Arsenal, Emery have to deal with Ozil mess; Juve clicking into gear; more
Arsenal won their first game of the season this weekend, beating West Ham 3-1 at the Emirates, but Unai Emery didn't get to gloat after the match. Instead, he was dealing with a Mesut Ozil "situation." The German midfielder was not in the matchday squad -- Emery said he was ill, citing "catarrh" -- but others, including my ESPN Brazil colleague Joao Castelo-Branco, suggested he pulled out after finding out he was destined for the bench.
It's still unclear as to what's going on but it's evident that this hasn't been handled well. As of Monday lunchtime, Ozil has said nothing. Snarky counts of the number of matches the German midfielder has missed through "illness" started popping up all over the papers. (In case you're wondering: seven since Jan. 1, 2017, spread out over four occasions.)
While perhaps entirely honest, Emery's explanation didn't help matters.
"Two days ago, I spoke with him about things tactically for this match and the last match," he said on Sunday. "And he said to me he was sick two days ago. Yesterday -- Friday -- after my conversation on Thursday, he continued to stay off sick."
Asked if he was planning to play Ozil in a different role against West Ham, he replied: "Maybe."
It may just be words but Emery's language can just as easily lend itself to the opposite interpretation. Manager discusses tactics with star player, covering previous game (when he was poor) and next game (where "maybe" he would make changes). Player tells manager he's sick, and then he "stays off" sick.
A better way to communicate, if Ozil is indeed simply ill and Castelo-Branco's story is incorrect, would be for Emery to leave out the tactical discussion and simply say: "He's sick with blahblahblah. The doctor visited him. He's not cleared to play."
That's what you do if you want to knock this story on its head. Of course, it only works if this is what actually happened.
It may be -- and yes, I'm speculating here -- that Ozil is simply hung over from a rough summer. First, there was the contract dispute. Then the meeting with Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdogan, for which he was castigated in his native Germany. Then came the disastrous World Cup and the harsh criticism that followed. Now, Ozil has a new manager and two defeats to start the season.
He has a ton on his plate and maybe he just needs a little break. That's fine and totally understandable. But if that's the case, own it.
Dembele showing he can live up to potential
"Like a new signing" is one of those cliches that clubs throw out when a gifted player returns from a long injury layoff or a period of sustained under-performance. In that sense, Ousmane Dembele could be "like a new signing" for Barca, given that he missed the first half of last season and did little in the second half.
He scored Barcelona's only goal on Saturday in the 1-0 win at Valladolid and you rather sense that this is the year he either goes to the next level and establishes himself as a reliable starter or he becomes the sort of expensive mistake that gets off-loaded and, perhaps, even comes back to haunt you later. Fact is, Dembele only turned 21 in May and never asked for the €100 million plus price tag. He should be given time to grow and develop, but that's not how football works for those in his situation.
Oh, and while we're at it, yes, the pitch at Valladolid was appalling, as this picture of Jordi Alba (with accompanying Sid Lowe joke) clearly shows.
Can other teams learn from Wolves?
Does Wolves' 1-1 draw with Manchester City -- and, more than that, the performance -- offer a blueprint on how to stop the champions? Plenty were running with that idea and yes: Being fearless, alternating a low defensive block with a hard-charging high press and generally being focused and committed can be hugely disruptive to a Pep Guardiola side.
That said, it's also worth noting that Rui Patricio made at least two stellar saves, Manchester City hit the woodwork time and again, and Wolves' goal was the result of an unseen handball by Willy Boly (roll on, VAR). So even a thoroughly disrupted City and a top-drawer performance by Wolves could easily have resulted in three points for the visitors.
More to the point, I'm not sure how many teams can replicate what Wolves did simply because they have different players. Most don't have two high-energy wide men who manage to work tirelessly while also maintaining lucidity -- and pace -- in possession. And most don't have a central midfield with the quality of Joao Moutinho (he doesn't cover as much ground as he did, but he takes care of the ball as well as he ever did) and Ruben Neves.
Juve's attack is still a work in progress
Last week I wrote a whole column on the options and permutations available to Max Allegri in order to get the best out Cristiano Ronaldo. Predictably, the trial-and-error continued against Lazio on Saturday, with the former Real Madrid star returning to the flank, Mario Mandzukic manning the middle and Federico Bernardeschi patrolling the other wing.
Juventus won 2-0 and Saturday's set-up worked well, particularly since Bernardeschi isn't an orthodox winger but a guy who can come inside, acting as a kind of pendulum to when Ronaldo slides centrally and turning Juve into a 4-3-1-2.
Is it a long-term solution? As I argued last Wednesday, probably not. At some point, you'll want Paulo Dybala in the mix but all of this only goes to show how multi-faceted Juve are. And how it's up to Allegri to turn that into a strength.
Oh and in case you're wondering, Ronaldo still hasn't scored in Serie A. Relax. He came very close and was genuinely unlucky on one occasion. Besides, it has only been two games.
Watch out for Dortmund this season
So after a year of messing around with Peter Bosz and Peter Stoger, Borussia Dortmund went for the classic "safe pair of hands" in the summer by appointing Lucien Favre, one of the most tactically savvy minds around. And already, in the 4-1 drubbing of Leipzig (after going a goal down) we saw a more rational, organized Dortmund.
If they keep it up -- witness Axel Witsel's overhead kick and Mahmoud Dahoud's spectacular header -- they will be just as entertaining as last season only without the needless risk-taking. As for Leipzig, right now there's a big Naby Keita-sized hole in the middle of the pitch (even last year's more subdued Keita). And with Ralf Rangnick stepping out of the front office and on to the bench, there's no lightning rod when things go wrong, either.
Rangnick is resourceful and you figure he'll find a solution but clearly, this won't be a turnkey operation. As for Favre, sure, Bayern are way ahead but if Marco Reus stays healthy, if Christian Pulisic (who, lest we forget, is still a teenager) goes to the next level, if the players buy in quickly... who knows?
Tuchel happy to work with what he's got at PSG
Thomas Tuchel pulled an unusual 3-4-3 out of his hat and Paris Saint-Germain rolled to a 3-1 win over Angers with Neymar, Kylian Mbappe and Edinson Cavani all finding the back of the net. Needs must, I guess, given the maddening list of injuries (Layvin Kurzawa, Marco Verratti, Dani Alves) and the relatively small squad.
That's where a guy like Tuchel is a bonus for PSG. He's not moaning via the media about his lack of options; he's making do with what he has. And if that means reinventing Marquinhos as a central midfielder or playing a bunch of teenagers (as he did in his first two games) so be it.
Until PSG get some clarity on where they stand regarding Financial Fair Play sanctions for the Neymar/Mbappe spending spree (and until they lock up Adrien Rabiot to a new contract and/or shift Goncalo Guedes and Jese), there will be uncertainty. Luckily for them, Tuchel seems to thrive on it.
Thoughts from Napoli 3-2 Milan
Two wins and two comebacks against two top six opponents isn't a bad return for Carlo Ancelotti's Napoli.
Like in week one against Lazio, Ancelotti's side stayed calm and battled their way back from 0-2 to 3-2, going to another level when he sent on Dries Mertens for Marek Hamsik and switching to a 4-2-3-1 formation. Ancelotti has kept many of his predecessor's elements and inevitably the intensity is lower, more measured. But when it kicks into gear, the concepts are the same.
As for Milan, this is a solid side but one that needs to add more of a creative dimension. That will come, you hope, with the return of Hakan Calhanoglou. Right now, it's a reactive side and that's not the ideal situation for a center-forward like Gonzalo Higuain.
Chelsea coast to victory at Newcastle
The Sunday Times reported that Roman Abramovich was looking to sell Chelsea, a notion the club walked back by Monday morning. Maybe if somebody offered him silly money (read: several billion) he might consider it, but there are no plans to up sticks even if, right now, the British government won't give him a work permit and his new stadium project is on hold.
Whatever the case, it affected Chelsea less at St James's Park than Rafa Benitez's staunch, massed defence. When a team parks the bus -- and does so intelligently, like most Benitez sides -- it's simply tough to break through. Chelsea eventually did, coasting to a 2-1 win with more than a few officiating talking points: the penalty Marcos Alonso ignited plenty debate, as did DeAndre Yedlin's elbow on Olivier Giroud in the build-up to Newcastle's equalizer to name just two.
Benitez has plenty of mitigating circumstances but parking the bus is far more of a high-risk strategy than people realize, mainly because if you do concede, it's very difficult to turn it around.
Lopetegui's tactical know-how evident at Real Madrid
There's no more "BBC" so how about some "BBA," with Marco Asensio stepping in for you-know-who? For now, at least, that seems to be Julen Lopetegui's preferred option at Real Madrid and it yielded a 4-1 come-from-behind victory at Girona. If you want to nitpick, Madrid suffered a bit in the first half mainly because Girona are the kind of smaller club that play like a big club: plenty of confidence, possession and movement.
But Madrid's confidence was unshaken and after the break, Lopetegui unleashed the front three, with Karim Benzema scoring twice, Gareth Bale netting once and setting up another and Asensio winning two penalties. Luka Modric started on the bench -- understandable, after the kind of summer he had -- and Isco shone in his absence. (Between him and Asensio, you wonder what Lopetegui might have done with this group in Russia...) And between the posts, Keylor Navas once again got the nod ahead of Thibaut Courtois.
No question about it, Lopetegui is showing -- for the time being at least -- that he's his own man...
What's going on with Inter?
Inter's official club anthem urges supporters to "love that crazy Inter" and for a long time, there was a certain charm in the side's maddening inconsistency.
Not this season. This is a team built to win and nobody wants to see the Jekyll-and-Hyde nonsense we witnessed against Torino: outstanding in racing to a 2-0 half-time lead and then putrid in nearly throwing it all away before settling for a 2-2 draw.
The main culprits? Samir Handanovic, who made a howler for one of the goals (despite the deflection, he could have done better for the second, too) and Luciano Spalletti, who lowered the team's center of gravity at 2-0 up and inadvertently invited Torino forward.
This one's on them.