It was another massive weekend in soccer with a string of big results changing the narratives (and the title races) across Europe. In the Premier League, Liverpool and Man United battled to a 0-0 draw that might leave them both on the outside looking in when it comes to the title, while Inter Milan (led by Arturo Vidal) dominated Juventus in the Derby d’Italia to put the defending Serie A champions under some serious pressure. There was also a bit of history (though not of the good kind) for Lionel Messi, who received his first Barca red card in over 750 career appearances as they lost the Spanish Supercopa in extra time to a deserving Athletic Bilbao team.
There were also big results for Bayern Munich, who looked sharp again in the Bundesliga, Man City and Napoli, while Mesut Ozil’s time at Arsenal was officially brought to an end after seven and a half years.
– Stream ESPN FC Daily on ESPN+ (U.S. only)
– ESPN+ viewer’s guide: Bundesliga, Serie A, MLS, FA Cup and more
It’s Monday, and Gab Marcotti reacts to the biggest moments in the world of football from the past week.
Jump to: Liverpool, Man Utd draw | Inter’s statement win | Barca can’t dwell on loss | Man City miss Aguero | Bayern look convincing | Ozil, Arsenal split | Dortmund’s good, bad, ugly | Chelsea lean on Mount | Leipzig drop points | New-look Spurs? | Don’t sleep on Napoli | And finally…
Man City benefit most from Liverpool, Man United stalemate
After the scoreless draw between Liverpool and Manchester United, Luke Shaw said he felt United were the better team. When it was pointed out to Jordan Henderson that some felt United had been better, his first reaction was: “Who said that?!? Interesting…”
Obviously, he disagreed. Maybe it was just the post-match adrenaline, but each side, viewed from their own perspective, could credibly make an argument. Liverpool had more of the ball and looked sharper, at least until the final third. United, after a purely counterattacking first half, ended up with two late clear-cut chances.
It’s probably fair to say that either side could have won, and that neither did speaks to the fact that it’s two points dropped for both.
– Ogden: Man United’s title credentials boosted at Liverpool
– Liverpool ratings: Misfiring Firmino 5/10 up front
– Man United ratings: Maguire, Shaw impress
United’s game plan was basic, but effective. They counter well, so that’s what they set up to do. Moving Paul Pogba to the right gave them a bit of attacking output on Aaron Wan-Bissaka’s flank, and helped dull the impetus of Sadio Mane and Andy Robertson. Business picked up after Edinson Cavani came on for Anthony Martial, giving Fabinho and Henderson — Liverpool’s emergency centre-backs — a different sort of threat.
There’s not much fault to find in Solskjaer’s work on Sunday. These are the players he has; this is what they do. The execution could have been better, but it’s not down to Solskjaer if Marcus Rashford isn’t timing his runs correctly, or if they struggle to keep the ball under Liverpool’s press: the personnel is what it is, and it wasn’t going to change on the day.
Janusz Michallik explains why he believes Man Utd will be happy with a point, but argues they should have pushed for more.
Liverpool are more complex here, because Klopp changed far more — some of it enforced (at the back), some of it less so. Moving Henderson further back was a logical choice when you’re going to have plenty of the ball, not much of an aerial threat and large spaces to defend. Thiago Alcantara was a no-brainer. Xherdan Shaqiri, perhaps, a bit more thinking out of the box (he hadn’t started a league game since 2019), but that’s fine.
Where Klopp was let down, though, was in two areas that were his lynchpins to success in recent years. Trent Alexander-Arnold really struggled, both on the ball and off. It’s easy to forget that he’s still young and players have ups and downs, but perhaps more than any other, this is a difficult season for him, and Liverpool miss the attacking dimension he brings while, defensively, his lapses are proving costly. He’ll play his way out of it; he’s just 22. But it may take time.
Liverpool and Man United earned a point in Sunday’s 0-0 draw, but both lost some valuable ground to Man City, who look set to hit another gear. Ash Donelon/Manchester United via Getty Images
The other problem area is up front. Liverpool have now gone 348 league minutes without a goal — that’s their longest run in 16 years. Mohamed Salah, Roberto Firmino and Sadio Mane have as many goals (24) as they did at this stage last season, which suggests rather than the three of them playing worse this season, it’s more a case of fatigue (Diogo Jota’s injury obviously didn’t help) and a different kind of service from a different kind of midfield (and from Alexander-Arnold).
Help from the transfer market seems unlikely, so it’s up to Klopp to work his way out of this jam. It’s a question of regaining sharpness and better exploiting what Thiago brings to the midfield. Ideally, of course, you’d work on this on the training pitch, but this season being what it is, he’ll have to fix it on the fly.
Either way, the evident big winner here was the team down the road, Manchester City.
Inter Milan deliver statement win vs. Juventus
Gab Marcotti and Julien Laurens discuss Andrea Pirlo’s approach in Juventus’ 2-0 loss to Inter Milan.
Make no mistake about it: this was a beatdown. Inter Milan emerged as 2-0 victors over Juventus on Sunday; they could have scored five or six. And, because Inter are still Inter, there was a typical moment when you felt they might throw it all away. Samir Handanovic made a superb save off Federico Chiesa’s shot three minutes from time. Had it gone in, it would have set up the sort of nervy, squeaky-bum finish that terrifies Inter supporters — particularly against Juventus — when a moment of magic, a mental lapse or a refereeing decision might have cost them three points.
But it didn’t, and so there was no psychodrama. Just a team that played with personality, purpose and outclassed the opposition in nearly every area of the pitch. Arturo Vidal was on his best behaviour on the pitch: disciplined, on-time with the opener and just the right kind of fiery. Which is a good thing, because after he inadvertently appeared to kiss the Juve badge. (Thought: How about we leave the hugging and the kissing of the opponents until after the game?) there was no way he could afford to follow up with a poor performance.
Inter were pretty much at full strength and made it count. The only blot was some wayward finishing from Lautaro Martinez and Romelu Lukaku, but on nights like this, you’re more than happy to give them a pass.
From before the match to the final whistle, Jurgen Klinsmann says Arturo Vidal dominated the day for Inter
Where Inter really dominated was in the middle of the park. In addition to Vidal, we saw a whirlwind performance from Nicolo Barella, who also scored the second goal. If he had a mohawk and more tattoos, he’d be a more disciplined, equally intense version of Vidal — the good Vidal, the circa-2014 Vidal. But, for me, the key was Marcelo Brozovic, aka “The Broz.” He did exactly what a playmaker ought be doing: creating, dictating play, always being available to receive the ball. If Inter are to win the title, they need him to produce regularly.
And Brozovic is exactly what Juventus don’t have. That midfield was overrun, and as we’ve highlighted before, it’s the weakest part of Andrea Pirlo’s puzzle. You can’t play a possession game if you move the ball slowly or unimaginatively. Without creating play from midfield, you either rely on crosses — that wasn’t happening with the fullbacks pinned back, and Chiesa blowing hot and cold — or individuals doing something special. (And that wasn’t happening either: Cristiano Ronaldo had one of his poorest games; he can’t wear the Superman cape every time he steps on the pitch).
Pirlo’s Juve was out-thought and out-fought. They’re not in a position right now to spot the opposition three (Matthijs De Ligt, Juan Cuadrado and Alex Sandro) and a half (Paulo Dybala) starters, but that can’t be an alibi either. Given the way they’re performing right now — and given how well Inter played — even with that quartet available it’s hard to imagine a different outcome Sunday night.
Koeman, Barcelona can’t let Super Cup defeat become bigger than it is
ESPN FC’s Rodri Faez unpacks another disappointing night for Barcelona as Lionel Messi receives his first red card.
The single biggest mistake Ronald Koeman could make right now is to let Sunday’s 3-2 Spanish Supercopa defeat to Athletic Bilbao mushroom into something deeper and greater. (To be fair, I don’t know how he stops it.)
Already, we’re witnessing the aftermath. Lionel Messi’s red card — his first ever in a Barcelona shirt — is being treated like some kind of metaphor for his pent-up frustration and imminent (potential) exit. Barca’s toothless first half is seen as evidence of the lack of backbone in this team (and, therefore, must be Koeman’s fault). On and on, the negativity grows.
– Hunter: How zen-like Messi finally saw red for Barca
– Report: Messi could face four-match ban for red card
– Barca ratings: Messi 5/10 in cup defeat
Make no mistake about it: this was not a good performance, and neither was the semifinal against Real Sociedad. This version of Barca is flimsy and flighty by nature — all Koeman can do is try and leverage the fact that most of the time, they’ll have better players than the opposition, and better players often generate something out of nothing. Barca won’t beat you with patterns of play (other than the tried-and-tested Messi-Jordi Alba schtick), and they won’t outmuscle you. The best you can hope for is Ousmane Dembele stretching the opposition enough to create some space for Antoine Griezmann, Pedri and Messi to affect the game, while Marc-Andre ter Stegen works wonders at the other end.
This is what they are. And when Koeman can channel it — as he did recently in La Liga — they get enough production to at least punch their weight as the third-best team in Spain, which is what the table says they are. (On this occasion, it probably doesn’t lie.) But when the opposition rattles them and when Messi is human, they’re vulnerable. We knew that. This isn’t new. And it’s critical to Koeman’s prospects that it doesn’t go beyond that.
As for Messi, who knows what’s in his head?
Truth be told, as I see it, it was pretty straightforward. He was being held and manhandled, sure, but this wasn’t his first rodeo. He gambled on the fact that a swift whack to his opponent might set him free to do something and notch the equalizer, and that the officials weren’t going to punish him for something at this stage of the game. Evidently, he caught Asier Villalibre more obviously and more forcefully than he had planned, and he got sent off. That’s it.
But for all this, let’s celebrate Athletic Bilbao and Marcelino too. Let’s remind ourselves that he took over a side in the bottom half of the table and had to face Barca twice and Real Madrid once in his three games in charge. And, still, he concocted a game plan that thwarted both of them.
Let’s also wonder at the fact that this club with its Basque-only player policy can stand toe-to-toe with clubs that can recruit from every angle of the globe. For people like Inaki Williams and Iker Muniain, both Basque to the molecule, this title is worth so much more than a trophy case full of silverware garnered elsewhere. Every Bilbao coach tries to tap into this; Marcelino managed to do it in double-quick time. And his reward was hearing Villalibre’s celebration on the trumpet, the sweetest music he’s heard in a long time.
Man City are impressive, but Aguero’s absence still weighs heavy
ESPN FC’s Shaka Hislop says everything is falling into place for Manchester City in the Premier League
John Stones bagged two goals as Manchester City beat up Crystal Palace, 4-0, on Sunday. Pep Guardiola’s crew have now won eight games in a row in all competitions and in less than a month have whittled their deficit from the top spot from eight points to just two. And, of course, they’ve played one fewer game than the teams around them.
– Dawson: Stones’ revival key to Man City resurgence
There’s no question that they’re trending in the right direction, which is why many have them as favourites to win the league, but there are striking differences. After 17 games, they have scored 29 goals and conceded 13. Much has been made about their defensive improvement this campaign thanks to the re-emergence of Stones and the consistency of Ruben Dias, but in fact, it’s only slightly better than their average at this stage over Guardiola’s previous four seasons, which is 15. Where there is an evident shortfall is in attacking output, where the 29 scored is way down on the 45.8 they’ve averaged.
What does it mean? Probably that Sergio Aguero’s absence weighs a lot heavier than many realize, at least in terms of converting chances into goals. And that while they continue to churn out results, the margin of error in terms of winning games is that much smaller.
Bayern finally look convincing in Bundesliga
ESPN FC’s Gab Marcotti feels Bayern played much better vs. Freiburg than they’ve had of late.
If you only watched the condensed highlights of Bayern vs. Freiburg, you no doubt saw former Bayern striker Nils Petersen rattle Manuel Neuer’s crossbar in injury time and may have concluded that, once again, the Bavarians got away with their 2-1 win. In fact, this was a far more rational and convincing performance — despite the late jitters — against an opponent that had won five of their previous six games.
The David Alaba-Jerome Boateng partnership, perhaps helped by a midfield that dropped a little bit deeper, punched their weight defensively. Up front, Robert Lewandowski and Thomas Muller did the rest, and they could have scored more. If Hansi Flick was looking for a no-nonsense reaction after the shock cup defeat to Holstein Kiel last week, well, he got it.
This team is far from what it was six months ago, but the big hitters — the ones who matter, Muller, Lewandowski, Manuel Neuer, Joshua Kimmich — are standing and delivering. If they can set the example for some of the others (Alphonso Davies, Leroy Sane, Benjamin Pavard, etc) Bayern will be just fine.
A lesson and a wish following Ozil’s Arsenal exit
Former Arsenal star Mesut Özil says he’s excited to play for Turkish club Fenerbahce as he arrives to complete his move.
Mesut Ozil’s switch to Fenerbahce is all done, and he leaves Arsenal after seven and a half years, although most will probably want to forget the last two and a half. The German became the cautionary tale for bad contracts — panicked clubs paying for past performance rather than future expectation. His detractors, who saw him as greedy for not agreeing to a pay cut and showing little emotion or bite, are no doubt glad to see him gone.
Me? I have a lesson to learn, and a wish to express. The lesson is that mega-contracts have consequences and that foolish decisions — like letting Ozil’s run down and then panicking into that £350,000-a-week deal — come back to bite you. A bit of fiscal prudence wouldn’t go amiss, and it’s always dangerous when the “pay-him-what-he-wants” and “who-else-are-you-going-to-get” brigades have the upper hand. (Although given the deals handed to Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang and Willian this past summer, I’m not sure Arsenal have got the message.)
The wish is that we see Ozil back at something close to his best. At least enough to remember the player he was, the creative force that many — including evidently Arsene Wenger and, for a while at least, Mikel Arteta — fell in love with.
It didn’t have to be this way, but it was. Arsenal can now move on, and so can Ozil.
Dortmund show their full Jekyll and Hyde vs. Mainz
Jurgen Klinsmann says Borussia Dortmund won’t challenge Bayern with performances like they had against Mainz.
The knock against younger players is that they can be inconsistent. Experience allows you to stay focused, to weather bumps, to pace yourself and to react to situations. I don’t really buy it, personally, but Borussia Dortmund’s performance against Mainz offers plenty of evidence that there’s something behind the theory.
Coach Edin Terzic lined up Erling Haaland (20), Jadon Sancho (20) and Jude Bellingham (17) next to the wiser heads (24-year-old Julian Brandt and 31-year-old Marco Reus) and for 45 minutes battered Mainz, creating chance upon chance. Then, after a scoreless first half, their pressing grew sloppy, their positioning askew and they went a goal down. It took a 16-year-old (Youssoufa Moukoko) to find the drive to set up Thomas Meunier’s equalizer, before Marco Reus missed what would have been the game-winning penalty.
I don’t know what to make of this bunch other than the fact that having gone from an experienced manager (Lucien Favre) to a younger one (Terzic), this team soar over mountaintops one minute and crumble through your fingers like dust the next.
Chelsea lean on Mount, get three points (and not much else)
Chelsea enjoyed 70% possession, a man advantage for more than a half, managed 21 shots and still needed a late Mason Mount goal to down relegation-threatened Fulham 1-0. It’s three points that relieve some of the pressure, and sure, the Champions League spots are just four points away. But the inability to impose themselves against this level of opposition tells you just how much work Frank Lampard still has to do.
Perhaps feeling he needed a result, Lampard opted for his most “rational,” veteran-packed lineup: Antonio Rudiger and Cesar Azpilicueta in for Reece James and Kurt Zouma at the back, Jorginho and Mateo Kovacic in midfield (N’Golo Kante was suspended), Olivier Giroud up front and both Kai Havertz and Timo Werner on the bench. And still they had to huff and puff to blow down Scott Parker’s little house. Mount, who is growing into a genuine all-round midfielder, was one of the few bright spots, although it’s going to take more than that to close the gap on the top four.
Leipzig drop points, but it could have been worse
Playing with a lead — especially an early lead — ought to make things a whole heck of a lot easier, and it usually does — particularly for a team full of energy and pace. Yet Leipzig, despite Nordi Mukiele’s early strike, contrived to concede two goals to Wolfsburg, going into the break 2-1 down.
From there, it was all uphill. Wolfsburg are a good side who defend well. Julian Nagelsmann’s crew created plenty of chances, but other than Willi Orban’s comedy equaliser, they failed to convert. It’s a point, sure, but it means they slip further behind. The less often they leave themselves in positions where they need to lay siege to the opposition goal, the better.
New(ish) formation, new mentality for Tottenham
Janusz Michallik believes Tanguy Ndombele knew exactly what he was doing when he scored his amazing goal in Spurs’ win.
Jose Mourinho’s switch to a back-three coincided with a 3-1 win over Sheffield United and a sterling performance (not to mention a goal that will live on for a long time on YouTube) from Tanguy Ndombele. More importantly, perhaps, it resulted in a more front-foot Tottenham rather than one that scores, invites pressure and eventually concedes the equalizer, like we saw in recent outings.
This version of 3-4-3 is particularly effective because it frees up the wingbacks to provide width and allows Harry Kane to drop deeper to pick up the ball. It doesn’t turn into a 5-4-1 when the opposition have the ball either, which is also important. Mourinho had complained that in previous games, his players had sat too deep after going ahead, and fully on message the players, led by Harry Kane, responded that it was Mourinho’s tactical instructions that had prompted them to do so. Whether you buy this or not — and it’s a bit of a stretch to imagine Mourinho accepting his team not following his instructions — what matters here is that there was one unified voice coming out of Spurs.
Will we see more of this 3-4-3? Possibly, but it’s hard to see it becoming a fixture. It’s not clear that they have enough depth at centre-back to do this regularly without sacrificing quality, and against better teams it leaves you outmanned in the middle of the park. But as long as they’re comfortable switching systems, it’s a viable option. The key, however, will be maintaining the mentality the 3-4-3 engenders even when you play a different system.
Gab Marcotti believes Napoli have a lot of depth and can definitely be in the mix to win the Scudetto.
Don’t ignore Napoli in Serie A title race
They’re quickly becoming the Rodney Dangerfield of Serie A: they get no respect.
With their 6-0 thumping of Fiorentina, Napoli are back to third in the table. If they win their game in hand (it’s against Juve, make of that what you will) they’ll be just three points back. And guess what? Their top scorer in all competitions last year, Dries Mertens, only returned on Sunday after a month out, while their star signing last summer, Victor Osimhen, has been out since early November.
The idea of a Milanese Derby for the title is far sexier, but discount Napoli at your peril, particularly when Lorenzo Insigne is in the sort of form he showed Sunday.
And finally …
Bas Dost scored for Club Brugge in their 3-0 away win at Beerschot. He now has two goals in two Belgian league appearance and is on pace to score 15 in the league. Counting his time at Eintracht Frankfurt, he has seven goals in 16 games overall this season.
This concludes the latest instalment of #BasDostWatch.