What a weekend! European soccer delivered a lot to discuss around the top leagues. In Spain, Girona smacked Barcelona away from home to take charge -- seriously -- of LaLiga's title race. In England, Liverpool were "lucky" (Jurgen Klopp's words) to go top of the Premier League as Arsenal lost at Aston Villa, and Man City came from behind to get a win at Luton Town.
In Germany, Bundesliga giants Bayern Munich were humbled 5-1 at Eintracht Frankfurt, there was more woe for Borussia Dortmund as they lost to RB Leipzig, and in France, Paris Saint-Germain continued to roll as they prepare for a big Champions League game in midweek.
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It's Monday, and Gab Marcotti reacts to the biggest moments in the world of football.
Yes, it's true: Girona are Kings of Catalunya and LaLiga
Not only have the wheels failed to come off, but Girona have put the hammer down and are racing ahead. Sunday's 4-2 away win against Barcelona leaves them two points clear at the top of the table. And while folks love drawing parallels with Leicester City's Premier League title in 2015-16, one of several key differences is that Claudio Ranieri's side benefitted from their competitors slowing down significantly, enabling them to win the title with a relatively modest 81 points -- 10 more than Arsenal, who finished in second place. Girona, on the other hand, are on pace for a whopping 97 points, which is just three shy of the record.
The road victory over Barcelona also lays down an important psychological marker. The city of Girona is less than 60 miles from Barcelona, the football club played amateur ball for most of its history, and many Girona fans are Barca fans too. For Barca, this isn't losing to a little brother who you never regarded as a rival; this is losing to your pet goldfish.
On the night, Míchel's side outplayed their storied opposition, limiting space with the back three, scything through the Barca lines in transition and bossing the middle of the park, turning Barca's possession sterile. The left-side axis of Miguel Gutiérrez and Sávio gave Xavi fits, while Viktor Tsygankov ran rampant on the other flank.
Julien Laurens explains why Barcelona's form is so concerning after their 4-2 loss to Girona left them fourth in LaLiga.
Xavi talked about how close this game was, and if you look at shots on goal (32 to 15 for Barca) and expected goals (3.68 to 2.69 in Barca's favor), you might even conclude his team should have won. And yes, they could have won or certainly equalised, especially if Robert Lewandowski's had headed that late chance with his head rather than his shoulder.
However, this fundamentally misses another point: Barcelona's defending was horrific and here, it's on Xavi.
True, João Cancelo and Jules Koundé made some big errors, and he lost Andreas Christensen to injury just after the hour mark. Let's face it: Joao Cancelo isn't a great defender, and Kounde hasn't been the Kounde we saw at Sevilla for a while now. But the fact is this back line doesn't get the necessary defensive cover from midfield, with Frenkie De Jong stretched every which way by Miguel's movement and Ilkay Gündogan too often playing like a revolving door. They got very little help from the front four, whose press was disjointed and wasteful, which made it too easy for Girona to play out the back.
It's a striking difference to last year when, at this stage of the season, they had conceded just six goals. This year, it's three times as many: 18. It's true that last year, they were vastly over-performing expected goals conceded -- at this stage, they had given up just four from open play with an xG conceded of 11.42 -- and this year they're underperforming (18 given up, all from open play, with an xG conceded of 16.07). But that's still a gap of around 4.5 goals, which is definitely significant. You wonder if last year's defensive performances are what prompted the club to think they could play with this personnel plus Joao Cancelo, who requires extra help if he's to avoid being a defensive liability.
Barcelona can't dwell on this. (I know, given what the Catalan media is like, that this is easier said than done). Take the hit and move on. They're fourth, but the gap between them and fifth-place Real Sociedad is a healthy five points. Seven points from the top is significant, but not insurmountable. They have yet to find their balance tactically, Gavi's absence weighs heavy and the financial constraints are very real. But Xavi can help them out of this hole. He has to.
Aston Villa upend Arsenal to close within a point ... but there's no need or Arteta to panic
Aston Villa won their 15th consecutive Premier League home game and, after beating both Manchester City and Arsenal in the space of three days and moving into the top three, they have every reason to dream big. And why not? Leicester City won a title and with all due respect to the Foxes, Villa far outpace them in terms of resources and pedigree.
But despite the symmetry, these two games were different. I thought Arsenal actually played well, controlled most of the game and had the better chances. We even saw that Martin Odegaard-Kai Havertz combination in central midfield work as it should for stretches. What was lacking was finishing and here, it's the old chestnut of choosing Gabriel Jesus -- with all he brings to the table off the ball -- instead of a more traditional goal-scoring striker. There's no right answer, though in games like these, it's evident that the Brazilian is neither a traditional attacking terminus nor one of those strikers who creates and finishes goals out of nothing.
Arsenal were also unlucky with some of the officiating decisions. Not in the sense that they were wrong necessarily, but rather that they could easily have gone the other way. VAR couldn't find conclusive evidence on the Havertz handball (after the ricochet with Matty Cash) and the on-pitch decision stood: from a protocol perspective, that's correct.
Equally, on a different day, Jesus might have had a penalty for that Douglas Luiz contact. Then again, if you believe fortune comes and goes, maybe Arsenal were in debit after the Luton game. The point is this: Arsenal are in good form, despite the result, and have everything it takes to compete for the title.
Now the big question: Do Villa have what it takes?
James Olley discusses how far Aston Villa can go in the Premier League after their 1-0 victory against Arsenal.
Unai Emery has clearly put together one of the best-drilled sides in the league from a tactical perspective. They squeeze space -- they've caught opponents offside 74 times this season, compared to 48 times for the team in second, Tottenham -- their patterns of play are tidy, they have some excellent individuals and plenty of speed to terrify opponents going forward. They've had two major injuries that they may want to address in January (Emi Buendia, who offers the sort of invention some of the other wingers lack, and defender Tyrone Mings), but other than that, they've managed to navigate their European and domestic commitments well.
You're tempted to ascribe some of Villa's success to the fact that injuries have hammered Tottenham and Newcastle, while Chelsea and Manchester United are again floundering. And maybe you believe that clubs will figure out how to play Emery second time around, but that would do Villa a disservice. Remember, they said the same about Leicester. And like we said, Villa ain't no Leicester.
Humiliation away to Eintracht Frankfurt raises serious questions around Thomas Tuchel and Bayern Munich
The last time Bayern Munich were humiliated 5-1 away to Eintracht Frankfurt, the manager in charge, Niko Kovac, was sacked. His replacement was Hansi Flick, who went on to salvage the season, going on a monster run and winning the treble.
It's unlikely that Thomas Tuchel -- who oversaw Saturday's 5-1 drubbing away to Eintracht -- will be sacked like Kovac was, but hey, Flick is unemployed and available ...
OK, jokes aside, I doubt Flick is coming back, and it's probably the right decision. And, of course, it's never just the manager's fault; the players must take the blame and the club and blah-blah-blah, but let's give ourselves some context here.
Tuchel was meant to bring stability and a certain "grown-up" ethos to Bayern when he replaced Julian Nagelsmann last year. At the time, they were a point behind Borussia Dortmund and yes, they went on to win the league on goal difference, but that had more to do with Dortmund's collapse, as evidenced by the fact that his Bayern team dropped points in three of their last five games, including the penultimate week of the campaign, when they squandered a lead against Leipzig and lost 3-1.
In the summer, Bayern added Harry Kane who, I think it's fair to say, has done his part with 22 goals in 19 appearances (all competitions). This season, they were bounced out of the German Cup by a third division side, Saarbrucken. (The minnows also dumped Frankfurt out of the cup in midweek.) Bayern will win their Champions League group, though they haven't really impressed there either, and they're playing catch up in the Bundesliga to Xabi Alonso and Bayer Leverkusen.
The narrative has been about how Tuchel wanted -- and didn't get -- defensive midfielder João Palhinha and how his centerbacks keep getting injured. But more of a concern is a lack of clarity about what they're supposed to be and the sense of unpredictability each time you step on the pitch. Will the press work? Will Jamal Musiala play? Will the midfield be able to cover the fullbacks?
Because Bayern are substantially more talented than most of the teams they face, a lot of cracks get papered over. They don't need to play collectively well to put three or four past you. They can score out of nothing (witness Joshua Kimmich's goal Saturday), at any time. But the whole point of getting a fancy experienced coach -- at great expense, as it turned out with Julian Nagelsmann's sacking -- is to make the whole greater than the sum of its parts. And instead we get games like Saturday, where they looked entirely unprepared and were both outfought and outthought by Eintracht.
They knew the opponents were going to press high and try to outwork them, but there was no scheme to make Dayot Upamecano & Co. a bit more press-resistant. They knew the midfield would likely need some help and instead, played Eric Maxim Choupo Moting in the No.10 hole, with Thomas Müller and Musiala on the bench. This was a total loss of control on the pitch and, while plenty of credit must go to Eintracht and Dino Toppmöller, it doesn't mitigate how poor Tuchel's crew looked.
This is Bayern. It's a high bar, and Tuchel's coming nowhere near it right now.
Club may say otherwise, but hard to see Ten Hag continuing at Man United into 2024 if next three games go wrong
Julien Laurens points the finger squarely at Erik ten Hag for Manchester United's big loss at home to Bournemouth.
Let me be clear: I'm not operating on inside information here. Joel Glazer has not texted me, and neither has Sir Jim Ratcliffe. So let me put it this way: if Manchester United's next three games -- at home to Bayern in the Champions League in midweek, away to Liverpool and West Ham in the Premier League -- are as horrific as Saturday's display against Bournemouth, an 0-3 defeat that saw the visitors also hit the woodwork, I just don't see how he can continue as manager. Maybe he'll stick around so as to not ruin Christmas, but the folks in charge will want to hit the reset button.
By "horrific," I don't just mean the result: I mean the general vibe. Yes, the result on Saturday was horrid and the performance was mediocre (though not abject), but it went beyond that because we saw all the things you don't want to see if you're a United fan. The team getting booed off the pitch. Anthony Martial up front. Harry Maguire regressing. Defending with the intensity of Jell-O. Bruno Fernandes, the team's epitome of consistency, losing the plot and nearly getting sent off. (He'll be suspended for the trip to Anfield, by the way, due to yellow card accumulation.)
Ten Hag said he would "take responsibility" for the team being unprepared, adding that he'd hoped to "build on the performance and result from [against] Chelsea," as if the midweek 2-1 win against a team that has lost seven of 16 league games this season is something to write home about. Accountability is great, but movement in the right direction is even better.
That doesn't mean beating Bayern and qualifying for the knockout stages of the Champions League, or getting a point at Anfield or three away to West Ham. It simply means showing that you have an identity and a plan, and that you have players who look like they both understand it and buy into it. Heck, he could lose all three, but if he clears that bar, I'm fine with him continuing. It's just that right now, it doesn't look they're anywhere near meeting that standard.
Lucky Liverpool stumble their way to the top of the league (not my words, but Jurgen Klopp's)
Jurgen Klopp reacts to Liverpool's 2-1 win over Crystal Palace and praises Mohamed Salah.
Even if you don't like Jurgen Klopp, you ought to admire his honesty. After a win in which his team played poorly, many managers would mumble some nonsense about "resilience" and "absorbing pressure" and "wanting it more."
"We were lucky," he said after the 2-1 win away to Crystal Palace, which saw Liverpool leapfrog Arsenal to the top of the table. "For 76 minutes it was a really bad performance." It's not as if it got much better after that, either: a deflected Mohamed Salah goal -- making him just the fifth player in club history to reach 200 goals -- and an out-of-the-blue strike from Harvey Elliott gave them the 2-1 win.
We've said before that Liverpool are nowhere near their ceiling in terms of performance, so the good news is there is plenty room for improvement and doing so from the top of the table is a good thing. On the flip side, days like these remind you that Wataru Endo anchoring the midfield (Alexis Mac Allister was suspended) is a gamble, Salah has off days too and the back four hasn't exorcised its demons. Without some Alisson stunners in goal, this could have been an entirely different afternoon.
Real Madrid get fortunate to share the spoils away to Real Betis and slip to second
For a while it looked like one of those games where Real Madrid let their experience and quality take them to the three points. They rode out an even first half against Real Betis and took the lead when Brahim Díaz (him again) set up Jude Bellingham (him again, too, obviously) for his 16th goal of the campaign. But then came Aitor Rubial's rocket equalizer, followed by gilt-edged chances for Willian Jose and Isco (now that would have been something...) as Madrid had to settle for a point.
The injuries still weigh heavy on this team, and Ancelotti may have a Luka Modric issue to deal with as well: he didn't look happy at all when he came off. On the other hand, he's got to do what he thinks is best for this team, as he showed with another big call, sticking with Andriy Lunin in goal even though Kepa Arrizabalaga is now fit. Lunin made some big saves and Ancelotti was vindicated, just as his faith in Brahim Diaz was vindicated.
You get some right, you get some wrong ... but a point away to a Betis side that plays this well (especially after the break) is something for which you'll be grateful.
Bayer Leverkusen get a point at Stuttgart to extend Bundesliga lead
This weekend ended up being Bayer Leverkusen's toughest test in a while. On the road against a Stuttgart side that simply won't go away, Xabi Alonso's crew gave up a number of early chances and fell behind to Chris Führich's goal late in the first half. Florian Wirtz equalised just after the break and it finished 1-1.
Leverkusen remain undefeated this season -- in fact, this was only their third draw as they've won every other match -- and arguably had the upper hand after the break. It was a big test of maturity and Xabi Alonso's men passed with flying colors. As for Stuttgart, if they get their finishing right, they're far from out of this ... we'll know more about what their ceiling is after they face a wobbly Bayern side next weekend.
After scaring Arsenal, Luton Town give Man City a fright, too
Steve Nicol discusses whether Manchester City's 2-1 comeback against Luton shows their desire to win a fourth Premier League title in a row.
Half an hour from full time, Manchester City were a goal down away to Luton and staring down a seven-point gap from the top of the table. Goals from Bernardo Silva and Jack Grealish turned it around for a 2-1 win, but to some it was still a head-scratcher: I mean, a treble-winner vs. Luton? Really?
In fact, this was a typical game where a blue-collar, hard-working side sits deep looking to outmuscle the opposition. It was the sort of match where, if City had scored early, they might have gone on to run up the score. Instead, they gave up a headed goal just before the half.
Luton are just not a good match for City, especially without the injured Erling Haaland. I'm not sure there's much more to read into than that.
As for Haaland, hindsight is always 20-20, but you do wonder if having Julián Álvarez as the only alternative makes sense. Yes, they can play without a striker entirely and still beat most sides, but should they need to? And is his durability something you want to take for granted?
Inter keep rolling atop Serie A as Lautaro continues to deliver (just don't credit the armband)
Regular readers will know that I don't really buy into "calendar year" stats, and I'm deeply suspicious of fuzzy "psychology" type explanations, but I'll make an exception this time.
Lautaro Martínez' goal in Inter's 4-0 demolition of Udinese Saturday night was his 36th of 2023 in all competitions. That's a ton for a guy who plays in a front two and isn't a regular penalty-taker. It's almost as if, after his struggles in the World Cup, Lautaro turned the page, and while he was only officially named as Inter's captain in the summer, in practice he led out the side plenty of times last season after previous skipper Samir Handanovic lost his starting spot.
Was it the newfound responsibility that elevated his output? I have no idea, but it's the sort of cerebral guff some folks love. I'd rather stick to the simpler explanation: he's simply hitting the peak of his career and has a coach who plays to his strengths.
'Ange-ball' demolishes battle-weary Newcastle
James Olley reacts to Tottenham Hotspur defenders' attacking power in their 4-1 victory against Newcastle.
Both Tottenham and Newcastle have suffered a horrific spate of injuries this season. The main difference is that Spurs don't play European football, which means that those players who do stay fit are better-rested. Meanwhile, those second-stringers who have to start have more time in training to pick up the patterns of play.
The 4-1 demolition -- it could have been more -- on Sunday just underscored this. Countering Postecoglou's high risk/high reward style requires either energy (to keep up) or quality (to keep the ball and make them chase you) or, ideally, both. Newcastle had neither, Spurs were brimming with both.
There's one more point to make on this game and it concerns Cristian Romero, who should have been sent off. Yeah, he's physical, plays close to the line and sometimes crosses it. But fouls like that, when the game is already won, are exceptionally foolish. He's 25 years old and that should have been his fifth red card in the past two-and-a-half years. At this stage of his career, he should know better.
Better a red card or a yellow card and a penalty? Dortmund would have preferred latter in loss to Leipzig
It's one of those philosophical questions that I'm sure has tons of data to back it up. And it became relevant 12 minutes into Borussia Dortmund's game with Leipzig Saturday when Mats Hummels brought down Loïs Openda, who was through on goal, at the edge of the box.
The referee, believing it to be inside the box, called for a yellow and a penalty, in compliance with DOGSO regulations. VAR decided it was outside the area which meant no penalty, but a red card for Hummels.
Would Dortmund rather have had the penalty against them? On a day in which they looked reasonably good and with 78 minutes left to play, you bet they would. As the game went on, they looked increasingly gassed with a man down despite having the bulk of possession.
The upshot? This could have been a turnaround game against a direct opponent for a top four finish. Instead, it's their third defeat in their last six Bundesliga outings, and the gap to the top four is now four points. Oh, and they're out of the German Cup and Kylian Mbappé is coming to town on Wednesday with Paris Saint-Germain in the final matchday of the Champions League.
The winter break can't come soon enough.
Mock Pochettino all you like, but his Chelsea assessment is spot-on after another defeat
Gab Marcotti and Julien Laurens discuss Chelsea's poor run of results despite their expensive squad.
Mauricio Pochettino talking about how he will need to sit down with the ownership group and the sporting directors to see whether they can strengthen in January will undoubtedly draw mockery from the masses. After all, as we see so often quoted, this is a team that spent more than a billion dollars ... and now he wants to spend more?!
Such assessments are puerile and foolish. Pochettino is doing his job, recognising what some of us had pointed out before. This is a horrendously assembled team that got their planning wrong in the summer. There are plenty of examples, as I see it, but the fact that Nico Jackson and Armando Broja are the only strikers is Exhibit A. Oh, and Exhibit B is the fact that their best attacking player (arguably) is Cole Palmer, whom they signed in the final hours of the transfer window.
Sunday's 2-0 defeat at Everton sees them slide into the bottom half of the table once again. Pochettino can either do nothing or reevaluate the decisions taken by him and the recruitment folk. (And to be fair, also assess the situation with Christopher Nkunku and Romeo Lavia, two of the biggest signings, who have yet to step on the pitch).
That's literally his job. There's plenty to criticize, but mocking somebody for saying they want to fix mistakes isn't one of them.
Milan stumble once more, this time against Atalanta
Gab Marcotti and Julien Laurens wonder what Zlatan Ibrahimovic's role with the Milan board will be.
Whatever else Milan may lack -- right now, most of all, central defenders, seeing as to how Theo Hernández had to again line up alongside Fikayo Tomori -- it's clear that spirit isn't it. Twice they went behind against an Atalanta side long on talent, but short on results this season. And twice they equalised, only to eventually capitulate in the silliest way: a back-heel goal from Luis Muriel, who had just come on to the pitch. It was a gorgeous back-heel goal, sure, but a back heel goal nonetheless and one which should never have come off.
Manager Stefano Pioli is trying to give them an identity as a fluid, footballing side, but right now his experiments aren't working. What they probably need most is some stability, the sort that might come of the fit-again Ismaël Bennacer gets the nod in central midfield.
The media point to the many late-game collapses (and second-half goals conceded) as some kind of sign of mental weakness. I think it's much simpler than that. The many injuries have prevented Pioli from rotating and the guys who do play are spent. It's a familiar story to a number of injury-hit teams this season, starting with Wednesday's Champions League opponents Newcastle.
Distracted PSG dispatches Nantes to stay four points clear
With the crucial Borussia Dortmund clash coming up on Wednesday -- PSG need to win to advance to the knockout phase of the Champions League -- Luis Enrique mixed things up against Nantes, leaving Ousmane Dembélé, Warren Zaïre-Emery, Milan Skriniar, Goncalo Ramos and Randal Kolo Muani on the bench. Other than the lively Bradley Barcola, the vibe was to look past this game and Nantes took advantage, battling gamely even after going a goal down.
It was understandable, as PSG have bigger fish to fry. (Though really, their lead over Nice is four points, not 40, and complacency can kill you.) And so it came down to Kolo Muani to come off the bench and notch the winner seven minutes from time. He didn't celebrate against the club where he made his professional debut, and that was a nice gesture. Either that, or he too was thinking about Dortmund...
Griezmann fires Atletico Madrid past Almeria as Simeone mixes it up
Antoine Griezmann had a big hand in both of Atletico Madrid's goals -- converted by Álvaro Morata and Ángel Correa -- in the 2-1 win over Almeria on Saturday, which you'd expect from LaLiga's reigning MVP. Atletico looked sharp in the first half before dropping off after the break as Almeria pulled one back, but never really looked capable of getting the equalizer.
What was interesting was how Griezmann was deployed deeper, in a role not entirely dissimilar to the one he played for France at the World Cup. It could be a worthwhile solution for Diego Simeone as it allows him to find space for another forward: Correa in this case, or alternatively, Memphis Depay, who is fit again.
"El Cholo" likes to shuffle his pack, and Griezmann's versatility allows him to do that.