We’re back! The European football season is back! Three of the big five leagues — England’s Premier League, France’s Ligue 1 and the German Bundesliga — kicked off this past weekend, and while we wait for Italy’s Serie A and Spain’s LaLiga next weekend, we’ve got a lot to review from an action-packed Matchday 1. Man United’s new manager lost in familiar fashion. Elsewhere, Erling Haaland opened his Premier League account up front for Man City, Liverpool stumbled to a draw at Fulham and Bayern Munich had little trouble winning in the first big game of the post-Robert Lewandowski era. Meanwhile, Barcelona’s creaking finances continue to hold them back.
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It’s Monday, and Gab Marcotti reacts to the biggest moments in the world of football.
Jump to: Ten Hag loses | Barca’s choices | Haaland dazzles | Neymar, Messi impress | Spurs win big | Bayern keep flying | Liverpool stumble | Dortmund stand tall | Chelsea are incomplete | And finally…
Ten Hag era begins with defeat against Brighton
We knew the task of rebuilding Manchester United was going to be monumental (and especially long) and that bumps in the road were going to be inevitable. And maybe it shouldn’t come as a total shock that Brighton, the same team that beat United 4-0 away just three months ago, should beat them again at home, 2-1.
But as so often happens with United, it’s the manner of the defeat, coupled with the inevitable amplification of everything that occurs at Old Trafford, that makes this club so much more fragile. Whatever confidence Erik ten Hag may have built in preseason is fading again and needs to be rebuilt in double-quick time.
In some ways, it reflected the game. Had Bruno Fernandes buried his chance after seven minutes the way you’d expect him to, perhaps United would have gone from strength to strength. But he didn’t, momentum shifted to Brighton, and by half-time, United were two goals down, the visitors cleverly exploiting some awful defensive movements from the back four and the partnership of Harry Maguire and Lisandro Martinez, in particular. (The fact that Maguire, who was very lucky not to concede a penalty in the second half, arguably played better than Martinez speaks volumes.)
– Dawson: Ten Hag rebuild off to a rough start
– Rapid reaction: Man United show familiar flaws vs. Brighton
– Sources: Man United contact Juve about midfielder Rabiot
You can live with individual errors on the pitch. They happen. Not everybody is equally competent. And you have to accept that negative momentum builds and has knock-on effects, though in United’s case it’s shocking how quickly that happened. But what leaves you scratching your head is some of the choices Ten Hag made.
Take the decision to play Christian Eriksen at center-forward in Anthony Martial’s absence. OK, it’s maybe a false nine and all that or maybe a 4-2-2-2, with Eriksen alongside Bruno Fernandes and Jadon Sancho and Marcus Rashford cutting in, but putting him in that role when you haven’t tried that system at all during preseason seemed needlessly reckless.
Or take Martinez. He played as a left-sided central defender the last two years at Ajax, but was a central midfielder prior to that. When he arrived, I assumed he might be used in midfield, the role he played in his first campaign for Ajax, since United already have a left-sided central defender who also happens to be the club captain and is therefore unlikely to be dropped.
Nope: Maguire moved to the right to accommodate Martinez.
What makes this equally bizarre is that United also have Raphael Varane who, on paper at least, is supposed to be their best central defender by some margin. Is he the one who’ll miss out to a Maguire-Martinez partnership despite being the only one of the three who has played most of his career as a right-sided centre-back?
Equally befuddling was the triple substitution Ten Hag made in the 89th minute, while trailing 2-1. It’s just not something you see very often in those situations. Fresh legs? Sure, but why not earlier? Doing it at that point of the game only serves to eat up precious time on the clock.
Ten Hag’s other big decision — starting the game with Cristiano Ronaldo on the bench — is more understandable, between the Rayo Vallecano incident (though, as Ten Hag told us, he wasn’t the only one who left early) and, more importantly, the lack of time training with the squad. But — and this is classic damned-if-you-do-damned-if-you-don’t type stuff and not Ten Hag’s fault — weirdly if Ronaldo had turned the game around when he came on early in the second half, it wouldn’t necessarily have helped. Instead, it would have reinforced the notion that this team can’t do without him, and that Ten Hag got it wrong by leaving him out.
The positives? Marcus Rashford did get on the end of a couple of chances — though he missed them badly, getting those chances is important and not easy — and he has plenty of incentive to improve upon last season. Eriksen, deployed deeper, can hit a pass. And the club are finally realising they can’t pin their attacking hopes on a Ronaldo who might not be there in a few weeks, nor on an Anthony Martial who has scored five league goals in the past two years. Marko Arnautovic (linked to a United move this weekend) won’t get people excited, but at least he’s a short-term placeholder who is different from the other strikers. Obviously, if Ronaldo does go, they’ll have the funds to wade back into the transfer market.
I may have been clutching at straws in the above paragraph, and for that, I apologize, but it’s hard to believe things can be that grim this early.
Barcelona did not have to do this: They chose this …
No doubt you’ve heard all about Joan Laporta and the economic “levers” — the sale of chunks of future domestic TV revenue, the sale of a part of Barca Studios, the possible sale of Barcelona Licensing and Merchandising (BLM) — he is pulling to meet LaLiga’s wage restrictions in time to register the club’s new players (Andreas Christensen, Robert Lewandowski, Franck Kessie, Raphinha, Jules Kounde, maybe Marcos Alonso), as well as those who signed new contracts (Ousmane Dembele and Sergi Roberto), for the 2022-23 season.
I wrote back in June about why I thought it was a gamble, and my view hasn’t changed. What I want to address here is the myth that this summer’s heavy spending was somehow necessary to create a virtuous cycle and avoid the club going the way of Arsenal and Milan, who went from European juggernauts to periods of relative obscurity. It’s a line peddled indirectly by Laporta and indirectly by his acolytes and, frankly, it’s nonsense.
From a commercial revenue perspective, Barcelona were comfortably top four in the world before the pandemic — unlike Arsenal and Milan in the mid-2000s — and there’s no reason to think that all goes away because they were knocked out of the Champions League in the group stage last season. The size and following of the club is such that it would take a long time for that revenue to fall significantly: look at Manchester United, still going strong commercially despite a whole decade of underachievement.
There are two key differences with Milan. One is that Serie A was in decline, the other is that they had horrendous ownership ranging from the disinterested (the final years of Silvio Berlusconi) to the insolvent (Yonghong Li). That won’t happen at Barca.
As for Arsenal, they find themselves competing each year with five other clubs, four of whom are better resourced, which is part of the reason they haven’t qualified for the Champions League since 2016. Barcelona simply don’t face that kind of competition in LaLiga, as evidenced by the fact that even last season, with six months of Ronald Koeman, they finished second. Champions League football (and revenue) is about as guaranteed as it can realistically get for them, unlike Arsenal.
So those arguments, frankly, are bunk. So too is the one whereby it makes sense to invest heavily because winning the Champions League brings tons of additional revenue. In terms of prize money, unless you reach the final, there’s actually little difference between, say, the quarterfinals and the semis: some €20 million.
– One year after Messi left Barcelona: The impact on the club and the player
– Lowe: How are Barcelona able to sign players?
– Hunter: Kounde signing a coup for Barcelona
Make no mistake about it: There are two separate issues here. Whether it was wise to pull the economic levers thereby curtailing future revenue and, once the levers were pulled and the funds came in, whether it was wise to invest further in the squad rather than paying down some of the debt.
Both were huge choices Laporta made. And they were very much that: choices.
Haaland shines as Man City down West Ham, but how about the fullbacks?
Last week I wrote that there was no need to panic over Erling Haaland’s performance in the Community Shield, and I’m grateful that he proved me right on Sunday in Man City’s 2-0 win against West Ham. He scored both goals, showed off his frightening speed and, truth be told, he could have had another two (Haaland himself admits his heading can improve).
– Rapid reaction: Haaland opens his goal account in big win
He’ll get the headlines, but City as a group looked solid, and the option of pushing the fullbacks into midfield worked like a charm for them. We know Joao Cancelo can create centrally as well as wide, but the way Kyle Walker stepped in there was also impressive. It’s an option Pep Guardiola can and will use in certain situations, and it gives City an extra dimension — almost as much as the big, strong, fast man up front.
It’s only Clermont, but Neymar and Messi show rumors of their demise are greatly exaggerated
Last season was decidedly underwhelming for Lionel Messi and Neymar, two-thirds of the pricey trio that were supposed to deliver the Champions League for Paris Saint-Germain. Sure, they combined for 19 goals and 20 assists and PSG won the title, but by their standards (and paychecks) this was an off-campaign.
But Europe be warned. Between last weekend’s trouncing of Nantes in the French Super Cup and the opening-day 5-0 away obliteration of Clermont, the pair have put on a veritable clinic: goals, assists and the sort of highlight-reel stuff that gets TikTok excited. Neymar scored and dished out three assists while Messi had two goals, one of them a pretty special overhead kick. And all this without Kylian Mbappe, the guy who — on paper — terrifies opponents the most, leaving room for the other two to operate.
Sure, it’s only Clermont, who narrowly avoided relegation last year, and some will point out — correctly — that there is such a thing as peaking too soon. What you do in August simply matters less than what you do come the Champions League knockout rounds (or, for that matter, the World Cup). But let it be a reminder that when these guys are on, they’re near unstoppable.
Last season’s Spurs win convincingly … without Son and Kane scoring
One of his former employers once told me that Antonio Conte prides himself on two things: getting the club to spend money and making the players he inherits better. We often focus on the former and understandably so — it’s the reason he left Juventus, Chelsea and Inter — but that’s not really as impressive a skill as the latter.
In Saturday’s 4-1 win over Southampton, his starting XI didn’t contain a single newcomer (though Yves Bissouma, Clement Lenglet and Ivan Perisic did come off the bench). Heung-Min Son and Harry Kane both failed to score (last season they won 22 league games, but only four without one or the other getting on the scoresheet). And arguably two of their best performers (in addition to Dejan Kulusevski) were the wing-backs: Emerson Royal (who had a rocky campaign) on the right, and Ryan Sessegnon (who many had as third choice this year) on the left.
Improving players and getting them to fit his patterns of play: that’s where Conte will need to make the difference if Spurs are to go to the next level next season. (Which, given how far ahead Manchester City and Liverpool are, will likely mean finishing third and going on a run in Europe.)
No Lewandowski, no problem for high-flying Bayern Munich so far …
It may take some time for Julian Nagelsmann to find the right formation for his Bayern side, but the good news is that there is so much talent here that he can probably tinker on the fly without missing a beat. Away to Eintracht Frankfurt (who, lest we forget, are the reigning Europa League champions), he sent out a 4-2-2-2 formation with Serge Gnabry and Sadio Mane leading the line and they were 5-0 up at halftime, en route to a 6-1 victory.
Robert Lewandowski will be missed, no doubt, but I don’t think goals will be the issue this year. What will likely determine Bayern’s success — “success” as in what they do in the Champions League, because they are streets ahead domestically — is how well he sorts out the defensive end. On that front, we’ll need to wait a bit longer to see what he plans to do, as neither Mathijs de Ligt nor Noussair Mazraoui were in his starting XI this weekend.
Liverpool ‘get their punishment’ for ‘really bad’ performance at Fulham
They were not my words, but Jurgen Klopp’s after the 2-2 draw at Craven Cottage. And note: He said he was referring to the way they played, which, you imagine, means his reaction would have been no different if Luis Diaz or Jordan Henderson had hit the back of the net instead of the woodwork.
– Rapid reaction: Liverpool already playing catch-up after draw
I think he’s being somewhat harsh. Liverpool weren’t great, but part of it is that Marco Silva set his team up perfectly and Fulham played very well. And yeah, Aleksandar Mitrovic got the jump on Trent Alexander-Arnold for the hosts’ first goal. But Darwin Nunez dazzled in his substitute appearance and even Liverpool at half-throttle had their chances.
It’s been said many times, but this season more than most, the “marathon, not a sprint” applies: The World Cup means the fixture list is as congested as ever, and you will run into opponents, even newly promoted ones, who can knock you off your stride.
Dortmund show the sort of character we haven’t seen in a while …
Maybe it’s the Edin Terzic effect. With Erling Haaland gone, Sebastian Haller sidelined by a testicular tumor and Karim Adeyemi bowing out after 23 minutes, it was left to the old warrior, Marco Reus, to open the scoring in the tricky clash with Bayer Leverkusen. From there, you sort of expected to see the familiar collapse. Except it never came.
Defender Nico Schlotterbeck looked more solid on his debut than many of those who came before him, Gregor Kobel made some big saves and Leverkusen were kept out, without Dortmund looking particularly impressive. Yes, performance matters as much as results and you certainly expect them to play better. With center-forward Anthony Modeste on his way — Youssoufa Moukoko doesn’t seem ready in that role — things should settle down and Terzic can get to work, knowing that three points against a direct Top 4 rival add up by the end of the campaign.
Tuchel is right: Chelsea are incomplete
The three points Chelsea got against Everton — courtesy of the penalty awarded when Abdoulaye Doucoure put both hands on Ben Chilwell, and converted by Jorginho — will ensure nobody is freaking out just yet, but make no mistake about it, Thomas Tuchel isn’t where he wants to be. Against an under-strength Everton side, Chelsea created less than you would have hoped, penalty aside.
It’s not just signings, either. Marc Cucurella’s arrival means they have a full complement at the back, and up front, effectively replacing Timo Werner with Raheem Sterling is an upgrade. And while they may consider moving Armando Broja and bringing in a center-forward to back up Kai Havertz, if he does stick around, it’s not a bad thing at all.
Chelsea’s main issues right now are the kind you solve on the training ground, and that will take time. Ordinarily it wouldn’t, given that Tuchel has been there for 18 months now, but the situation with the forced sale and the front office departing en masse has seriously set them back.
And finally … #BasDostWatch
Bas Dost came on at half-time for FC Utrecht in their match away to Waalwijk and scored twice in their 2-2 draw. They were down 2-0 when he came on. He now has two goals in one appearance for Utrecht and is on pace to score 68 goals in the Eredivisie.
This concludes the latest instalment of #BasDostWatch.