Real Madrid out-think Barcelona in Clasico


The soccer world was focused on a “Super Sunday” that saw Barcelona host Real Madrid (and lose) before Manchester United hosted Liverpool (and lost), with grudge matches between Inter Milan and Juventus as well as Marseille vs. Paris Saint-Germain. But the entire weekend delivered drama and talking points for Bayern Munich, Manchester City, Chelsea, Jose Mourinho’s Roma and much, much more. (Oh and Mohamed Salah might be the best player in the world right now?)

ESPN+ viewers’ guide: LaLiga, Bundesliga, MLS, FA Cup, more
Stream ESPN FC Daily on ESPN+ (U.S. only)
– Don’t have ESPN? Get instant access

It’s Monday, and Gab Marcotti reacts to the biggest moments in the world of football.

Jump to: Clasico lessons | Man United woe | Juve draw Inter | PSG held | Bellingham lifts Dortmund | Bayern rolling | Chelsea score seven | Ibra dazzles | Fabulous Foden | Mourinho drama | Sterile Spurs | Suarez stops Sociedad

You can win a Clasico by getting sucked into the hype and the atmosphere and swashbuckling your way to victory, trading punches like a boxer. Or you can dominate and crush the opposition with superior skill and individual talent. Or you can do it like Carlo Ancelotti did on Sunday: by out-coaching the opposition and by making Real Madrid’s talent count when and where it mattered. Unlike Ronald Koeman, who sent his Barcelona troops out determined to dominate the ball, but unsure just what do with it.

One of the more remarkable stats in their 2-1 win is that Real Madrid didn’t actually cross the half-way line until the 12th minute. In other circumstances it might have been a problem, but when you can have your opponent camped out in your half for so long without them creating a chance, it’s also a way of taking the sting out of the game and setting up the counterattack, particularly with the roadrunner Vinicius Jr. down the left flank.

In fact, you could argue that’s where the game was won.



Alejandro Moreno believes Real Madrid were vulnerable, but says Barcelona were not able to capitalize in El Clasico.

Koeman had moved Sergino Dest to the right wing — Madrid’s left — in an attempt to add pace and a supply of crosses. And he opted for Oscar Mingueza, who is really an undersized central defender masquerading as a full-back, to help deal with Vinicius behind him. But Madrid’s left-back, Ferland Mendy, proved to be more than capable of dealing with Dest, leaving Vinicius to bully Mingueza one-on-one. It meant Real had a continuous outlet.

You could also argue it’s where Barcelona lost the game because they had the best chance after 25 minutes, when Memphis Depay (deployed wide on the left initially) found Dest steaming in on the counter, only for the U.S. international to put his finish over the bar. Sliding doors? Maybe. But it always looked like Madrid had an extra gear, regardless.

In any case, at the half-hour mark, Madrid were rewarded when Vinicius beat Mingueza and found Rodrigo, who set up David Alaba for the game’s opening goal. The former Bayern man conjured up the sort of finish you expect from an attacking midfielder, which is what he was before he moved into the back line nearly a decade ago.

Koeman’s response was to send on Philippe Coutinho at half-time and shift Dest back to right-back. The formation changed to 4-2-3-1 and Barca did look better on the attacking end, albeit conceding chances at the other (Karim Benzema had an off-day). The game ended with injury-time goals — one per team and Barca’s from Sergio Aguero, no less) — and had the order been reversed, with Barca equalising and Madrid scoring the winner, it would have made for a dramatic ending. But that didn’t happen: Marco Asensio‘s counter yielded a Marc-Andre ter Stegen save and a Lucas Vazquez tap-in, before Aguero pulled one back.

The eye test tells you this game was nowhere near as close as the 2-1 Real Madrid final score suggests. Both these sides are punching below their weight right now, and both had a superstar (Ansu Fati for Barca, Benzema for Real) who had a quiet day. The difference is that Madrid look like a team — an imperfect one, but still a team — whereas Barcelona look like a work in progress, enjoying a lot of sterile possession while waiting for a moment of individual genius. And when that doesn’t come, you get punished.



Ale Moreno feels Sergino Dest’s miss in the first half was a real turning point in El Clasico.

The Clasico regularly has an outsize effect, win or lose, and it’s up to the managers to channel it correctly. Ancelotti can use it to continue building and, ideally, getting some continuity, especially in the middle of the park. Koeman meanwhile has to make sure it doesn’t carry over to the next few matches, starting with Barcelona’s return leg against Dynamo Kyiv in the Champions League. They’re currently a point behind Benfica in third, but they control their destiny. Screw things up, miss out on the group stages and it will be more misery.

Solskjaer’s United go from bad to worse

OK: let’s get this out of the way before rounding on Manchester United after Sunday’s 5-0 humiliation at Old Trafford. Liverpool are ridiculously good right now. Mohamed Salah, who notched a hat-trick, is playing the best football of his career and, arguably, so is Roberto Firmino. The fullback duo remains among the best in Europe (if not the best), the back four as a whole is very solid and Alisson is as good as they come between the sticks.

Most impressive for me, though, is the reaction of Liverpool’s midfield. They lost Georginio Wijnaldum over the summer and did not replace him with a top-shelf player. Thiago Alcantara and Fabinho — automatic starters in a Liverpool Best XI — were unavailable. So too was Harvey Elliott, who may be 18, but had been a regular early in the campaign before his season-ending injury.

Klopp lined up with Naby Keita (hit or miss since joining Liverpool, and definitely “miss” defensively vs. Atletico Madrid in midweek) and James Milner who, lest we forget, is 36 in January (and had to come off after 25 minutes). And still, they dominated. That’s not just United’s futility on the day; that’s a combination of great preparation, great coaching and great form on the Liverpool end.



Don Hutchison analyzes if Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s time at Manchester United is running out.

As for United, let’s start with the good news, because there’s plenty of bad news to delve into. They top their Champions League group and, despite the negativity, are only three points away from a top-four spot in the Premier League.

Now on to Ole Gunnar Solskjaer. He played the same XI that started in midweek against Atalanta and were 2-0 down at home to a team whose wage bill is one-fifth of theirs and who was missing five key starters. And it’s not just that United were 2-0 down, either; they were 2-0 down and awful in that first half. Sure, United turned it around after the break, mostly after Edinson Cavani and Paul Pogba (nether of whom started) came on, but you have to wonder: what would possess Solskjaer to do this? Was it a belief that they could take the momentum of the second half into the Liverpool game? Was it a challenge to his players to do better? You hope it was neither of this things, because that would be straight out of the schoolboy playbook.

Defensively they were a mess, just as they have been for a while, and the sight of Luke Shaw and Harry Maguire running into each other goal will be burned into people’s memories for a while. Off the ball, there was little or no effective pressing, which is OK if you set up deeper or play a possession game, but fatal if you can’t or won’t.

We didn’t even get the individual heroics that have saved Solskjaer on so many occasions. Mason Greenwood had a couple of moments before fading (and coming off). Bruno Fernandes had a rare poor game: he missed an early chance — classic Sliding Doors — and got worse. Pogba came on, lasted 15 minutes and was sent off. Cristiano Ronaldo did get his goal, but VAR chalked it off. And, in fact, he was lucky his name was Ronaldo, the referee was Anthony Taylor and United were 3-0 down at the point when he kicked out at Curtis Jones, or that yellow could have been a red.



Steve Nicol debates whether Ole Gunnar Solskjaer will be sacked after Man United’s 5-0 defeat to Liverpool.

Solskjaer talks about progress and time and building a team, but right now, his team is built around a 36-year-old, who will need to be replaced at some point (except he can’t be replaced, because he’s a G.O.A.T. candidate, nobody does what he does and that means whoever comes after him will require the umpteenth change in set-up). Defensively, this side is a mess, both in terms of talent and in terms of decision-making.

Oh, and in less than six weeks Pogba can sign with another club. Those who view him as a waste of space will no doubt be happy, but it also means United will need to sign not one, but two, top-quality central midfielders next summer. And that, in turn, means more turmoil and more starting from scratch.

It’s not all on Solskjaer, of course. He’s not omnipotent like Sir Alex Ferguson was, the club have made a number of poor decisions. But he’s been there for nearly three years now; it’s reasonable to expect forward progress in that time. And for all those who draw comparisons with Sir Alex‘s first three years at Old Trafford, once you’ve washed your mouth out with soap, please consider that Sir Alex actually had a CV and had won European silverware before arriving at United.

The reality is that this was a loss you could budget for if you were United and that, in some ways, is likely to lessen the blow as far as the Glazers are concerned. Sure, without goals from the 80th minute onwards, the only teams they’ve beaten all season are Leeds on opening day and Newcastle United managed by Steve Bruce. But, as ever, until they start thinking this is going to really bite them financially, you don’t see them making a change.

It’s not going to be defeats to Liverpool that get Solskjaer the sack mid-season. As I see it, based on their record, it’s going to take elimination from the Champions League group stage and being far from the top four in January that’ll do it.

Allegri goes outside the box, needs late penalty as Juve draw Inter

A late VAR-assisted penalty — late, but correct — allowed Juventus to snatch a point away to Inter after a lacklustre display. The bianconeri‘s four straight 1-0 victories had raised in some the idea that Max Allegri had turned back the clock, taking them back to the days when they were tight, essential and often not pretty, but lethal and capable of conjuring points out of nowhere. Some believe it’s part of the club’s ethos and DNA — it certainly felt that way on Sunday — but I’m pretty sure Allegri doesn’t see it that way. He wants to play more attractive, enterprising football; he’s just not there yet.

And maybe that’s why he chose to throw a curve-ball against Inter, leaving Matthjis De Ligt, Rodrigo Bentancur and Federico Chiesa on the bench (Paulo Dybala was left out too, but that’s understandable given he had only 20 odd minutes under his belt after being out for a month). The plan didn’t quite work. Juve produced very little: Dejan Kulusevski offered little threat alongside Alvaro Morata, Weston McKennie and the midfield were chaotic, Leo Bonucci made an uncharacteristic mental error in playing Edin Dzeko onside for Inter’s goal. Business did pick up a bit once Chiesa and Dybala came on, but not quite enough to impress.

A lot of the focus will be on Allegri’s choices, which is fair enough: as I see it, Chiesa and De Ligt are Juve’s present and future and they should always play, when fit. But it’s also about simply playing better with what you have. Kulusevski, McKennie, Morata & Co. aren’t bad players — they’re simply punching below their weight. Allegri is there to change that.

As for Inter, we’ve all noted what a difficult job Simone Inzaghi has given the club’s financial difficulties and the departures of Achraf Hakimi and Romelu Lukaku. Fine. And we need to give him time to integrate newcomers like Hakan Calhanoglou, Edin Dzeko, Joaquin Correa and Denzel Dumfries into a set-up that is also very different (formation aside) from that seen under Antonio Conte. Fine too. It’s not going to be pretty and free-flowing straight away. We get that.

Less easy to understand is how this team so often feels like a bundle of nerves. We saw it against Lazio a week ago, and we saw it again with Inzaghi’s hysterical reaction after the Juventus penalty, when he threw a bib on to the pitch and got himself sent off. It was always gong to be a difficult season and, in some areas — the defence, Nicolo Barella in midfield, Dzeko up front — Inter are already where they want to be. But frayed nerves and mental mistakes (you can put Dumfries in that category too) aren’t going to help.

No star-shine for PSG in 0-0 draw at rivals Marseille



Frank Leboeuf explains why he isn’t worried about Lionel Messi’s goalless start to his Ligue 1 campaign.

Heading into the weekend’s trip to face arch-rival Marseille, Paris Saint-Germain had a nine-point lead at the top of Ligue 1. Compare that to the leads at the top of the Premier League (1) point), La Liga (1), Serie A (2) and the Bundesliga (1). We’re talking about professionals and we’re talking about fierce rivals, but we’re also talking human beings here, so if sometimes there is a dip in intensity or fire, a natural load management, a picking of the spots… well, you can sort of understand it.

Perhaps in order to address this, Mauricio Pochettino threw on all his stars at once. Lionel Messi was joined by Kylian Mbappe, Neymar and Angel Di Maria. Throw in two attacking full-backs, and his 4-2-3-1 was about as attacking on paper as you’re likely to see.

Maybe the idea was that they’d fuel each other or scare the opposition. In fact, OM — spurred on by a brilliant home crowd (bottle-throwing aside) — weren’t intimidated at all. Jorge Sampaoli’s crew had the right mix of intensity and discipline, and they generally shut down PSG’s attacking quartet. Messi’s best chance was a header, which about says it all. Equally though, they failed to capitalize on their man advantage in the final half-hour following Achraf Hakimi’s red card: that, too, is telling.

Would the disallowed goals (one per side) have changed the game? Possibly: goals tend to do that. But both decisions, while marginal, were correct, and thus we’re left with a perhaps predictable verdict. PSG are far ahead of the rest of the pack, to the point that Pochettino’s trademark intensity may be hard to come by, except in certain games.

Bellingham shines as injury-plagued Dortmund bounce back



Janusz Michallik praises the performance of Jude Bellingham after Borussia Dortmund’s 3-1 win over Bielefeld.

You can’t really fully assess Marco Rose yet. He was hired to coach Borussia Dortmund this summer, but he’s had to deal with a laundry list of injuries that means he’s really working with “BVB Lite.” On Saturday, in the 3-1 win over Arminia Bielefled, he was without defenders Thomas Meunier, Dan-Axel Zagadou, Nico Schulz and Raphael Guerreiro, midfielders Mahmoud Dahoud and Gio Reyna, forward Youssoufa Moukoko and some guy named Erling Haaland.

So, yeah, I’m withholding judgement until the infirmary clears out. We still saw the defensive wobbles (from Mats Hummels no less), who also notched the sort of wonder-goal you don’t usually see from defenders), but we also saw a tremendous individual goal from Jude Bellingham and a determination to put the humiliation against Ajax behind them. Those are little things, but they matter. As does the fact that they’re still just one point off the top of the Bundesliga.

Sabitzer stars as Bayern bandwagon rolls on



Janusz Michallik praises Robert Lewandowski and Thomas Muller after Bayern’s 4-0 win vs. Hoffenheim.

Concerns over depth have long been one of the few weaknesses in Bayern Munich‘s armour, and nowhere was this more evident than central midfield. With the Plan B of David Alaba gone, and Corentin Tolisso perennially in and out of the infirmary while also being close to free agency, the club opted to pick up Leipzig stalwart Marcel Sabitzer as an alternative to Leon Goretzka and Joshua Kimmich. After some slightly bumpy displays off the bench, Sabitzer has started the last two matches in Goretzka’s absence and looked good.

As good as Sabitzer is, it’s not something to take for granted. Six seasons in an entirely different footballing dimension at Leipzig leave their mark, and not every newcomer hits the ground running at Bayern. But his ascendance will be one of the more positive takeaways for Julian Nagelsmann, who is still away after his positive COVID test.

Nothing else is really new. Bayern are a pressing machine right now and they had their way with Hoffenheim. It finished 4-0, and it could have been more. And, ironically, it was Robert Lewandowski — who also happened to score a tremendous goal — who missed several of those chances. No matter. If you’re going to miss, best to do it in a game like this.

Chelsea romp (again) tells us little except that Norwich were poor



Janusz Michallik and Kay Murray discuss Mason Mount’s performance in Chelsea’s 7-0 thrashing of Norwich.

I wrote last week about how despite churning out results, Thomas Tuchel’s Chelsea still have only looked convincing either in spurts — one half against Liverpool, one half against Spurs — or in games against opponents who, with all due respect, belong several tiers below them. Saturday’s 7-0 annihilation of Norwich, a bit like the 4-0 thumping of Malmo in mid-week, belongs in the latter category.

Sometimes these games are opportunities to execute and/or find your chemistry. But the forced absences of Timo Werner, Christian Pulisic and Romelu Lukaku meant we saw a front three — Kai Havertz leading the line, with Callum Hudson-Odoi and Mason Mount in support — we may never see again.

It’s not Tuchel’s fault, it’s not anybody’s fault; it’s just what it is. And it’s not like it was a worthless exercise: Mason Mount got his hat-trick, Hudson-Odoi had his moments, Reece James scored a great goal, Trevoh Chalobah showed he’s not out of place at this level (at least against Teemu Pukki and Josh Sargent). But when you think about it, it’s quite extraordinary: the European champions are top of the Premier League despite either having key men missing or, generally, not playing anywhere close to their full potential.

Ibrahimovic for the cycle — assist, own goal and goal — in Milan win

Milan’s injury crisis is ongoing and this weekend’s trip to Bologna was always going to be tricky. They were nonetheless boosted by the return from the first minute of Zlatan Ibrahimovic and, after half an hour, found themselves two goals and a man up after Adama Soumaoro‘s red card. Maybe they got a bit too confident, because Bologna battled back to 2-2, before another red card made it 11 vs. 9 men for Milan with more than half an hour to go. In modern football, you’re not going to screw that up and they didn’t, ending up as 4-2 winners.

The last goal came courtesy of Ibrahimovic, who is now 40 (and the fourth oldest goalscorer in the history of Serie A). He also provided the assist for the Rafael Leao’s opener and was responsible for an own goal. Good and bad, light and dark — it may explain why he posted this.

Next-level Foden leads the line for Man City at Brighton

Remember all the talk about Manchester City needing a “recognized striker” if not a “traditional No.9”? Well, they have a pretty good one in Phil Foden, who bagged two goals playing up front in the 4-1 victory away to Brighton. And no, it doesn’t really matter that he plays the role a little differently. The game has moved on, and if you don’t have a Robert Lewandowski or Romelu Lukaku, it’s maybe not a bad idea to have a recycled attacking midfielder. Heck, Liverpool have played with one at center-forward since 2015 and they got a Champions League and Premier League out of it.

Or, as Pep Guardiola put it: “There are players who play positions, and there are players who play football. Foden plays football.”

Foden aside, City had this game wrapped up at 3-0 by half-time. Guardiola lavished praise on Brighton’s second-half performance, and it’s great that they kept going, but it’s obviously not a concern for City: you imagine things might have been different if the score had been closer. They’re two points off the pace and ready to pounce: not a bad spot in which to find yourself.

Mourinho and Spalletti sent off as Roma, Napoli battle to a draw

Napoli dropped points in Serie A for the first time this season after a scoreless away draw at Roma. It wasn’t a great game and both had opportunities — Tammy Abraham spurned a great chance for the hosts, Napoli hit the woodwork — but it was a fair result in the end. Yet it was overshadowed by both managers, Jose Mourinho (for two yellow cards no less) and Luciano Spalletti (after the final whistle), getting sent off, which not something you see every day.

Spalletti later insisted it was a mix-up — he applauded the referee, but he wasn’t being sarcastic — while Mourinho said his sending off was “nothing special” and that the referee, David Massa, was “good.” Was he being sarcastic? Was he being contrite? Who knows.

What’s evident is that while Roma showed a reaction (and a clean sheet) after the 6-1 humiliation away to Bodo Glimt in the Conference League, the fallout persists. Not so much the game, but Mourinho’s words after the fact, when he said that he played his second team and that his second team has “far less quality” than Bodo’s first team.

Reaction in Rome has focused on him throwing his players — most of them young players — under the bus. And he doubled down by leaving five of them (Bryan Reynolds, Marash Kumbulla, Amadou Diawara, Gonzalo Villa and Borja Mayoral) out of the squad entirely for Sunday’s game.

Obviously, it’s Mourinho’s rear end on the line and he can do what he likes, but for the avoidance of doubt, it’s worth considering a few things.

First, Roma were 2-1 down in that Bodo Glimt match at half-time, when he brought on three starters. And they were 3-1 down at the hour mark when he sent on two more (Abraham and Lorenzo Pellegrini). And then it finished 6-1. Second, there’s a world of difference between hammering your players in public for playing poorly and flat out questioning their quality. Third, most of these guys are young players who, while perhaps not superstars, were good enough to play a big part in an injury-riddled Roma team that reached the semifinal of the Europa League last season and was in the top four as late as mid-March. Fourth, even if they were a pile of rejects and you never want to see them again, surely throwing them under the bus like this only makes it harder to sell or loan them in January which, you assume, is what Mourinho wants to do.

Roma recorded losses north of $200 million last season. They were the biggest net spenders in Serie A over the summer, but they’re not going to become Manchester City overnight (most likely, ever). Mourinho — the highest paid coach in Serie A — knew this when he took the job, so why act this way? Add it to the long list of Mou Mysteries.

Tottenham an exercise in sterile possession at West Ham



Steve Nicol is left confused by Spurs’ identity under Nuno Espirito Santo after their 1-0 defeat to West Ham.

Spurs lost 1-0 at West Ham on Sunday and afterwards, Nuno Espirito Santo said they “controlled the game” and were the better team. Sure, if you get points for keeping the ball. But score is kept by goals and goals require shots, ideally from inside the box. And those are hard to come by when you get just nine touches in the box in the entire game.

West Ham are a cohesive, tough nut to crack and they’re continuing the good work from last season. And yes, given the preseason and early-season chaos at Spurs, your inclination is to give Nuno a pass. But crowing about your possession in a game when the opposition sits off you and looks to counter doesn’t help.

There’s work to be done, and it will only come on the training pitch.

Suarez stops Real Sociedad extending LaLiga lead

You imagine that before Sunday’s game, Real Sociedad would have been happy with a point at the Wanda away to Atletico Madrid. They were missing three regulars — including arguably their best player, Mikel Oyarzabal — and were coming off a Europa League away trip on Thursday. Early in the second half, they found themselves 2-0 up thanks to the Scandinavian duo of Alexander Sorloth and Alexander Isak. We know all about the latter, but the former has endured an up-and-down career, never quite harnessing the little man skills in his big body.

The funny thing (well, not so funny if you’re an Atleti fan) was that it was a very un-Atletico performance: they shifted away from the back three and did plenty of attacking, plus goalkeeper Jan Oblak was merely mortal on this day. But then Luis Suarez pulled out his voodoo, pulling one back when he materialized between two defenders to head it home and then winning — and converting — a penalty (a rather generous one, to put it mildly).

The 2-2 draw leaves Atletico right in the hunt, but it also leave La Real with regret. They could have pulled three points clear over Real Madrid (who admittedly have a game in hand). For a side like Real Sociedad, everything has to go perfect, or close to it, all season long. This was one day when it didn’t.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *