It feels like we say this every week, but what a weekend in Europe’s top leagues! Arsenal bested Man United in a superb Premier League clash, while Liverpool and Chelsea continued to misfire in a dull 0-0 draw that was anything but entertainment. Elsewhere, we had a big Barca-assisted win for Atletico Madrid, more Dortmund drama and sustained brilliance from Serie A leaders Napoli.
It’s Monday, and Gab Marcotti reacts to the biggest moments in the world of football.
Arsenal lay down another title marker, Man United find their limits
It took Eddie Nketiah’s injury-time flick for Arsenal to deliver the 3-2 win over Man United on Sunday, but the previous 90-odd minutes underscored what we already know: Right now, there’s a gulf between these two sides in terms of chemistry and performance. You can tell which manager (Mikel Arteta) has been in charge for three years and which one (Erik ten Hag) for barely six months.
The numbers tell their own story. Arsenal out-shot United 25 to 6. The xG was a whopping 3.05 to 0.36. United scored via an improbable worldie from Marcus Rashford, and a brave header by Lisandro Martinez after an Aaron Ramsdale clearance didn’t get very far. Outside of that they created very little, unlike Arsenal, who also benefited from a worldie (Bukayo Saka) and opponent errors (Aaron Wan-Bissaka) but also generated plenty of quality chances and spent most of the game camped in United’s half.
The only close thing in this game was the score.
Ten Hag suggested United had collapsed like “a pack of cards,” that at a minimum they should have taken a point and that his players had to “feel the game.” You can see where he’s coming from, but they were badly outplayed even without those defensive mistakes, and had they grabbed the point, it would have been down to guts, not quality.
Now, this isn’t a knock on Ten Hag’s work. It’s just a reflection of where United are now — especially without Casemiro, Anthony Martial and Diogo Dalot — compared to Arsenal. And when, in addition to spotting the opponents three starters, guys you expect to contribute — such as record signing Antony or Christian Eriksen, who had a rare off-day — offer little … well, it’s going to be tough. Especially when Arsenal play like this.
And here it’s good to remind ourselves that Gabriel Jesus is out injured and yet, given how Nketiah performed, you wouldn’t have noticed. It’s not the two goals he scored, but the movement and the work-rate: He does much of what the Brazilian does (albeit with less quality), and that helps those around him.
The gap is five points (and a game in hand), which feels like a lot at roughly the mid-point but really isn’t. Especially when you consider that they’ve gotten more than their fair share of the breaks this season.
Hislop admits he was wrong to underestimate Arsenal’s Nketiah
Shaka Hislop eats his words after Eddie Nketiah strikes twice against Manchester United.
Arsenal are outperforming their expected goals by 9.5, which is a lot, and Jesus aside, they’ve been very fortunate with injuries. Other than Oleksandr Zinchenko and Jesus, nobody in their first-choice XI has missed more than three league starts, while seven members of that first-choice XI have started every league game.
In other words, you expect regression to the mean, which is why it makes sense that the club double down on gaining some depth in the form of new signings Leandro Trossard and Jakub Kiwior. They may not crack the starting lineup, but they’re insurance if injuries or loss of form catches up to them.
A final point on this game: This was fun, at least for a neutral. We got to see a full-blooded match with plenty of intensity, moments of genuine quality, lay-it-on-the-line courage (Martinez’s headed goal, which could have seen him decapitated if Martin Odegaard had decided to clear the ball, stands out) and an injury-time winner. Sometimes it’s good to remind ourselves that this is entertainment.
Juventus held by Atalanta, but spotlight shifts off the pitch
Many were wondering how Juve players would react to the fact that their club had been docked 15 points on Friday. (I wrote a Q&A about it here.) They drew 3-3 at home with Atalanta, but judging from the performance, the effect was minimal. These are professionals, and whether you get docked zero points or 20 points when you take the pitch, you are focused on one thing: the match.
Why Ale and Shaka call Juventus a ‘mess’ after points deduction
Alejandro Moreno and Shaka Hislop react to Juventus being given a 15-point deduction in the Serie A table.
Spurred on by a partisan crowd that was not shy about venting its rage at the sentence, they showed plenty of pride in coming from behind twice to snatch the draw. And while they paid dearly for individual errors (Alex Sandro, Danilo, Wojciech Szczesny), they also showed quality with the old (Angel Di Maria) and the young (Niccolo’ Fagioli).
More broadly, Juventus face rocky times ahead. And while most fans are united in expressing shock and anger at the sentence (and finding it unfair), a fair chunk of them know there is worse to come with the COVID-related pay cuts, the criminal investigation and UEFA’s Financial Fair Play inquiry. And they go past the whataboutery into asking themselves how all of this could have happened on Andrea Agnelli’s watch.
It shouldn’t be a surprise that Agnelli’s gone. Austerity looms, and I don’t think true Juve fans will abandon the club as a result. As for those who do, good riddance.
Three hard-fought points for Real Madrid as Ancelotti rings the changes
I’ve said it before that Real Madrid look a little light in terms of depth, so it was intriguing to see Carlo Ancelotti leave out Toni Kroos, Luka Modric and Rodrygo for the trip to face Athletic Club, especially when it came to two of the stand-ins, Marco Asensio (who is on an expiring contract) and Dani Ceballos.
Maybe it shouldn’t be surprising that Madrid didn’t impose themselves, Thibaut Courtois had to make his usual world-class saves, and Bilbao had the upper hand for much of the game. The difference, until Toni Kroos’ injury-time strike, was a wonder goal from Karim Benzema, and that’s significant because the reigning Ballon d’Or has had a tough campaign. Any sign that he might be back to last spring’s form is a definite plus.
Beyond that, Ancelotti can draw comfort from a superb Eduardo Camavinga in midfield and Vinicius, who confirmed again that there is no antidote to pace. But if we’re talking about bending the opposition to your will, that won’t happen until Aurelien Tchouameni is back (and, ideally, Modric and Kroos start).
Mudryk a rare highlight in drab, nervy Liverpool-Chelsea draw
Rating Mudryk’s Chelsea debut vs. Liverpool
Kay Murray and Luis Miguel Echegaray praise Mykhailo Mudryk’s performance after he came off the bench to make his Chelsea debut vs. Liverpool.
Maybe if Kai Havertz‘s early goal had stood, things would have been different and the clash between Liverpool and Chelsea would have come to life. But it was (correctly) struck off and the game limped along, uninspired and uninspiring, until the introduction of Mykhailo Mudryk. The debutant showed flashes that help explain the hype, but even he wasn’t enough to turn the game into anything but drab.
That’s what happens when the consequences of another defeat outweigh the benefits of a win. Sunday’s 0-0 draw suits both teams, though in reality it helps nobody. There are obvious differences between the clubs — Chelsea have overhauled the squad and changed managers, Liverpool have made tweaks and Jurgen Klopp has been there for ages — but there are more parallels. There’s an air of uncertainty after mass front-office departures, there are injuries and there are the familiar question marks that come from being at the dawn or at the end of an ownership era. And, of course, there’s the fact that both sides are adding up to far less than the sum of their parts.
There’s also an air of resignation among supporters, which, I guess, you explain by being 10 points away from the top four. Shaking that will be just as important as getting their team to perform, because the Champions League returns next month and, truth be told, Klopp and Graham Potter will need their home support at max levels if they are to salvage something from this campaign.
Barcelona unimpressive in win over Getafe as Ter Stegen comes up big (again)
Don’t take my word for it. Xavi himself pointed out how poorly his team played against Getafe and how they were grateful for Pedri‘s strike that produced three points and for Marc-Andre ter Stegen‘s superb goalkeeping performance. Getafe, fighting to avoid relegation, focused on defending, but Barca looked uninspired in the middle of the park and ended up losing the xG battle at home — 0.71 xG to Getafe’s 1.19 — which isn’t something you expect coming off three straight defeats.
Robert Lewandowski‘s absence is a mitigating factor: Ansu Fati is a phenomenal player, albeit one with a wholly different skill set, and Barca failed to adjust adequately. With Memphis Depay gone, it’s food for thought: Who should be Lewandowski’s understudy: Ansu or Ferran Torres? Each comes with pros and cons.
One last word on Barcelona defensively. The back four of Sergi Roberto, Jules Kounde, Andreas Christensen and Alejandro Balde feels cobbled together, and yet two (arguably three) of those four are likely first-choice starters. And yet, they’ve conceded just one goal (and that was a penalty against Espanyol) all season long at home.
I’d take that with a pinch of salt. Their xG conceded at home is 5.98, which means they are far outperforming that. Expect some sort of regression to the mean here … unless, of course, Ter Stegen continues to don his Superman cape at the Camp Nou.
Griezmann shines, Morata scores, Memphis debuts and Simeone smiles for Atletico
Things looked hopeless at Atletico Madrid a week ago. The club were getting sucked into a genuine six-way battle for that fourth Champions League spot, which is non-negotiable for them in financial terms. They weren’t playing well (OK, they often don’t), they were short-handed in terms of options with Joao Felix and Matheus Cunha gone, Alvaro Morata was getting criticized for his finishing and some wondered whether the days of Antoine Griezmann as an attacking force (especially after turning out in midfield at the World Cup) were over.
Diego Simeone got the breaks in the 3-0 hammering of Valladolid. Memphis Depay signed, made his debut and showed flashes of quality. Morata scored — OK, he also missed a couple of sitters, but he got on the end of his chances. And Griezmann stole the show with a fine goal and a delicious assist.
It’s still a dogfight for fourth place, but the big guns are firing, and that can’t help but boost confidence.
Reyna delivers winner for same old Dortmund
New year, same old Borussia Dortmund. Three times they took the lead against Augsburg — a side that had taken three points in their previous eight games — on Sunday and three times they allowed the equaliser, twice after the sort of craven defensive mistakes they’ve been trying to banish for years. That they took three points, though, came down to a stunning finish from Gio Reyna, a young man with a more-than-star-crossed two months behind him, a function of injuries and this ugly story. A fit, productive Reyna is obviously a major asset for both Borussia Dortmund and the U.S. national team, and whatever your stance is, you can only be happy for him.
There are other reasons — beyond the three points — for Dortmund to feel good. Youssoufa Moukoko extending his contract is big, as is the return (off the bench) of Sebastien Haller after his bout of testicular cancer. It has been a turbulent half-season, and Dortmund are sixth in the Bundesliga … but second place is just two points away.
Moreno: Dortmund defended childishly in 4-3 win vs. Augsburg
Ale Moreno is critical of Borussia Dortmund’s defending in their chaotic 4-3 win vs. Augsburg.
Haaland hat-trick drives away Man City’s blues
Arsenal’s Premier League lead has left Pep Guardiola looking glum, and that’s understandable: Manchester City had become accustomed to winning the Premier League. And, of course, there was that moment on Thursday when, having come off consecutive defeats, they were two goals down at home to Spurs, prompting a portion of the Etihad to boo them. Plus, going into the home clash with Wolves on Sunday, Erling Haaland had scored just once in 2023.
Maybe that’s why some were going all Chicken Little …
Haaland’s hat-trick — and, more generally, City’s commanding performance — in the 3-0 win should banish those thoughts. Yes, it was only Wolves, but it was also distinctly one-sided, and watching Haaland get his fourth hat-trick of the campaign reminded you that three games without scoring for a 22-year-old is absolutely nothing. And, in fact, Haaland is such a talent that judging him merely on goals is, frankly, silly — though, of course, that’s the easiest thing to keep track of.
So put this in your pipe and smoke it: He has scored 25 league goals, which is more than the Premier League’s top scorers in each of the past four seasons … and it’s only January.
Hislop has no idea how to stop Erling Haaland
Shaka Hislop sings the praises of Erling Haaland, after his 4th hat trick of the season eased Man City past Wolves.
Napoli on pace for 100 points at the halfway mark
Napoli’s 2-0 away win in the regional derby against Salernitana means they’re up to 50 points after 19 of 38 league games. It’s a bit of trivia — they’re on pace for 100 points! — but it’s also significant because it reflects just how dominant they’ve been. If they sustain the pace, it will be the second-highest points total in Serie A history. (The record is 102 points, set by Antonio Conte’s Juventus in 2013-14.)
It also underscores how they’re resilient and by no means affected by getting knocked out of the Coppa Italia. Against Salernitana, they started slowly and then pulled away with goals from Giovanni Di Lorenzo and — who else? — Victor Osimhen. Maybe we’ll look back on that Cremonese defeat in the cup as a blessing in disguise. …
Newcastle held at Palace … but just how good are they defensively?
The 0-0 draw at Palace this past weekend means Newcastle are third in the table and have not conceded a goal in 541 league minutes, which is pretty remarkable. They have given up the fewest goals in the Premier League — 11, to Arsenal’s 16 and Manchester City’s 20 — and a simple eye test tells you just how solid they are at the back under Eddie Howe.
Does luck have something to do with it? Sure, randomness and statistical variation are facts of life and yes, in terms of non-penalty goals conceded (10), they are outperforming xG by a whopping seven goals (16.96). But here’s the thing: Even in terms of xG/90 they’re at 0.84, which is third best in the league behind Arsenal (0.73) and City (0.71). So yes, they got a few breaks — good teams often do — but even without them, they’d be right near the top defensively.
So credit goalkeeper Nick Pope (who should be first pick for England, in my opinion), Sven Botman, Fabian Schar and the rest of the back line, as well as one of the hardest midfield trios (Joe Willock, Bruno Guimaraes, Sean Longstaff) around.