James’ harsh handball at Liverpool-Chelsea; Messi’s PSG debut; Man United struggle before Ronaldo’s return

This weekend saw Lionel Messi play for a new club (weird), Manchester United flatter to deceive (not weird), Juventus struggle without the United-bound Cristiano Ronaldo (not his fault) and Arsenal learn more humbling lessons, this time against Manchester City. (We expected that, right?) There were big wins for Barcelona, Real Madrid and Milan, a big controversy at Liverpool vs. Chelsea, and a ton of fun from an unlikely source: Jose Mourinho’s Roma.

ESPN+ viewers’ guide: LaLiga, Bundesliga, MLS, FA Cup, more
Stream ESPN FC Daily on ESPN+ (U.S. only)
– Don’t have ESPN? Get instant access

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

Jump to: VAR drama for Liverpool-Chelsea | Messi’s PSG debut | Man United woe | Depay lifts Barca again | Juve look awful | Musiala magic for Bayern | Arteta humbled | Real Madrid’s better defense | Giroud dazzles in Milan | Tottenham are top! | Atletico play well, get lucky | Mourinho’s Roma are fun so far


i 769i 770Liverpool on their way back, but Chelsea have the answers

It looked like the Liverpool of old at times. Anfield roaring, Trent Alexander-Arnold creating, Mohamed Salah scything, Fabinho directing and Virgil van Dijk leading. And by old, I mean their title-winning season of 2019-20. Last year, Van Dijk was injured, Alexander-Arnold was tailing off, Fabinho was (mostly) at the back and Salah, while prolific, didn’t always have the support he needed. Oh, and Anfield was empty due to the pandemic.

We didn’t quite hit those heights — Jurgen Klopp himself said they weren’t as sharp as he’d like them to be — but we did get a ton of intelligent intensity. That it wasn’t enough to bring home the three points, even while playing with a man advantage in the second half, has more to do with Chelsea’s quality and Thomas Tuchel’s defensive set-up than it does with Klopp’s view that it’s harder to play against 10 men. (Statistics kinda show the opposite, especially when you get the man advantage in the first half.)

I thought both teams played well in their 1-1 draw, though maybe Liverpool can improve on the sharpness Klopp referenced and Chelsea will rue some of the chances missed in the first half. The talking point will inevitably be Reece James‘ handball, penalty and red card.

There are two parts to this. One is whether it was a handball. Consensus seems to be that it was, based on the fact that James’ arm moves to the ball and it’s away from his body, making the player’s silhouette bigger. Or, as the Laws of the Game state (in rather clunky language): “the hand/arm has made their body unnaturally bigger.”

I’m not so sure because, on the flip-side, the shot comes in from a very close distance, it ricochets off his leg and the movement of his arm comes after the rebound. These are all things referees have to consider when deciding what makes for an “unnaturally bigger” body, yet the match official, Anthony Taylor, took just 13 seconds to make his decision and, according to Thomas Tuchel, didn’t rewatch the incident at normal speed. That’s the sort of thing that leaves me non-plussed. You’d expect, in these situations, the VAR to walk him through the replays.

– Ogden: Liverpool, Chelsea show title credentials

The other part is whether he was right to give both the penalty and the red card. It feels harsh — and Klopp himself felt it was too. After all, this wasn’t Luis Suarez against Ghana at the 2010 World Cup. But as the rules stand, once you deny a goal-scoring opportunity via handball (as opposed to, say, an unintentional foul in the penalty area, a rule that was changed a few years back to eliminate the so-called “triple punishment) you have to also send the player off. And in that, Taylor had no choice.

The game leaves the neutral observer with a sense that both these sides look like title contenders and, what’s more, both will get better. Chelsea are close to securing Sevilla centre-back Jules Kounde to add depth to the back line, while Liverpool will lose some of their ring rust.

i 771Messi debuts for PSG as Mbappe scores twice

play

0:49

Julien Laurens recaps Lionel Messi’s PSG debut after he made his first appearance from the bench vs. Reims.

You knew it was going to feel weird, and it did. For the first time in his professional career, Lionel Messi turned out in a jersey other than Barcelona’s or the Argentine national team’s. Counting injury time, it lasted about half an hour and it still felt odd, like some weird superhero crossover comic book.

He may or may not be fully match-fit, but the pace of the game suited him and we saw the usual array of feints, dribbles and sudden accelerations. In time, it will no doubt become more familiar. You did already get a sense of the different physicality in Ligue 1 relative to LaLiga, with Messi getting the rough (not dirty, just rough) treatment on more than one occasion.

– Weekend Review: Messi’s PSG debut outdone by Mbappe

In the end, two Kylian Mbappe goals gave PSG a 2-0 win and if you only judged the French striker’s demeanour and behaviour, you would have no clue that he’d been at the heart of a potential €180 million move to Real Madrid for the past week. Mbappe looked unflappable while Achraf Hakimi, who served up his first goal, looked lethal.

The window is still open as I write this, and we’ve learned never to say never. You assume that Real Madrid have been working on this all summer long and the personal terms of his contract are agreed. If that’s true, then if PSG agree to a deal — and thus far, they said they won’t — this can get done very quickly, in time for Tuesday night’s deadline.

play

1:11

Craig Burley discusses why PSG wants to see Kylian Mbappe, Neymar and Lionel Messi play together before making a decision on Mbappe’s future.

I don’t expect it to happen party because of PSG’s insistence that it won’t, but mostly because it wouldn’t make sense for Real Madrid when they can get him to commit to a pre-contract agreement for next season on January 1 and land him on a free transfer. And every penny that would go towards his transfer fee is a penny that Mbappe won’t be getting in wages as well as, perhaps more importantly, a penny that can’t be used to strengthen Real Madrid further by putting more quality players around him.

But hey, take it with a pinch of salt. I didn’t expect Messi to be leaving Barcelona for PSG either and even after watching him with that No.30 PSG shirt on Sunday night, I still wonder whether it actually happened.

i 772Three points for Man United, but little to impress Cristiano

Cristiano Ronaldo wasn’t at Molineux on Sunday for the visit of Manchester United, though a life-sized cardboard cutout of their new signing was spotted among the crowd. That two-dimensional cardboard cutout Cristiano contributed only marginally less than some of his new teammates.

– Marcotti: How Ronaldo shocked the soccer world
Ronaldo agrees to return to Man United

That’s how poor United’s performance was against Bruno Lage’s Wolves, who forced several good saves (one of them otherworldly) from David De Gea, while conceding very little at the other end. Very little, that is, apart from Mason Greenwood‘s goal, which ultimately sent the three points the other way (and which might have been disallowed if the referee had called a foul on Paul Pogba for his tackle on Ruben Neves in the build-up).

play

0:53

Mark Ogden explains how Cristiano Ronaldo ended up rejoining Manchester United instead of signing for Man City.

We saw United in a 4-2-3-1 and on paper, this is how you expect them to line up, with Ronaldo at either center-forward or on the left wing. You imagine that Bruno Fernandes is a lock to start, so that would leave Marcus Rashford (when fit), Jadon Sancho, Mason Greenwood, Edinson Cavani and Anthony Martial (what the heck, and Daniel James, too) competing for the final two slots.

– Ronaldo back at Man United: How social media reacted
– Ogden: Ronaldo talk dominates United’s win at Wolves
– Man United ratings: Greenwood the hero

The benefit of this set-up is that it allows for a front four to accommodate as many of United’s attacking players as possible, and it leaves a spot in the “hole” for Bruno Fernandes. The downside is that it pushes Pogba into a deeper role in a two, a role that has worked for him for France, but less so at United.

If you go with a 4-3-3 — or, as Ole Gunnar Solskajer had been doing, stick Pogba wide in the 4-2-3-1 — you cannibalize one of your front spots and leave out another gifted attacking player. Plus it means you have two find two reliable central midfielders out of Nemanja Matic, Scott McTominay and Fred (who was very poor against Wolves) and, as we’ve seen, that’s a big ask.

The other option would be a front two. It would also likely suit Ronaldo best — roughly 90 percent of his minutes last season were played as part of a striking duo — and it would give United a pacy threat behind, which Ronaldo obviously won’t offer. But that means either going with a 4-4-2 (and dropping Bruno Fernandes) or adopting a diamond in midfield, which looks difficult (and also becomes a problem when you have Aaron Wan-Bissaka at full-back).

There’s no question Ronaldo makes United a better side. Equally though, finding the right lineup and way to use him represents a conundrum, to be sure — one Solskjaer will have to solve in the glare of publicity and second-guesses.

i 773Memphis and little else for Barcelona

play

1:35

Alejandro Moreno discusses the importance of Antoine Griezmann if Barcelona want to be successful this season.

It used to be that when a team like Getafe visited and Barcelona scored after two minutes, the rest of the game would be all downhill. They’d keep the ball, make the pitch big, pick their spots and either asphyxiate you through possession, or bombard your goal with shots whenever you tried to close the gap. (Or, often, both.)

But you-know-who is gone, and everything feels more difficult. So despite the early lead against Getafe (who, these days, are far more attacking under Michel than they were under Jose Bordalas), this game turned into a real struggle. Getafe notched the equaliser and then it was Memphis Depay — the full complement of shimmies and stopovers before a dead-eye finish — who restored the lead.

– Barcelona ratings: Depay not at his best, but good enough

That was all in the first half-hour, and Koeman will hope that the rest of the game isn’t a foreshadowing of the rest of Barcelona’s campaign. Antoine Griezmann and Martin Braithwaite offered little to support Depay, while the midfield were matched by Getafe’s and at times struggled the keep the ball effectively.

Koeman will also be hoping that things improve with the return of Ansu Fati and Ousmane Dembele. After all, you don’t want to swap Messi-dependency for Memphis-dependency.

i 774Ronaldo leaves and Juventus crumble, but it’s correlation, not causation

play

0:43

Gab Marcotti explains why he is not surprised by Juventus’ poor performance in their 1-0 loss to Empoli.

Juventus turned in one of their worst performances with Max Allegri at the helm in their first game without Cristiano Ronaldo. They lost to newly-promoted Empoli, 1-0 at home, and plenty will be tempted to chalk it up their No. 7 leaving. But pump those brakes: Juve were so poor that Ronaldo might have made a difference in terms of the result, but probably not the performance.

Allegri noted how they looked frenzied and nervous with too many individuals trying to do too much, especially in the second half. It was as if everyone was keen to fill Ronaldo’s big shoes instantly. But that’s only part of the story.

Juve paid a price for what has been their bugbear for the past few seasons: a midfield that creates little and doesn’t build play. Add to that some shocking individual performances from Adrien Rabiot and Rodrigo Bentancur — and Weston McKennie way out of his depth in the holding role — and matters just get worse. It put additional pressure on the back four and, on a day when both Alvaro Morata and Paulo Dybala were off their game, meant there was little in attack either.

The tactical confusion made it seem like anything but an Allegri side: even when his teams are bad, they’re usually cohesive and dull, not frenetic and chaotic. This was so out-of-character we can give him a pass on that and, you hope, things will improve once Manuel Locatelli gains a foothold in the starting XI (the sooner, the better).

So the low-water mark (you hope) has been set. Now it’s time for Allegri to get to work with the rebuild. Moise Kean looks to be on his way back to the club from Everton, and they may make another pick-up before the window closes. Those who said that Ronaldo’s presence stood in the way of a ground-up renovation job no longer have that excuse.

i 775Lewandowski bags a hat-trick, but Musiala steals the show for Bayern

OK, that’s a bit over the top. Robert Lewandowski‘s hat-trick in the 5-0 thumping of Hertha is obviously noteworthy. He has now passed the 300-goal mark and his finest contribution of the game might not have even been a goal, but a dummy in the build-up to Thomas Muller‘s opener. But when you’ve been running at a goal-a-game clip for the past five seasons or so, that’s pedestrian excellence.

Jamal Musiala‘s performance, of course, isn’t quite “man-bites-dog” stuff — we know just how gifted he is — but he looked not just talented, but self-assured and intelligent out there, far beyond his years. (He doesn’t turn 19 until February.) Some see him as the long term heir to Muller; for now, he looks well ahead of Leroy Sane and Kingsley Coman out wide.

Hertha were poor and over-matched, falling prey time and again to Bayern’s press, so you don’t want to get carried away. But defensively, they looked much better with their hybrid back-three/back-four. And the likely arrival of Marcel Sabitzer from RB Leipzig will add some much-needed depth (and give Julian Nagelsmann one of “his guys”).

i 776i 777Man City pummel mistake-ridden Arsenal, but that wasn’t Arteta’s test

play

1:20

Don Hutchison details Arsenal’s recent struggles and questions the club’s decision making that has led to their swift downfall.

It doesn’t take a genius to figure out that Arsenal and Mikel Arteta are in trouble; three straight defeats to open the season will do that. The test will come in the next two games against Norwich and Burnley where, in addition to a result, you’ll be looking for a performance. That said, there are different ways to lose games, and what we saw Saturday from the Gunners was the worst kind.

There was a raft of individual mistakes: from Rob Holding to Calum Chambers to Granit Xhaka‘s needless red card. There was a set-up that looked so unfamiliar that you wondered if it had been tried in training. Sure, the game was over by half-time — this team was never going to bounce back after going three goals and a man down by the break — but even after there was no sign that they were even attempting basic patterns of play against a City side that took their foot off the gas.

– Olley: Arsenal, Arteta implode at Man City

It’s not just results that need to pick up for Arsenal after the international break, it’s performances too. Otherwise this group risks getting swallowed up in a negative spiral, despite Arteta’s words about his players’ “unbreakable spirit” last week.

As for City, Ferran Torres now has seven goals in his last nine Premier League outings, a stat that looks even better if I frame it as seven goals in his last 536 minutes on he pitch. As Pep Guardiola noted, his movement is increasingly like that of a central striker, no matter what he might have played before or at Valencia, the kid is 21.

This isn’t to say that Ronaldo would not have made City a better team and, perhaps most importantly, increased their chances of winning the Champions League (and not just because if Ronaldo is a City player, he won’t be playing against them). But it does serve as a reminder that, hunt for Harry Kane notwithstanding, scoring goals isn’t an issue for this team. And that, when they play like this, Ronaldo’s main contribution would likely have been as an aerial threat (he’s still one of the very best headers of the ball in history) rather than the centre-piece he might yet be at Old Trafford (and certainly was at Juventus).

i 778Ancelotti tightens Real Madrid defensively and they get all three points

play

1:03

Gab Marcotti wonders why Real Madrid would move for Kylian Mbappe now when he could join for free next season.

This is not Carlo Ancelotti’s first rodeo. After Real Madrid’s horror-show against Levante (3-3) last weekend, he knew that similar snafus against Betis risked having a cascade effect. So he fixed things up, giving the kid Miguel his first start of the season at left-back and restoring Dani Carvajal to right-back. Problem solved. After a tight first half, Real Madrid came to the fore after the break and Carvajal himself scored the winner.

True, it came immediately after Juanmi fluffed a gilt-edge breakaway, but if you look beyond incidents to a broader view of performance, that second half represents progress. We got a better sense of what Fede Valverde can do when asked to be more defensive, though we’ll only have a clearer sense of the midfield when Toni Kroos returns. Vinicius Jr. remains in fine form, Eden Hazard less so and Gareth Bale had his moments (though, again, it’s a long season and we’ve seen him fizzle out before).

– Real Madrid ratings: Carvajal, 8/10, saves the day

For now, we’re seeing that this team can do what they did in the last two years of Zinedine Zidane’s tenure, when they didn’t dazzle, but won a LaLiga title and came close to another. Ancelotti will hope to deliver more.

i 779Giroud powers a deeper Milan side in Ibra’s absence

The joke was that Zlatan Ibrahimovic, watching from the sidelines, might have gotten that little bit worried seeing Olivier Giroud lead the line for Milan in Sunday’s 4-1 win over Cagliari. Giroud scored twice, dished out what should have been a highlight-reel assist for Rafael Leao with a lovely back heel, and generally looked like he’d been a part of this Milan side for years. (By the way, it’s a joke, Zlatan. In case you’re reading… just a joke. Of course you’ll go straight back into the lineup, becasuse you’re Zlatan and he’s not.)

After scoring four times before the break, Milan took their foot off the gas in the second half and coasted a little, which is understandable. But the vibe is good and this squad looks far deeper than last season. Rade Krunic and Sandro Tonali (who scored a Pirlo-esque free-kick) were in the middle of the park, but last year’s regulars, Ismael Bennacer and Franck Kessie, will be ready to start soon. Alessandro Florenzi, who came on, provides legitimate competition for Davide Calabria. Matteo Gabbia has shown he can hang at this level. And Ante Rebic came on too.

Oh, and then there’s that Ibra guy… yeah, I guess he can take some minutes when Giroud needs a rest… (we’re kidding, Zlatan, honest!)

i 780Minimalist Spurs — with a guy named Kane up front — are three for three

play

1:00

Nuno Espirito Santo says Spurs must still improve after they moved top of the Premier League with a 1-0 win vs. Watford.

That’s right: Tottenham Hotspur sit atop the Premier League after their third straight 1-0 victory, and a defensive set up that includes Japhet Tanganga, Eric Dier, Davinson Sanchez and, a few yards up the pitch in midfield, Oliver Skipp, has yet to concede a single goal. Oh, and Harry Kane only made his first start of the season on Sunday, in the 1-0 win over Watford.

(That victory, while deserved on the balance of play, was nevertheless fortuitous when you consider how Son Heung-Min‘s free-kick was really a cross.)

There are two ways to look at this, both possibly somewhat true. One is that regression to the mean is inevitable, they’ve been fortunate (especially against Wolves) and gravity will soon push them further down the table. The other is that these nine points, however gained, are a boost that will build confidence and that this team will improve over time.

Kane is a value-add, however you may feel about his transfer shenanigans. Their two most significant summer signings, Bryan Gil and Cristian Romero, have played a grand total of four minutes. And Nuno Espirito Santo has only just arrived and, as we saw at Wolves, it takes time for players to absorb his brand of football.

i 781Atletico play well, but need a gift to avoid defeat

That’s football for you. A week ago, Atletico Madrid were poor against Elche and only got the points thanks to a blunder by the opposition keeper. Against Villarreal, a far stronger opponent, they played much better, but only got a point thanks to an almighty blunder at the very end, when goalkeeper Geronimo Rulli went walkabout just as Aissa Mandi was heading the ball back to his own goal.

It was as weird a blunder as you’re likely to see and it left Unai Emery more apoplectic than usual, not least because he has yet to beat Simeone in 15 attempts.

Atletico, however, played well. Luis Suarez started and scored his first goal of the campaign and Thomas Lemar, cutting in from the left, was very effective; defensively, they were solid too.

Judge by performance and they may still be (slight) favorites, to retain their title, at least based on what we’ve seen from the competition thus far.

i 782No drama, plenty of fun: Different Mourinho, different Roma

play

0:18

Jose Mourinho is all smiles while devouring a “special” pizza following Roma’s 4-0 win over Salernitana.

It’s not just the sight of Mourinho’s post-match meal on the train back home, or the 14 goals scored in four games that makes me wonder if this is an entirely different Special One to the guy we most recently saw at Manchester United and Spurs.

It’s the fact that his Roma side, fresh off four wins on the bounce including (OK, settle down) the Conference League, look fun, fearless and full of joy. Not the sort of things we’ve often associated with Mourinho in recent years.

On Sunday they tore apart a Salernitana side that set up in one of those de facto 9-0-1 formation with everyone behind the ball. Jordan Veretout bossed the midfield, Lorenzo Pellegrini scored twice, Henrikh Mkhitaryan dispensed magic and Tammy Abraham was somewhere between a pinball and a wrecking ball. And Roma were doing stuff like this.

We’re still in August, of course: there’s plenty of time for Grouchy, Surly, Pedantly, Drama Queen and whatever other personalities may inhabit his brain to come out. But for now at least, Mourinho has been on his best behaviour and his players have been playing some of the best football we’ve seen from his teams in years.