Gab Marcotti is here to recap another busy, dramatic weekend in soccer. Welcome to Monday Musings.
Jump to: North London derby lessons | Juve, Napoli show flaws | Barca drop points | Lukaku abused | Man United's transition | Bale back for Real? | Dortmund's wake-up call | Salah, Mane drama? | Super Simeone and Atletico| Rome derby a fun one | Trouble for Lampard? | Big statement by Bayern | And finally... Bas Dost
Derby lessons: Arsenal, Spurs miles off the pace
What struck you most about the North London Derby was how ragged and stretched these two teams became in the second half. When the distance between the back line and the attackers expands like it did on Sunday, it's usually the result of a tactical breakdown. You could chalk some of it up to fatigue, I guess, but it's not what you expect from coaches like Mauricio Pochettino and Unai Emery. The former has had plenty of time to build a side with a distinct tactical identity, while the latter is in his second season and has a reputation as a tactical savant.
The result was a 2-2 draw that left little doubt that these two teams aren't where their managers want them to be. Tottenham in particular look a shadow of themselves not just tactically, but physically as well: maybe it's the result of the summer training regimen, which is notoriously taxing under Pochettino but yields dividends later. At least Jan Vertonghen and Christian Eriksen seem to be off the naughty step, Dele Alli is close to full fitness and, when Tanguy Ndombele returns, there will be more options.
Pochettino put a rather more positive spin on it -- "I am so optimistic that we have the quality to build again" he said, adding that "the good feelings" had returned -- but you wonder how much of that was "managerspeak." It's going to take more to convince most that Spurs have turned the corner.
As for Emery, he praised his team's hard work to get a point after being 2-0 down at home, while also complaining about their tactical foibles in the first half. You wonder, though, what his game plan was to begin with. Going with a 4-3-3 formation while leaving out Dani Ceballos at home is a statement that screams: "we're going to sit and counter," which is fine even if a bit humdrum. But if you're going to do that, at least do it well.
The biggest concern, though, has to be down the spine. In midfield, for the bright spot that was Matteo Guendouzi, there was the nasty blot that was Granit Xhaka. And at the back, David Luiz had one of those "switch-off" games, while Sokratis Papastathopoulos was at fault for the first goal.
Was it a one-off? Do we expect these two thirty-somethings to markedly improve at the season wears on? And if they don't, are we comfortable with Rob Holding (who hasn't played since 2018), Calum Chambers (who mostly played midfield last year) and Shkodran Mustafi (who is, well, Shkodran Mustafi) to step up?
Nope, me neither.
This was the season many hoped the North London clubs would close the gap on Liverpool and Manchester City. Instead, the chasm still looks huge.
Juventus, Napoli flaws exposed in seven-goal thriller
Lukaku subjected to racist chants at Cagliari
ESPN FC's Gab Marcotti discusses the actions that need to be taken after Inter Milan's Romelu Lukaku was subjected to racist chants at Cagliari.
For a minute, Carlo Ancelotti must have been thinking he was living his own personal Istanbul, only in reverse. His side were 3-0 down away to Juventus and stormed back to equalize. (OK, nitpickers: I know the difference as I was there. Liverpool's turnaround took six minutes, this one took 15, but still ...) And then, deep in injury time, Kalidou Koulibaly sliced a clearance into the back of the net in the cruelest twist to give Juve a 4-3 win.
For the neutral, it was captivating. For the two clubs, a sign that there is still work to do.
Ancelotti questioned the defensive mistakes -- not so much Koulibaly's own goal, but what came before -- and why his team "only started playing in the second half." He has a point, although sending on Hirving "Chucky" Lozano and Mario Rui at half-time undoubtedly rattled Juve and illustrates the range of attacking options at his disposal: it's up to him to find the right mix in the right game.
- Horncastle: Juve, Napoli show Serie A is wide open
Juventus didn't look much like a Maurizio Sarri team -- possibly because his illness means he hasn't taken training in several weeks and watched from a luxury box -- but rather, for more than an hour, like a version of last season's. They were stout defensively and devastating on the break, with plenty individual quality. Then came the collapse, and while fingers will be pointed at Matthijs De Ligt, it's worth remembering the obvious. He only turned 20 last month -- at his age Leo Bonucci had played a single minute of league football and Giorgio Chiellini had yet to make his debut in Serie A and both turned out OK -- and he's dealing with massive changes like a new league, a new language and a new culture.
Plus, with all due respect to the Eredivisie, you can probably count on two hands the number of opponents of Napoli's quality that he has faced, and that includes Champions League and internationals. That said, De Ligt is a very different player from the injured Chiellini: for all his skills, he lacks the freakish athleticism that can help a young player paper over tactical cracks. Juventus will need to make adjustments while he develops.
Beyond that, there were plenty of positives for both managers to focus on. Gonzalo Higuain may not last 90 minutes, but he looked sharp and motivated and poised for a comeback season. The formation switch -- 4-3-3 when attacking, 4-4-2, with Douglas Costa sliding into midfield and Blaise Matuidi going wide -- also worked relatively well and might be the answer to carrying Cristiano Ronaldo and Higuain in a Sarri system. Napoli showed tons of personality and Fabian Ruiz, again, showed his quality and leadership, while Alex Meret made some key saves.
There's plenty more to work on -- Juve could use more width, Napoli's center-backs need to get back to where we expect them to be -- but the foundations are there.
Barcelona drop points amid Neymar drama
Man United's 'lack of superstars' a cause for concern
Steve Nicol explains how much blame should be placed on Ole Gunnar Solskjaer after winning only one league game in the last nine.
Lionel Messi and Luis Suarez will supposedly return after the international break. When they do, they'll find a Barcelona side five points off the pace in La Liga after the weekend's 1-1 draw with Osasuna. Not much to cheer then, apart from the contributions of homegrown youngsters Carles Perez and, in particular, 16-year-old Ansu Fati, who came on and became the third-youngest goal scorer in the history of La Liga.
Much of the past week has been marked by Barcelona's pursuit of Neymar. As I said before, this never felt like a football move (they already have Messi, Suarez and Antoine Griezmann up front) or, indeed, a rational one (Barca aren't a bottomless pit of cash, and Neymar breaks the bank wherever he goes). Now, I'm wondering if it was ever real.
The rumour going around Monaco at the Champions League draw was that it more a case of Barca wanting to appear to be doing something in order to appease somebody. (Who? Fans? Media? Messi? Who the heck knows?)
The fact that PSG say they only received the first written offer on August 27 and that the only way this deal would ever get done was as a player-plus-cash swap, which is always complicated and time-consuming and suggests this was never the cards. And maybe both clubs knew it all along.
Cagliari, Italy must step up against racial abuse
Bale 'out to prove Zidane wrong' this season
Paul Mariner and Craig Burley assess Gareth Bale's start to the season after he helped Real Madrid salvage a draw with his two goals at Villarreal.
It happened again at Cagliari. You'd rather talk about Inter's 2-1, victory but the actions of the few imbeciles who racially abused Romelu Lukaku make it tough to do, especially since a whole string of players of color have been abused there, most recently Moise Kean and Blaise Matuidi.
Lukaku, to his credit, called for unity on Monday among players against this issue and there will be, rightly, calls for the authorities to act. But this illustrates neatly what the problem is and what Cagliari -- both club and fans -- can and must do right now. It's not just about apologising and condemning; it's about identifying (name and shame, let's see what their families/employers think about this) those responsible and making it clear they're not welcome at their ground. That applies to the supporters in the Curva Nord who heard the abuse and the stewards in that area of the ground.
The former ought to be encouraged to step forward (yes, there are cameras and microphones, but eyewitness accounts -- even relayed anonymously -- go a whole lot further in getting things done), the latter ought to be told to do their jobs.
Expect a long, difficult season for Man United
Nicol: Mane-Salah incident 'nothing new'
ESPN FC's Steve Nicol thinks Sadio Mane's temper tantrum is "the reason Liverpool are so good."
Ole Gunnar Solskjaer felt Manchester United "should have won" instead of drawing 1-1 with Southampton, blaming the fact they did not on "finishing" and "final passes." To each his own. I'd be more concerned about how extraordinarily one-dimensional they look. It's true that you can have success by doing the same thing over and over if you do it extraordinarily well; it's just that much harder.
With Alexis Sanchez, Matteo Darmian and Chris Smalling leaving this past week, the first team is down to 25 outfield players. It sounds like a lot until you consider that six of them are relatively untested youngsters, another two (Marcos Rojo and Eric Bailly are long-term injury absentees) and another is Phil Jones.
It's obvious that this will be a long transition season with more players leaving by attrition: Juan Mata, Nemanja Matic and Ashley Young aren't getting any younger. The question is: transition to what? And should worse come to worse -- say, a mid-table finish -- will they stick with it or embark on their umpteenth change of direction?
Is Bale a key player again for Real?
Nicol: Pulisic was industrious, but inconsistent
Steve Nicol still feels Christian Pulisic has plenty to improve upon, along with the rest of Frank Lampard's youthful Chelsea side.
Right now, it feels as if Zinedine Zidane is simply throwing things at the wall and seeing what sticks. The 2-2 draw at Villarreal saw him again switch systems and personnel (4-4-2, with Gareth Bale and Lucas Vazquez out wide) and we caught our first glimpse of the Karim Benzema-Luka Jovic partnership. But while they had plenty of possession, there were also jitters -- and downright howlers, like Sergio Ramos' blunder -- at the back and often chaos up front.
Bale's two goals were his first in the league since March, although he rather put a dampener on his night by picking up two yellows in injury time. Does it mean he cares and isn't actually just interested in playing golf? I'll let others psychoanalyse him, since it seems to be a favorite leisure pursuit in and around Madrid.
Meanwhile though, you wonder how clear Zidane's thinking is, particularly vis-a-vis Bale, given he spent the summer pushing him out the door only to then start him in every game this season. You hope things will come into focus after the break, when Eden Hazard finally returns.
Dortmund aren't winning titles like this
Let Borussia Dortmund's 3-1 bloody nose away to Union Berlin serve as a wake-up call. This was a horrid performance that can't be explained away by the enthusiasm of playing away to a newly promoted club.
The summer spending, coupled with Bayern's rebuild, had many thinking it could be Dortmund's season. But that's not going to happen with performances like this.
No worry about Mane, Salah drama
I like the fact that even winning 3-0 away to Burnley, Sadio Mane got angry that Mohamed Salah didn't pass him the ball, despite that you'd imagine he'd be used to the Egyptian's foibles after two years together. You want to see players holding teammates to account and putting the team first.
I'm not sure it's greed on Salah's part as much as it is tunnel vision in the final third. It's something he's had his entire career -- and, possibly, what hurt his finishing early on -- and it has long frustrated managers and teammates. Klopp has done a bang-up job of papering over it, but the reality may be very simple: with Salah you just have to take the good with the bad.
And as long as the former far outweighs the latter, you'll put up with it.
Simeone's magic working on new Atletico
The only perfect side in La Liga are Atletico Madrid. And while they had to huff and puff to come back from two goals down to win 3-2 against Eibar, they're not just getting results, they've evolved and are more multifaceted (read: less "Cholistas") than before.
I said on the FC TV show and I'll say it again. When you consider the upheaval this summer with the departures of Griezmann, Rodri and, of course, Diego Godin, if they do win La Liga, they might as well rename their ground "Cholo" Metropolitano.
Whether it's the reinvention of Thomas Lemar, the faith in Joao Felix, the fact that Mario Hermoso looks like he's been there for five years or the belief in Renan Lodi's front-foot style, there is little question that Diego Simeone is earning his bacon this year.
Rome derby a real thrill ride
So much for the old trope whereby derbies are hard-fought, tight, fingernail-chewing affairs. Lazio and Roma finished 1-1, hitting the woodwork no fewer than six times between them and putting on a pulsating show.
Lazio look more like a team right now, which is what you expect given that this is Simone Inzaghi's fourth season and they made very few changes over the summer. Paulo Fonseca's side is a work in progress and they are going right down to the wire in the transfer market: Nikola Kalinic and Smalling arrived last week and Henrikh Mkhitaryan is his way. There's more to come from both.
Lampard's trust in youth leads to Chelsea draw
I'm all for giving youngsters a chance, but there's a time and a place. On Saturday, Chelsea were 2-0 up at half-time and flying at home to Sheffield United. They conceded a goal immediately after the break and suffered through most of the second half. With six minutes to go, Frank Lampard replaced Mateo Kovacic with Billy Gilmour, an 18-year-old midfielder making his debut.
Gilmour wasn't great, but he wasn't the reason Chelsea gave up the equalizer (you can blame successive mistakes from veterans for that) but those are far from ideal conditions in which to make your debut. You assume Lampard knows him best and that the kid has the personality and guts to bounce back, but what Lampard's choice shows most of all is that he feels zero pressure to do things according to conventional wisdom. This may or may not be a good thing.
A big statement by Bayern
Bayern got just what they wanted in their 6-1 walloping of Mainz. Ivan Perisic and Philippe Coutinho made their debuts in the starting XI, Robert Lewandowski scored again (what's new?) and even the much-maligned Alphonso Davies got on the score sheet.
You can't read too much into it because Mainz are awful and Robert Kovac was clearly shuffling his deck. But six different goal scorers feels good ...
Bas Dost came on at half-time and scored on his debut for Eintracht Frankfurt in their 2-1 home win over Fortuna Dusseldorf, leaving them fifth in the table. With one goal every 45 minutes, he's on pace to score 63 goals this season.
This concludes the latest instalment of #BasDostWatch.