What you missed this weekend
It seems like only yesterday that we were in the thick of an unprecedented Summer of Soccer, with Euro 2020, the CONCACAF Nations League and CONCACAF Gold Cup, the Copa America and the Olympics making up for lost time, and now we’re into what should be an equally unforgettable club season. The Premier League, German Bundesliga and Spanish LaLiga kicked off their 2021-22 campaigns this weekend and a lot of top teams (Manchester United, Borussia Dortmund, Barcelona) and top players (Paul Pogba, Erling Haaland) aren’t messing around.
Here’s the big stuff you need to know about the weekend.
Four talking points
Harry Kane? Who’s that?
We should have seen this coming. It was written in the “narrative” stars as soon as the saga connecting Harry Kane to a move from Tottenham to Manchester City took off this summer. It was a foregone conclusion that City, ebullient and full of pomp, would arrive in north London to find a seemingly demoralized and confused Spurs side still getting to know its new manager (and fifth or sixth choice for the role?), Nuno Espirito Santo, and would lose.
And lose, they did, falling 1-0 to a second-half goal by Son Heung-Min and really failing to cause Hugo Lloris in any way over the 90 minutes. Instead of Spurs looking discombobulated, it was City who played with the air of 11 men who’d met each other about an hour before kickoff. Oliver Skipp was disruptive in midfield for Tottenham, Ferran Torres was peripheral up front for City, and even the late substitute, Kevin De Bruyne, couldn’t muster the spark for which he’s become known as City’s main attacking force.
Kane’s future will surely remain frustratingly murky for another week or two, but in the meantime, Tottenham can feel good about having the foundations of something successful — and somewhere around 150 million to spend on new players — when he does leave.
Now THIS is how you unveil a player
Having fans back in the stands has been a joy this weekend, after going for so long with empty stadia, limited attendance and piped-in crowd noise to help bridge the emotional gap between what we’re watching and how we’re feeling. But the real boost of full houses again might be the chance for WWE-style entrances. We’re used to iconic songs and anthems as teams walk out, but I think the new vibe of “unveil your new signing right before kickoff at home” is right up there in terms of most enjoyable sights on matchday.
— Manchester United (@ManUtd) August 14, 2021
Manchester United took a moment to introduce Raphael Varane to Old Trafford (and, crucially, for Old Trafford to introduce itself as a supportive, delirious presence) on Saturday before thumping Leeds 5-1, and on Sunday, Newcastle were giddy to present Joe Willock before taking on West Ham. Willock was a sensation on loan from Arsenal after arriving at St. James’ Park on Feb. 1, scoring eight goals in 14 league games to help lift the Magpies from 17th to 12th over the final three months. After completing a permanent move this summer, Newcastle fans were all too happy to show their appreciation.
— Jordan Cronin (@jordancronin_) August 15, 2021
Paris Saint-Germain had five players to introduce to the Parc des Princes before Saturday’s 4-2 win over Strasbourg, and while everyone in the world knew these signings were done, it still led to a remarkable scene.
All clubs should do this from now on for every big arrival. The tweets and videos are good, but the real-world version is just infinitely better.
Lionel Messi was greeted with huge celebration as he was unveiled to PSG fans ahead of their match vs. Strasbourg.
Premier League’s promoted teams aren’t here for fun
If you’re a big team, the last thing you want on opening day is an away game at a promoted side, especially when fans are back in the stadiums after the pandemic. The energy level and optimism is at its highest point, the excitement is high and the atmosphere is truly gut-wrenching if you’re the visiting team.
This weekend saw all three promotees — Norwich City, Watford and Brentford — hosting big clubs — Liverpool, Aston Villa and Arsenal respectively — and while the Canaries stumbled to a predictable 3-0 defeat, the other two absolutely dominated their opponents and walked away with statement wins.
Watford shrugged off a post-Jack Grealish Villa side, racing to a 3-0 lead and having more than enough of a cushion to weather two late goals. (Shoutout to Ismaila Sarr, who continues to impress, and Watford’s new man Emmanuel Dennis, who is going to score a lot this season.) Brentford beating Arsenal 2-0 might not seem surprising, but it was a testament to the power of crowds that the Bees buzzed through a typically listless Gunners team for a deserved win.
These three teams are going to face plenty of adversity this season, but there will be no place like home if any of them are to remain in the Premier League next year.
This is Dortmund’s year, right? Haaland, Reyna turn on the style
Borussia Dortmund haven’t won the Bundesliga for nearly a decade — Bayern Munich keep hogging the trophies, sadly — but we’ve had high hopes for them several times over that span and this season might be no different.
Erling Haaland picked up immediately where he left off last year, scoring twice and assisting on two more as Dortmund racked up a 5-2 win over visiting Eintracht Frankfurt. U.S. international Giovanni Reyna was equally electric, picking up one goal, as all the stars clicked in attack. Marco Reus and Thorgan Hazard were equally unstoppable as the front four were in constant motion, opening passing lanes and creating space that Eintracht simply couldn’t contain.
It wasn’t all perfect, mind: their defending is as chaotic as ever (Felix Passlack‘s own goal was especially horrifying) and Mats Hummels can’t return to fitness soon enough. For now, just enjoy Haaland, who moved to 62 Dortmund goals in 61 Dortmund appearances and oh, did we forget to mention? They take on Bayern in the German SuperCup on Tuesday — stream LIVE on ESPN+ (U.S.), 2.30 p.m. ET — which will be a much truer barometer of where the Black and Yellow stand.
Shaka Hislop says Erling Haaland is playing at the level of a forward well beyond his years.
Honorable Mention: Barcelona’s new era begins
It’s only one game, but the signs look good for Ronald Koeman’s side as they begin life without Lionel Messi. Two goals from Martin Braithwaite and a Gerard Pique header (he looks 10 pounds lighter and 10 years younger without the facial hair) were more than enough for Barca to enjoy a winning start to the new LaLiga season. Atletico Madrid and Real Madrid both enjoyed wins to kick off 2021-22, but Barcelona seemed untroubled without Messi and almost brighter without his magnetic presence.
Three must-see goals
What a debut!
Trevoh Chalobah has been at Chelsea since he was eight years old. After 14 years representing the club at every youth level — including some time as a ballboy at Stamford Bridge — the young defender made his senior debut in midweek for the UEFA Super Cup (a win on penalties) and, on Saturday, got to make his Premier League debut. And, with the Blues beating Crystal Palace 2-0, he stepped into the attacking third and did this.
What dreams are made of! 👌 pic.twitter.com/91bmHipKF3
— Chelsea FC (@ChelseaFC) August 14, 2021
What a goal, what a feeling, and what a story. Christian Pulisic got on the board for the Blues earlier in the game, but Chalobah’s strike is what we’ll remember.
Hazard + Benzema = goal
Real Madrid need a big year from Eden Hazard for obvious reasons (he’s only played 31 games and scored four goals in two seasons since becoming their second-most expensive signing ever), and Saturday’s 4-1 win at Alaves showed a glimmer of why they spent €100 million to sign him from Chelsea in 2019. A quick backheel flick teed up Karim Benzema for Real’s first goal of the new season: more, please.
Still thinking about this Hazard assist 🤤 pic.twitter.com/JsqumW7lve
— ESPN FC (@ESPNFC) August 15, 2021
Plea vs. Bayern
Borussia Monchengladbach aren’t a team on everyone’s radar, but they really should be given their commitment to attacking football and getting guys forward whenever they win the ball. They also had Bundesliga champs Bayern on the ropes several times during Friday’s season-opener, ultimately settling for a 1-1 draw, but the goal by Alassane Plea was proof of their lightning-quick transition play: after Bayern gave it up cheaply in midfield, three passes is all it took to get a goal. Watch and enjoy.
THE BUNDESLIGA CHAMPIONS ARE BEHIND!
Plea gives Gladbach the lead 🎯 pic.twitter.com/JGwfUm0517
— ESPN FC (@ESPNFC) August 13, 2021
Honorable Mention: Great goals by losing teams
Look, there’s no way to sugar-coat a 5-1 defeat, but at least Leeds defender Luke Ayling got to connect on one of the sweeter finishes you’ll see all season. In LaLiga, Real Sociedad winger Mikel Oyzarzabal’s spicy, top-corner free kick also put some sheen on a 4-2 defeat at Barcelona.
Two teams that should be worried
The euphoria of winning Ligue 1 last year over PSG didn’t last long, with a 3-3 draw against Metz last weekend followed by a 4-0 home defeat to Nice, who are managed by the man (Christophe Galtier) that led them to that league title. With PSG leveled up and without the coaching nous of Galtier, they might be in for a rough campaign.
I suspect they’ll be written about here a bunch this season? We know the issues with Mikel Arteta’s team in terms of squad quality and depth, but there remains a worrying fragility about this team that will doom whatever talent they assemble. Goalkeepers shouldn’t allow themselves to be blocked from reaching a long throw, and defenders shouldn’t let the ball bounce for a simple goal. Brentford seemed to huff and puff and blow Arteta’s house down without much difficulty and while absent strikers Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang and Alexandre Lacazette could have made a difference, this team needs to be tougher at the back.
MVP of the weekend: Paul Pogba
The seeming disconnect between the Man United version of Pogba and the France version of Paul Pogba has frustrated United fans for years. Despite an unfair perception that he only brought out his best for Les Bleus — when, in reality, it was simply that he had better teammates around him at the international level — Saturday’s masterclass in the 5-1 shellacking of Leeds United showed that hey, it’s all the same guy.
In just 68 minutes against a generous Leeds team that gave him far too much space in midfield, Pogba racked up a whopping four assists — surpassing his entire total for the 2020-21 Premier League season (three). Bruno Fernandes grabbed the headlines for notching a hat-trick, but Pogba was at the soul of everything United did in transition, showing the vision to spot teammates in the final third and having the deftness of touch to find them in stride.
Like with your children, it’s impossible to pick a favorite as each assist showed a different side of the French genius.
The first was a nifty, first-time pass into Bruno‘s path — defender Pascal Struijk was left chasing air — for a sharp finish between Ilhan Meslier’s legs. Delicate, cheeky, inch-perfect. The second showed Pogba’s vision; receiving a simple lateral pass from Luke Shaw, he no-looked the Leeds defense in transition to play a raking low ball up the left for Mason Greenwood, who sped beyond his marker and uncorked a thumping left-footed finish into the corner. (Poor Struijk; again he couldn’t keep up, forced to watch the danger unfurl like a character in a horror movie inexplicably deciding to explore the dark basement of the abandoned house.)
The third was simple — sometimes, simple is best — as Pogba found Fernandes in stride down the right channel for a clever finish. (Bruno did most of the work, but Pogba still did the smart thing to deliver the ball in space for him to finish.) The fourth was clever, above all else; from a wide left position, his sharp cut-back cross for Fred set the Brazilian up for a sweeping, one-time finish with the game well and truly won.
It’s not always going to be this easy for Man United or for Pogba — Leeds aren’t ever going to defend deep or commit too many behind the ball, thanks to Marcelo Bielsa — but it was a promising sign of things to come this season.