Gabriele Marcotti, Senior Writer, ESPN FCAug 14, 2023, 01:24 PM ET


Gabriele Marcotti is a senior soccer writer for Read his archive here and follow him on Twitter: @Marcotti.

European soccer is back! This weekend saw the Premier League, LaLiga and Ligue 1 start for the 2023-24 season, as well as the final of the German DFL-Supercup. Arsenal began their campaign with a mixed performance as they look to improve on last year’s second-place finish and win the league title, PSG took to the field while off-pitch drama surrounds Kylian Mbappé, and Bayern Munich played RB Leipzig on Harry Kane’s debut.

Meanwhile, Italy head coach Roberto Mancini announced his shock resignation from coaching the national team, and Barcelona got off to a tough season start after a scrappy game against Getafe.

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

Bellingham shines in Madrid win, but there’s another injury blow

Despite the convincing 2-0 win away to Athletic Bilbao and despite Jude Bellingham’s commanding performance for one of the youngest Real Madrid sides we’ve seen in recent years (seven starters aged 24 or younger), this will be remembered as a bad weekend for Carlo Ancelotti’s crew. Forty-eight hours after news that Thibaut Courtois had suffered an ACL injury, Éder Militão went down to an ACL tear of his own. That’s arguably Real Madrid’s two best players from last season both sidelined for a long time.

Ancelotti made a brave face after the game, saying the team would fight on for their injured comrades, but the truth is they’ll have to go back to the market. Kepa Arrizabalaga on loan from Chelsea is a done deal. I’m not a huge Kepa fan, but compared with the alternatives you can see why they would choose him. Former Manchester United No. 1 David de Gea, now a free agent, would have likely wanted a multiyear deal. Keylor Navas didn’t leave on the best of terms (and relations with Paris Saint-Germain are strained right now). Sevilla’s Yassine Bounou would have been pricey.

Kepa, who is entering the last two years of his contract, won’t be lacking for motivation either and the deal makes sense for Chelsea, too. As for Militao’s absence, it’s hard to see a centre-back partnership of David Alaba, Antonio Rüdiger and Nacho being sufficient. All three are north of 30 and Ferland Mendy (who you assume could play inside) has had injury and performance problems. Expect a veteran, perhaps on loan. Right now, figuring this out has to be the priority.

Never mind Kane’s debut, DFL-Supercup more about Bayern’s failings, Olmo’s brilliance

Leipzig dismantled Bayern 3-0 in the Super Cup in Harry Kane’s debut and, obviously, the Bavarians and their record signing are the bigger story here. We’ll get to them but you have to credit manager Marco Rose and Leipzig for their performance. They lose five big pieces in Christopher Nkunku, Dominik Szoboszlai, Josko Gvardiol, Konrad Laimer and Marcel Halstenberg and they don’t miss a beat. Rose puts in Loïs Openda, Xavi Simons and Nicolas Seiwald (and, later, Benjamin Sesko and Fabio Carvalho, too) and they look as if they’ve been working together all season long.

A word too on Dani Olmo: this is his fifth season with Leipzig and, despite flashes, he has been less than the sum of his parts. If Saturday’s hat trick is an omen and this is the year it all comes together for him, Leipzig could yet win the title.

On to Bayern. Not much to say about Kane’s debut – he got 27 minutes with Bayern two goals down and received little service – so best to reflect on the team as a whole. They did create chances – Matys Tel’s finishing let him down, though it’s encouraging to see the youngster get in those positions – but they also looked vulnerable and unimaginative. You wonder what happened to that stability Thomas Tuchel was supposed to bring. Bayern were jittery in midfield and chaotic upfront and it’s a mystery why Benjamin Pavard (whose bags are supposedly packed) got the start ahead of Noussair Mazraoui. There’s work to be done here. And somewhere out there, Julian Nagelsmann is smirking.

Three points for Arsenal, but Arteta will need time to fit pieces together

I was excited to see – unlike in the Community Shield – the setup many told me would be Mikel Arteta’s preferred scheme this year: Kai Havertz and Martin Odegaard together in midfield, with Declan Rice behind and a proper front three. It’s a riff on Pep Guardiola’s old (well, 18 months ago) 4-1-4-1. Other than Eddie Nketiah filling in for the injured Gabriel Jesus upfront, this was it.



Arsenal beat Forest in ‘frantic finale’ at Emirates

James Olley reports from the Emirates as Arsenal beat Nottingham Forest 2-1 with goals from Edward Nketiah and Bukayo Saka.

Did it work? Not in the way Arteta wants it to. Despite a whopping 78% possession – and a 2-0 first-half lead – ball circulation was too slow, which might explain the paltry 1.00 xG they put together. It’s an idea worth pursuing but for it to function Arteta likely needs an extra passer to step into midfield from the back line. That should be fixed once Oleksandr Zinchenko returns. (Thomas Partey trying to pull a Zinchenko on the opposite flank isn’t quite the same thing.) Beyond that, Bukayo Saka scored a peach of a goal and Gabriel Martinelli looked sharp.

The risk for Arsenal, as Arteta adds his new ingredients (Rice, Havertz, Jurriën Timber) into the mix, is that they drop points along the way. That didn’t happen in the 2-1 win against Forest despite Arsenal’s level dropping in the second half, but it’s a difficult balance to strike.

Chelsea beat Liverpool to Caicedo, but share spoils in error-strewn clash

Chelsea and Liverpool played to a 1-1 draw that was entertaining and eventful, if entirely imperfect and a reminder of how far these sides are from Manchester City. Both played a high defensive line with a high press, committed plenty of players forward and opted to go high-risk, high-reward. Chelsea could have been down 3-0 in the first half, Liverpool could have been pummelled after the break. What do you learn from games like this? Not much on the pitch, but you do get a fair sense of what the coaches are trying to move towards and what they lack (which in this case applies to both – a defensive midfielder – hence the race for Moisés Caicedo).

Jurgen Klopp counter-pressing and throwing troops forward is nothing new, of course. He stuck Alexis Mac Allister in front of the back four and deployed Dominik Szoboszlai and Cody Gakpo as his inside midfielders alongside him. It’s not a permanent solution – there’s a reason they pursued Caicedo and Mac Allister will be used further forward where he’s more effective – but it was interesting to see Gakpo in that role. It’s true that we’re often too stuck on labels, but Gakpo didn’t feel like an obvious player to transform into a midfielder of that sort. Then again, neither did Gini Wijnaldum some years ago, and yet Klopp turned him into a strong presser. Still, picking Gakpo ahead of Curtis Jones or Harvey Elliott, who had played previously in Klopp midfield trios, felt like a statement.



Did Chelsea’s or Liverpool’s midfield need Caicedo more?

Steve Nicol explains who would benefit most from signing Moises Caicedo after Chelsea and Liverpool draw 1-1.

More broadly, you wonder about Liverpool’s resource allocation. In Gakpo, Mohamed Salah, Darwin Núñez, Luis Díaz and Diogo Jota you have five forwards who cost a lot either in wages or fee or both. Starter money, you might call it – for three slots. At the same time, with five midfielders leaving and only two arriving over the summer, you’re short in the middle of the park. It seems unlikely that Liverpool would have put all their eggs in the Caicedo basket, with Romeo Lavia as the only Plan B. If they did, it’s a mistake.

As for Chelsea, one key first step for Mauricio Pochettino was lifting the mood and restoring some sort of enthusiasm around this team. Sunday’s performance did that in a way that a more balanced, cautious outing would not have. It showed belief in the players – including guys we’d seen little of before, such as Carney Chukwuemeka, who lined up behind Nicolas Jackson -- and a sense of aggression and adventure that had been missing for a long time. If that’s the attitude, how about the execution?

There’s work to do. It’s almost superfluous to say that a specialist central midfielder like Caicedo alongside Enzo Fernández moves the needle tremendously in that department, but there are questions elsewhere. With no European football you will hopefully get a lot of minutes from 38-year-old Thiago Silva, but does that mean necessarily committing to a back three and will that be his preferred scheme? Much was made of the marauding runs from Reece James and especially Ben Chilwell, but does that work with more traditional wingers such as Mykhaylo Mudryk and Noni Madueke rather than Chukwuemeka and Raheem Sterling?

Upfront, Jackson was impressive but is there enough cover, considering Christopher Nkunku’s injury, and how soon will it be before Armando Broja completes his rehab and returns to full potential? And, speaking of Nkunku, do you tear up the script and start over when he’s available again in a few months? The good news is that in Pochettino, Chelsea have a manager who is comfortable with a range of approaches and styles who is also a good man manager. And thus far, the fans are with him.

For all the money spent (and the questions that will arise, in terms of financial stability regulations), there is a huge task ahead. He’ll need time.



Are Tottenham too open under new manager Ange Postecoglou?

Steve Nicol and Alejandro Moreno react to Tottenham’s 2-2 draw with Brentford in the first match of the season.

For Spurs, Maddison’s addition is just as important as Kane leaving

The post-Harry Kane era began with Tottenham getting a point on the road at Brentford, which is not a bad result. The obvious question is how Spurs will cope without him and whether Richarlison can fill his shoes. Let’s get his out of the way: Richarlison probably won’t score as many as Kane because he’s not as gifted. But it’s far too simplistic to simply boil it down to numbers and say that because Kane had 30 goals and Richarlison had one (yes, hard to believe, but true) last season, Spurs are doomed.

For starters, five of Kane’s were penalties. And Richarlison played only some 250 minutes upfront last year (hard to believe but true: when you play farther away from goal, it’s tougher to score). Plus, Richarlison reached double figures in the league three times in the past five seasons (mostly not playing centre-forward) so to some degree you can think of last year as a negative blip.

Most importantly, it’s not only about Richarlison replacing Kane. It’s also about James Maddison replacing whoever Spurs’ third centre-back was last year and the side shifting from a 3-4-2-1 to a 4-2-3-1. Maddison, lest we forget, also hit double figures in the league in each of the past two seasons. If manager Ange Postecoglou can get the balance right, goals will be no more of a problem (and possibly a lot less of one) for Tottenham than they were last season.

Barcelona held at Getafe in scrappy match

Barca’s visit to the Coliseum to face Getafe was an ugly, physical affair. It yielded four red cards: Raphinha (for elbowing an opponent in plain sight), Xavi from the bench on the Barca end, Jaime Mata and the Getafe team doctor (yes, really) on the other. There will be plenty of scrutiny on the officiating, partly for the way referee Cesar Soto Grado let the play run on too many occasions and partly for the Gavi handball at the end. Heck, Xavi himself said: “If this match is a LaLiga product, it’s an absolute embarrassment. I understand why people don’t watch our football.”

Xavi is laying it on a bit thick. Plenty of people do watch LaLiga, but precisely because Getafe and Jose Bordalas’ brand of football are the exception, not the rule. And, no, it’s not just about the physicality, it’s the moaning and arguing and flinging injury and the whole manual of dark arts taken to a near cartoonish degree. The officiating wasn’t great, but the aim was to let the game flow and not send people off, which is the general trend right now among officials.

Where the referee needs to be held to account though is on that final incident where Ronald Araújo was kicked but we never got a ruling on that because he chose to sanction a hugely dubious Gavi handball (Xavi called it “nonexistent” and I would tend to agree) instead. It felt as if the ref was “finding” that handball so he wouldn’t have to make a call on the Araujo incident. We can’t have that.

If you don’t think Araujo committed a penalty (and it would have been soft had it been given) then don’t give it. But have the courage and personality to make your own calls. Beyond that, Barca probably deserved the three points based on chances in the second half. Robert Lewandowski had a quiet game, but the side showed toughness and personality in difficult circumstances. Lamine Yamal’s cameo showed that although he turned 16 less than a month ago, he can be an important contributor this season (folks might soon be asking, “Ousmane, who?”) while Ilkay Gündogan, in his debut, picked up where he left off last season.

This Barca side proved their toughness last year and showed it again against Getafe. The great leap forward this season will come when Xavi adds the quarry he wants to their play. Even with Dembele gone, he has the tools to do it.

PSG opener yields scoreless draw, but it’s overshadowed by Neymar and Mbappe

Paris Saint-Germain’s season debut against Lorient saw Luis Enrique’s team dominate possession and shots, yet somehow fail to convince and settle for a 0-0 draw. Not a big deal in the grand scheme of things: Ousmane Dembélé was in the stands, Goncalo Ramos just arrived and this is a team that hit the reboot button in the summer.

A far bigger deal is the progress the club made on the Neymar and Kylian Mbappé front. A few days after letting it be known (again) that Neymar was up for sale, it emerged that he has already agreed terms with Al Hilal, becoming the latest star in the Saudi exodus. A fee has yet to be agreed – PSG were reportedly asking for €50m to €80m, which feels steep – but you imagine this gets over the line. And that’s pretty huge because it saves PSG some €36m ($40m) in salary per season over the next three years, while also fetching a hefty transfer fee for a guy who hasn’t started more than 22 league games since 2017 and who will be 32 in February.



Nicol slams ‘absolute joke’ Mbappe-PSG saga in epic rant

Steve Nicol tears into the latest developments in Kylian Mbappe’s transfer saga, with the forward now set to extend his PSG deal.

Those are funds they can put towards their “other” project: persuading Kylian Mbappe to stay. That’s obviously a much taller order – he’s a free agent in June – but the past 48 hours give them some psychological leverage over Real Madrid, with whom he has been linked. Not because he’s back training with the first team (there was no way they could have frozen him out, as some reported) but rather because they can plant a serious seed of doubt in Madrid’s mind about him opting to extend his deal, just as he did two years ago when, like now, he was on the verge of free agency.

That could mean Madrid making a heftier offer than they would have made otherwise in the past few weeks of the transfer market. Because if they don’t, they run the risk of another change of heart or, if he agrees to an extension with a release clause, paying more next summer.

Roberto Mancini’s resignation leaves Italy in the lurch

The Italy boss’s announcement on Saturday (“a personal decision,” he wrote on Instagram) came as a seismic shock. So much so that speculation was rife in Italy as to what was behind it. Anger at the fact that the Italian FA had made additions to his staff earlier this month, new faces that, maybe, he didn’t want? A mega-offer from, where else, Saudi Arabia?

We don’t know and it’s purely speculation. What’s evident is that things didn’t end well. Mancini’s Italy didn’t qualify for Qatar 2022, of course, but the FA rightly continued to back him given the team’s performances (and, of course, winning Euro 2020). Beyond results, Mancini had earned a lot of goodwill, calling up a number of younger players and with Italy doing well at the under-20 and under-19 levels it looked like he would bounce back at Euro 2024.

Now, 3½ weeks from Italy’s next set of European qualifiers, the Italian FA find themselves scrambling for a replacement. They say they’ll have one in the next few days, with Luciano Spalletti (fresh off winning the Serie A title with Napoli) and the return of Antonio Conte two of the most talked about options. I’m not sure why they need to rush into it. Yes, Spalletti and Conte are currently unemployed and they have impressive resumes, but it’s a big call (and an expensive one, too).

Why not appoint an interim guy for the next two qualifiers – North Macedonia away and Ukraine at home – and make sure you get it right? It’s the Euros after all. Twenty-four teams qualify; surely they can’t mess this up again?