Arsenal must shake off Villa loss, Leverkusen's title joy, more: Marcotti recaps the weekend


The European season keeps delivering unforgettable moments and this weekend was no different, with Bayer Leverkusen clinching their first-ever German Bundesliga title on Sunday and the Premier League race heating up after stunning home defeats for Liverpool (vs. Crystal Palace) and Arsenal (vs. Aston Villa) gave the advantage to Manchester City.

We also saw Tottenham showcase their worst qualities vs. Newcastle, Man United drop more points, Atletico Madrid pick up a morale boost and Juventus look far from convincing in the Turin derby. Plus Barcelona have a decision to make about João Félix.

– Stream on ESPN+: LaLiga, Bundesliga & more (U.S.)

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


Neither nerves nor inexperience are what condemned Arsenal to critical defeat vs. Aston Villa

We love our narratives. Like this one: Arsenal are a young side juggling European commitments to which they’re unaccustomed at this stage of the season. So, it stands to reason that when they concede two late goals to Aston Villa and lose their first league game of the campaign, some will chalk it up to that. I’m not buying it, and neither should Arsenal’s players.

For a start, you don’t take anything for granted in this sport, let alone against a very disciplined, tactically adept Aston Villa side. Unai Emery has his limitations, but when it comes to devising a game plan and getting his team to execute, he’s among the best in the business. He showed it in Sunday’s 2-0 win despite Villa having two days’ fewer rest than Arsenal.

Still, whatever he designed is just that: a plan. Plans needed to be executed by players. If well executed, they can skew percentages your way, but that’s all they can do. And the fact is Arsenal were firmly in control in that first half to the point that they could have been several goals to the good. (And no, the Leandro Trossard miss — a side-foot with the entire goal to aim for — is a miss, not some Emi Martinez voodoo.)

There was a marked decline from the home side early in the second half: the press grew that much more lax, Arsenal got pushed further back, Villa kept possession better and gained territory. Arsenal boss Mikel Arteta could perhaps have countered this earlier, possibly by sending on Jorginho — he made his first substitution after the hour mark and Jorginho only came on with just over 10 minutes to go. But we’re talking details here — ones that always seem to make sense in hindsight, not so much in the heat of the game.

More basic, I think, is the defensive error that led to Leon Bailey’s goal, whether it was Álex Moreno being allowed to cross, the ball not being stopped at the near post or Bailey himself not being tracked adequately on the other side. These aren’t nerves and this isn’t inexperience: it’s simply mistakes.

What Arteta doesn’t want at this stage are two things. One is for his players to believe they lack the experience or mental fortitude to progress, both in the league and the Champions League. That much goes without saying.

The other is for them not to second-guess his decisions. Would Gabriel Martinelli have finished off that Trossard chance? Should he have reworked his midfield earlier after the break, once it was obvious that Villa were in the ascendancy? Should his message, especially once Martin Odegaard came off, have been that this was more of a “can’t-lose” than a “must-win” game, especially given Liverpool’s defeat earlier in the day?

Asking those questions is the job of the commentariat, not the players, certainly not at this stage of the campaign. Captain Hindsight is undefeated. Arteta might not have fully played the percentages with his choices, but they could easily have paid off, too. At this stage, you can’t harbour doubts; you have to go straight ahead in whatever direction the manager is pointing and let the chips fall where they may.

131‘Neverkusen’ no more as win over Werder Bremen seals inevitable Bundesliga title, and why it means so much

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Keller: Bayer Leverkusen have done something truly remarkable

Kasey Keller reacts to Bayer Leverkusen winning their first Bundesliga title with five games left to play.

Bayer Leverkusen’s 5-0 win over Werder Bremen on Sunday marked the first league title in their 119-year history. Indeed, in all that time, the only other pieces of silverware are the 1987-88 UEFA Cup (the precursor to the Europa League) and the 1992-93 German Cup.

Leverkusen fans of a certain age will know where the “Neverkusen” moniker came from: between 1997 and 2001-02, they finished runners-up four times. The toughest to take was in 2001-02, when they lost the German Cup final, lost the Champions League final (to Zinedine Zidane’s Real Madrid) and frittered away a five-point lead to gift Bayern the title. That summer, to make it hurt even more, they lost arguably their two best players, Michael Ballack and Ze Roberto, to — who else? — Bayern.

– Hamilton: Scenes from Leverkusen’s historic coronation

The fact that their became inevitable several weeks ago (if not more) doesn’t make any less sweet or historic. Breaking the Bavarians’ 12-year stranglehold on the German title is noteworthy in itself. Doing it while going undefeated in all competitions — they’re still on track for a treble, given they are in the quarterfinals of the Europa League and have reached the German Cup final — takes it to a whole different level. Their 43-game unbeaten streak matches Juventus’ mark among team from the Big 5 leagues in post-war competition, and they have a legitimate shot at Benfica’s record of 48, set between 1963 and 1965 with the legendary Eusebio and Mario Coluna. (The overall record belongs to Celtic and was set between 1915 and 1917: they’ll have to wait until next season if they’re to take a shot at that.)

Coach Xabi Alonso gets a ton of credit, and deservedly so. Just because you’re one of the few people on Earth at the intersection of the Jose Mourinho/Pep Guardiola Venn diagram is no guarantee of success. He backed it up with results, and there’s a good reason both Liverpool and Bayern were after him — and why, as I wrote, saying “nein danke” is a sign of both courage and loyalty.

Maybe most impressive about the work that Xabi Alonso and the club — led by CEO Fernando Carro — have put together can be seen in the way this squad was built.

Take the core of this team — the 13 most-used players — and you’ll note that nine of them predate Xabi Alonso’s arrival. The four who don’t? Jonas Hofmann, 30, a winger who arrived courtesy from Borussia Monchengladbach of a €10m release clause. There’s defender Alex Grimaldo, 29, a free transfer from Benfica who spent his career being overlooked. Or striker Victor Boniface, 23, who couldn’t crack double figures in goals in Belgium, and Granit Xhaka, 31, who was going to be surplus to requirements at Arsenal. In other words, the club did it on a budget, without massive spending and mostly working with players who were already there, which makes it all the more impressive.

Some purists will tell you it’s not quite a fairy tale because Leverkusen are not one of those Bundesliga fan-controlled clubs. In fact, before the rise of Leipzig and Hoffenheim, they were the original villains who got described as “plastic” by the purists, as they were exempted from the 50+1 rule. And sure, having a pharmaceutical giant like Bayer behind you makes a difference, but let’s not kid ourselves. Their wage bill is a quarter that of Bayern and well behind the likes of Borussia Dortmund or Leipzig. This is still a huge, against-the-odds feat, and nothing will take it away.

Now it’s “Neverkusen” as in “they’ll never forget this.” Odds are, nobody will.

364Liverpool must not conflate their last two defeats, as they were totally different games

The temptation is obvious when you suffer back-to-back defeats at home after 14 months unbeaten at Anfield, but Liverpool’s home losses against Atalanta (3-0 in the Europa League) and Crystal Palace (1-0 in the Premier League) were entirely distinct affairs. It’s not just that Jurgen Klopp has to ensure heads don’t drop and maintain belief and enthusiasm (at least in the Premier League: overturning a three-goal European deficit is a taller order than making up two points in the last six games). It’s that when looking at what went wrong, he has to be clear on what needs fixing.

Against Atalanta, Klopp got the approach entirely wrong, misreading where and how their opponents would press, and paying the price for personnel changes that proved to be inadequate on the night. (It explains the triple substitution at half-time when they were a goal down: how often do you see that?)

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Nicol: The Premier League title is gone for Liverpool

Steve Nicol assesses Liverpool’s Premier League title hopes after their 1-0 loss to Crystal Palace.

On Sunday against Palace, they paid a hefty price for defensive errors — the build-up to Eberechi Eze’s goal, the Virgil van Dijk slip on the counter, the Jean-Philippe Mateta chance in the second half — but by and large, they controlled the game after an early slumber. Liverpool squandered a bucketload of chances en route to an xG of 2.87 (to Palace’s 1.09, most of it coming off three shots). Obviously finishing is a big part of the game (and Dean Henderson did make some nice saves), but in normal circumstances you expect the likes of Darwin Núñez, Diogo Jota, Curtis Jones and, especially, Mohamed Salah to do better. Other than talking about “rushing” and “being more composed” — which he’s already done — I’m not sure what Klopp can say to his forwards to get them to convert chances into goals.

The defensive piece, however, is where Klopp has to continue working. These are mental mistakes here from players who should be doing better. Get that right and they’ll be on track to keep the pressure on City the rest of the way and — who knows? — maybe even pip them to the title.

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Quick hits

TEN — Man City dominate Luton, but goals — and relief — comes late: That’s the thing about this sport. You can wipe the floor with an opponent for more than an hour as Manchester City — without Bernardo Silva, Phil Foden and, of course, Rodri in the starting lineup, all with a view to the midweek Champions League quarterfinal, second leg, clash with Real Madrid — did to Luton, and really only start looking forward to the three points in the final minutes. City outshot Luton 37 to 4 (13-2 for shots on target), while having 74% possession and racking up an xG of 3.68, but it wasn’t until Mateo Kovacic’s long-range volley made it 2-0 with less than half an hour to go that you became sure of the three points. Because this Luton aka The Hatters (as in “Mad”) and they’ve been doing it with smoke and mirrors — despite a teeny-tiny budget and a rash of injuries (12 unavailable for this game) all season long. Even City’s opener, with Haaland’s wayward strike smacking off Daiki Hashioka’s head and into the back of the net, had a Twilight Zone feel to it. In the end, there was no fairy tale: City won 5-1 and, given Sunday’s results, they find themselves top of the table.

NINE — Weekends don’t get much better than Atletico Madrid’s giant step towards a top-four finish and a boost ahead of Borussia Dortmund rendezvous: Atleti manager Diego Simeone had a bit of a balancing act. On the one hand, his team needed a result against Girona to keep Athletic Bilbao at bay in the race for fourth place. On the other, he knew this week’s return fixture is going to be a slog in Dortmund, and their 2-1 quarterfinal, first-leg lead in the Champions League is paper-thin. It looked like it was going to blow up in his face (along with his decision to go with a 4-4-2 formation) when Artem Dovbyk opened the scoring for Girona early, but Atleti — driven by the magnificent Antoine Griezmann — did not let him down, grinding out a 3-1 victory. Were they a bit lucky? Sure, and how Sávio didn’t get a penalty after being felled by Reinildo remains a mystery. But coupled with Athletic Bilbao’s draw the next day, Simeone could not have dreamed up a better weekend.

EIGHT — Bayern Munich roll past Koln, and now it’s time for second-stringers in the league: With that big Champions League return leg against Arsenal coming up on Wednesday, it made sense for Bayern to rest players, which Thomas Tuchel (indirectly, since he was suspended) duly did, leaving out five starters. The reserves showed plenty of fight en route to a 2-0 win, though the regulars who did play were a mixed bag: Harry Kane missed a bunch of chances (one goal in his last four from open play, but that’s probably just regression to the mean) and Joshua Kimmich looked sharp at right-back (but it’s anyone’s guess if he’ll play there next season). Mathys Tel, deployed wide on the left, probably came out with the most credit and at this stage, there’s no reason he shouldn’t start the rest of the way in the league, if only for the club to assess what they have.

SEVEN — Deja vu all over again for Man United as their defensive numbers get worse and worse: It’s odd to think that after their 2-2 draw with Bournemouth, the team that’s joint-sixth in the table have conceded more shots than anybody else and have a worse non-penalty Expected Goals conceded than anyone except for Luton and Sheffield United, both of whom are in the relegation zone. Especially since they’re not exactly an attacking juggernaut at the other end. Last season, when Man United finished third, their defensive numbers in those categories weren’t great (9th best for shots conceded, 7th best for non-penalty xG), but neither were they this bad. Is it all down to the massive injury crisis at the back, having been without half-a-dozen defenders this weekend? Is it something Erik Ten Hag can fix? Figuring out the answer to that will play a huge part in whether or not he sticks around next season.

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Laurens calls for Ten Hag out: ‘He won’t fix anything!’

Gab & Juls react to another defensive disaster for Manchester United in their 2-2 draw at Bournemouth.

SIX — Real Madrid win with an eye on Man City game … while sweating on Andriy Lunin and possibly Nacho, too: The Ukrainian keeper has filled in admirably after the season-ending injury to Thibaut Courtois last August, staving off competition from on-loan Kepa Arrizabalaga. But he wasn’t great against Man City (witness the Bernardo Silva goal) and looked jittery in this weekend’s 1-0 road win against Mallorca, courtesy of a deflected Aurélien Tchouaméni goal: his mistake nearly gave Vedat Muriqi a chance to equalize. Keepers are a funny bunch, as so much of their game is mental. Madrid need Lunin at his best if they’re to get past Pep Guardiola’s crew. We also got the strongest possible hint that Nacho — and not Eder MIlitao — will get the start against City. The Brazilian, who only just returned from serious injury, surely would have gotten more than the minute or so he got against Mallorca if he was ready to start against Erling Haaland & Co. in the second leg.

FIVE — Milan endure defensive nightmare, but not to worry as the prize comes on Thursday against Roma: I don’t really get the doom and gloom following Milan’s 3-3 draw at Sassuolo. Yes, they had to come from two goals down twice and at one stage, they could easily have been 4-1 down. But so what? They’ll still finish in the top three (most likely second) in Serie A and Thursday’s return leg against Roma in the Europa League is far more important: they’re 0-1 down after the first leg. Defender Simon Kjaer had a horrible day at the back: fine, he’s 35, he’s no longer first-choice, big deal. So maybe his regulars didn’t get as much rest as Stefano Pioli would have wanted, because the likes of Tijani Reijnders, Christian Pulisic and Olivier Giroud had to come on when chasing the game. OK, you live with that. This whole atmosphere around the team — not helped by Gerry Cardinale’s comments in February, whereby Pioli has to prove himself every game — isn’t helping anyone right now.

FOUR — Nothing is ever easy for Borussia Dortmund, and this time it’s Karim Adeyemi’s red card: The good news is that Borussia Dortmund got a big three points away to Borussia Monchengladbach to keep pace with Leipzig in the battle for fourth spot, which really matters since the Bundesliga is neck-and-neck with the Premier League in the battle for five places next season. The bad news is that, even in a game like this, where Dortmund played reasonably well and raced out to a 2-0 lead courtesy of Marcel Sabitzer, someone found a way to screw things up. This time, it was Karim Adeyemi, who left his team playing 40-plus minutes with 10 men thanks to two entirely needless bookings.

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Can Barcelona continue to keep Mbappe quiet in the Champions League?

Craig Burley looks ahead to the Champions League quarterfinal second leg between Barcelona and PSG.

THREE — Barcelona consolidate second place with Joao Felix strike … but what do you do with him? Once again, Joao Felix showed he’s easy on the eye, capable of stunning goals (like the overhead kick that felled Cadiz this weekend to strengthen Barcelona’s grip on second place) and, by some distance, the most gifted Barca player who took the pitch in the 1-0 victory. (Xavi, understandably, made nine changes from the side that faced Paris Saint-Germain in the Champions League last week.) That’s great and all, but what this season showed — again — is that Joao Felix (at least under Xavi) is a luxury for Barca. If you can get him to stick around on loan at vastly reduced wages — he reportedly took a big pay cut for this season — then great. But if you can’t — and odds are you can’t because he has a contract with Atletico Madrid through 2029, which means nearly €10m a year in amortisation — then you’re better off parting ways this off-season. Between Gavi, Raphinha, Lamine Yamal and Ferran Torres (plus whoever the next guy coming out of La Masia might be), Barca have enough cover and variety in wide areas and their financial woes are well documented.

TWO — Memo to Juventus that you’re playing for the future, not the present: We saw it against Fiorentina, to a lesser degree against Lazio in the cup, and we saw it again in the derby against Torino. Max Allegri’s crew weren’t bad in a first half that saw them carve out several chances, but after the break, they regressed to “defend-and-counter” mode and appeared to look to preserve a point. (And still, Torino came close to scoring with Antonio Sanabria and Lazaro in injury time.) Yeah, it’s a derby and all, but face the reality. Juventus will finish third or fourth, qualify for the Champions League and we’ll have the usual debates about Allegri and resources. In a situation like this, why not be a little more daring and try to offer a glimpse of a better future?

ONE — Tottenham can’t afford to be the cartoon version of themselves: Spurs boss Ange Postecoglou said he was “concerned by all of it” following a 4-0 mauling at the hands of an injury-riddled Newcastle side on Saturday. He means the defending — Micky Van de Ven had a nightmare, though he wasn’t the only one — and it’s understandable when you’re as attacking as “Angeball” sides are. But presumably, he also means the attacking end of the pitch, where 73% possession yielded Expected Goals of just 0.48. And, while we’re at it, the mental side too, starting with James Maddison, who probably should have been sent off for a pointless tackle. This was all the “Spursy/Angeball” negative stereotypes rolled into one, and they have to show this is not who they are.



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