Spurs vs. Man City doesn’t mean much yet, Barcelona win without Messi, RIP Gerd Muller

What a weekend in European soccer! Three of the top five leagues (English Premier League, German Bundesliga, Spanish LaLiga) kicked off their 2021-22 campaigns, and the games didn’t disappoint. Manchester City’s title defense got off to a rocky (but predictable) start against Tottenham, Barcelona began their post-Lionel Messi era with a big win, and there were impressive results / lessons learned from Liverpool, Man United, Real Madrid, Chelsea and Borussia Dortmund winning their season openers.

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

Jump to: Spurs’ statement win? | Barcelona’s focus | RIP, Gerd Muller | PSG’s new stars | Benzema, Real romp | Greenwood, Pogba shine | Questions about Liverpool | Haaland hungry for Dortmund | Chelsea’s impressive depth

Deja vu for Man City at Tottenham … but does it matter?

Harry Kane was reportedly present on Sunday when Tottenham Hotspur faced Manchester City, though he was obviously not in the matchday squad and nobody, as far as we know, caught him on camera. Not that it mattered. Even if he’d been home watching his potential past and future duke it out, his aura would still have been all over this game, at least before kickoff.

Once things got underway though, it wasn’t about Kane as much as it was about a script we’ve seen before: Man City with plenty of the ball, but doing little with it after an initial flurry, Spurs defending stoutly and looking to hit on the break. And it ended with Pep Guardiola’s fourth straight defeat away to Tottenham.

Takeaways? First and foremost, let’s remind ourselves that this was the first week of the season, it’s mid-August and the transfer window is still open for another two weeks. It’s one of the quirks of league football that Week 1 — with missing players, players who aren’t yet signed, players who are unfit and players who have zero chemistry because they’ve hardly trained together — counts as much as Week 10 or Week 30, when teams actually become, you know, teams.

Is it still Man City without Kevin De Bruyne, Rodri, Kyle Walker and John Stones in the starting lineup? Is it still Spurs without Kane (for now), Cristian Romero, Serge Aurier and Moussa Sissoko? In some ways, yes, but in other ways, there’s a danger in reading too much into it because, odds are, these teams will look mighty different in a month or so.

– Olley: Kane shadow looms over Spurs, Man City

That said, there are some obvious points to make. Jack Grealish has yet to find his natural position, City are much more incisive with De Bruyne on the pitch, and Benjamin Mendy hasn’t suddenly improved. On the other end, Nuno Espirito Santo has maintained a solid defensive framework, Dele Alli could be a value add this season (after being a passenger for the past few years) and Son Heung-Min can be a difference-maker in terms of work rate and finishing. (By the way, I’m not a big fan of giving players long-term deals well into their 30s, but the contract through 2025 that Son signed is a huge boost for the club. He may not be able to fill Kane’s shoes if he leaves, but a fit and rested Son through the middle gives Spurs a better option at center-forward than all but a handful of Premier League clubs.

On to Kane. The Sunday Times reported that Spurs are holding fast and that City, to date, have made just one bid, for £100m. As I’ve written before, Kane has very little leverage, unless he wants to turn himself into some sort of super-villain and go on strike. And, from City’s perspective, going well past £100m makes little sense because at those numbers, you have a realistic shot at Kylian Mbappe or Erling Haaland, who are a lot younger than Kane at 28. That’s why I wrote that I didn’t think he was moving, though that was before I realized just how far out City appear to be willing to push the boat.

There’s obviously a price at which it makes sense for Spurs to sell, provided they have a replacement lined up. I think we’ve already gone past that price (but what Daniel Levy thinks matters more, and he may well be thinking more like £150m), so you wonder if it’s mostly a question of Spurs securing a successor.

What will be interesting is whether City will feel they need another striker if they don’t land Kane. From where I sit, given how far they got with Aguero contributing virtually nothing last season, I’m tempted to suggest that, between them, Gabriel Jesus, Grealish, Ferran Torres and De Bruyne can ultimately carry the load.

Barcelona stay focused as pressure rises around the club

Regular readers will know I don’t regard Ronald Koeman as some kind of God’s gift to tactics. But one thing he does well — as he showed both last season and Sunday night against Real Sociedad — is prepare his players mentally. Gerard Pique led his teammates out for a tricky fixture, surrounded by banners lambasting club president Joan Laporta and with the weight of Lionel Messi’s traumatic exit on their shoulders, and got the job done.

– Report: Barcelona off to winning start post-Messi
– Barca ratings: Braithwaite, De Jong lead the way
– Hunter: Pique’s presidential poise makes him Barca’s leader

Not only that, but for more than an hour they played very well. Pedri confirmed that he is the Energizer bunny — he played 73 games in 2020-21, including the Euros and Olympics for Spain — Memphis Depay dispensed tricks, the back line was solid and Martin Braithwaite was in the right place at the right time. They were unfazed and focused, and just what Barca fans needed at this time.

The fact that Depay played through the middle suggest that this is where Koeman sees him: at the middle of a fluid front three featuring Ansu Fati (when he returns) and Antoine Griezmann. Those “fluid front threes” look great when they work, but they become an unorganised mess that offers no pressure off the ball and puts a strain on the midfield when they don’t, so you might not trust Koeman to make it work. But no matter. He has an idea and it’s not — for the first time in a long time — a Messi-dependent one.

Pique, who (like other teammates) took a pay cut to help register the likes of Depay and Garcia, said it was the least he could do given what the club had given him over the years. Expect his figure to grow in importance over the next year.

Even as Laporta was rattling off more horror-show numbers (salaries at 103 percent of revenue, a negative net worth of nearly half a billion dollars), Barcelona fans continue to demand answers. It’s not just about a bunch of fanboys being upset at Messi’s departure, either. There are serious questions to be asked about financial oversight — yes, Laporta took over an economic dumpster fire from his predecessor Jose Maria Bartomeu, but equally it matters what he knew and when he knew it — as well as his plan to get Barcelona out of his mess and how this ties into the SuperLeague and CVC discussions. (One banner at Sunday’s game described him as Florentino Perez’s lapdog, one of the worst insults you can hurl at a “Cule.”)

The good news for Barca fans is that the truth will come to light one day; the club’s structures pretty much guarantee this. The question is how soon that will be. But what’s encouraging is that it’s not just about Laporta. There are figures intrinsically tied to this club who, one hopes, will hold Laporta to account, starting with guys like Pique.

RIP ‘Der Bomber’

I only met Gerd Muller once, years ago, on a visit to Bayern’s HQ in the Sabener Strasse. It wasn’t much of a conversation: he was going, I was coming, the guy I was with introduced us in passing, he nodded, smiled briefly and slipped away. He was wearing a leather jacket and jeans, in that slightly awkward way men of a certain age — he would have been in his 60s — do when dressed like that.

– Bayern Munich, Germany legend Muller, 75, dies
– Tributes pour in for Muller, an iconic goal scorer

I mention this because real-life, civilian-clad Muller looked unremarkable, much like he did on the pitch. Until, that is, the ball came anywhere near him. He was well before my time — possibly yours, too — so you have to rely on numbers and YouTube (like this clip, from the 1974 European Cup final) to paint a picture. The latter gives you a sense of his acceleration, his ability to find space, his touch and, of course, his finishing. The former simply feels unreal.

Muller scored 68 goals in 62 appearances for Germany, with whom he won both the 1972 Euros and the 1974 World Cup. In the past 60 years, nobody else has managed more than a goal a game at international level while scoring at least 50 goals. He notched 365 Bundesliga goals (plus another 289 in various other competitions, including the old NASL), putting him 76 goals ahead of Robert Lewandowski. In 1972, he scored a shocking 85 goals in a calendar year, a record that stood until Lionel Messi broke it a decade ago.

You can judge him against the backdrop of his own era (the 1970s), and he dominates both individually and with Bayern and Germany. Or you can judge him over the course of history and, still, he will be up there with the very greatest.

That’s why he’s remembered as “Bomber der Nation” or, more simply, “Der Bomber.” He’s the benchmark against which center-forwards are judged.

PSG unveil their stars and win, but Mbappe gets booed

The Parc des Princes reopened to supporters for the first time in 18 months, and those present saw Mauricio Pochettino’s side down Strasbourg, 4-2. They also got the razzmatazz of seeing the new signings unveiled. Achraf Hakimi and Georginio Wijnaldum were actually on the pitch, while Lionel Messi and Gianluigi Donnarumma were hanging out in the stands with Neymar and Angel Di Maria.

PSG had far too much early on and raced to a 3-0 lead, before — as happens a bit too often with this side — they let Strasbourg back in, eventually grabbing a 4-2 victory. By that point, Mbappe was getting cheers, but it’s a thorny issue that won’t go away. The contract offer from the club continues to sit there, unsigned, and he becomes a free agent in June.

– Inside story of Messi’s final days at Barca, PSG move
– Messi’s tearful farewell on Barcelona’s day like no other
– The definitive timeline of Messi’s Barcelona career

Supporters can rage at him all they like, but he holds all the cards and understandably, he’s in no rush. He gets a year of playing with Lionel Messi and, whichever way things work out, he will have the option of going wherever he likes, unencumbered by a transfer fee. That would be the nightmare scenario for PSG, especially within the context of the Messi deal.

If Mbappe does leave, come next June they will have a 35-year-old Messi, a 36-year-old Sergio Ramos and a 35-year-old Keylor Navas on their books. Meanwhile, Neymar, Pablo Sarabia, Wijnaldum, Ander Herrera and Idrissa Gueye will all be 30 or older.

Club supremo Nasser Al-Khelaifi insists they will comply with the new Financial Fair Play rules (and since, given his dual role on the UEFA executive committee and the European Club Association, he’ll have a hand in writing them, you imagine he knows what they’ll be). But now more than ever, it feels as if PSG are taking a huge gamble in pushing all their chips to the middle of the table. And if they lose an asset like Mbappe for nothing, it’s going to be a very expensive rebuild.

Real Madrid romp as ‘Galactico Whisperer’ Ancelotti does his thing

Carlo Ancelotti’s second debut in LaLiga saw him set Real Madrid up the way you’d expect for the trip to Alaves. David Alaba returned to his old stomping ground at left-back in Ferland Mendy’s absence, Nacho partnered Eder Militao in the middle, Fede Valverde slotted into midfield in Toni Kroos’ absence and Eden Hazard and Gareth Bale joined Karim Benzema up front.

– Real Madrid ratings: Benzema superb in big win

It took a while to break down Alaves, but they romped to a 4-1 win and, perhaps more importantly, Bale and Hazard turned up with strong performances of the sort we hadn’t seen in a long time in a Madrid shirt. There’s no hiding the fact that Florentino’s belief that he can rehabilitate Hazard and get something out of Bale (since he won’t leave) is a big part of the reason why he’s back. But there was also space for Vinicius after the break (and he even scored) and Valverde was back to pre-injury levels, which is also important given how thin the midfield looked last year.

Alaves, of course, isn’t much of a test (though they did win away to Madrid last year), but it was important to hit the ground running. And equally important was getting production from the veterans who have been through the media meat grinder.

Man United’s Greenwood and Pogba shine. Are they the future and soon-to-be-past of this club?

Bruno Fernandes may have notched a hat trick, but as I saw it, Manchester United’s two outstanding performers in the 5-1 hammering of Leeds United were Mason Greenwood and Paul Pogba. The former is a model of poise, technique and intelligence who — if he continues to develop — could represent the club’s long-term future up front. He doesn’t turn 20 until October and while many continue to agitate for Erling Haaland, if he continues on his current trajectory, he’s by no means a bad Plan B.

– Dawson: Man United off to perfect start

As for Pogba, he’s out of contract at the end of June and there are some big decisions ahead. It does look as if he has found his place in that hybrid-left position and given that the relationship with Ole Gunnar Solskjaer seems solid, extending his deal seems like an obvious move.

Of course, with only months left on his deal, Pogba (and his agent, Mino Raiola) may well have other plans, which means the risk of losing him for free is very real. Needless to say, United have painted themselves into a corner here, and not for the first time either …

Van Dijk is back and Liverpool win, but questions remain

Liverpool welcomed back Virgil Van Dijk and rolled over Norwich City, 3-0. A solid result, and a solid performance: Van Dijk showed little rust at the back and the front three, with Jota joining Mohamed Salah and Sadio Mane (Roberto Firmino would come off the bench and score), looked sharp too.

The question — and it’s not one that’s going to be answered against newly promoted Norwich — remains in midfield. Wijnaldum, who appeared in all 38 Premier League games last season, is gone and has not been replaced. Jurgen Klopp started with James Milner (who is 35), Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain (who made just two league starts in 2020-21) and Naby Keita (who has blown hot and, mostly, cold in his three seasons at the club). On paper, that’s not a trio that challenges for a title.

– Liverpool ratings: Salah, Van Dijk superb vs. Norwich

Van Dijk’s return means Fabinho can slot into midfield (he played substantially more at the back than in the middle of the park last year due to the many injuries). Then there’s Jordan Henderson and Thiago Alcantara, but both are now in their 30s, with Henderson coming off an injury and Thiago having been limited to just 20 league starts in each of the past two years.

Klopp needs somebody else to emerge as a reliable member of the midfield rotation, capable of absorbing Wijnaldum’s missing minutes. Whether it’s one of the trio who started Saturday or Curtis Jones (still just 20), without it, it’s going to be that much tougher to get where he wants to be.

Haaland, Dortmund look hungry in season opener

Maybe it was the fact that for the past three months, Erling Haaland had little to play for — Norway wasn’t at the Euros, and his season pretty much ended in the week Borussia Dortmund won the German Cup and clinched their place in the Champions League — but Erling Haaland came out of the gates quickly, scoring twice and serving up two assists in Borussia Dortmund’s 5-2 thrashing of Eintracht Frankfurt.

Dortmund played with the kind of intensity coaches crave — not just Haaland, but Marco Reus and Gio Reyna too — and maybe it was a desire to impress new boss Marco Rose. He still has his work cut out for him, as they displayed the usual defensive frailties (and not just because Axel Witsel had to fill in at center-back for Mats Hummels).

But if you were looking for a statement off the bat against a good team — at least on paper — well, you got it.

Chelsea find even more depth as long season begins

Chelsea’s 3-0 opening day win against Crystal Palace confirmed two things. One is that Palace are very much in rebuilding mode; the other is that the ability to source players in-house, thanks to one of the best academies in Europe, is a huge strength. So if Kurt Zouma or Thiago Silva are a bit behind on their fitness, Thomas Tuchel has no qualms about chucking in Trevoh Chalobah, who not only turned in a sparkling performance on Saturday, but scored a peach of a goal as well.

Chelsea’s penchant for sending youngsters out on loan gets criticized, but Chalobah, at 22, had been a starter in each of the past three seasons, working his way up the food chain. First, he had a bad Championship club (Ipswich), then a good Championship club (Huddersfield) and last year, a Ligue 1 club (Lorient). He may go on loan again, who knows? But he’s an asset who can either be monetised or who, if the manager trusts him, can be thrown into the fray.

It’s one way to do business and it works for them, even though it means Chelsea’s website lists no fewer than 38 first-team players. Some of these are blasts from the past who will likely go out on loan again (Matt Miazga, Michy Batshuayi, Kenedy, Baba Rahman, etc), and it means Chelsea will be feverishly looking to place their “loan army” once again, like they do most Augusts.

It’s a way of doing business that gets criticised, but if you strike upon enough gems, it pays for itself. And until the regulations change, it’s perfectly legal too.

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