Man City’s defensive woe, Bayern’s shock loss, and stop moaning about handball law


There were wild results in the Premier League, Bundesliga, Serie A and La Liga, Lionel Messi was back in action, Luis Suarez excelled for Atletico Madrid — which feels weird to type — and we had handball controversies galore in England.

It’s Monday, and Gab Marcotti reacts to the biggest moments in the sport of football from the past week.

Jump to: Brilliant weekend of soccer | Stop bemoaning handball laws | Unpacking Bayern’s shock loss | Man City’s defence fails again | Lessons from Roma-Juve | Fati fabulous for Barca | Man United need depth at the back | Real won’t get lucky every week | Chelsea, Lampard have work to do | Suarez’ super Atletico debut | Ribery shines vs. Inter | Mourinho’s flawed “respect” argument | And finally…

Stop complaining about VAR: Soccer was brilliant this weekend

Take a breath. Go on, it’s fine. Forty-eight hours of football — oh, and there’s still Arsenal and Liverpool to go on Monday night — has likely left you exhausted. For better, if you like upsets, moments of magic and intense slug ’em outs, and for worse — if your team lost, or if you’re one of those doomsday merchants who thinks the “new” handball law (which isn’t actually “new”) spells the end of the game as we know it.

That’s fine. We’ll get to the handball issue in the next segment, but first, a reminder of what else happened. Because this is what makes the game at once magical and unpredictable, engrossing and exhausting, enthralling and infuriating, but, most of all, addictive.

We saw two stoppage-time goals and a Manchester United smash-and-grab 3-2 win at Brighton. Borussia Dortmund’s Young Guns silenced in a 2-0 defeat at Augsburg. Atalanta picking up where they left off with four goals in their Serie A opener at Torino. Everton making it three wins in a row, their best start since the 1970s, with a 2-1 result at Crystal Palace.

Free-spending Chelsea conceding three goals in 27 minutes to go 0-3 down at West Brom (and then come back to draw 3-3). Inter scoring twice in the final three minutes to come back and complete a 4-3 win over Fiorentina. Real Madrid‘s VAR-assisted late comeback against Betis, sealed by a Sergio Ramos “Panenka” penalty, no less.

And that was just Saturday.

Sunday brought us Spurs dominating and dropping two points in stoppage time, thanks to that pesky handball interpretation, vs. Newcastle. Bayern getting thumped 4-1 by Hoffenheim (!), their first defeat since Dec. 7, 2019 (32 games in all competitions). Atletico Madrid putting six (no, that’s not a misprint, and neither is “Atletico Madrid”) past Granada, with Luis Suarez delivering a 24-minute cameo that saw him bag two goals and set up another. Manchester City turning a comfortable 1-0 lead late in the first half at home to Leicester into a 2-5 debacle.

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Roma — a goal up and a man up vs. Juventusdropping another two points as Cristiano Ronaldo once again defies gravity. Ronald Koeman winning 4-0 on his La Liga debut as Barcelona manager, thanks largely not to Lionel Messi (all eyes on him given his reaction to Suarez’ departure) but with two goals from his heir apparent, Ansu Fati. Oh, and Neymar making his return for Paris Saint-Germain.

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Steve Nicol thinks referees struggling to understand the handball rule is resulting in poor penalty decisions.

Those, of course, are just results. You want magic? Let me steer you to Frank Ribery’s assist for Federico Chiesa, Jamie Vardy‘s near-post flick for Leicester’s second goal, Mikel Merino‘s pass to Portu, Mateus Pereira’s backheel flick — there are plenty more. You can find your own.

I’m dizzy just recounting this. Let it be a reaffirmation that this sport won’t be felled by something as mundane as the interpretation of handball. That the next grouch who grumbles about how X-Y-Z is “killing our game” (sorry, your game?) deserves a boot to the head, time-travel back to April when there was no football of any kind or, if you’re charitable, a hot toddy, because clearly they’ve stayed up well beyond their bed time.

Game is not “gone” because of VAR-assisted handball calls

If you think this game is dead or dying because of the handball rule, you’ve got issues.

You don’t have to like it, but you should, I think, be aware of its origins and, above all, that this is no some imposition from above. And yes, this is directed at you, pundits in the Premier League bubble — it’s not new and it wasn’t designed by outsider to wreck what makes English football great.

The law was modified by FIFA’s International Board (IFAB), a body that is 50% made up of the Welsh, English, Northern Irish and Scottish FAs and whose technical director, David Elleray, is English and an experienced former referee. The “guardians of the game,” in other words.

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Steve Nicol and Don Hutchison question the handball rule after Eric Dier’s handball cost Tottenham a win.

They were responding to calls from clubs, managers and players asking for consistency, and so they largely took the notion of “intent” out because, since referees aren’t mind-readers, determining “intent” is tricky. We can all recount obvious cases; it’s the marginal ones that get people really riled up, with referees abused, threatened and doxxed.

And incidentally, this isn’t a new thing. The guidelines were introduced before the 2019-20 season, with the Premier League even issuing a statement to that regard. Except the referees’ association (PGMOL) decided to do things their way (a bit like they decided not to have on-field reviews) and basically ignored it most of last season. Other leagues applied it, and results were very mixed. Serie A in particular saw an absurd proliferation of handball penalties that resulted in referee chief, Nicola Rizzoli, reminding officials at the start of this season that they still had “discretion.”

“Our goal is to allow defenders to defend without turning into penguins [with hands behind their back],” he said. “We can’t rob a defender of the possibility of making an instinctive gesture; if you can’t pull your arm away, you can’t punish the handball. Every situation has to be adjudicated and discretion has to be applied.”

Oh, what’s that? You didn’t know referees still had discretion? Well, you wouldn’t based on the hysterical reaction of the past 24 hours, with blame falling on the laws themselves rather than the officials’ interpretation.

All the handball law does is clarify that the ball touching the arm/hand is punishable if it makes the body “unnaturally bigger,” or if the arm/hand is “above or beyond” shoulder level when it hits the arm/hand. It’s up to the referee to judge this.

How did Fernandes score for Man United after full-time?

My take on the two handballs that got everybody riled up?

Joel Ward‘s arm was away from his body in Crystal Palace vs. Everton, and he wasn’t running or moving. That’s probably a penalty, and that’s how the referee saw it. He does turn towards the ball and his arm comes out. I’m happy for the referee to use his discretion there.

As for Eric Dier in the Spurs-Newcastle game, his arm is up above his head. Sure, his back is turned, but if you believe it strikes his arm “above or beyond” shoulder level, then it’s a penalty. And, no, this notion that you can’t jump without raising your arms way above your head is just nonsense. If you can see the Dier incident, you can also see Andy Carroll jumping (higher than Dier, in fact) without his arms flailing maniacally above his head. (That said, Dier may have been pushed. If so, it shouldn’t be a handball, but again, that’s a call for the referee to make.)

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Shaka Hislop, Steve Nicol and Stewart Robson debate whether Joel Ward should have been called for a handball.

In both cases, referees had discretion and judgement calls to make within the framework of the Laws of the Game. In both cases, they could have made different decisions. In both cases, for whatever reason, we’ve gone with the hysterical narrative that, somehow, PGMOL, under pressure (from FIFA, from the Illuminati, from aliens in Mike Riley’s head) have forced them to make foolish, nonsensical decisions.

Regardless, you may not like this interpretation, but it’s there for a reason. And guess what? Players will adapt. Just as they adapted to the back-pass rule, the tackle-from-behind rule, the “don’t-barge-into-the-goalkeeper-like-you’re-Nat-Lofthouse” rule. Just as athletes in other sports adapted to rule changes.

The only issues here are that, because the PGMOL ignored this last season, the Premier League has had a year less to adapt and because the discretion part of it hasn’t been fully explained, the media and commentariat treat it like some sort of dogma.

The game isn’t “gone.” It will be just fine, thank you. Everything else we witnessed this past weekend is evidence of that.

Bayern Munich finally lose! (And this could easily happen again)

So after 295 days, Bayern Munich have finally lost a game. That part itself really shouldn’t be a concern; heck, but for Manuel Neuer donning his superhero cape on Thursday night against Sevilla in the Supercup in the final minutes of regular time, their first loss might have come a couple days back.

That said, the 4-1 defeat at Hoffenheim is notable nonetheless. Some of the mistakes we saw — from Benjamin Pavard, from Jerome Boateng — are the sort you see when a team is mentally worn down. And given we’re just two matchdays into a new season (albeit one that, for Bayern, began just 26 days after the last one ended), that has to be a concern.

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Jan Aage Fjortoft believes Bayern owners will expect success this season without having to buy big name players.

I wrote last week how this side is still lacking in depth after the summer departures. If I were really mischievous, I’d wonder if Hansi Flick’s decision to rest Robert Lewandowski and Leon Goretzka for Joshua Zirkzee and Corentin Tolisso was his way of reminding the powers-that-be that, yes, they’re still short.

Man City’s poor defending hurts them a lot vs. Leicester

Half an hour into Manchester City’s clash with Leicester Sunday and with Pep Guardiola’s crew 1-0 up, I was pretty confident that this was only go one way. Boy, was I wrong. When the dust settled, Leicester had emerged as 5-2 victors, and Jamie Vardy had notched a hat trick. (Fun fact: only two men have ever scored three against a Guardiola side: Lionel Messi is one and Vardy is the other, except he’s now done it twice.)

I should have known better because this was foreshadowed on Monday night against Wolves. Man City had the upper hand and then wilted after the break, and while they won that game, it would have been no crime if Wolves had scored three or even four.

– Dawson: Help on the way for Man City in defense?

Guardiola had to contend with the absence of seven players, and that is a mitigating factor. But, equally, the idea of Raheem Sterling up front on his own against three central defenders simply didn’t work. You almost wonder if, with Gabriel Jesus and Sergio Aguero unavailable, he might not have been better off with the youngster Liam Delap, who at least has presence and physicality and might have opened up some spaces.

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Julien Laurens is unsure about Man City’s move for Ruben Dias as he was their third choice behind Koulibaly and Kounde.

It was a similar story in midfield. Playing Rodri and Fernandinho together doesn’t really give you more cover against a team like Leicester; it simply takes away another passing option, leaving Kevin De Bruyne to do too much.

That’s standard postmatch second-guessing. What Guardiola can’t do anything about is some of the absurd individual defending we saw from Kyle Walker. Benjamin Mendy and Eric Garcia. Walker and Mendy are 30 an 26, respectively, and they should know better. Garcia’s head may be elsewhere, who knows? The arrival of Ruben Dias from Benfica and the return to fitness of Aymeric Laporte should help, but what will make the most difference is Pep getting under the hood and, once again, working with his defenders.

What we learned from Roma 2-2 Juventus

Roma dropped two points on opening day when they were forced to forfeit a match they drew because of an incorrectly filled-out team sheet (yes, really). They dropped another two points on Sunday night because — up a goal and a man — they took their foot off the gas and did what Paulo Fonseca teams aren’t built to do: manage leads. That, and the fact that Cristiano Ronaldo rescued a draw for Juve with one of his gravity-defying leaps.

For roughly an hour, Fonseca fully won the tactical battle against Andrea Pirlo’s Juventus. With better finishing from Edin Dzeko, they would have been 4-1 up. Pirlo, of course, is a work in progress and, sure, you cut him slack. But the short passing game, high line and de facto 3-2-1-4 formation when in possession only take you so far against an energetic, well-drilled side like Fonseca’s.

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Gab Marcotti explains why Andrea Pirlo’s defensive tactics might leave Juventus exposed often at the back.

Pirlo will find his way, but there are two obvious issues. Against teams that defend well, you probably need more creative passing from deep midfield than Adrien Rabiot and Weston McKennie can provide. Equally, the high line will suffer when you’re asking Giorgio Chiellini (36) and Leo Bonucci (33) to defend an entire half: either give them more time to find the right movements, or mix in some younger legs (Matthijs De Ligt is out until November, but Merih Demiral deserves a shot).

This isn’t a criticism of Pirlo, by the way. This is his second game in charge. It’s just a reminder of how difficult it is to come in and radically alter the way a team plays, something Maurizio Sarri — who tried and then gave up — showed us last season.

Fati fabulous, Messi chips in as Barca win big

All eyes were on Lionel Messi Sunday night after his Instagram post questioning Barcelona‘s treatment of Luis Suarez. Not sure what folks were expecting, but above all, Messi is a professional, so he did his part in the 4-0 thumping of Villarreal.

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Gab Marcotti chalks up Barca’s victory to Villarreal’s “defensive ineptitude” over Ronald Koeman’s tactics.

Messi stationed himself centrally, didn’t move around much and basically popped up when needed. Truth be told, it wasn’t needed often, because Ansu Fati scored twice inside of 20 minutes, and Villarreal, who were really poor, never quite showed up. In fact, it’s dangerous to read too much into this, given the sort of performance (non-performance?) they faced from their opponents. Sure, it’s encouraging that Barca weren’t Messi-dependent and that others stepped up. But this setup looks distinctly lopsided, with Philippe Coutinho, Messi and Antoine Griezmann all occupying the same areas, Jordi Alba and Fati hanging wide left and Sergi Roberto all on his own on the right.

Ronald Koeman, no doubt, gets this. The question is how and whether he can fix it.

Why are Man United not planning to sign more defenders?

According to multiple reports, Manchester United will not be signing a central defender. Perhaps its some clever misdirection from the powers that be, but if it’s true, you have to wonder whether Ole Gunnar Solskjaer is on board with this or whether he’s along for the ride. Especially after seeing United needing a late smash-and-grab to get all three points away to Brighton.

– Olley: Man United’s lucky win shouldn’t obscure familiar issues

This was a game where United were out-shot 18-7, where Brighton hit the woodwork five times and where the xG count was 2.38 to 1.10 for the home team. Solskjaer said he was happy with the result, not the performance, and it’s good that he recognises the shortcomings. But if he can see that, he should also see his issues at the back, where you have to worry about both quality and depth.

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Steve Nicol blasts Man United’s Harry Maguire, Bruno Fernandes and Paul Pogba for their lacklustre play.

Victor Lindelof is 26 — it’s unlikely he’s going to blossom into Nemanja Vidic any time soon. Axel Tuanzebe is promising, but he’s 22, hasn’t played since 2019 and has really only had one season as a starter under his belt (at Aston Villa, in the Championship). Eric Bailly has started 20 league games since 2017. Tim Fosu-Mensah has started three league games in the past 18 months. Teden Mengi is highly rated, but is also 18 and has seven minutes of first-team Europa League football under his belt. Chris Smalling is supposedly on his way out. And Phil Jones, well …

Unless he’s got some outside-the-box brainwave in store (Scott McTominay at the back?), it seems evident that United are going to be painfully short at the back. Brighton simply drove that point home.

Real Madrid can’t rely on luck every week

Zinedine Zidane went wingless in pairing Luka Jovic with Karim Benzema up front against Betis, and it didn’t quite go to plan. Jovic was disappointing (again) and they looked better once Isco replaced Martin Odegaard. On the flip-side, Fede Valverde was a driving force in the midfield and gives them some breathing room given that Toni Kroos, who came off just before the half, is now sidelined with injury.

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Ale Moreno outlines Real Madrid’s defensive struggles and continued help from VAR in their win vs. Real Betis.

I don’t think we need to see the Benzema-Jovic combo again, to be honest. At this stage, when Benzema needs a breather, you’re almost better off with Borja Mayoral or Mariano Diaz. More of a concern is how Real Madrid needed two big VAR decisions to go their way. Jovic stepped in front of Emerson to get him sent off: it was classic “seen-them-given” type stuff (a bit like the Paul Pogba on Aaron Connolly in the United game) and it could have gone either way. So too did the clash between Borja Mayoral and Marc Bartra, which resulted in the penalty that Sergio Ramos Panenka’d past Joel Robles.

Tight margins and calls that go Madrid’s way. This team can and will do better.

Lampard, Chelsea have food for thought after West Brom draw

Chelsea found themselves 3-0 down inside half an hour against newly promoted West Bromwich Albion. And while Frank Lampard was correct to highlight that it was individual errors that led to the three goals (Marcos Alonso‘s and Thiago Silva‘s the most egregious) and to praise the second-half comeback that took them to 3-3, it doesn’t mean all is well. It can’t be, not when you score your equalizer deep in stoppage time.

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Stewart Robson criticises Frank Lampard lack of action when Chelsea fell behind in the first half to West Brom.

Chelsea’s first-half setup — with Kai Havertz in the playmaking hole, Timo Werner wide and a genuine center-forward like Tammy Abraham up front — looked more rational in the final third than previous iterations. But equally, it has to be noted that the comeback came after Mateo Kovacic made way for Callum Hudson-Odoi, effectively leaving N’Golo Kante on his own in midfield as Chelsea threw everything forward to chase the game. That’s not going to be a viable formation, so there is still plenty to figure out.

Dissecting Suarez’ superb Atletico debut

Twenty-four minutes (counting stoppage time), two goals, one assist, one penalty won (and then overturned by VAR) and enough “Garra Charrua” to fuel a small city. That was Luis Suarez’s debut in the 6-1 demolition of Granada, which also happened to coincide with arguably Joao Felix’s best performance in a long time.

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Ale Moreno says Luis Suarez’s strong debut makes Atletico Madrid a dangerous side going forward.

Suarez left his passport woes behind him and seemed an almost too obvious fit for Diego Simeone’s “Cholismo” style of play, but make no mistake about it: for Suarez to work out this season, Atleti need to move their center of gravity up the pitch and ensure they are more proactive than reactive. They have the players to do it, and they did it against Granada. The test will come against tougher opposition.

Ribery superb, Inter a work in progress

As footballers age, they may lose strength and speed and the ability to recover from injury, but the last thing they lose is technical ability and vision. Franck Ribery showed he still has plenty of both, judging from the two assists (especially the one for Federico Chiesa’s goal) he conjured up in Fiorentina’s 4-3 defeat to Inter.

As for Antonio Conte’s crew, he needed two goals in the last three minutes — as well as some questionable substitutions from his opposite number, Beppe Iachini — to bring home the three points. There’s plenty to work on here, too. Ivan Perisic as wing-back turned out to be a dud; they signed Achraf Hakimi (who was excellent after coming on), play him and let Perisic go elsewhere or reinvent himself as a second striker. The back three also needs work and, still, you’re not getting the best out of Christian Eriksen.

The window closes in a week and Inter have plenty of players they need to shift. You’d hope Conte has made up his mind about the ones he wants to keep and how he’s going to use them.

Mourinho needs to ditch “respect” argument

I don’t blame Jose Mourinho for being furious after the final whistle in Tottenham’s 1-1 draw with Newcastle. We covered the late, late penalty above, but beyond that, Spurs utterly dominated this game.

I don’t like it, though, when in complaining about the referees, he talks about Spurs “deserving respect” because they are a big club and alluding to the “respect” he got while at bigger, “establishment” clubs like Manchester United or Real Madrid.

If by “respect” you mean “fair, honest officiating and referees who work to the best of their ability,” well, you don’t deserve it because you’re a “big club.” You deserve because you’re a football club, period. This “coded language” is a legacy of his past, and one he’d do well to forget about.

And finally…

Bas Dost scored for Eintracht Frankfurt in their 3-1 away win over Hertha Berlin. This was his first Bundesliga goal of the season, and he’s now on pace to score 17 in the league. He has two goals in three appearances this season in all competitions.

This concludes the latest instalment of #BasDostWatch.



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