The season really got going in September, with surprising front-runners emerging in both the Premier League and Serie A. Then the month closed with the final international break before the Qatar World Cup. This is the second of six posts covering the 25 best games of the first “half” of the season. You can check out the games from July and August if you missed them, or take a peek at the full Top 25 list.
Sunday, September 4th. Manchester United 3 – Arsenal 1. Mikel Arteta’s Arsenal came to Old Trafford on the first weekend of September as the Premier League’s biggest story. Five wins in August saw them top of the table, and Manchester City’s tie at Aston Villa the previous day gave them an opportunity to build on their two point lead. United, under new manager Erik ten Hag, had started to turn around a slow opening to the season and were riding a three-game winning steak (including a 2-1 victory over Liverpool) that had taken them to 5th in the table. This game also saw the debut of deadline-day signing, Antony, whose £82 million transfer fee left him with much to prove in the eyes of many fans.
Arsenal had most of the early chances despite United’s effective press, but it was Antony who scored 10’ before halftime, finishing off a flowing team attack sprung by a lovely pass from a deep-lying Christian Eriksen. Arsenal’s dominance of possession increased further in the second half, and on the hour mark a penetrating pass from Martin Ødegaard for Gabriel Jesus deflected to Bukayo Saka for an equalizer. But United were well equipped to play on the counter, and Bruno Fernandes was able to feed Marcus Rashford with a lovely pass up the middle for a breakaway goal, restoring United’s lead in just over 5’.
After the goal, ten Hag brought on Fred to shore up United’s midfield, and with a quarter hour remaining, Arteta made an attacking triple substitution to shift Arsenal to a 3-5-2. But immediately following Arsenal’s change, Fernandes was able to spring Eriksen on a breakaway. He calmly fed Rashford for an insurance goal that sealed the game for United.
The passing of Queen Elizabeth the following Thursday led to the cancelation of the following weekend’s fixtures, and Manchester United had a second game hosting Leeds United canceled on the weekend of the Queen’s funeral. When they returned to action, it was in a sobering 6-3 loss to Manchester City at the start of October’ but that would end up being their last loss before the World Cup break, which they entered still firmly in 5th place. Tactical Analysis: Total Football Analysis, The Coaches’ Voice, Spreadsheet Soccer (YouTube), Football Made Simple (YouTube) – on Manchester United, on Arsenal.
Wednesday, 7th. Napoli 4 – Liverpool 1 (Champions League). The night before Queen Elizabeth’s passing, Jürgen Klopp’s Liverpool traveled to Napoli for their opening group stage fixture against Luciano Spaletti’s Napoli. With the departures of Khalidou Koulibaly, Lorenzo Insigne, Dries Mertens, Fabian Ruiz, and David Ospina, Napoli were supposed to be in a rebuilding phase; but a remarkable transfer market saw them leading Serie A and undefeated in their opening five games, most recently a 2-1 away win at Lazio. The goals in that game came from two of Spaletti’s key new signings, center-back Kim Min-jae and a Georgian winger Khvicha Kvaratskhelia whom fans had already nicknamed Kvaradona. Liverpool, by contrast, had only managed two wins in their opening six matches.
The tone of the match was set in the opening minute, when Giovanni Di Lorenzo put a ball in behind Liverpool’s high defensive line for Victor Osimhen, who got behind Alisson Becker only to put his narrow-angle shot off the post. Napoli continued to press relentlessly, and by the half hour mark had two goals off a penalty and nicely-worked give-and-go to put André-Frank Zambo-Anguissa in at the left post. In fact, Liverpool were lucky to be only two down, having conceded a second penalty that Alisson saved (against Osimhen), and needing Virgil van Dijk to clear a Kvaratskhelia shot off the line.
Osihmen had to be replaced late in the first half with a recurring muscle injury, but his replacement, new loanee Giovanni “Cholito” Simeone, gave Napoli a third before the end of the half. The assist came from Kvaratskhelia, who had embarrassed Trent Alexander-Arnold and Joe Gomez along the way into the box. When Piotr Zieliński scored a fourth early in the second half, the game seemed fully decided. Luis Díaz, probably Liverpool’s best player on an evening with little competition, did pull one back almost immediately, but a further comeback never materialized. It was statement win for one of Europe’s most unexpectedly exciting sides. Tactical Analysis: Total Football Analysis, Between the Posts.
Saturday, 17th. Athletic Bilbao 3 – Rayo Vallecano 2. With only one loss in their opening five games under “new” manager, Ernesto Valverde (back for his third spell at the club), Bilbao were off to solid start. Andoni Iraola’s Rayo arrived at the San Mames having beaten Valencia the previous weekend, their seven points in five games a significant improvement over a disastrous second half of the previous season with only two wins after December.
Things started well for them, as Sergio Camello snuck in to steal the ball from Iñigo Martínez and fed Óscar Trejo to put the visitors up 5’ into the game. Athletic responded quickly, and at 9’ a lovely goal by Oihan Sancet was disallowed for an offsides in the build-up. Athletic’s equalizer came 5’ later, Dani García hitting a long ball for Iñaki Willims to run onto and score.
In an exciting, two-way game, Camello would also have a goal called off before Sancet scored a counter-attacking goal off an Álex Berenguer cut back to put Athletic ahead shortly before the half-hour mark. 5’ after that goal, Iñaki played younger brother Nico Williams in behind up the middle for an insurance goal—the first time both brothers had scored in a game. 3’ later, Iñaki was just offside on his run for a Sancet feed, denying him a first half brace.
The second half was slightly less frenetic, as Rayo pushed to get themselves back into the game. With just over 10’ left in regulation, Radamel Falcao came on and, slipping a leg ahead of Iñigo Martínez to put a cross from Fran García in, pulled his side within one; but it proved the game’s final goal.
In the international break the following weekend, Iñaki Williams would make his debut for Ghana, while Nico would do the same for France. On the Friday following the conclusion of that break, Athletic would hammer Almería 4-0, the Williams brothers again both on the scoresheet, taking Bilbao to 3rd-place in the league, their best start in 27 years. Rayo Vallecano would lose only one more game before the World Cup (to Almería, as it happens), entering the break in a respectable 8th place.
Sunday, 18th. AC Milan 1 – Napoli 2. Following their stunning victory over Liverpool, Napoli’s next serious test was last year’s Serie A champions, AC Milan. Stefano Pioli’s side came into this game in 3rd place, but level on points with 1st-place Napoli. With a suspended Luciano Spaletti watching from the stands, Milan had the better chances in the first half, both Olivier Giroud and Rade Krunić forcing Alex Meret into spectacular saves.
But from virtually the first whistle, Khvicha Kvaratskhelia was making threatening runs down left and troubling Milan’s defense, drawing yellows on Simon Kjær and Davide Calabria. Both were substituted at halftime, leading to the introduction of Dutch-American, Sergiño Dest, debuting for Milan after a transfer from Barcelona. Almost immediately, Kvaratskhelia won a penalty off Dest, though it would require VAR to make the call; and Matteo Politano put Napoli ahead from the spot.
Milan continued to look the more threatening side, however, and at 69’, Theo Hernández burst down the left and crossed in for Giroud to equalize. Bur Giovanni Simeone, who had come on shortly after the hour mark, restored Napoli’s lead at 77’ with a remarkable header off a long cross in from Mario Rui. Milan were not finished, though. With just under 5’ remaining in regulation, Hernández again got down the left for a cross in for Giroud. He flicked the ball on for Pierre Kalulu, who hit the underside of the crossbar. Then, in the final minute of stoppage time, Ismaël Bennacer curled a ball in for substitute Brahim Díaz, whose goalmouth was blocked by Kim Min-jae.
Napoli held on for the resulting header and came away with a win despite being second best on the evening. They would go into the World Cup break with an 8-point lead on 2ndplace AC Milan, their only loss coming against Liverpool in a dead rubber Champions League match, having already effectively confirmed first place in their group. Tactical Analysis: Sempre Milan.
Monday, 26th. England 3 – Germany 3 (Nations League). The September international window saw the conclusion of the Nations League group stage, but the first winter World Cup made it difficult to take this year’s Nations League seriously. In June, Croatia, Spain, Italy, and the Netherlands will meet to determine the winner; but with the World Cup just over a month away, it was hard to care much about this competition or know how seriously Already qualified teams were taking it.
England, though, had managed to play badly enough to raise concerns about their chances in the Cup itself. They had lost twice to Hungary in July, at home even more embarrassingly than away; and with a loss to Italy the previous Friday were already relegated to next year’s B League with a game to play. On the same day, Germany lost to Hungary, so that instead of topping the table they, too, had nothing to play for in this dead ringer. It was not the typical recipe for a classic, but it did perhaps give both of these World Cup-bound teams something to prove in what amounted to their final warm-up before the main event.
England probably had the best chances in the first half, with Raheem Sterling able to threaten in behind despite Germany’s advantage in possession. At halftime, Hansi Flick brought on Timo Werner to bolster Germany’s attack, moving Jamal Musiala out to right wing, where he promptly won a penalty that İlkay Gündoğan scored to put Germany ahead. Shortly after the hour mark, England brought on Bukayo Saka and Mason Mount to chase the game, only to have Kai Havertz, operating from deeper since the introduction of Werner, hit a majestic shot from outside the box to put Germany two up.
Darren Southgate’s changes were not for naught, however. Shortly after the restart, an attack that opened with Saka driving up the right ended with Luke Shaw scoring at the far post; and 3’ later Saka ended a smart run inside with an assist to Mount from the top of the box to draw England level. Saka continued to trouble Germany, feeding Harry Kane at 81’ for a near miss, and then feeding Jude Bellingham who earned a penalty that Kane didn’t miss, putting England ahead.
The lead only lasted 6’, as Nick Pope allowed a rebound on a Leroy Sané shot from outside the box that a poaching Havertz put in. At the end of regulation, Kane sprang Saka on a breakaway, but Marc-André ter Stegen saved brilliantly to preserve the tie. It was England’s final game before the World Cup, while Germany would play a final warm-up in mid-November, fielding mostly reserves in a 1-0 win over Oman. Tactical Analysis: Between the Posts, MBP School of Coaches (on England), Bulinews.com (on Germany).