Barcelona got a big win, Man United took a heavy loss, Bayern Munich showed why they might be the best team in Europe (and the world) right now, and there were talking points galore for Tottenham, Juventus, and Dortmund. Plus, is anyone in better form than Liverpool‘s all-world forward Mohamed Salah right now?
It’s Monday, and Gab Marcotti reacts to the biggest moments in the world of football.
Jump to: Fati lifts Barcelona | Solskjaer under more pressure | Bayern thrash Leverkusen | Spurs spoil Newcastle’s party | Lucky Juventus | Salah superb for Liverpool | Napoli stay perfect | Dortmund win | Sterling questions | Milan show character | Mendy saves Chelsea | Inter collapse
Fati shines on return, but road remains uphill for Barcelona
It wasn’t just matters on the pitch, either. Earlier, the club’s general meeting — which was attended by just 717 of the more than 4,500 senior members eligible to vote — had resulted in a stalemate, with the board unable to even vote on the two major outstanding issues: a financing package of nearly $2 billion to restructure the Camp Nou and its grounds, and rescinding Article 67 of the club’s constitution, which mandates that the board must resign if they record consecutive seasons of losses (which appears a dead certainty).
The club’s members will meet again next week and, you assume, things will be sorted. But not for the first time, you had the sense things were spinning out of control. Barcelona were coming off of consecutive defeats, they faced a de facto do-or-die Champions League clash with Dynamo Kyiv on Wednesday — Barca are bottom of their group with two defeats in two games — and, of course, there’s a Clasico next weekend.
And then Ansu Fati, making his first start in nearly a year, popped up and did what the guy before him in the Azulgrana No. 10 shirt used to do regularly (to the point it was taken for granted). Same area of the pitch, same finish. The teenager shifted the mood and just before half-time, won the (generous) penalty that put Barca 2-1 up against Javier Bordalas’ crew and on their way to the three points (Philippe Coutinho would later add a third).
Ansu doesn’t turn 19 until Halloween, so take it with all the necessary caveats, but there is no question that he can lift a fan base like few others can. Enough to forget that, when you break it down, this was a game that could have gone the other way. Carlos Soler hit the woodwork for Valencia, Goncalo Guedes forced a stellar save from Marc-Andre ter Stegen (and it wasn’t the only one). In fact, if Bordalas had been a little more daring, we might well be talking full-blown Barca crisis right now (again).
But sometimes, it’s about riding emotion and the moment, and that doesn’t just apply to Ansu. Ronald Koeman got creative and was rewarded for playing Sergino Dest higher up the pitch, with Sergi Roberto at right-back. Jordi Alba was back to his best on the other flank and the midfield held up well. Coutinho’s goal was his first in 11 months and Sergio Aguero finally made his league debut.
This remains a very fragile Barcelona, on and off the pitch, and everything can change in seconds, yet you can only overcome challenges one at a time. And they did so on Sunday night.
Solskjaer under pressure again after another United defeat
Janusz Michallik discusses the future of Ole Gunnar Solskjaer after Man United’s 4-2 defeat vs. Leicester.
In normal circumstances, you’d suggest Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s future would be decided between now and the end of November. That’s nine games in which they play all the other Big Six clubs (plus Watford) as well as, in the Champions League, Atalanta home and away and Villarreal away.
It’s entirely possible they’ll get zero points from their games against Manchester City, Chelsea and Liverpool and frankly, at this stage you feel like anything can happen in the other games. Without wishing to go all Chicken Little, a scenario where they find themselves in mid-table and staring down a Champions League group stage exit come December isn’t far-fetched.
Ole Gunnar Solskjaer knows this, and it might explain why he’s appeared so nervy in recent outings — like when he said he “only listens” to those he “respects,” which given the way United have played of late, suggests he doesn’t respect many people.
Saturday’s horror show and 4-2 defeat to Leicester ended up overshadowing a great goal from Mason Greenwood (who really ought to be an automatic starter at this point) as well as the return of Marcus Rashford, who also scored after not featuring for the club since last May.
There were major issues at both ends of the pitch. At the back, Raphael Varane‘s absence alone can’t explain the awful defending. Harry Maguire had a very rough game, and while a lot of the focus was on his fitness, it was as much about mental errors as anything else. Further up, United really struggled to press in any coordinated fashion, making it all too easy for Leicester to play through them. Now, obviously not every team chooses to press, but if you’re not going to press, you need to track back. There’s no escaping that.
Shaka Hislop wonders what it would take for Manchester United to sack Ole Gunnar Solskjaer.
On the ball, United weren’t much better. I’ve written this before, but playing Cristiano Ronaldo on his own up front at this stage of his career is close to folly. But if you insist on doing it, you need to create a specific framework for him to get him the right kind of service. United aren’t doing that, which may explain why he managed just three shots on goal.
Call it a lack of identity, call it a lack of patterns of play — whatever you like, really — but this still looks like a collection of individuals rather than a team. And the fact that Solskjaer has even more options with Rashford’s return paradoxically risks making the situation even worse. More choices can also mean more things that can go wrong and more difficulty in establishing any kind of chemistry.
I think Solskjaer will stay in his job until United’s ownership starts to genuinely fear they’ll miss out on next season’s Champions League. He has a long-term contract, so he feels pretty secure. But he’ll be the first to know that, while this may be good enough for the Glazers, it’s not good enough by his own standards.
First vs. second isn’t supposed to look like this as Bayern Munich make another statement
Heading into Sunday’s clash between Bayer Leverkusen and Bayern Munich, you could see an upset if you squinted hard enough. Leverkusen had won five games on the bounce and kept three clean sheets in all competitions. The only match they’d lost all season was a wild mess against Borussia Dortmund. Post-international break, strange things can happen … and then reality sets in and Bayern go into the break 5-0 up. Lights out.
If you only saw the highlights, you probably waxed lyrical at the goals, from Robert Lewandowski‘s exquisite back-heel to Serge Gnabry‘s perfectly timed finish. But if you watched the game, you likely were more impressed by the all-out pressing clinic Julian Nagelsmann put on in the first half, when Bayern moved as one, relentlessly and furiously hunting down Leverkusen’s ball carriers. And bear in mind, neither luck — apart from Muller’s goal, but they were 2-0 up and cruising at that point — nor a poor performance from the opposition were overriding factors. In fact, Leverkusen achieved the seemingly impossible: you can play reasonably OK and still be five goals down in little more than half an hour.
Steve Nicol says Bayern Munich laid down a marker in the Bundesliga with their 5-1 thrashing of Bayer Leverkusen.
The natural question is whether Bayern can play like this — with these levels of energy — every week. Logic suggests fatigue and, possibly, injury will catch up with them. But the fact is, they don’t need to. Against Leverkusen, there was plenty at stake; against other opponents, they can probably kick it down several gears and be just fine. Plus, as the season wears on, you expect Nagelsmann to refine his system even further, making the press more efficient (and less energy-sapping). Not to mention that, perhaps, we’ll see more rotation too.
Right now, they’re probably the gold standard in Europe.
Tottenham spoil first game of Newcastle’s new era
The pregame hype was turned to 11, and it probably went even higher when Callum Wilson put Newcastle ahead at St James’ Park, but reality soon set in. And reality says that Tottenham — even this wounded, insecure Tottenham — are several rungs above this incarnation of Newcastle. But it was also an important message: after all the negativity around Nuno Espirito Santo, we saw a genuine show of commitment from Spurs. We also saw Harry Kane score his first goal of the Premier League season.
As shambolic as Tottenham have felt at times, it’s worth noting that only three sides have more points this season (despite Spurs’ negative goal difference).
Steve Nicol feels Newcastle’s current squad is not good enough to keep them in the Premier League.
As for Newcastle, it was somewhat weird seeing Steve Bruce pitchside after local media reported so decisively that he would be sacked. (Bruce mocked them for it, but make no mistake about it: when local media are so sure of something, it’s because they’ve been briefed, most likely by the ownership or the club.)
The impression is that Bruce is still there largely for two reasons. One is that the new owners want to get it right when they appoint his successor, and that takes time. (Ideally, they’d appoint a director of football first, but that would take even more time.) The other is that firing Bruce triggers a £7.5m compensation clause. That’s a lot of money, no matter how rich your owners are — or, more accurately, no matter how much money Saudi Arabia’s Public Investment Fund, PIF, have under management.
Maybe it’s a clue that, contrary to what those who see a profligate Manchester City/Paris St Germain future ahead, PIF might run this club as a business.
Juve beat Roma, but fail to shine amid luck and controversy
The good news for Juventus is that they’ve won five games on the bounce in all competitions and kept three consecutive clean sheets. That makes it feel a little bit like the Juve of old, and that they did it without Paulo Dybala is all the more impressive.
But performances matter too, and for long stretches, they were outplayed by Roma. Not to mention the fact that Moise Kean‘s goal was the result of a more-than-fortuitous deflection — Mattia De Sciglio‘s cross rebounded off Rodrigo Bentancur and was immediately redirected by Kean’s unknowing head. Then there was the Roma goal that didn’t stand.
Tammy Abraham, who was excellent, went on a run and the ball came to Henrikh Mkhitaryan. He was felled by Wojciech Szczesny and the ball rolled to Abraham, who banged it in. Except, a split second before, referee Daniele Orsato whistled for a penalty, a penalty that Szczesny saved from Jordan Veretout. Orsato, an otherwise experienced referee, made things worse by telling players in the tunnel that “there is no advantage to be played” in that situation, which is simply not true: it’s at the referee’s discretion.
Obviously, we wouldn’t be having this conversation if Veretout had converted the penalty, and that’s maybe why Jose Mourinho didn’t rant about it postmatch. But if you’re a Roma fan, you’re legitimately angry. If you’re a Juve fan, take it as a warning: this was a very close call.
Salah on top of the world as Liverpool triumph at Watford
Janusz Michallik says Mohamed Salah is the best player in the world on current form.
Leave the “it’s only Watford” stuff to one side for a minute: clubs that just changed managers are supposed to get a bounce under the new guy. Consider instead the fact that six of the starting XI were freshly back from international duty (and three of them — Sadio Mane, Mohamed Salah and Naby Keita — traveled to a different continent), that Alisson and Fabinho returned to late to be included and that Thiago Alcantara was still out.
The natural expectation was for a cagey affair, Liverpool pacing themselves with a 35-year-old James Milner in the middle of the park. Instead, we got a 5-0 mauling driven by Roberto Firmino (who scored a hat trick) and the irrepressible Salah. The Egypt international is (once again) a human highlight reel this campaign and making Liverpool a terrifying attacking force this season (they’ve failed to score two or more goals just once this season in all competitions).
It’s especially relevant since Salah is in the final two years of his contract, just like Firmino and just like Sadio Mane. And just like the other two, he turns 30 before the end of the season. Conventional wisdom would suggest it wouldn’t make sense to extend all three, but the way things are going, it’s hard to even know who to let go.
Napoli stay perfect as Osimhen’s legend keeps growing
Napoli made it eight wins out of eight in Series A with a 1-0 victory over Torino, maintaining their status as the only perfect side in Europe’s Big Five leagues. Against a tougher than expected opponent, they nevertheless hit the woodwork and missed a penalty (Lorenzo Insigne… again). But — apologies for slipping into cliche — cometh the hour, cometh the man.
Victor Osimhen‘s prodigious leap with a hang time worthy of Ronaldo sent the ball into the back of the Torino net with minutes to go, giving Napoli the well-deserved three points. When Osimhen is like this — and he has been for much of this season — he’s close to unplayable and, perhaps, the best candidate to stake his claim for a place in the sacred pentagon of center-forwards — you know, the one occupied by (in no particular order) Robert Lewandowski, Erling Haaland, Karim Benzema, Harry Kane and Romelu Lukaku.
Dortmund ditch diamond + Haaland return = 3-1 win
Jurgen Klinsmann doesn’t see Erling Haaland moving to Bayern Munich following his time at Borussia Dortmund.
Erling Haaland’s comeback after a four-week layoff took the headlines, but Marco Rose switching to a 4-3-3 formation might be just as significant. It gave Haaland more room up front, it restored Donyell Malen to his natural position out wide, and it ensured cover for the full-backs. Better late than never from Rose though, to be fair, he still has half a dozen key men out, so it’s best not to be too harsh.
As for Haaland, he’s back up to a goal-a-game in the Bundesliga in his career, which is frankly mind-blowing. His first was a penalty after a handball prompted by his trickery: the call was generous, his skills were impressive. The latter was a garbage-time strike to make it 3-1, after the usual Dortmund late defensive screw-up had reopened a match that should have been dead and buried.
Sterling starts up front and Man City win, but more questions than answers
The ESPN FC crew discuss Raheem Sterling’s future should he decide to leave Manchester City to play abroad.
Football can be fickle. Last season, Raheem Sterling played more league minutes than all but two Manchester City outfield players (Rodri and Ruben Dias). They won the Premier League and League Cup and reached the Champions League final. He followed it up by starting every England game at the Euros and scoring three times on their way to the final. And yet, at 26, it’s not clear what role there is for him at the club going forward.
Last week, Sterling said he was “open” to the possibility of going elsewhere to get more playing time. You’d be tempted to chalk it up to contractual gamesmanship — he’s in the final two years of his deal at City — but Pep Guardiola’s words made his feelings clear. He said he understands players want to play more and that if they don’t, they’re not happy. Therefore, he added, because he wants his players to be “happy” they should do “what’s best” for them and their families, which rather feels like another way of saying “don’t let the door hit you on the way out.”
At 26, it’s pretty much a crossroads, for Sterling and for City. Extending him means locking him into a pricey deal that keeps him on the hook into his 30s. The arrival of Jack Grealish and the emergence of Phil Foden mean the club have plenty other options out wide. That may be why Guardiola gave him a chance at center-forward in the 2-0 win over Burnley on Saturday.
Could he reinvent himself in a different role? Not on Saturday’s evidence. Sterling managed one shot on goal in the first half, before moving out wide after the break. In fact, according to StatsBomb data, he has played more at center-forward than he has on the wing this season.
Plenty of character — and a bit of luck — in Milan’s comeback win
So you’re 2-0 down at home with nearly an hour gone, you’re missing half a dozen regulars (including your starting keeper, standout left-back and defensive leader) and you have a pivotal Champions League tie coming up in midweek. This is what you call “backs against the wall” territory, but this Milan side, while far from perfect, don’t seem to be built this way.
Maybe it’s the youth, maybe it’s manager Stefano Pioli, or maybe it’s the realisation that attacking is a mindset you can’t just switch on and off. Whatever the case, Pioli sent on the much-maligned Samu Castillejo and, later, the heavy artillery (Zlatan Ibrahimovic) and went for it. He was rewarded with a 3-2 win that — despite the weird own goal that made it 3-2 to the Rossoneri — ultimately was deserved, if only for the effort.
It’s a win that keeps them biting at Napoli’s heels at the top of the Serie A table — they’re two points back, in second place — and, more importantly, does wonders for confidence.
Chelsea battered by Brentford, but Mendy saves the day
Janusz Michallik doesn’t see reason to worry for Chelsea, despite relying on Edouard Mendy at Brentford.
Regular readers will know I put zero stock in the notion that great teams are capable of playing poorly and winning, and that doing so is a sign of strength. It’s not. It’s simply a sign that you were lucky and/or your keeper played out of skin on the day, and both apply to Chelsea away to Brentford.
Sure, Thomas Tuchel was missing a bunch of regulars from the starting lineup post-break (Mason Mount, Kai Havertz, Marcos Alonso, Jorginho, Antonio Rudiger, Reece James) and he switched to a 3-5-2 formation, but that’s no alibi for the performance we saw.
Still, Ben Chilwell‘s strike at the other end means it’s Chelsea who get the win, and that’s only part of the good news. The other is that nobody plays like Brentford in the Premier League, and they’ll only face them one more time this season.
Inter collapse mentally, and technically, vs. Lazio
Lazio’s 3-1 comeback win over Inter was as notable for a solid performance from Maurizio Sarri’s team as it was for Inter’s second-half disintegration. The focus will be on the melee at the end, with Inter’s players haranguing Felipe Anderson for not putting the ball out of play after Fede Dimarco went down injured (or “apparently injured”) and, later, Luiz Felipe getting sent off for jumping on Joaquin Correa‘s back. (It was a weird incident that left the Lazio defender crying and later saying that he and Correa are close friends and he was just playing around.)
But, in fact, it should be on how Inter fell apart before that, conceding the equalizer and generally looking uncomfortable managing the lead. It undid a lot of the good work we’d seen in the first half. We’ll have a better sense of whether or not this was a blip a week from now, after they play a crucial Champions League game against Sheriff Tiraspol and host Juventus on Sunday.