injury (he was out for a month) and partly due to the fact that, after years of playing out wide in open spaces, he has to play narrower by necessity. He still comes in from the left — a heat map shows you just how asymmetrical Madrid’s play is — but he’s finding his chemistry with Joselu at center-forward.

Vinicius scored a goal to make it 3-0, but more impressive was his work on Joselu’s goal, when he held the ball up and laid it off like an old school target man. There’s work to be done to find the right balance, but early signs are promising that Vinicius will find his new role. And that will be key for him and for the club.

Bayer Leverkusen continue to soar with big win vs. Koln

The Xabi Alonso bandwagon rolls on. OK, while it was still a derby, Koln are not a good side — dead last, with one point in seven games, tells its own story — but to quote The Rock, this was another can of whoop-ass that Xabi Alonso unleashed, as Leverkusen dominated possession, won 3-0 and limited the opponents to one real chance.

They’ve won every single game they’ve played this season, apart from a 2-2 away draw against Bayern (which could have gone either way). Cynics will say Xabi Alonso’s auditions for the Real Madrid gig are going well. That may be the case, but Leverkusen fans are enjoying being first in the table. If and when he does move on, they’ll have nothing but gratitude for what he’s given them.

Tottenham win at Luton to top Premier League despite Bissouma blunder



Why Spurs won’t be able to stay top of the Premier League

Steve Nicol explains the weaknesses in Tottenham that will prevent them from challenging for the Premier League title.

Luton away is the sort of game you’d expect Tottenham to win and sure enough, they did just that. Their opposition is simply overmatched right now and in the first half, Spurs created plenty of chances. But the turning point came just before the break, when Yves Bissouma, a standout for Ange Postecoglou thus far this season, picked up a second yellow, leaving them a man down the rest of the way.

What rankles is that Bissouma’s second yellow was for diving and, what’s more, it was outside the box (not going to condone diving, but doing it when you’re on a yellow and the prize isn’t a penalty is just silly). Spurs of old might have lost their head, but not the Postecoglou version. Pierre-Emile Hojbjerg came on, Micky van de Ven scored the winner and they saw out the game.

In other words: a grown-up performance.

Bayern click into place vs. Freiburg as Sane shines

Coming off a lacklustre win against Copenhagen, Bayern needed a performance at home to Freiburg, and that’s what they got. It was about as controlled and orderly as we’ve seen from Thomas Tuchel since he took over, and that’s encouraging.

Kingsley Coman scored twice, but the brightest spark was Leroy Sané. His acceleration and trickery can make him unplayable at times and, until Tuchel finds his patterns of play, his individuality can make all the difference.

Plenty for Ten Hag to worry about, but player support isn’t one of them



Dawson: Man United were ‘woeful’ despite late win

Rob Dawson and Steve Nicol recap Manchester United’s dramatic late victory over Brentford in the Premier League.

Nothing comes easy for Manchester United and Erik Ten Hag these days, and this weekend’s Brentford game was no exception. Tons of injuries and absentees forced him into something few thought we’d ever see in the summer: a Harry MaguireJonny Evans partnership at the back.

André Onana‘s blunder leading to Brentford’s lead had turned the mood funereal at Old Trafford. Casemiro and Marcus Rashford (his midfield general and his best player) both had to be substituted after glaringly subpar performances. And, of course, bubbling in the background were the familiar off-pitch issues involving Jadon Sancho, Antony and, of course, the Glazers sale/non-sale of the club.

Three minutes from time, Ten Hag sent on Scott McTominay for Sofyan Amrabat. Possibly for his size, possibly because he’s home-grown and possibly because he doesn’t generally get booed. Then, McTominay scores twice (in the 93rd and 97th minutes), United get the three points, and Ten Hag wonders if his luck is finally going to turn for good.

Most telling to me was the way the players celebrated with Ten Hag and his staff. This does not look like a group that has lost faith in their manager; it looks like a group that’s not particularly good, not particularly well-assembled and, at times, not particularly well-coached. But the belief in Ten Hag seems real. That crucial building block, at least, is in place. Whether he can deliver the rest remains to be seen.

Stuttgart dream big on the back of Europe’s top scorer

Stuttgart being second in the Bundesliga table has to be one of the stories of the season, as their 3-1 victory over Wolfsburg makes it five wins on the bounce. It’s quite a turnaround for a side who, last season, finished third-from-bottom and had to go through the playoffs to avoid relegation.

Most remarkable, though, is the form of striker Serhou Guirassy, who notched a hat trick. Through seven games, he has scored an incredible 13 goals. Nobody in Europe’s Big Five leagues comes close: Inter’s Lautaro Martínez is second with 10, while Man City’s Erling Haaland, Real Madrid’s Jude Bellingham and Bayern Munich‘s Harry Kane have eight. The remarkable part is that Guirassy is 27 and he has already eclipsed his personal season best, which was 11.

Yes, he’s outperforming expected goals — his xG is 6.24, including penalties — and he’s bound to regress to the mean, but for now, he’s living a fairy tale.

PSG bounce back at Rennes as Luis Enrique reverts to 4-3-3

After their 4-1 humiliation at St James’ Park last week in the Champions League, Rennes away was something of a trap game for Paris Saint-Germain and Luis Enrique. The opposition were still unbeaten domestically and just a point behind them. Plus, another poor performance here would leave PSG fans with two weeks to dissect everything wrong with the side over the international break.

So Luis Enrique kept it simple. He ditched the 4-2-4 formation for a 4-3-3, stiffening up the midfield with Vitinha and getting Goncalo Ramos to operate almost as a withdrawn forward to help out the middle of the park. It worked, as PSG won 3-1 and could have scored a few more. Sometimes, it’s best not to get too fancy and just let your talent shine.

Dortmund banish Union Berlin (and their demons) with big second half

Once again, it looked like it wasn’t Borussia Dortmund‘s day. They were 2-1 down at home to Union Berlin and hadn’t played well. Niclas Füllkrug had scored, but then conceded a goofy headed own goal for the equaliser. Meanwhile Union Berlin had taken the lead thanks to a generous (read: bogus) penalty converted by Leo Bonucci after Sheraldo Becker effectively kicked Mats Hummels‘ boot. The midfield (again) wasn’t working, and you could almost feel the crowd ready to murmur through your TV.

But Dortmund came out with a bounce and a Brandt (as in Julian Brandt, who came on for Jamie Bynoe-Gittens) in the second half and turned it around. A Nico Schlotterbeck rocket, a Brandt goal following a well-executed counter and a Julian Ryerson deflected shot sent them on to a 4-2 win.

There’s plenty to work on, but also plenty to work with. And victories like these give you a lift.

Giroud goalkeeping heroics deliver win at Genoa but shouldn’t mask Milan’s issues

Milan’s 1-0 win at Genoa leaves them top of the Serie A table, and the dramatic way they clung to the result tends to overshadow the performance.

Deep in injury time, clinging to a one-goal lead, Mike Maignan got sent off for taking out Caleb Ekuban just outside the box (Maignan got to the ball first and headed it away, but he led with his knee and laid out the Genoa strikers). Olivier Giroud put on Maignan’s jersey and went between the sticks for the final minutes. Christian Pulisic had volunteered too, but Stefano Pioli thought better. Genoa hit the post, Giroud made a dramatic intervention — replays show him pawing the ball away with little in the way of style points and while turning his head and closing his eyes, but hey, job done! — and was, rightly, feted as a hero.

But while the result matters, the performance does too. The fact is, Milan created little and were more than a little fortunate with Pulisic’s goal: Genoa felt he’d handled it, but replays weren’t clear-cut, which is why VAR did not call for an on-field review.

Pioli is proud of his squad and how they can rotate heavily to keep guys fresh. That’s great, but right now, anyway, there’s an evident drop-off between guys like Rafael Leão and Giroud (both of whom had to come off the bench) and Luka Jovic and Noah Okafor (both of whom started the game). It’s important that this part isn’t forgotten amid the Giroud jubilation.

Set-pieces get it done for injury-hit Juve in Turin derby

It wasn’t a great week for Juventus. The owners had to produce another equity injection to the tune of €200 million ($211m) and Paul Pogba‘s B-sample came back positive for testosterone, confirming what many already suspected: a long ban awaits and, possibly, we won’t see him again in a Juve shirt. On top of that, they went into the derby without Dusan Vlahovic and Federico Chiesa, so really, all Max Allegri wanted to do was get three points.

He did, recording a 2-0 victory against Torino that once again offered little in terms of performance. Allegri lined up with one striker (Moise Kean), was safety-first in the first half and then got the points on set-pieces with Federico Gatti and substitute Arek Milik. It wasn’t pretty at all, but on this occasion, you can give him a pass: this wasn’t a game in which to grow, it was one in which to win. And they did.

Griezmann and VAR get it done for Atletico Madrid vs. Real Sociedad

It was the clash of those aiming to be the third force in LaLiga. (I mean no disrespect to Girona, but you expect them to come back to Earth). Atletico took the points in a 2-1 win, but Real Sociedad win kudos for performance. And ultimately, it came down to two handball decisions: the one not given on Álvaro Morata (which, as I see it, could have been given) and the one given on Carlos Fernández, which Antoine Griezmann converted from the spot (I felt that one was a bit harsh, albeit within the letter of the law.)

The game finished 2-1, but Real Sociedad were the better side, especially after the break, hitting the woodwork twice and showing no fear against Diego Simeone’s crew. He’ll be happy for the points, but he may wonder (witness the defending on La Real‘s equalizer) whether maybe his team tried to “out-football” the opposition a little too much. It’s how you grow as a club, sure, but against La Real it’s frankly hard to do.

Screws turn on Rudi Garcia as Napoli lose at home to Fiorentina

We knew Rudi Garcia had big shoes to fill, and we knew it would take time. What’s interesting is how he’s dealing with the bumps in the road: by doing things his way.

So when André-Frank Zambo Anguissa had to be substituted after half an hour, he chucked out his game plan and sent on Giacomo Raspadori, switching the system and formation from 4-3-3 to 4-4-2. And with Napoli 2-1 down and chasing the game 15 minutes from time, he made a triple substitution (which is fine) by taking off Victor Osimhen, Stanislav Lobotka and Piotr Zielinski. (To put it kindly, this is counterintuitive: you don’t normally remove you best players.)

It feels to many as if Garcia is trying to show he has a strong personality and is his own man. The problem is, if you do that, you need outcomes to back you up. And, judging by the fact that he’s getting openly criticised by his own players — this week it was Mattia Politano, before it was Osimhen and Khvicha Kvaratskhelia — you wonder if it’s having the desired effect.

Raheem Sterling shines as Pochettino wins his first back-to-back league games



Nicol: Sterling’s fire fuelled by England snub

Steve Nicol credits Raheem Sterling’s performance in Chelsea’s win over Burnley to being dropped by England boss Gareth Southgate.

The 4-1 scoreline was maybe a bit flattering — Burnley had the upper hand (as you’d expect, given how Vincent Kompany plays) in the first half — but Chelsea‘s win at Burnley is the sort of performance Mauricio Pochettino can build on.

It’s also starting to be clear that, at least until Christopher Nkunku plays his first game for the club, Raheem Sterling is going to be central to his plans. He’s been left out of the England squad, but he is playing at a level we haven’t seen in a while and if Chelsea are to stay within touching distance while they wait for their many injured regulars to return, he’s going to be a part of it.

Elsewhere, it was a mixed bag. Moisés Caicedo had maybe his best game in a Chelsea shirt and Cole Palmer is beginning to settle. On the other hand, this was a reactive Chelsea side against an opponent that played into their hands to some degree, while Marc Cucurella had a very tough time at right-back (because, essentially, he’s not a right-back and, well, he’s Cucurella). As I wrote before, you can’t really draw conclusions as long as so many pieces are unavailable.

Inter Milan throw it away against Bologna

I hate to bring up the mental side of the game, not because it’s not a thing, but because it’s too convenient a catch-all. But you can’t really escape it when you consider that, against Bologna, they were 2-0 up at home inside of 15 minutes and still had to settle for a point. Blame a silly penalty given away by Lautaro Martinez and even sillier defending from Joshua Zirkzee‘s equalizer.

Simone Inzaghi is getting a ton of stick after dropping five of six points in their past two home games, having also lost recently to Sassuolo. The main charge is that his team are “arrogant” and that he makes the same substitutions in each match. The latter point is nonsense: he has a framework and he changes personnel without changing tactics and nobody was complaining about it last year when he reached the Champions League final.

The first point is silly too: they played a tremendous first half and lowered the tempo in the second without becoming all defensive to preserve the win (which, frankly, a big club at home to Bologna shouldn’t be doing). Maybe it’s as simple as the fact that some of these individuals aren’t quite as good as advertised?

And finally… #BasDostWatch

Bas Dost started and scored for NEC Nijmegen in their 1-1 away draw at Heerenveen. He now has two goals in six appearances and is on pace to score nine goals in the Eredivisie this season.

This concludes the latest instalment of #BasDostWatch.


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