Where to begin a recap of another great weekend in soccer? Lionel Messi shrugged off a news leak in the Spanish media to lead Barcelona to another big win, Arsenal and Man United split the points while learning plenty about themselves, and Mohamed Salah put in a star turn for Liverpool that could be scary for the rest of the Premier League. Elsewhere we saw big wins for Bayern Munich, Borussia Dortmund, Juventus and Milan, impressive displays from Man City and Atletico Madrid, a glimmer of hope for Christian Eriksen‘s future at Juventus and a real mess at Paris Saint-Germain.
It’s Monday, and Gab Marcotti reacts to the biggest moments in the world of football from the past week.
Jump to: Barca, Messi leak fallout | Arsenal, Man United draw | Bayern boost | Salah stars for Liverpool | Real’s reserves fail | Milan stay top | Man City’s defense | Juve finding balance? | Dortmund fight back | Eriksen’s Inter audition | PSG’s mess | Atletico win again | Tuchel, Chelsea win | Spurs struggle minus Kane | Leizpig’s ceiling | And finally…
Barcelona’s “silver lining” to Messi leak
All eyes were on Lionel Messi Sunday night after the Spanish newspaper El Mundo published a copy of his contract, suggesting it would pay him up to $673 million over four years. It’s a staggering amount, but once the hyperbole was stripped away and you understood that parts of it were loyalty bonuses and performance-related, it’s not significantly more than what many expected Messi to be earning. What was disconcerting was the way it was presented as the reason why Barcelona were staring down the barrel of insolvency, as well as the fact that somebody had seen fit to leak the document itself to the media.
For his part, Messi could only reply on the pitch, which he did. He stroked in the free-kick that gave Barcelona the lead over Athletic Bilbao and helped his side to a 2-1 victory against the team that had beaten them in the Spanish Super Cup two weeks earlier (and against whom Messi himself was sent off). That’s where he does his best work — on the pitch — but the performance went beyond Messi.
In short, Barcelona played well. Antoine Griezmann and Ousmane Dembele stayed wide, offering much-needed width, the back line held up and once again, you got the sense these players are with Ronald Koeman. He’s not necessarily a tactical visionary and he’s probably not going to be around next season, but for now, nobody is turning on him. And as a result, Barca are second, level on points with Real Madrid.
Back to the contract leak. Barcelona and Messi say they would take legal action against El Mundo, but that’s not surprising and, possibly, a futile gesture. El Mundo would need to mount a defence saying publication was in the public interest and they’d at least have a strong case, given the condition of Barca’s finances and the fact that it’s semi-public institution.
It feels like they’re going through the motions because even as the club denied any responsibility, Koeman himself was speculating that the leak came from within Barcelona: “There are people that want to do us damage… if the leak is from within the club, that’s very bad. If someone from inside the club has leaked it, they cannot have a future at the club.”
Spanish media spent the last 36 hours speculating, noting that only four parties had access to Messi’s contract: Barcelona, La Liga, Messi himself and the lawyers. You don’t have to be Sherlock Holmes to figure out that, of those four, the latter three would have absolutely zero interest in the contract being made public, and that’s why speculation centers on Barca. Not necessarily the current (interim) administration, mind you, but perhaps others who are no longer involved.
Ale Moreno says Lionel Messi had a “different energy” after his Barcelona contract was leaked.
The thing is, it doesn’t really benefit them much at all either. Everybody knows Barca are in a perilous financial situation and everybody knows Messi is by far the biggest earner. Whether it’s $100 million a year or $150m a year, to most it makes little difference. Not least because it’s frankly difficult (if not impossible) to quantify what a “reasonable” contract for Messi (or, for that matter, Cristiano Ronaldo) might be. He’s not just paid for what he offers on the pitch; he’s paid for commercial revenue, for adding to the value of the brand and that sort of fuzzy, undefinable (but very real) revenue he brings in. Sponsorship experts will tell you they can help define that value, but it’s still feels like “finger in the air” stuff. There is no “right” answer here; it can be whatever you want it to be or, in Barcelona’s case, whatever you can afford.
That’s why, in many ways, the only ones who benefit here are the three candidates for the Barcelona presidency: Joan Laporta, Victor Font and Toni Freixa. It’s not surprising that all three rallied around Messi, proclaimed he was worth every penny and said it was an outrage that his contract was leaked. One of the three is the guy who will have to sit down with Messi before his deal expires in five months’ time, charged with persuading him to not just stay but, in all likelihood, take a hefty pay cut out of love for the club. Now that the figures are out there in black and white (and nobody has disputed the fact that the contract is genuine), playing to his heart strings becomes that little bit easier.
If there’s a silver lining to all this, that’s it.
Why Arsenal, Man United 0-0 feels like a win for both teams
ESPN FC’s Craig Burley feels Manchester United missed a huge chance to capitalise on Arsenal’s tactics.
Manchester United took the pitch against Arsenal on Saturday determined to show that their 2-1 defeat to Sheffield United in midweek was just a blip and not some harbinger of doom. They failed to win against the Gunners, settling for a 0-0 draw, but they created enough chances to feel good about themselves or, at a minimum, stave off another funk.
Given how putrid they were in their previous outing, holding their own against a resurgent Arsenal side is important. Also important is the fact that Ole Gunnar Solskjaer evidently believes in this team, as evidenced by the fact that when Scott McTominay came off in the 37th minute, he was replaced by a forward like Anthony Martial. This was a game United wanted to win more than they wanted to avoid defeat. That matters too, because it shows an underlying belief that hasn’t always been there during his tenure.
As for Arsenal, Mikel Arteta can point to the fact that they too had chances and they created them despite being without their highest paid player (Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang) and arguably their two most productive players this campaign (Bukayo Saka and Kieran Tierney). The unbeaten streak in the league is now up to seven games, their longest in 12 months.
Sometimes, you take what you can get and learn to live with it.
Bayern’s revenge vs. Hoffenheim isn’t just symbolic
The ESPN FC panel talk Bayern Munich positioning themselves to sign RB Leipzig’s Upamecano in the summer.
The last time Bayern played Hoffenheim in the league before Saturday, they were soundly beaten 4-1. This was in late-September, and it’s probably not entirely coincidental that in the next few days after that defeat, they announced a quartet of signings to provide a modicum of depth to a squad that already looked beaten down and stretched: Bouna Sarr, Douglas Costa, Eric Maxim Choupo-Moting and Marc Roca.
As a group, they’ve actually contributed little, beyond eating up minutes here and there. But against Hoffenheim, Roca made his first league start and turned in a sterling performance alongside Joshua Kimmich as Bayern coasted to a 4-1 victory this weekend. Plenty will focus on the fact that Bayern reversed the scoreline from the first fixture, thereby exorcising whatever demons were left over. But Roca, who came from the Spanish second flight, showed that he’s not just the answer to a trivia question, but a guy who can contribute and (say it softly) in certain situations, against certain opponents. He can do a better job of filing Thiago Alcantara‘s big boots than any of Hansi Flick’s midfielders not named Kimmich.
Roca wasn’t the only bright spot: Thomas Muller made it four goals in four games, and Serge Gnabry notched his first league goal since Halloween. But he showed he can offer something different to a side that, despite their lead at the top, are nowhere near where they were last summer.
Salah comes to life at the right time for Liverpool
Steve Nicol says Mohamed Salah “hadn’t been able to control a bag of cement” prior to his two-goal performance vs. West Ham.
At half-time against West Ham on Sunday, it looked like the game (and Liverpool) weren’t going anywhere. It was 0-0 and David Moyes’ side had managed to impose their pace and style on the game. Mohamed Salah looked forlorn up front, with only Divock Origi for company. Sadio Mane wasn’t there, and Roberto Firmino was watching from the bench.
But the thing about having great players is that they can change things very quickly for you, even when your team feels as they’re in a rut. Aaron Cresswell gave Salah an inch and he quickly came to life, breaking the ice with a bit of fancy footwork and a cool finish to make it 1-0, and 10 minutes later, Trent Alexander-Arnold and Xherdan Shaqiri rolled back the clock (the former to 2018, when he was in his pomp, the latter even further back) to combine on a stunning counter to set Salah up to make it 2-0. Of course, as with the first goal, Salah still had plenty to do, killing the ball with a silky stop and rifling it into the West Ham goal.
It finished 3-1 and yeah, the difference was quality, mostly that of Salah. The Egyptian striker had been questioned during his goal drought, but he’s still the league’s top scorer with 18 goals. And, by moving past 20 in all competitions, he became only the fifth Liverpool striker in history to notch 20 or more in four consecutive seasons. (It’s a feat not even Robbie Fowler managed, though he came close. The others? Billy Liddell, Gordon Hodgson, Roger Hunt and Ian Rush, who did it for six consecutive seasons.)
No heroics from Real Madrid’s “old guard” leads to defeat
Sid Lowe explains why this will probably be Zinedine Zidane’s last season as manager of Real Madrid.
A week ago when they beat Alaves, we cautioned against the fact that Real Madrid were being kept afloat by the veterans: Casemiro and Toni Kroos, Karim Benzema and Luka Modric. The supporting cast were either AWOL or not really contributing. Against Levante, the veteran quartet were pedestrian (apart from Kroos’ pass for Marco Asensio‘s goal) and the outcome was a 2-1 defeat.
It’s easy to focus on the incidents, like Eder Militao’s bonehead early red card or Vinicius Jr’s equally boneheaded penalty (which Thibaut Courtois nevertheless saved). But the point is there was no lift, no heroics from the old guard and very little of value from the supporting cast. And that, coupled with a stunning goal from Jose Luis “El Comandante” Morales, is how Real Madrid succumbed once again.
Sergio Ramos was unavailable, and it’s not lost on anyone that five Madrid defeats have come without him on the pitch this season. Maybe this would have been different with him in Militao’s place, though when it comes to silly red cards, Ramos is no slouch either. And, of course, Zinedine Zidane was on the phone from his COVID-19 quarantine, but again, it’s a stretch to imagine that in-person Zizou would have led to a different outcome.
The inescapable fact is that when the old guard don’t carry the team, the others don’t pick up the slack. We can come up with excuses for all of them. Eden Hazard is still recovering and probably shouldn’t have been out there once they went a man down, Vinicius paid the price for too much zeal, Alvaro Odriozola played 90 minutes of football for the first time since 2019, but still… the simple fact is they need to spark into life.
The return of Ramos and Zidane should help, but that’s all it can do: help. The turnaround, if it comes, has to come from the supporting cast.
Milan stay top, but tweaks are needed
AC Milan’s Zlatan Ibrahimovic posted this goal he scored in training on his social media accounts.
Milan traveled to Bologna after losing consecutive games for the first time since 2019 and while they won 2-1 to stay top, nerves did show. Zlatan Ibrahimovic missed a penalty (for the third time this season) and after Bologna clawed one back, Milan were left hanging on to the lead at the end.
It’s not quite where they wanted to be — sitting deep, defending a lead — especially after replacing the pacy Rafael Leao with the less pacy (to put it mildly) Mario Mandzukic. It made it very difficult for Milan to counter, especially since Ibrahimovic (also not quite a sprinter) was still on the pitch.
Mandzukic was signed to give Milan size, strength and experience as an alternative to Ibrahimovic. I doubt the plan was for the two to play together, and certainly not when defending the lead. This is not something we need to see again and if, as some have suggested, Ibrahimovic simply doesn’t want to come off, then don’t put Mandzukic on.
In the end, it’s another three points and a reaction for Milan, and that was important. Equally important, though, is getting this side back on track. Milan may be top of the table, but they are sixth in terms of xG difference and if the underlying analytics are right, they’re due to regress. Unless, of course, they kick it up a notch again. The January signings — Mandzukic, Soualiho Meite, Fikayo Tomori — can help with this, as can the return of Ismael Bennacer.
Manchester City are setting new defensive standard
In beating Sheffield United 1-0, Manchester City made it 12 wins in a row across all competitions and went three points clear at the top of the table with a game in hand. Arguably more impressive than that is the fact that they’ve conceded just two Premier League goals since Nov. 21, one of those was an own goal and the other a garbage-time strike from Callum Hudson-Odoi.
Admittedly, they’ve been outperforming expected goals during that stretch — the xG conceded is 5.52 — but not by much. Though here’s the thing. The notion of the importance of the “settled back four” is one of those footballing dogmas repeated endlessly by ex-pros turned pundits, as well as those of us in the media. In fact, apart from Ruben Dias, who has been magnificent, no City defender has started more than 70 percent of their games. Joao Cancelo pops up on the left and on the right and nothing changes. Oleksandr Zinchenko doesn’t start a game since last season, then pops up in early January and doesn’t miss a beat.
This is not to say that chemistry isn’t important, but good coaching — and obviously, quality players — are simply more important.
Juventus solve their midfield mess… for now
Stewart Robson describes a tale of two halves for Juventus in a 2-0 victory at Sampdoria.
There’s no question that Juve’s midfield looked much better in the last few games, including Saturday’s 2-0 win over Sampdoria. It’s equally pretty obvious that for Andrea Pirlo’s football to work, he needs a strong midfield that can provide intensity, forward runs, tactical balance and play-making.
So is the answer in the trio of Weston McKennie, Rodrigo Bentancur and Arthur? It’s not that simple or, rather, for now, two of those three (McKennie and Bentancur) have to be automatic choices because they can do things the others can’t. It doesn’t necessarily mean either can’t be upgraded, especially Bentancur, who has blown hot and cold.
As for Arthur, he’s been a picture of inconsistency before the last few games and is probably the most expendable of the three. Not because the other options (Aaron Ramsey and Adrien Rabiot) are necessarily better, but because they can do some of what he does (as well as other things he doesn’t do). I’d expect McKennie and Bentancur to be regulars and the third slot to be assigned on form.
Dortmund show fight and just in time
Having taken just one point from their previous three games, when Borussia Dortmund went a goal down against Augsburg and then missed a penalty with Erling Braut Haaland, you wondered if this was the game when the bottom fell out. Plenty of youngsters, fragile psyche, poor run, caretaker manager… all the ingredients were there.
Instead, they found a way back, both with their blue-collar guys (Thomas Delaney getting the equalizer) and with their starlets (Jadon Sancho scoring the second). There’s grit and fight in these kids yet and while Edin Terzic might not be the right man to get it out of them — at least in a productive way — Saturday gave you the feeling they won’t go quietly.
Eriksen’s audition to be Inter playmaker goes well
Maybe it was some sort of planetary alignment. Antonio Conte was suspended from his perch on the sideline. Christian Eriksen had come on and scored the late free-kick winner in the Coppa Italia derby in midweek. Marcelo Brozovic needed a day off in front of the back four. The opponents, Benevento, like to play open football and, perhaps most significantly, with the transfer window closing Monday night, Inter have come to terms with the fact that Eriksen (and his massive wages) will be sticking around.
Whatever it was, he got the start in the position that, supposedly, he was incapable of playing: deep in the midfield, quarterbacking the strikers’ runs and dictating the tempo. Eriksen passed the test with flying colors, hitting the cross bar, running the game and setting up plenty of chances in the 4-0 win.
Was it enough to convince Conte? Time will tell. But it has to be encouraging that, after a whole year, he’s finally dropping some of his preconceptions around what Eriksen can and cannot do.
Lorient ruin PSG, Neymar’s party
Julien Laurens says PSG deserved to drop points to Lorient after their poor defensive performance.
Talk about not following the script. Neymar had just announced that his desire was to stay at Paris Saint-Germain and play alongside Kylian Mbappe. (OK, maybe it was a throwaway quote and sure, it’s contingent on Mbappe, but it’s still nice to hear.) The opposition, Lorient, had won twice since mid-October and were second-bottom in Ligue 1. Mbappe, Neymar, Mauro Icardi and Angel Di Maria were all starting.
And still PSG struggled, conceding two silly goals in the last 10 minutes to lose 3-2, a defeat that left them tumbling all the way down to third place behind Olympique Lyonnais and Lille. There’s plenty of time to turn it around, of course, but it’s PSG’s fifth league defeat of the campaign.
Mauricio Pochettino is getting a taste of what his predecessor Thomas Tuchel had to endure. Ligue 1, especially right now, is not as straight-forward as it looks.
Atletico Madrid show they can beat you any which way
Ale Moreno sarcastically congratulates Ronald Koeman for pushing Luis Suarez out of Barcelona.
Luis Suarez bagged two goals (he’s still very much La Liga’s top scorer) as Atletico won a wild contest away to Cadiz, 4-2. It’s their eighth straight victory in La Liga and their lead atop the table is now 10 points, and with a game in hand. You know Diego Simeone won’t let anybody celebrate early, but still…
With three key men — Yannick Carrasco, Kieran Trippier and especially Mario Hermoso missing at the back — this was a different sort of Atleti in what ended up being an end-to-end contest with an open Cadiz side. (Oh, and talking of golden oldies, check out Alvaro Negredo and his first goal.) They did ride their luck at times — witness Koke’s goal — and, of course, Saint Jan Oblak was at his inspired best, but they showed again how they’ll engage in — and win — slugfests when necessary too. And the scary thing about Atleti is that they’re still nowhere near their ceiling.
Tuchel’s trial-and-error continues at Chelsea
ESPN FC’s Steve Nicol names the player that has been the best so far for Chelsea under Thomas Tuchel.
Chelsea beat Burnley, 2-0, this weekend and new boss Thomas Tuchel freely admitted that he was learning about his players on the fly. He stuck with the 3-4-3 system we saw on his debut in midweek, but worked in Timo Werner, Mason Mount, Tammy Abraham and Marco Alonso, while leaving out Hakim Ziyech, Kai Havertz, Olivier Giroud and Ben Chilwell.
Cesar Aziplicueta and Marcos Alonso grabbed the goals and the latter, especially, was a bit of a surprise. He fell out with Lampard and was left on the naughty step since September. Tuchel giving him a shot is the sort of thing you expect from a new boss; what you don’t necessarily expect is for a guy who hasn’t played in four months to step in so seamlessly.
Alonso was a bright spot, as was Mount. The 3-4-3 formation seems designed, thus far, to put players in positions where they’re most comfortable, with the exception of Callum Hudson-Odoi, a natural winger turned wingback. And yet it’s Hudson-Odoi who has arguably been the standout player of the (admittedly brief) Tuchel Era.
Some of what he’s doing feels decidedly counterintuitive and at some point, he’ll have to settle on a core group and, perhaps, disappoint a few. That’s when the test will come and you wonder just how well the seasons at Dortmund and Paris St Germain have prepared him.
No Kane, plenty of problems for Tottenham
ESPN FC’s Steve Nicol says you can’t blame Gareth Bale for not performing when the Spurs side around him is so bad.
Harry Kane was injured, but Jose Mourinho explained Sunday night’s 1-0 defeat against Brighton by saying it “wasn’t about players,” but about “energy.” But then he added that they played better after the break when Carlos Vinicius came on, they switched to a back four and had a genuine center-forward up front.
So which is it?
First off, credit to Brighton. They’ve been playing much better than their results most of the season, and they were due to reap some of what they’ve been sowing. Beyond that, if a counterattacking front three of Son, Steven Bergwijn and Gareth Bale isn’t getting chances, then yeah, it is about the players. Son was heroic when he replaced Kane two years ago this time of year, but that was then and this is now. Gareth Bale dominated a Champions League final a few years ago, but that was then and this is now (and there’s a reason why he’s started just two league games all season).
Set up the way Spurs set up in the first half and you’re relying on individuals, rather than systems. And if they’re not at their best, you’ll find it mighty hard.
Nkunku confirms Leipzig are Bundesliga’s second-best team
Leipzig won the battle of the contenders (OK, some might say pretenders) by beating Bayer Leverkusen 1-0, thanks to a Christopher Nkunku strike. The gap with Bayern Munich stands at seven points with 15 games to go. Anything other than a Leipzig win would pretty much have been a knockout blow, so at least they live to fight another day.
Defensively, Julian Nagelsmann’s crew were far more solid than in previous outings and they’re clearly not wanting for intensity at the other end. But unless Bayern hit another wobbly patch, “best-of-the-rest” is probably Leipzig’s ceiling this season. As for Leverkusen, there’s a big cluster-mess of five clubs vying for two Champions League spots behind Leipzig and they’re in the middle of it. Expect more twists and turns.
Bas Dost scored for Bruges in their 3-1 home win against Standard Liege He now has five goals in six Belgian League appearances, and is on pace to score 15 in the league. Counting his time at Eintracht Frankfurt, he has 10 goals in 20 games overall this season.
This concludes this instalment of #BasDostWatch.