I’m just covering the games I watched on Saturday to get these notes out. Friday I watched the Chicago Red Stars loss to Angel City FC from last Monday and then the opening fifteen minutes of Gladbach – Hertha Berlin, but no reports on that. More to come from Sunday and Monday, but plenty to talk about from Saturday for now.
Tottenham Hotspur 1 – Wolverhampton Wanderers 0. Saturday morning kicked off with a game of two halves. In the first half, Wolves had 12 (2) shots (on goal) and 0.37 expected goals to 1 (1) and 0.03 from Spurs. In the second half, Wolves dipped only slightly, with 8 (1) and 0.32; Spurs, however, were a new team. They had 10 (3) shots (on goal) and an expected goals of 1.44.
What’s most interesting is that there was no tactical change accompanying this transformation. Though they were obviously more aggressive in the second half, Antonio Conte made no changes until the 78th minute, well after Harry Kane’s game-winning goal. As the player influence chart above illustrates, the positions of the starting XI didn’t significantly change. They were just more . . . influential in the second half. That’s one powerful hairdryer.
Fulham 3 – Brentford 2. It’s a long season, but Fulham couldn’t haven’t started it much better. After opening with a tie against Liverpool and then getting a second point from Wolves, they scored in the opening 45 seconds of this game and then added a second off a corner in the 20th minute. Brentford did not give up, however, and right before halftime they scored from a corner to pull one back. The second half was even better than the first, with more chances for both sides.
At the hour mark, Thomas Frank brought on Keane Lewis-Potter, who was bright and busy in attack as Brentford shifted to a 3-4-3 with a narrow front three. Still, it was Fulham with two big chances shortly after the change, as Aleksander Mitrović was played in one-on-one with the keeper but had his shot saved, then headed the resulting corner on to Tim Ream unmarked at the far post, only to see the American fluff his attempted volley. Those misses looked costly when Brentford scored off a finely-executed attack five minutes later, Bryan Mbuemo putting Yoane Wissa in behind with a lovely vertical pass, setting up his squared assist for a sharply-finishing Ivan Toney to equalize.
Marco Silva responded by bringing in Tom Cairney to solidify Fulham’s midfield and right back Kevin Mbapu to provide service into the box. The changes seemed to break a very strong spell from Brentford, and Mbapu’s service proved critical. at 82′, he put a cross onto Mitrović’s head at the far post, only to have David Raya slap it away with an amazing point blank save. Then, in the final minute of regulation, he again found Mitrović, rising over Mbuemo and heading down and into the bottom right past a diving Raya. It was a fantastic finish to an exhilarating game.
Union Berlin 2 – RB Leipzig 1. This is always a game with bite, as Union’s fans (not without justification) pride themselves on being a bastion of authentic footballing culture and thus a polar opposite of a “plastic” club like RB (though it should be noted that Leipzig’s fan base is also a powerful bastion of football support, however one feels about their energy drink, multi-club ownership).
Union are a deep-lying, counter-attacking side, sitting in a 5-3-2 with a broad and flat midfield line rather than a tight triangle. With the departure of Taiwo Awoniyi to Nottingham Forest, they have brought in American striker Jordan Pefok (still identified in the Bundesliga by the surname he has retired) to partner with Sheraldo Becker up top. The pair looked excellent the counter, combining for both of Union’s first half goals (whether this can translate to the US national set-up, where Pefok would have to operate alone rather than as part of a pair is an interesting question).
Leipzig are much more possession-based, playing in a 3-3-3-1 or 3-1-3-3. A formation often associated with Marcelo Bielsa, the difference is about where the wing backs and wide attackers are positioned. In the first half, Timo Werner was alone up top with a line of three attackers behind him and the wing backs nominally added to Kevin Kampl’s “line” as the sole holding midfielder (so, 3-3-3-1). When they adopted a more aggressive stance in the second half, Christopher Nkunku and Danny Olmo joined him, while the wing backs moved slightly higher to be counted alongside a supporting attacker, initially Konrad Laimer and then Olmo after André Silva came on as the central striker. Kampl remained the sole holding player (so, 3-1-3-3).
None of it made much difference, as Union were the better team throughout, notwithstanding an exciting end following Willi Orban’s late set piece goal. Leipzig will be worried to have no wins in their opening three matches.
Celta de Vigo 1 – Real Madrid 4. I had wanted to watch Real Madrid’s come-from-behind win over promoted Alméria, and Celta at home is a serious challenge. And so they proved in a first half of exchanged handball penalties capped off by a goal of the season candidate from the evergreen Luka Modrić. The second half, however, was all Real Madrid, deserving of the lop-sided result. If they can maintain this sort of form–and that is a very big if–Madrid would solidify their position among Europe’s Uber-elite (their position among the elite goes without saying; but the ridiculous nature of their final three Champions League ties and the collapse of Barcelona last season make it difficult to know whether they belong with the likes of Manchester City, Liverpool, and Bayern Munich).
What’s particularly interesting is Madrid’s new midfield, with Eduardo Camavinga and Aurélien Tchouaméni providing a foundation that allowed Modrić to get forward, often looking more like a 4-2-3-1 than 4-3-3. With Casemiro having departed for Manchester United, Carlo Ancelotti is clearly overseeing the transition to a new team. Another successful season with this added challenge would certainly secure the increased profile following last year’s magnificent season (if it makes sense to talk about the “increased” profile for a man who has managed AC Milan, Chelsea, PSG, Bayern Munich, and Real Madrid–twice).
In the eighty-sixth minute, Real Madrid brought on Luca de la Torre, making this my third straight game with an American player. USA! USA!