Liverpool looked scary good vs. Chelsea, first look at Juve under Pirlo, Man United issues laid bare

Football

The Premier League had its first heavyweight battle as Liverpool handled Chelsea, league play began in the German Bundesliga and Italian Serie A, plus we got a good look at Real Madrid. It’s Monday, and Gab Marcotti reacts to the biggest moments in the sport of football from the past week.

Jump to: Liverpool vs. Chelsea takeaways | First look at Pirlo’s Juve | Don’t worry about Madrid | Man United issues laid bare | Mbappe to PSG’s rescue | Arsenal’s work in progress | Dortmund’s young stars impress | Do Inter need Vidal? | What to make of Spurs? | Don’t write Leipzig off |

See? Liverpool are just fine

Rumors of Liverpool‘s demise, after the defending champions gave up three goals to Leeds United at Anfield on opening day, were obviously exaggerated. Away to Chelsea, they didn’t just dominate for long stretches — they were strongest in some of those areas that had been identified as potential weaknesses.

Fabinho filled in admirably at center-back for Joe Gomez and, in fact, with the arrival of Thiago Alcantara, might be a better option there. The front three turned in a vintage performance not just with Sadio Mane‘s opening goal, but with the work they did off the ball too, forcing Chelsea to defend deep and ensuring they struggled to play out from the back.

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Craig Burley explains why Timo Werner’s style of play will have a negative impact on the outlook of Kai Havertz’s performances for Chelsea.

New arrival Thiago came on at half-time and drew rave reviews for the way he spread the ball, dictated play and generally appeared as if he’d been in that midfield all his life. I’m not sure how much to read in this performance — it’s a whole heck of a lot easier to ping the ball around when the opposition are a man down, as Chelsea were following Andreas Christensen‘s take-down/rugby tackle on Mane before half-time — but there is no question he gives Liverpool a dimension they didn’t have previously: the ability to break down opponents who sit deep.

The fact that Thiago, at Bayern, already operated in a side that pressed high — as Liverpool still like to do, although not as often as before — is a bonus. But Thiago also allows you to play a possession game, and, of course, he’s a devastating passer in transition. His signing is also evidence that Jurgen Klopp is doubling down on continuing to win straight away.

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From a strict squad management perspective, while the transfer fee wasn’t excessive (a reported £20 million rising to £25m), giving a four-year deal and significant wages to a guy who turns 30 in April is a bit of a gamble. This is particularly true when you consider that Thiago has started less than half of Bayern’s games over the past seven years and, in fact, has started more than 60% of Bundesliga matches just twice in his career (last year, he was in the starting XI 20 times). Throw in the fact that Mane, Roberto Firmino, Mohamed Salah, Virgil Van Dijk, Jordan Henderson and Gini Wijnaldum are all 28 or older, and the risk of a team getting old all at once is further magnified.

That said, Thiago appears to be the sort of player whose playing time can be managed. He doesn’t need to play every game — in fact, against certain opponents, Liverpool may be better off with a more dynamic midfielder in his place — and, particularly if it helps preserve his health, you imagine he’ll be on board with a “load management” approach.

The arrival of Diogo Jota from Wolves, on the other hand, is more about adding depth to the front three. On paper, he becomes the first option off the bench, and, at 23, he has the durability to fill in for any of the forwards. (If he comes in for Firmino, you’d imagine Salah would move centrally.)

– Liverpool ratings: Mane 9/10, Thiago 8/10
– Chelsea ratings: Kepa, Christiansen earn 4/10 in loss
– Reax: Kepa gets roasted on social media

As impressive as Liverpool were, if felt as if Chelsea got a lot of things wrong on the day. I’ve said it before, but Kai Havertz remains a very raw talent and it’s not clear at all that Frank Lampard has decided how to best harness his skills. After playing wide in Week 1, he lined him up at center-forward on Sunday, with Timo Werner shunted to the wing, free to cut inside.

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Craig Burley shows empathy for Chelsea’s Kepa Arrizabalaga, who is clearly struggling in goal for Frank Lampard.

Havertz did play up front after the restart for Bayer Leverkusen at the end of the 2019-20 season, but those were very different circumstances. Under Peter Bosz, Leverkusen committed plenty of men forward, and he had plenty of options around him. Against Liverpool, Chelsea were often forced to break from deep, and he struggled both to hold up the ball and run behind the defense.

You wonder where he’ll pop up next in this Chelsea side; logic would suggest in the hole in a 4-2-3-1, but that role comes with all sorts of responsibilities when not in possession.

Havertz is only 21, he’s in a new country, and he needs time to adapt. It may be that the best solution is if he spends some time on the bench, a bit like Christian Pulisic did after he arrived.

Beyond Havertz, Chelsea really struggled to break Liverpool’s press, and that’s a concern when you consider that N’Golo Kante was joined in midfield by Mateo Kovacic and Jorginho, in theory two of Chelsea’s best, most experienced deep flying midfielders.

In other words, there’s plenty of work for Lampard to do and we haven’t even mentioned Antonio Rudiger — excluded from the matchday squad — or Callum Hudson-Odoi, who has seen just 11 minutes of action thus far.

What we learned from our first look at Pirlo’s Juventus

I wrote about Juventus‘ choice of Andrea Pirlo last week and, like most, was curious as to what version 1.0 would look like, especially after reading his thesis.

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The 3-0 thumping of a very defensive Sampdoria saw them line up in a pretty complex, flexible formation: 3-4-2-1 when they attacked, 4-4-2 when defending. The key to the transition was Aaron Ramsey, who slipped back into a left midfield position, with wing-back Gianluca Frabotta retreating to left-back and Danilo sliding across to right-back. Up front, Cristiano Ronaldo and Dejan Kulusevski — both of whom got on the scoresheet — switched positions with each other and with Ramsey.

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Gab Marcotti says Weston McKennie’s performance vs. Sampdoria bodes well for his career at Juventus.

– USMNT: McKennie makes Juve debut in win vs. Sampdoria

Juve looked comfortable, confident and as front-foot-forward as we’ve seen them in a long time. Obviously a number of players were missing; you imagine Matthijs De Ligt will slip seamlessly into the back line, while Alex Sandro will be at wing-back and Arthur will compete for a spot in midfield where, incidentally, Weston McKennie offered intensity and tactical nous. (Evidently he’s a quick learner).

If you assume they will sign a veteran centerforward (at this stage, it looks to be Edin Dzeko) and that Paulo Dybala will return, it’s not clear who misses out. You can’t really expect Dybala to do the job Ramsey was doing. Still, all it means is that Pirlo has plenty of options and this is by no means the finished product.

Real Madrid will be fine in the long run

Zinedine Zidane was asked repeatedly whether his team “had enough goals in them” after the 0-0 draw away to Real Sociedad. It’s a function not just of the scoreless draw, but the fact that they extended their run of games in which they score fewer than two goals to 10, dating back to last season.

– Real ratings: Kroos 8/10, Odegaard 6/10 in draw

It’s true that clear-cut chances were few and far between against La Real (and, in fact, the best came to Alexander Isak, forcing a world-class save from Thibaut Courtois). Both Vinicius and Rodrygo disappointed and while Martin Odegaard’s inclusion ahead of Casemiro gave them extra attacking oomph in the middle, it wasn’t enough to consistently supply Karim Benzema.

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Alejandro Moreno says Real Madrid cannot seem to finish off attacks despite explosive attacking players.

But we’re one game into their season and when Eden Hazard, Isco and Marco Asensio are all fit, this side may well look very different in terms of attacking production. Let’s just hope it’s a “when” and not an “if.”

Man United’s lack of depth laid bare again

With Manchester United fans already upset over the club’s transfer window, Ole Gunnar Solskjaer needed the 3-1 defeat against Crystal Palace like he needed a hole in the head. Despite some pedantic officiating, it was fully deserved and once again highlighted the club’s evident limits in certain positions.

– Dawson: Optimism vanishes around Man United
– Man United ratings: Lindelof 4/10 in stunning defeat

I get the concept of not wishing to being taken advantage of. United are one of the few liquid clubs out there; sellers know it, and Ed Woodward likes to hold out for what he thinks is the right price.

As many have widely reported, their pursuit of Borussia Dortmund’s Jadon Sancho is the ultimate example. If they can’t get him this summer at a fee they deem fair, they’ll get him next summer. That’s fine and all, but it should also be clear that it’s imperative to finish top four and competition appears stiffer this time around. Chelsea have spent plenty, Spurs are rolling the dice on the transfer market, Arsenal look stronger and the likes of Wolves, Leicester and Everton are still around to spoil the party. Meanwhile, the pandemic has left a bunch of clubs with high-priced talented veterans they simply can’t shift, because their wages are too high.

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Jan Aage Fjortoft says Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s “terrible summer” could lead to his sacking down the line.

If United can’t land their first-choice, long-term targets they’re pursuing, maybe their strategy ought to involve looking for short-term alternatives in those positions. For example, you can get an Ivan Perisic or even an Edinson Cavani for nothing or close to it. (Lest we forget, Odion Ighalo‘s loan ends in January.) Sure, wages will be high, but that’s not really the issue, as long as you’re not locking yourself into a long-term deal (and you wouldn’t be).

It’s the sort of move they pulled back in 2016 when they signed Zlatan Ibrahimovic, who was nearly 35 at the time. Or, more recently, what Chelsea did in picking up Thiago Silva. A top four finish — if there are no more signings — isn’t something to take for granted this season. Sometimes you have to think short-term if you want to get where you want to be long-term.

Mbappe returns to give PSG the spark they’d been missing

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Julien Laurens says Kylian Mbappe’s return was the driving force behind PSG’s 3-0 win over Nice.

With Neymar (and three others) suspended, Thiago Silva gone and Paris Saint-Germain teetering on the edge of full-blown crisis, Kylian Mbappe‘s return from a positive COVID-19 test and subsequent self-isolation couldn’t have come at a better time.

The young striker converted a (generous) penalty and, more than that, was at the heart of most of what PSG achieved in the 3-0 win at Nice, a game that was harder-fought than the result suggests. Mbappe didn’t just offer quality, either; he offered enthusiasm and leadership to a team that badly needed it. That’s a lot for 21-year-old broad shoulders. Then again, his are very broad.

Arsenal win again, with caveats

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Steve Nicol says Arsenal have found a way to pull off undeserved wins that they’ve lacked since Arsene Wenger.

It’s two wins out of two for Arsenal to open the 2020-21 Premier League season, but West Ham highlighted just why it was important for Gunners fans not to get carried away after the opening-day win over Fulham.

– Olley: Arsenal need midfield help
– Arsenal ratings: Lacazette 8/10 in nervy win

Dani Ceballos was critical on his seasonal debut, but there were a number of close calls at the back, and not just because Sead Kolasinac was in for Kieran Tierney. (Roll on David Luiz and William Saliba.) Further up the pitch, Willian and Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang had quiet games, though the latter did provide a superb cross for the goal.

If the front three are having a collective off-day, it’s critical that Bukayo Saka get on the pitch. I’m not sure if wing-back is his long-term position, but he has already shown he can be influential in different areas. Arteta’s framework for this team remains solid; the questions are more about the guys who need to execute within it.

Dortmund’s young side dazzle vs. Gladbach

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Jan Aage Fjortoft says Gio Reyna told him he “should have done more” than the one goal in Dortmund’s win.

Hosting Borussia Moenchengladbach (albeit one where Alsssane Plea and Marcus Thuram only came after nearly an hour) on opening day is obviously being thrown in at the deep end. Borussia Dortmund’s young stars passed the test with a 3-0 win that was perhaps a bit more laboured than the scoreline suggests. There were some jitters in the first half, before they brought the hammer down after the break.

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Lucien Favre’s decision to leave out Julian Brandt and Marco Reus and play Jude Bellingham and Gio Reyna with Jadon Sancho and Erling Haaland (who notched two goals, which means he’s on pace to score 76 in the Bundesliga alone this season) may have been motivated by other factors, like fitness, but was nonetheless brave. Reyna opened the scoring and Bellingham played with the confidence and intelligence you wouldn’t expect from a guy who turned 17 in June.

Stabilizing the defence — Manuel Akanji looked solid again — is Favre’s main task this season, but finding the right combination of players among his young guns to ensure everyone gets playing time and remains happy will be no less important.

How will Inter make room for Vidal?

The Antonio Conte-Arturo Vidal bromance is set to bloom again at Inter. It’s not clear how much the Chilean midfielder has left in the tank at age 33, but Conte desperately wanted him and from Inter’s perspective, they evidently felt they had to go all-in. There’s no point keeping Conte around if you’re not going to bend to his will.

Now, of course, comes the tricky part. There’s a glut of players under contract who, on paper, won’t get on the pitch much, from Perisic to Radja Nainggolan to Joao Mario. Inter can try to shift them, but if they stick around, Conte needs to find a role for them. Either that or he can never complain ever again about having too small a squad.

Too early to know what to make of Tottenham

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Steve Nicol doesn’t see the gulf between Tottenham Hotspur and Southampton that the 5-2 scoreline reflected.

Tottenham remain one of the most enigmatic sides in the Premier League and we’re none the wiser after their 5-2 win at Southampton. Spurs were turgid in the first half, but romped to victory after the break largely because Southampton’s high press utterly collapsed, while the combination of Son Heung-Min‘s pace and Harry Kane‘s movement tore them to shreds. The latter ended up with four assists and the former with four goals.

But the question remains: what happens against less cavalier opposition? Can this team play something other than counterattacking football when there’s only one Giovani Lo Celso and he can’t be cloned?

Questions abound over their market moves too. Not so much over Sergio Reguilon, who provides more attacking impetus than Ben Davies and frees you up to play a back three if you so choose. But what about Gareth Bale, who ironically arrives injured? He undoubtedly provides individual quality and buzz, but is he the best complement for the likes of Lucas Moura and Son? Or merely an alternative to them?

– Spurs ratings: Son 10/10 for four-goal magic
– Ogden: Will Bale and Mourinho be a perfect match at Spurs?

And what is up with Dele Alli? Dropped once again and linked to moves elsewhere, it feels like he’s on Mourinho’s naughty step. He’s coming off two tough seasons, sure, but he’s fit and just 24 years old. In the current climate, you’re unlikely to get a big fee for him. Surely he’s the sort of guy you’d expect Jose Mourinho to work on and turn around?

Don’t write Leipzig off

Conventional wisdom has it that Leipzig are in serious trouble having lost both Timo Werner and Patrik Schick over the summer. The pair contributed more than half of Leipzig’s league goals last season and while Hwang Hee-Chan showed promise at Salzburg last year, this is a serious step up.

Maybe so, but watching them dismantle Mainz 3-1 served as a reminder that this team creates chances from all over the pitch. And if Julian Nagelsmann can tap into Dani Olmo‘s huge skill set now that he’s had time to bed in, even more opportunities will be created. (They might also soon add Alexander Sorloth, who scored 33 times on loan for Trabzonspor last season, from Crystal Palace.) Write them off at your peril.

And finally…

As a boyhood wrestling fan, I can’t help but salute Leicester City‘s social media team, who celebrated the arrival of Cengiz Under from Roma like this. If you don’t get it, that’s OK. If you do, it was simply perfect.

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