Soccer  

Are Newcastle a real top-four contender in Premier League?

The European weekend again served up a healthy, tasty menu of drama for all of us across the big leagues. Newcastle upset Tottenham away from home to give further credence to what they’re building, while Victor Osimhen’s return for Napoli was marked with a goal and another three points. Elsewhere, Real Madrid and Barcelona notched confidence-boosting victories in LaLiga, Bayern Munich inched closer to a struggling Union Berlin in the Bundesliga table, and Liverpool’s top-four hopes took a hit with a humbling defeat at Nottingham Forest.

There were also talking points for Dortmund (welcome back, Giovanni Reyna), Milan and Arsenal, who thought they’d win with ease at Southampton only to succumb to a second-half goal and two points dropped. (With Erling Haaland in sterling form for Man City, look out, Gunners.)

– Stream on ESPN+: LaLiga, Bundesliga, MLS, more (U.S.)

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


Win at Tottenham sends Newcastle into the top four … so are they for real?

There’s a stat that doesn’t steer you far wrong when it comes to the Premier League. For all the talk of competitive balance, there is such a thing as a “Big Six,” and they generally occupy the top spots. In fact, since 2005, on only one occasion has a club from outside those six broken into the top four spots: That was Leicester City in their fairy-tale title-winning season (2015-16).

Yet with Newcastle winning 2-1 away to Tottenham Hotspur on Sunday, Eddie Howe’s men are now fourth, and given the club’s deep-pocketed owners (the sovereign wealth fund of the state of Saudi Arabia), the prospect of more investment feels around the corner. Will the Big Six become a Big Seven?

Personally, I’d pump the brakes a little bit. For a start, sure, they’re fourth on 21 points, but Chelsea (also on 21) and Manchester United (on 20) have played one game fewer, so they could just as easily be sixth. And even though they were worthy winners away to Spurs (who had won every league home game to that point), it took two pretty hefty defensive blunders for them to score. If you’re into xG, even in this game where they had the upper hand, they lost the battle hands down: 1.91 to 0.78.

– Grealish’s ‘playing like Almiron’ diss backfires as Newcastle star is in great form

(That said, you can’t have it both ways: if you’re going to be unimpressed with their expected goals against Spurs, then presumably you need to be impressed by their overall xG goal difference, which is the third highest in the league, bested only by Arsenal and Manchester City.)

Wherever they end up, you need to tip your hat to Howe. Cynics will point to the roughly €200m spent over the past two transfer windows, but when you consider he lost his marquee center-forward signing, Alexander Isak, to a long-term injury after just three starts and that most of the midfield (other than Bruno Guimaraes) and attack is the same as it was last season, it feels a case of Howe making the players he has better, rather than just buying success.

Newcastle’s owners promised gradual, organic growth rather than the sort of massive investment we saw at Paris Saint-Germain or Manchester City (or, before that, at Chelsea, after Roman Abramovich took over) and thus far it’s what they’ve delivered. Naturally, given the Saudi ownership, plenty reckon they could flip a switch and go big at any time, but I’m not sure they will. Or if they do, it’s necessarily a good idea, at least with Howe around.

One of Howe’s quirks is that during his time at Bournemouth he actually had more misses than hits when he did splash the cash (in relative, Bournemouth terms). Many of his bigger signings either didn’t move the needle much, or spent a long time in and out of the side before contributing. You’re tempted to conclude that he values chemistry so much that he tends to be conservative when integrating newcomers. Either that, or he’s wary about overrating players.

Beyond that, Newcastle have conceded the fewest goals in the league (10), and while it’s a slight over-performance relative to xG, it’s neither luck nor goalkeeper Nick Pope carrying the side (though he’s been very good). It’s more of a collective ethos that sees them prey upon opponent mistakes and be tough to break down, without being overly defensive. What they’ll be like when Isak and Allan Saint-Maximin (arguably his most gifted individual player) will go a long way towards determining where they finish.

As for Tottenham, that’s now back-to-back defeats and coming down to Earth with a thud. They weren’t terrible against Newcastle, just as they weren’t terrible when they lost at Manchester United in midweek, but there’s a certain predictability to them in the 3-5-2 formation, a necessary change given the unavailability of Dejan Kulusevski and Richarlison. Even if they return and are productive, Conte needs to get this team to perform with a system other than the 3-4-3, if only because sooner or later opponents will figure them out.


Osimhen on fire as Napoli gut through a win at Roma

The fact that Napoli went on a winning tear while Victor Osimhen was injured — winning six games in a row and beating marquee names like Milan and Ajax, both on the road — is a testament to coach Luciano Spalletti, the performances he’s getting out of his squad and the “next man up” mentality. The fact that Osimhen is now back and not only does it feel as if he’s never been away, but has added a whole extra dimension to the side, is a proof of just how great he can be.

– Weekend Review: Are Napoli the most in-form team in Europe right now?

Away to Jose Mourinho’s Roma, this felt like a war of attrition, with the home side focusing on shutting down Napoli’s creative channels (which Mourinho did perfectly, using Lorenzo Pellegrini to mark/shadow Stanislav Lobotka) and looking for something on the counter. Spalletti, ever the chameleon, opted to tone down his high-octane attack (Napoli had averaged 3.5 goals a game over their previous seven matches) and match Roma’s approach.

It was the right call: Roma did not manage a single shot on target in the 90 minutes, and Osimhen scored the winner with a vicious wonder strike with 10 minutes to go. Napoli have now won 11 in a row in all competitions and show no signs of slowing down.

As for Roma, the defensive approach worked for long periods, but there was little to cheer at the other end. With Pellegrini chasing Lobotka around and Tammy Abraham having an off-day, Nicolo Zaniolo had to carry them virtually on his own. He battled until the end and had his moments, but unlike Osimhen he couldn’t conjure something out of nothing. The fact is that without Paulo Dybala, Roma lose a big chunk of their attacking potential if the opposition decides to stay tight.


Man United snatch last-ditch equalizer in mediocre game at Chelsea

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Janusz Michallik praises the tactical changes made by Graham Potter and Erik ten Hag in Chelsea’s 1-1 draw with Man United.

I went to Stamford Bridge on Saturday looking forward to watching Manchester United after their stellar midweek display against Tottenham Hotspur. For 45 minutes or so, mostly against an abject Chelsea, they lived up to the billing, forcing Kepa (standing in — again — for Edouard Mendy) to make a string of solid saves. And then they wilted after the break, allowing Chelsea to take the lead late on through a Jorginho penalty (some thought Armando Broja went down too easily, but if you put both hands on an opponent in the box, as Scott McTominay did, you shouldn’t be surprised if the referee points to the spot).

It took a looping Casemiro header in injury time to make it 1-1, which was probably a fair result.

– Man United were better than Chelsea, but needed Casemiro’s late goal
– Varane a World Cup doubt following injury vs. Chelsea
– Sources: Ronaldo can leave United for free in January

I’m not sure why United couldn’t turn in a 90-minute performance. Yes, Chelsea made it more difficult when Graham Potter yanked Marc Cucurella after 35 minutes and switched to a three-man midfield, but it did feel as if Erik ten Hag’s crew ran out of steam, and when the Dutchman sent on Fred for Jadon Sancho seven minutes into the second half with the game scoreless, it felt as if he was settling for a draw.

As for Chelsea, this still seems like a side cobbled together with pieces that don’t quite fit. I’ve talked endlessly about the perils of running a transfer campaign — especially one that spent as much as they did — without a recruitment specialist and how the damage was compounded when they parted ways with Thomas Tuchel. (This isn’t to say changing managers was a bad idea; rather, it became a bad idea after spending a quarter of a billion dollars at the direction of a guy you were about to fire.)

Potter had the unenviable task of finding a way to make it work despite the many obvious deficiencies — it’s not just that some players probably aren’t good enough, though that’s certainly the case, but also that you’re fitting square pegs into round holes, with Raheem Sterling being Exhibit A. The task at this stage is trying to build for next season while finishing in the top four and, hopefully, going on some kind of run in the Champions League.

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Mark Ogden explains why clubs are yet to show interest in taking Cristiano Ronaldo on a free transfer from Man United.


Valverde does it again as Real Madrid down Sevilla

Toni Kroos called him “Top 3” in the world. I’m not sure he was serious — I hope he wasn’t — but there is no question that Fede Valverde is “en fuego” right now.

After scoring just once in all competitions last season, he already has seven goals this year, several of them ballistic long-range masterpieces like the one we saw Saturday against Sevilla to seal the 3-1 win. (Technically, I preferred the second goal, a brilliant counterattack finished by Lucas Vazquez.)

Don’t let the two late goals fool you: Real Madrid were solidly in control throughout despite being without Karim Benzema (Rodrygo filled in and did fine … he’s just a very different player). Valverde may get the headlines, but Vinicius’ growth over the past 18 months has been just as remarkable. Against Sevilla, he led the front line with savvy and intelligence beyond his 22 years. The kid is hitting full maturity — let that be a warning to others.


Arsenal held at Southampton, league lead down to just two points

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Janusz Michallik feels there is no reason for negativity at Arsenal despite a disappointing result vs. Southampton.

It wasn’t that long ago that Southampton were booed off the pitch by their own fans, so having gone a goal up at St Mary’s, it would be totally understandable if Arsenal took their foot off the gas expecting to get their 10th league win in 11 games. Except, it didn’t quite work out that way, as Southampton found the equaliser in the second half and then hung on for the draw.

– Player ratings: Wasteful Arsenal drop points at Southampton

It’s tempting to blame this on a lack of experience from Mikel Arteta’s young guns or maybe it was proof that, just as Pep Guardiola suspected, Gabriel Jesus isn’t quite the natural-born finisher some make him out to be. Tempting, but maybe an overreaction, too: I don’t think Arsenal did much wrong, nor do I think performance levels dropped relative to previous outings. It’s just that winning every Premier League game except for the one against Manchester City is, you know, kinda hard.

The upshot is that the lead is now down to two points. I don’t think Arteta will let this affect his team one way or the other. It’s nice to be top, but this season, ultimately, has to be about growth rather than results. And they are growing.


Bayern Munich roll on as Hoffenheim crumble and an unlikely hero delivers again

It’s hard to judge where Bayern are at based on Saturday’s 2-0 win at Hoffenheim, simply because the opposition was so poor, almost as if they forgot they’re supposed to be a top-four side. Julian Nagelsmann’s defensive partnership of Matthijs De Ligt and Dayot Upamecano looked very good (not for the first time), but you’re tempted to handicap that as a result. No matter: Every game those two play together, the chemistry grows and that matters.

Once again, we saw Eric-Maxim Choupo-Moting get on the scoresheet. He has four goals in his past three outings, five overall, and is scoring at roughly the same clip as Bayern’s previous center-forward, some guy named Robert Lewandowski.

Yes: Lies, damned lies and statistics and all that, but it’s good for Bayern to have another option, and one that’s motivated and productive. He’s probably still third choice up front behind Sadio Mane and Thomas Mueller (neither of whom, of course, is a traditional center-forward), but he showed he can still take a goal well, as his one-touch finish against Hoffenheim showed.


Dembele demolishes Bilbao as Barcelona get perfect prep for Bayern in midweek

Xavi had called for his team to bounce back after the heartbreaking draw against Inter in the Champions League (which leaves them teetering on the brink of elimination) and the Clasico pounding at the hands of Real Madrid. They responded with a convincing 3-0 win on Thursday against Villarreal, and an even more impressive 4-0 rout of Athletic Club — who, lest we forget, were in third place until recently — on Sunday.

– Dembele runs the show as Barcelona thrash Athletic Club

Ousmane Dembele stole the show, opening the scoring and assisting on each of Barcelona’s three other goals. His critics call him inconsistent and even his backers refer to him as a “player of moments,” but on nights like these he’s close to unplayable. You wonder if some of that had to do with Barcelona’s set-up on the night, with Pedri on the opposite flank rather than a traditional winger and Frenkie De Jong bolstering the midfield alongside Sergio Busquets. Or maybe, on a night like this, it wouldn’t have mattered: Dembele was that good and Bilbao were that bad.


Liverpool stumble at Nottingham Forest … when do you begin to worry about a top-four finish?

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Janusz Michallik and Luis Miguel Echegaray discuss how alarming the loss against Nottingham Forest is for Liverpool and its fans.

There’s no good way to lose to the bottom side in the table, like Liverpool did on Saturday, falling 1-0 away to Nottingham Forest. You can cite the chances created — mostly via set pieces, mostly for Virgil Van Dijk — and missed. You can wrap yourself in the list of unavailable players — Luis Diaz, Thiago Alcantara, Darwin Nunez, Joel Matip, Diogo Jota … plus Trent Alexander-Arnold only fit enough for the bench — but none of this changes the fact that Liverpool are in eighth place and are not playing like Liverpool.

It’s especially galling because the midweek Champions League game against Ajax isn’t much of an excuse. Even a defeat will likely see Liverpool through since, you assume, Napoli will get at least a point against Rangers and play the C-team at Anfield on matchday six. This was the time to focus on the Premier League and rack up points before the World Cup break, and yet it feels as if the high of the win over Manchester City has been squandered.


Griezmann bags two goals as Atletico get huge win away to Betis

Maybe it was finally getting a resolution on his future after his move from Barcelona became permanent. Whatever the case, Antoine Griezmann has been rolling back the clock of late, with three goals in his past three games.

On Sunday, with a tricky away game against Betis, he stole the show, scoring direct from a corner kick and then adding a second through Rui Silva’s legs. (It was not a good day at the office for the Betis keeper.) It was something of a minimalist display for Atleti — though they also got a big performance from Saul in midfield, which is good news, given his ups and downs — but it means they hang on to third place and get some much-needed momentum ahead of their big Champions League clash with Bayer Leverkusen.


Brahim Diaz powers Milan … is this when he turns the corner?

Milan put together a convincing 4-1 over Monza, and the highlights were dominated by Brahim Diaz, who scored two goals and provided plenty of creativity and excitement.

Once hailed as the next big thing in his Manchester City days — and still regarded highly enough that Real Madrid signed him as a teenager — Diaz is still 23 years old and on loan from Madrid. It’s his third campaign on loan with the Rossoneri, so you might be forgiven for forgetting that he’s still a Madrid player and could yet come good. While his time has been marked by inconsistency (and it’s no coincidence that Milan got themselves some insurance in the form of Charles De Ketelaere over the summer) his skill set still has scouts drooling.

Milan also got goals from Rafael Leao (not a surprise, and yes, they’re still working on his contract) and Divock Origi (more of a surprise), and the win was just the right boost ahead of a key Champions League clash with Dinamo Zagreb in midweek).


Haaland has no time for De Zerbi/Guardiola bromance as Man City roll past Brighton

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Janusz Michallik praises Erling Haaland’s performance in Man City’s 3-1 win over Brighton in the Premier League.

Brighton coach Roberto De Zerbi and Pep Guardiola have never hidden their affection and mutual admiration. In fact, De Zerbi said Pep offered to help any way he could when he was appointed to replace Graham Potter at Brighton … except, of course, when they played City. If anything, De Zerbi looked to trip up Pep and, for a while, it worked as he pulled a man-to-man scheme out of his box of tricks that, for 20 minutes or so, put the brakes on City.

– VAR Review: Haaland penalty claim and more, reviewed

Except this year, they have a big Plan B named Erling Haaland. A big Ederson boot over the top and the Norwegian was through, road grading Adam Webster along the way. The second was a “generous” penalty — it looked to me as if Bernardo Silva stuck out a leg to make contact with Lewis Dunk — that Haaland converted, and that was that, though Brighton did pull one back and Kevin De Bruyne added a peach of a third for good measure.

City were actually out-possessed at home in this game — not a frequent occurrence — and nevertheless, bar those first 20 minutes or so, looked entirely comfortable. That’s the luxury of having Haaland in your team.


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Ale Moreno praises Gio Reyna after Borussia Dortmund win 5-0 vs. Stuttgart in the Bundesliga.

We’ve talked endlessly about how Borussia Dortmund add up to less than the sum of their parts (and not just when some of those parts are missing) and how they rarely put in a 90-minute performance. Well Saturday’s 5-0 trouncing of Stuttgart was one of those days. Dortmund were on top from beginning to end, and while there’s still room for improvement (looking at you, Karim Adeyemi), this has to be one of the most encouraging performances we’ve seen in recent weeks.

– Highlights: Reyna, Bellingham star as Dortmund thump Stuttgart (U.S.)

It was particularly encouraging because Giovanni Reyna, making his first league start since April, came through with flying colors, scoring a goal and dishing out his customary vision and unpredictability. Reyna’s injury record is well chronicled, and it’s worth remembering he doesn’t turn 20 until next month. But the way Dortmund are built right now — and with Marco Reus still out — this team is screaming out for another leader with personality and quality. Jude Bellingham can’t be the only one; Reyna can fill that role.


Wild ending for Inter away to Fiorentina … but it’s another three points

We took another trip into the InterSphere, that wild and wacky virtual place that Inter supporters know all too well, where the unthinkable happens and where the team’s moniker “Pazza Inter” (“Crazy Inter”) originated (yes, it’s even in the club anthem).

Away to Fiorentina, they took a 2-0 lead and looked to be cruising, only to concede a penalty before the break (on a play in which Fede Dimarco could have been sent off) and the equaliser after the break (brilliant run from Jonathan Ikone). The good news is that this Inter seems mentally tougher than past versions and they nosed ahead on a disputed, but correct — just because the keeper touches the ball doesn’t mean he can’t also commit a foul — penalty.

Nursing a lead going into injury time, you expect a big club to see it through. But hey, this is Inter, remember, and they contrived to give up an equaliser to Luka Jovic, the former Madrid conundrum. (This was his ninth league goal since the summer of 2019: That’s right, he plays center-forward and has scored nine times in 3½ years).

And then, when it looked as if they had blundered away two points, they got a massive stroke of luck. Fiorentina defended horrendously on a counterattack in the fifth minute of injury time, the ball was squared across the box, and defender Lorenzo Venuti cleared it off the incoming Henrikh Mkhitaryan’s leg and into the back of the net.

All told, the performance was solid from Inter who, despite still missing Marcelo Brozovic and Romelu Lukaku, are just three points from the top four. The manner in which it came, well, that was distinctly “Pazza Inter.”


Union still top, but fall at the lowest hurdle

OK, you didn’t need to be an analytics maven to know that unless Union radically improved their performances (or found an equally effective way of playing), they were bound to fall out of the top spot — or, as statheads say, “regress to the mean.” Clubs that rank where they rank (17 of 18 in non-penalty expected goals, 18 of 18 in passes inside the box, 16 of 18 in PPDA, 17 of 18 in possession, 15 of 18 in shots) and who overachieve xG by a mile (19 goals from 8.94xG) tend not to win titles.

That said, you wouldn’t have expected that stumble to come against Bochum, who were bottom of the Bundesliga and had lost eight of 10 games heading into the weekend. The 2-1 defeat still leaves them a point clear of Bayern at the top, so it’s worth enjoying while it lasts. Given their budget and resources, they’ve already won their Bundesliga title.