Marcotti’s Musings: Man City’s nightmare weekend on and off the pitch
What a weekend! The Premier League’s top two, Arsenal and Man City, lost, but the bigger news around City was charges against them of breaching financial rules dating back as far as 2009. We also saw more chaos for Liverpool and Real Madrid, big wins for Barcelona and Bayern Munich, and Napoli get closer to a first Serie A title since 1989-90.
– Stream on ESPN+: LaLiga, Bundesliga, more (U.S.)
There was also another disappointing PSG performance, but perhaps the best story was Sebastian Haller finally scoring his first goal for Borussia Dortmund.
It’s Monday, and Gab Marcotti reacts to the biggest moments in the world of football.
A nightmare 24 hours for Man City: Defeat at Spurs and Premier League FFP charge
On Sunday, Manchester City lost 1-0 away to Tottenham, a result that meant they could not take advantage of league-leading Arsenal’s loss to Everton the previous day. More than that, Pep Guardiola made a string of unorthodox choices — leaving out Kevin De Bruyne, profoundly changing the formation, only sending on Ilkay Gundogan minutes from the end — and Erling Haaland somehow recorded zero shots on goal and zero touches in the opposition box, a first since his arrival in Manchester.
– Man City charged for FFP breaches over nine years
Guardiola was probably bracing himself for the usual overthinking accusations, which routinely dog him when he changes things up and it doesn’t work, when the Premier League announced Monday it was charging the club with more than 100 breaches of financial rules dating back to 2009. If found guilty, they could face a range of punishments, including fines, points deductions and even relegation.
We’ll get to Sunday’s performance in a minute, but it’s worth remembering that the charges bring to an end a four-year investigation that was prompted by allegations printed in the German magazine Der Spiegel, which published emails and documents obtained by the Portuguese hacker Rui Pinto. (For those unfamiliar with the story, Pinto’s “Football Leaks” operation disclosed thousands of documents, including those related to Cristiano Ronaldo and the Kathryn Mayorga case, details of Paul Pogba‘s transfer to Manchester United and Gareth Bale‘s salary.)
UEFA focused on the allegations that City’s majority owners, the Abu Dhabi United Group, were illegally pumping money into the club using sponsorship deals with related companies. They were fined and banned from European football for two years, only for the Court of Arbitration for Sport to find that some of the allegations were not proved and some were beyond the statute of limitations. (CAS did issue City a record fine for obstructing the investigation.) The Premier League, however, has no statute of limitations, and its investigation had been hanging over the club for four years.
City hadn’t been given a chance to clear their name. Now, they do have that chance, which may explain why they say they “welcome the review” and “look forward to this matter being put to rest once and for all.”
An independent commission will take the case and because these matters are confidential and they tend not to leak, we’ll need to wait for the outcome. You can read the CAS judgement yourself and make your own guesses as to which way this will go — bearing in mind that, unlike with UEFA’s rules, infractions are not time-barred under Premier League regulations.
What is important here is that any outcome needs to be transparent, easy to understand and, above all, credible, both to supporters and to other owners. Especially now that there are two major clubs like Manchester United and Liverpool up for sale, it’s critical that the Premier League be seen as an ecosystem where the rule of law prevails. And if City are found not to have violated the rules, it needs to be clear as to why they’re not guilty.
Explaining the Premier League’s charges against Manchester City
Rob Dawson explains how no punishment is out of the question for Manchester City after they were charged by the Premier League for breaking financial rules.
Back to events on the pitch. City have not turned in a convincing 90-minute performance against an opponent in the top half of the league for more than a month now. Guardiola has a ton of credit in the bank, and you’re not going to bet against him turning it around. And lest we forget, City control their own destiny, with two games against Arsenal remaining. Yet between the jettisoning of Joao Cancelo to Bayern Munich, the ineffectiveness and lack of service for Erling Haaland in a big game like this and some of the curious personnel choices, it feels like there’s a lot of work to be one under the hood.
As for Tottenham, they were without Antonio Conte, who was recovering from gallbladder surgery back home in Italy. He wanted to be at Sunday’s game, but doctors vetoed it. (To be honest, I imagine that for a guy like him, in terms of stress, watching the game at home hundreds of miles away probably was no less restful than if he had been on the bench.)
Michallik: Few players in history score goals like Kane
Janusz Michallik explains what makes Harry Kane so good, as he becomes Spurs’ all-time top scorer.
Still, his assistant, Cristian Stellini, channeled his inner Conte and delivered the sort of performance of which he would have been proud. Harry Kane‘s goal may have been a gift, but the way they defended — high and with both intensity and intelligent — was straight out of the best pages in Conte’s playbook. It’s quite a turnaround from other recent performances, where they found themselves sitting deep and relying on improbable counterattacks.
Bear in mind, too, that this performance comes at a time rife with uncertainty over the future of Conte (who is out of contract in June) and director of football Fabio Paratici (who is appealing his ban for events while at Juventus). City may have done their part to make life easier for Spurs, but make no mistake about it: They fully deserved these three points.
Milan go safety first and pay a heavy price in the derby
Remember the apocryphal quote attributed to Albert Einstein? “The definition of insanity is doing the same things over and over again and expecting different results?” It may be true, but it’s also true that if you do things a certain way for a long time and enjoy success, doing a handbrake turn and doing things entirely differently all of a sudden can be pretty insane too.
Yet that’s what Stefano Pioli had his Milan team do in this weekend’s derby.
Pioli had built his success — and last season’s title — on an aggressive, high-energy, proactive style. It wasn’t working of late as they hadn’t won a game since Jan. 4, so he shifted to a 5-3-2 formation that mirrored Inter’s lineup and sat deep, perhaps looking to hit on the break. Ismael Bennacer‘s absence in midfield was a big blow, sure, but Rafael Leao’s absence (he played, ahem, Divock Origi instead) was a purely self-inflicted wound.
Milan played scared, played for the draw and played really, really poorly. The fact that their Expected Goals through 58 minutes was 0.0 tells you all you need to know. Things picked up a little by the time he sent on Leao and Alexis Saelemaekers near the hour mark, but the damage had been done as Inter were a goal up and could — and should — have scored more.
If Milan are going to get out of their rut, it’s not going to be by reinventing the wheel and playing a totally different brand of football midway through the season. It’s going to be by doing what got them there, only doing it better.
As for Inter, this was an excellent performance and the side looks sharp and fit, just as two key guys like Romelu Lukaku and Marcelo Brozovic look ready to return as starters. If you’re going to nit-pick, they should have put the game to bed sooner: better control from Olivier Giroud and Milan might have equalised, a chance created by — who else? — Leao. But the run of form is excellent and second place looks consolidated heading into the Champions League.
Real Madrid fall at Mallorca to freak own goal, and Vinicius is targeted (again)
Why Vinicius Jr. is so important to Real Madrid right now
Alejandro Moreno and Shaka Hislop discuss Vinicius Jr.’s performance vs. Mallorca.
Mallorca away was going to be one of those games where you either score early and often, or you’re put through the wringer by a tough, physical defensive-minded side.
It turned out to be the latter for Real Madrid. Despite 20 shots on goal (and winning the xG battle 1.76 to 0.15), a freak own goal by Nacho meant they lost 1-0. With Barcelona winning later in the day, the gap is now eight points at the top in LaLiga, and that’s significant.
I’ve mentioned the club’s lack of depth, and it was telling in this match. They had no Karim Benzema, no Thibaut Courtois, no Eder Militao or Toni Kroos, while Luka Modric and David Alaba were only fit enough for the bench. It translated to a lack of incisiveness on the pitch.
Vinicius was fouled no fewer than 10 times, and when your game is based so much on athleticism, that is bound to take its toll. Marco Asensio missed a penalty, Fede Valverde continued with his subpar season and Dani Ceballos? Well, he had a Dani Ceballos performance.
Madrid probably still did enough to win, but when you predicate things on fine margins, matters can go against you very quickly. It feels like a lost opportunity if, in early February, they’re already forced to focus on defending the Champions League.
Between now and the international break in six weeks’ time, the title will likely be decided. There’s a Madrid derby, a Clasico and tricky away trips to Betis and Osasuna as well as a couple of “gimmes” — on paper, anyway — against Elche and Espanyol. It’s time for folks to step up.
Klopp at a loss as Liverpool stumble again
Nicol: Liverpool players need to step up
Steve Nicol reacts to Liverpool’s 3-0 defeat at the hands of Wolverhapton at the Molineux Stadium.
If you exclude the FA Cup replay against Wolves, in which they were outshot and out-possessed by the opposition, Liverpool have not won since 2022. Saturday’s 3-0 league defeat to Wolves leaves them in 10th place, 11 points from fourth place. On New Year’s Day, they were sixth, four points outside the Champions League spots. This is what you call free-fall.
– ‘Angry’ Klopp can’t explain Liverpool’s issues
– Ratings: Matip, Gomez embarrassing in big defeat
Injuries don’t offer a full alibi, and what’s most disconcerting about this most recent setback is Jurgen Klopp’s dejection postgame. It’s one thing to be honest in your assessment — and they were very poor — but it’s another to come across as negative and dispirited as he did.
The feeling you’re left with is that there are so many things going awry at once that they don’t know where to begin to fix it.
Messi — and not much else — from Paris Saint-Germain or Galtier
The good news for PSG is that even without Kylian Mbappe and Neymar (as was the case against Toulouse), they still have standouts like Lionel Messi (who scored the winner, bringing his seasonal total to 10 in the league alone) and Achraf Hakimi, who was devastating down the flank.
The better news is that even as they fail to impress, the competition keep dropping points: Lens were held to a draw at Brest, while Marseille beaten at home by Nice.
It doesn’t change the fact that this team looks flat, uninspired and lacking cohesion, which may explain why they go a goal down so often and then have to come back. In Christophe Galtier’s defense, you can only do so much work with patterns of play and tactical identity when you have three geniuses like Mbappe, Neymar and Messi up front — in fact, too much instruction is sometimes a bad thing with such gifted individuals. And you can do even less work when one or more of that star trio is routinely missing.
Still, beyond the “MNM,” the rest of the side isn’t looking too sharp, either. And there’s a sense that they’re going through the motions while they wait for the Champions League to start up again.
Three points, but more headaches for Man United and Erik ten Hag
Nicol impressed by Man United’s performance after Casemiro’s red
Steve Nicol reacts to another home win for Manchester United, this time holding out with 10 men to beat Crystal Palace.
Erik ten Hag should have probably been kicking back and relaxing after a weekend that saw his team defeat Crystal Palace 2-1, make up ground on Arsenal and Manchester City ahead of them, and extend the gap over Newcastle United in fourth.
For more than an hour, they looked sharp and in control, despite the absence of the injured Christian Eriksen. And then came Casemiro‘s red card.
– Man United hang on to beat Palace as Rashford’s run continues
– VAR Review: Should Casemiro have been sent off?
Taken in isolation, his grab of Will Hughes‘ throat may or may not have warranted dismissal: It rather depends on the camera angle. But when you consider he was first to the scene of the melee, well, you expect more for a guy with his experience, especially when he had been close to flawless thus far.
With Scott McTominay‘s injury concerns and Eriksen out, Marcel Sabitzer will likely be thrown in at the deep end for the next few games, leaving Ten Hag with little margin for error. And if that wasn’t enough, he still has a Mason Greenwood situation to deal with. Do Manchester United take him back? Do they cancel his contract? How will the dressing room react? What is the reputational impact?
The worst thing United can do is to put the burden of those decisions on Ten Hag. Whatever happened occurred before he was at the club. Let him evaluate the situation and offer input, of course. But don’t burden any further, because this goes well beyond football.
Bayern Munich make life difficult for themselves, but grab big away win at Wolfsburg
Why Bayern Munich’s win over Wolfsburg was ‘the Bayern Way’
Jan Aage Fjortoft discusses Bayern Munich’s 4-2 win over Wolfsburg in the Bundesliga.
It’s probably a sign of the turbulent times surrounding the club — Manuel Neuer, Toni Tapalovic, three straight league draws, Sadio Mane‘s absence — that Bayern found a way to complicate things despite going 3-0 up inside 20 minutes against Wolfsburg.
Confidence evidently is a thing and while the old Bayern would have managed the game effectively, perhaps adding to the total, this one had an almighty wobble, with Jakub Kaminski pulling one back before half-time and Joshua Kimmich picking up a second yellow early in the second half. A Jamal Musala wonder goal and a Matthias Svanberg strike towards the end sealed the 4-2 win for Bayern.
The Bavarians are imperfect right now, both at playing out from the back and having the requisite sharpness going forward. They managed just three shots on goal (one of them Musiala’s individual run) in the final 65 minutes of the game (and lest we forget, it was 11 vs. 11 for 30 of those minutes). That said, there are mitigating circumstances.
Kimmich’s second yellow was very harsh, as I see it. Dayot Upamecano may not be everyone’s cup of tea, but you feel his absence when he’s not there. And there were positives, too. Kingsley Coman reminded us what he can do when fit. I may be in the minority, but I have no issue with Thomas Mueller at center-forward, and Musiala is of course a true gem.
There’s stuff to work on, sure, but this is the sort of win that relieves pressure.
The damage has been contained, but is Arsenal’s defeat at Everton a one-off?
Burley: This was a below par Arsenal performance
Craig Burley reacts to Arsenal’s surprising defeat at Goodison Park as Sean Dyche marks his debut as Everton manager with a big win.
There’s an easy, stock explanation for Arsenal’s 1-0 defeat away at Goodison Park. The home side wanted and needed it more, new manager Sean Dyche had done his customary chest-beating, Arsenal were due an off day and Everton’s physicality and intensity made all the difference. Oh, and in the end, the difference was an individual mistake.
Maybe that’s why Mikel Arteta said he loves his players “even more” after that defeat. Outwardly he can say stuff like that and of course, City’s defeat the following day means there is no lasting damage; on the contrary, they’re one step closer to the goal-line. But it’s critical now to do a proper postmortem and decide whether this really was a one-off, or whether opponents have been shown a blueprint to knock Arsenal off their stride.
You imagine that figuring this out is exactly what Arteta and his staff are doing right about now.
Osimhen stars again as Napoli keep flying in Serie A
The goals may have come after the break, but Napoli looked more than convincing in their 3-0 away win at Spezia. They have now won 16 of their last 17 Serie A games and their league lead stands at 13 points with 17 matches to go. Once the lead is greater than the remaining games, you can start putting the champagne on ice… and they’re almost there.
Victor Osimhen bagged two goals — one a tap-in, the other after a prodigious leap — but it was his actions before the game that stole the show. As Napoli were warming up, one of his errant shots hit a girl in the stands. Osimhen rushed over, hurdled the barrier and went to console her and apologize.
Little things like that — as well as the mask he continues to wear — only add to his mystique.
Dortmund rampant vs. 10-man Freiburg as Haller scores debut goal
Sometimes, more than one thing can be true.
Kiliann Sildillia’s red card inside 20 minutes made life that much easier for Borussia Dortmund at home to Freiburg and at 11 vs. 11, they probably wouldn’t have scored five times. At the same time, had it not been for Karim Adeyemi‘s standout performance out wide, Sildillia might not have been lured into bad challenges. And it doesn’t change the fact that this was a convincing and professional performance — the sort you build on, especially with some of the injured players (Mahmoud Dahoud and Marco Reus spring to mind) coming back.
– Watch: Haller’s first Dortmund goal (U.S. only)
There was plenty of emotion among the goal scorers, too. There was the aforementioned Adeyemi, who has now scored in back-to-back games after failing to find the net in the league since his arrival last summer. Sebastian Haller notched his first goal for the club since returning from his battle with testicular cancer. Nico Schlotterbeck scored against his old club and Gio Reyna now has three goals in his last three appearances, all of them off the bench.
It’s up to Edin Terzic to channel all of this into points.
Sevilla implode, and patient Barcelona reap the rewards
How Barcelona is finding ways to win
Alejandro Moreno discusses how Barcelona are pulling out wins, even if they aren’t playing very well.
Games, let alone ones that finish 3-0, aren’t decided by single coaching decisions. But Jorge Sampaoli’s half-time brainwave — remove center-forward Youssef En-Nesyri and play 34-year-old Ivan Rakitic up front as some kind of false (more like imaginary) nine — ranks right up there.
Until half-time, his decision to sit in a deep 5-4-1 formation was yielding dividends. Barcelona were struggling to find a way through and other than a couple of long-range efforts, rarely came knocking. It wasn’t a defensive master-class from the visitors, but it did confirm the old maxim: if you put a bunch of live humans in front of your goal, it’s far harder for the opposition to score.
Then came the Rakitic move. All of a sudden, Sevilla had no forward outlet for the ball, which meant Barca could squeeze them even more. Franck Kessie, who came on early for the injured Sergio Busquets, showed some nifty footwork to set up Jordi Alba for the opener. Sevilla’s defence went all Keystone Kops for Gavi‘s second and Raphinha added a third.
Barca weren’t irresistible — Ousmane Dembele‘s absence weighs heavily, especially in the new-look 4-4-2 and Raphinha’s one-footedness, despite his goal and assist, makes them more predictable — but they were patient and gritty. And, of course, Sampaoli did the rest…
Newcastle have one win in five, but maybe it’s not worth worrying too much
You could get all doom and gloom about Newcastle United’s 1-1 draw with West Ham. Nick Pope conceded a goal for the first time since November. Bruno Guimaraes‘ absence through suspension (and he has another two to go) left a gaping hole in the middle of the park. And they’ve won just one of their last five leagues games, with Tottenham a single point behind them in fifth.
Or you could — and probably should — see the glass as half-full. Their expected goals are solid: the Arsenal game was the only one in which they xG was lower than the opposition (by 0.06) in their last seven outings. They had important midweek football the last two weeks (yes, the League Cup is important to them) and their opponents did not. And while I’m not the biggest Anthony Gordon fan out there, the new signing from Everton looked sharp and motivated.
As for the gap with Spurs, don’t forget: Newcastle have a game in hand. Yes, it may well go down to the wire for a top four finish, but this team is well ahead of schedule.
No joy for unlucky Atletico against Getafe as they get ‘Lahoz’d’
Atletico Madrid were looking to make it three wins on the spin at home to relegation-threatened Getafe. For most of the game, it looked as if it was on their way, even though they had to wait until the hour mark for the breakthrough. When it did come, VAR played its part, with the linesman initially deeming Angel Correa offside after slamming the ball home from a rebound. This led to a VAR check and, at least in my memory, a first: the sight of Correa, who was substituted immediately after his shot, celebrating on the substitutes’ bench.
Except late on, referee Antonio Mateu Lahoz, who can’t help but make headlines, awarded a penalty for Saul’s handball, and Enes Unal converted from the spot. At a minimum, it was harsh given that Saul’s back was turned. The only good news on the day is that the teams around them — Real Sociedad, Betis and Villarreal — all lost, but dropping two points like that has to smart.