Arsenal’s plan worked at Man City, Bayern Munich woes deepen, more

The first weekend of club football after the international break always entertains, and this European weekend was no different as we got a string of big, decisive results in the big leagues. Mikel Arteta’s Arsenal frustrated Manchester City and Pep Guardiola in a gritty 0-0 draw on Sunday that does neither team a favor in terms of the Premier League‘s title race. (Liverpool‘s 2-1 win over Brighton earlier that day gives the Reds the faintest of edges with nine games left.)

In Germany, Bayern Munich‘s mood went from bad to worse as Xabi Alonso announced he was staying at Bayer Leverkusen (despite links to the job in Bavaria) and they lost at home to Borussia Dortmund for the first time since 2014 in a listless display you don’t expect from the Germán giants. In Italy, Juventus slipped even further with a Lazio defeat that should call every player — and manager Max Allegri’s — future at the club into question, and Real Madrid made light work of Athletic Club despite Vinicius being sidelined through suspension.

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Elsewhere, there were talking points for Barcelona, Milan, Chelsea, Tottenham and Liverpool. It’s Monday. Gab Marcotti reacts to the biggest moments in the world of football.

Arteta’s Plan B gets the job done away to Manchester City

Neutrals probably got a little bored — especially in a fairly dull first half — but make no mistake about it, Mikel Arteta’s reshuffle of personnel and approach was exactly what Arsenal needed at the Etihad. He shifted Gabriel Jesus out wide, played Kai Havertz through the middle and gave himself a front four (when you add in Bukayo Saka and Martin Odegaard) that were mobile and effective as a first line of defence, protecting both the Declan RiceJorginho axis and a back four that set deep.

The setup meant relying on the counter and conceding possession more than he would ordinarily like to do, but it worked. The game finished 0-0, and Manchester City were held to under 1.00 expected goals at home in the Premier League for only the second time in nearly a year.

More to the point, Arsenal showed exactly what critics said his young guns lacked: maturity, steel and discipline. You don’t want Arsenal to play like this all the time, but on the day it was the right call. Relinquish risky buildups in favour of counters — when he hit them late on with fresh wingers, if Leandro Trossard had released the ball earlier, they might have nicked a winner — and set-pieces, where Arsenal are the best side in the league.

We also ended up with a game that saw the keepers make just three combined saves. Could City have done more? Probably. Erling Haaland struggled mightily against the partnership of William Saliba and Gabriel, with both showing the right kind of physicality, though if he sorts out his feet and doesn’t whiff in that second half, the game could have taken a different turn.



Why Erling Haaland’s finishing looked ‘scruffy’ in Arsenal draw

Gab and Don review Erling Haaland’s goalscoring chances in Manchester City’s 0-0 draw with Arsenal.

Haaland’s struggles are a talking point (because, well, he’s Haaland), but I thought he got little help from the supporting cast, with the likes of Kevin De Bruyne, Phil Foden and Jack Grealish (when he came on) failing to provide steady service. Against a deep-lying side, City’s trademark cutbacks were going to be hard to come by, but you still expected overloads from Grealish, Jérémy Doku and Foden taking on opponents to make something happen, or guys like Rodri, Mateo Kovacic and De Bruyne mixing it up from deep. Yet there wasn’t enough of it, partly because Arsenal defended well, and partly because it didn’t feel as if Pep Guardiola was making it City’s priority.

The upshot? With Liverpool winning at home to Brighton, Arsenal are two points back and City three points back with nine games left. With no more head-to-head encounters, the edge on paper naturally belongs to Liverpool, but that’s all it is: an edge. Arsenal emerge stronger in terms of self-belief and, for City, this may be a wake-up call.

The title race is still tight and at the risk of stating the obvious, this race will be decided by two factors. One is how far these teams get in European competition — Man City and Arsenal are still in the Champions League, while Liverpool are in the Europa League — and how much it takes out of them. The other is the run-in and, in particular, the opponents’ state of mind.

The rule of thumb is that at this stage of the campaign is that you’re better off facing midtable sides with little to play (or, obviously, relegated teams) than sides who are fighting to stay up or competing for a spot in the top four. Expect more twists, as this one’s far from over …

From Xabi Alonso’s ‘nein danke’ to a Klassiker humiliation: a bad 48 hours for Bayern

On Friday, Bayer Leverkusen’s Xabi Alonso announced he’d be staying put for at least another season, dashing any Bayern hopes that he’d be the man to replace the departing Thomas Tuchel this summer. The following day, Leverkusen found a buzzer-beating goal (this time at home to Hoffenheim) to win their 23rd of 27 league games and a few hours later, Borussia Dortmund beat Bayern at the Allianz Arena for the first time since 2014.

The blow here isn’t that it’s another nail in the coffin as far as the Bundesliga is concerned. That ship sailed some time ago. Rather, it’s the performance.

You would have thought that a combination of the mini-revival of three straight wins before the international break, hopes of helping Harry Kane break the single-season scoring title and the desire to find form heading into the Champions League clash with Arsenal next week — plus, of course, Der Klassiker itself — would have afforded them enough sharpness and motivation. Instead, they were flat, as evidenced by Dortmund scything through their ranks for the opening goal after just 10 minutes, with Niclas Füllkrug ‘s flick and Julian Brandt‘s assist setting up Karim Adeyemi.

You expected a strong Bayern reaction, but other than a couple of Harry Kane headers and Eric Dier thwarted by Mats Hummels, we got very little beyond aerial threats. Jamal Musiala had an off day — as players his age are wont to do — and we ended up with a load of sterile possession with only Joshua Kimmich (ironically) offering consistent quality from the right-back position.

This one, again, is on Tuchel as much as the players. Yeah, the domestic season may be over, but it’s still Borussia Dortmund, and you still have a responsibility to battle.

As for Edin Terzic’s crew, it’s a huge win for Dortmund, no doubt about it, the sort you want to build on in your race to lock up a Champions League spot. While it’s true that Bayern squandered their chances, it’s equally true that Dortmund didn’t take all of theirs either. (Felix Nmecha and that Ian Maatsen run spring to mind.) I don’t know how much of a tactical blueprint it offers (against most teams you won’t be able to play on the counter like this) but in terms of spirit and wanting to stand up to be counted — especially guys like Hummels, Nico Schlotterbeck and Emre Can, who had been criticised of late — it means a lot.

No Vinicius, no problem when Rodrygo plays like this

Real Madrid comfortably dispatched Athletic Bilbao (who may have been thinking ahead to the Copa del Rey final) in a 2-0 display Sunday that was more comfortable than the scoreline suggests. (Brahim Díaz also hit the woodwork.) With Vinicius unavailable due to suspension, it was fun to see Rodrygo play in his natural position, cutting in from the left. He scored both goals, moved with intelligence and purpose and reminded you how in some ways he’s an even better-rounded player than his countryman.

Carlo Ancelotti’s system on the day nominally featured Rodrygo and Brahim Diaz as wingers and Jude Bellingham running through the middle, but it was extremely fluid and when you don’t get a chance to work on it in practice — this was the first game back after international duty — it takes a ton of intelligence and tactical awareness to make it work. Those three evidently have it, as does Fede Valverde, who was often the furthest Madrid player forward on the right flank.

All in all, the formation makes one more option for Ancelotti, especially with an eye to next season and the likely arrival of Kylian Mbappé. Having three players all of whom would like to play wide left is far from ideal, though when two of them are in the top five in the world, you put up with it. The club will cross that bridge once they get to it and, to be fair, Vinicius and Mbappe have both shown more versatility this season.

The impression is that super-sub status looms for Rodrygo and that’s going to be OK, at least for a while. But if Ancelotti finds a fluid system that works — and doesn’t leave you devoid of a functioning press — then maybe we’ll get to see all three together.

Sunday also marked the return of defender Éder Militão following his ACL injury, and Ancelotti made it a point to ask Andriy Lunin to put the ball out of play so he could get the ovation when he came on in injury time. Militao is one of the top central defenders in the world and, with David Alaba out, his return is huge. It’s worth remembering, however, that coming back from an ACL to full form and fitness can take time, even after you’re back on the pitch. I wouldn’t be surprised if Ancelotti isn’t targeting his return as a starter around the time of the second leg against Manchester City in mid-April.

Time for some grown-up conversations at “embarrassing” Juventus

Wojciech Szczęsny is 33 years old and is in his seventh season as Juventus keeper. He knows words weigh heavily. So when he uses the word “embarrassing” to describe the club’s last two months — one win in nine games, counting Saturday night’s defeat at Lazio — and says “if you don’t believe, you shouldn’t be at this club,” folks had best listen.

Not just the players, but manager Max Allegri, too.

Juventus have not been uniformly terrible over these past nine games even though results have. They had some decent performances (against Napoli, against Atalanta) that suggested they could turn the corner, but Saturday saw them regress to the worst negative stereotype of Allegri-ball. Against a side who had just changed managers (and lost four of their last five as well), he set up as if Juventus were taking on Pelé‘s Brazil, circa 1970. It’s not just the formation he chose — if you’re going to play a 4-3-3, maybe do so with a winger or forward out wide, not Andrea Cambiasso? — but the safety-first, terror-ridden approach that simply doesn’t befit this team.

Juve sides of the past also often sat deep and hit on the counter, but they looked comfortable doing so. Not these guys. They had one shot one goal in the first 40 minutes and that was off a set piece. The midfield sat deep and was easily overrun by Igor Tudor‘s high-energy approach. The big guns let Juve down, sure: Adrien Rabiot (returning from injury), Dusan Vlahovic (absent, again) and Federico Chiesa (impalpable) were all off the boil, while Moise Khan at center-forward (Arkadiusz Milik was also out) is something we don’t need to see again for a long time. But the issues run straight through the team.

Allegri talked about how he was confident they’ll still qualify for the Champions League. With the highest wage bill in Italy and no European football to distract them, they had better. But that’s a low bar.

Conventional wisdom has it that the club can’t afford to part ways with Allegri since he makes way too much and they’ve racked up huge losses in recent years. And unlike Marcello Lippi, another legendary Juventus boss who struggled upon his return, he’s unlikely to resign. Maybe so, but if you’re going to continue to play like this, at some point you’ll be better off eating his salary and trusting somebody cheaper (and more progressive). There’s only so much treading water this club can take.

Quick hits



Are Liverpool now favourites to win the Premier League?

Steve Nicol and Jan Age Fjortoft discuss Liverpool’s remaining Premier League fixtures.

10. ALEXIS MAC ALLISTER IN HIS OPTIMAL POSITION IS NEXT LEVEL AS LIVERPOOL DOWN BRIGHTON. Yeah, he did fine as a defensive midfielder out of necessity, but give him freedom further forward — especially with a fit Dominik Szoboszlai alongside him — and Mac Allister is a different player. Against Brighton, with Mohamed Salah having an off day, it was Mac Allister who served up the winning assist for the Egyptian and, more generally, ran the show in midfield. Liverpool are now favourites for the title and, if they pull it off, he’ll deserve a big chunk of credit.

9. DON’T LET SCHICK’S LATE WINNER MAKE YOU THINK LEVERKUSEN’S WIN WAS A CLOSE SHAVE AS THEY TAKE GIANT STEP TOWARDS TITLE. Xabi Alonso’s crew did go a goal down against the run of play, but they dominated against Hoffenheim beginning to end, before Patrik Schick sealed it in injury time. Three wins in their last seven and a first-ever Bundesliga title is theirs, regardless what Bayern do.

8. RAFAEL LEAO STEALS THE SHOW AS MILAN STRENGTHEN GRIP ON SECOND PLACE. You know the skinny on Rafael Leão. When he’s on form, he’s close to unplayable; when he’s not, he’s somewhere between a decoy and a passenger. He was phenomenal in an open, entertaining 2-1 win for Milan away to Fiorentina, scoring a tremendous goal and delivering a delightful assist. That’s now six wins in a row for Stefano Pioli’s crew — they may not catch Inter at the top, but there’s no doubting who the second force in Serie A is.

7. FOLK HERO CRISTHIAN STUANI’S LATE WINNER KEEPS GIRONA FLYING TOWARDS THE CHAMPIONS LEAGUE. Five years ago, when he was 32, Cristhian Stuani bagged 19 goals for a relegated Girona and could easily have left for a top-flight club. Instead, he vowed to stick around and help them back up, which he eventually did. Now, at 37, he’s a part-time center-forward, but an important one, with eight goals in limited minutes. On Sunday, he scored the injury-time winner that deservedly pushed Girona past Betis, consolidating their grip on third place. It’s going to be cool to see him in the Champions League next year …

6. SPURS NOT SO “SPURSY” IN COMEBACK WIN VS. LUTON TOWN. You go a goal down early at home against a team that may be fighting relegation, but is one of the toughest outs in the Premier League and things can easily go off the rails. That’s why it’s impressive how Tottenham showed focus and steel, getting past Timo Werner‘s usual missed sitters and Heung Min Son hitting the woodwork, to emerge as 2-1 winners. Fourth place Aston Villa is still in their sights: they’re just three points away and with a game in hand.

5. JOAO FELIX AND RAPHINHA DELIVER THE WINNER FOR BARCA AGAINST LAS PALMAS, BUT BOTH ARE UNDER SCRUTINY. Against an opponent down to 10 men for more than an hour, it took Barcelona a while to break the ice, though they did hit the woodwork several times. In the end, it came thanks to a brilliant João Félix assistant and a cool Raphinha finish. The club, whose financial woes are well-documented, need to make some big calls on both. Nobody doubts their talent, but consistency has been wanting. As neither is likely to be a projected starter in coming years — factoring in when Gavi returns and how Lamine Yamal continues to progress — you need to consider letting them move on unless they show they can be consistent producers. Raphinha would fetch a decent transfer fee; Joao Felix, who is on loan, would save you some wages.

4. WHEN YOU’RE HELD BY THE SECOND-BOTTOM TEAM AT HOME DESPITE A MAN ADVANTAGE FOR MORE THAN AN HOUR, IT’S BEST TO TAKE IT ON THE CHIN. Twenty-four hours after Mauricio Pochettino crowed that based on analytics (what he really means is Expected goal difference) Chelsea are a top four club, he had the good sense to say how “disappointed” he was in Chelsea’s lack of hunger and energy in this weekend’s 2-2 draw vs. 10-man Burnley. When you play as poorly as his team did — and they could have lost the game if not for a Djordje Petrovic save and Jay Rodríguez hitting the crossbar — with an extra man, it’s not about youth or inexperience, it’s about tactics, preparation and desire. And some of that is down to him.

3. KYLIAN MBAPPE SUBBED AGAIN AS PSG WIN AWAY TO MARSEILLE … MIGHT AS WELL GET USED TO IT. Having declined to extend his contract — and with the Ligue 1 title within reach with or without him — Mbappe simply isn’t going to be a priority for Luis Enrique, which is why he was substituted with half an hour to go. He didn’t seem happy as he trotted off the pitch and got booed mercilessly by the Marseille fans: presumably he can handle that, but not getting love from your coach? Well, that may be a bit tougher to take. PSG, despite going a man down after Lucas Beraldo‘s red card in the first half, saw out the 2-0 victory without too much fuss against a disappointing Marseille, staying 12 points clear at the top.



Hutchison slams Man United’s ‘awful’ performance at Brentford

Don Hutchison slams Manchester United’s performance at Brentford after scoring and then conceding a goal in stoppage time.

2. IT’S NOT OFTEN YOU GIVE UP EQUALIZER IN 99TH MINUTE BUT STILL COUNT YOURSELF LUCKY … UNITED MANAGED TO DO JUST THAT. It’s hard to overstate how badly Manchester United were beaten down — in terms of intensity, tactical nous and quality — away to Brentford. The home side had 31 shots, hit the woodwork four times and had 85 touches in the opposition box to United’s 16. Yet because this is a funny sport, Mason Mount (yes, that Mason Mount) came on and grabbed a goal in the sixth minute of injury time, only for Kristoffer Ajer to make it 1-1 in the 99th minute. (And yeah, when you score a potential winner that late in the game, there’s no excuse for immediately conceding an equaliser … but that’s just one of Erik Ten Hag’s many concerns right now.)

1. DOOR SLAMS SHUT ON NAPOLI’S SEASON WITH 3-0 HOME DEFEAT TO ATALANTA. Whatever hopes they had of getting back into the Champions League are dashed now. It’s not just about making up five points into fifth place in the final eight games of the season — it’s needing to leapfrog three different opponents to do so. Treat the next months as an opportunity to regroup and learn from the mistakes that led to the demolition of one of the best teams we saw in Europe last year.