Games to Watch
Of course Champions League Semi-Finals on Tues/Wed leads the list of huge games this week. Its Real Madrid hosting Man City Tues 3 pm on CBS in the REAL Final, then Wed has the battle for Milan – Inter vs AC at 3 pm on CBS. (Coverage starts at 2 pm). (tons of stories below). Also tonight US Open Cup play returns tonight on CBS.com and youtube Europa League play has Juventus vs 3 time winner Sevilla and Roma vs Leverkusen both at 3 pm on Paramount plus.
Indy 11 Win 2-1, home Sat May 20
A pair of late goals for the Eleven, including a 90th-minute match winner from Juan Tejada, lifted Indy Eleven over Loudoun United FC, 2-1, on Saturday night in Leesburg, Va. The victory snapped a four-match winless streak in USL Championship play for Indy, with its last win coming against Detroit City on March 25. The Eleven is now 2-3-3 on the season, while Loudoun falls to 3-4-1. Indy now leads the series with Loudoun 4-2-0 winning two of the last three. Next up, Indy travels to Sacramento Republic FC Saturday, May 13 for a 10 p.m. ET match-up on ESPN+. Next up, the Indy 11 Men hit the road for a pair of matches, first stopping at Loudoun United FC Saturday at 7:00 p.m. ET (live on ESPN+). The Eleven returns home Saturday, May 20, against Colorado Springs for Military Appreciation Night. A portion of each ticket purchased via this link will directly support HVAF of Indiana. Indy Eleven will match each ticket purchased via the Military Giveback Link, ensuring that a veteran/military member will have the opportunity to attend and be recognized. Buy Tix now via indyeleven.com/tickets or by calling 317-685-1100 Full Schedule Promotions
GAMES ON TV
(American’s names in Parenthesis)
Tues, May 9 Champions League Quarterfinals
3 pm CBS Real Madrid vs Man City
Weds, May 10
3 pm CBS AC Milan vs Inter Milan
Thur, May 11 Europa League
3 pm Paramount+ Roma vs Leverkusen
3 pm Para+ Juventus vs Sevilla
Sun, May 14
10 am Para+ Lady Chelsea vs Man United Women’s FA Cup Final
Sat, June 10
2 pm CBS Champions League Final
Thurs, June 15
10 pm USMNT vs Mexico Nations League Semi’s
Sat, June 24
9:30 pm USMNT vs Jamaica (Soldier Field) Gold Cup
July 21 USWNT vs Vietnam Women’s World Cup
Soccer Saturday’s are every Sat 9-10 am on 93.5 and 107.5 FM with Greg Rakestraw
Madrid must halt ‘unstoppable’ City, not only Haaland – Ancelotti
Madrid’s cup king Rodrygo aiming to punish Man City again
Man City turn to Haaland as difference maker on Madrid revenge mission
Real Madrid must win Copa and Champions League to forget LaLiga letdown Sid Lowe
Man City can win a historic treble after a roller-coaster season. Here’s how they got there
Milan clubs both win in Serie A ahead of Champions League showdown
The Champions League and King Charles III’s coronation share a common theme. Literally. Chris Wright
10 things we learned in the Premier League – Matchweek 35
Arsenal pass Newcastle test to keep pressure on Man City
Mikel Arteta used Amazon documentary to motivate Arsenal for ‘revenge’ vs Newcastle
Arsenal’s statement win at Newcastle illustrates strides Mikel Arteta has made
Man Utd face nervy end to season as problems mount
Pep Guardiola set to lose TWO star playmakers to rivals as rebuild
African players in Europe: Milestones for goal king Salah
Mohamed Salah is an all-time great, says Liverpool manager Jurgen Klopp
Manchester United campaign on brink of disaster – and they only have themselves to blame
Sean Dyche lays bare Everton’s relegation pressure: ‘People’s livelihoods are at stake’
Manchester United let Liverpool back into top four race with defeat at West Ham
Vincent Kompany signs new five-year deal with promoted Burnley
The picture that shows why Sam Allardyce may be only man who can save Leeds United
‘Haaland is the taker’ – Guardiola explains anger after Gundogan penalty miss for City
What was the Premier League expecting at Anfield – a cheery singalong?
Kane passes Rooney mark in Spurs win
Rodrygo and Vinicius inspire Madrid Copa del Rey triumph over Osasuna
Scudetto! Napoli is partying like it’s 1990
Bellingham brace helps six-goal Dortmund keep pace with Bayern
Celtic beat Hearts to retain Scottish Premiership title
Celtic’s success under Postecoglou attracts Premier League interest
Luciano Acosta, Alvaro Barreal score as FC Cincinnati downs D.C. United | Replay
Will Bruin’s stoppage time header brings Austin FC draw vs. Timbers
Espinoza double as Earthquakes end Los Angeles unbeaten run
For a good Nashville SC squad, there’s just one thing still missing | Estes
De Gea blunder against West Ham costs Man Utd dear
It’s time for Man United to move on from De Gea after yet another error Mark Ogden
Sources: De Gea’s No. 1 spot at Utd up for grabs Rob Dawson
UEFA Champions League: How to watch, predictions, updates, scores, schedule, fixtures
Joe Prince-Wright Tue, May 9, 2023, 8:20 AM EDT·8 min read
The 2022-23 UEFA Champions League semifinals are here, with just four sides remaining in the hunt for club football’s most prestigious prize.
Real Madrid, Manchester City, AC Milan, and Inter Milan remain and a mouthwatering pair of semifinals have been set up with two juggernauts squaring off and a Milan derby.
All four teams are desperate for European glory, with Man City the only team out of three to not have won this competition in their history. Pep Guardiola’s boys are the heavy favorites to win it all but reigning champs Real will have plenty to say about that and knocked City out at this stage late season.As for the Milan derby, well, nobody expected these sides to make it this far as Milan and Inter sit in fifth and sixth respectively in the Serie A table.Below is everything you need for the UEFA Champions League quarterfinals.
UEFA Champions League schedule, dates, how to watch
Dates: Semifinal games to be played on May 9/10 and May 16/17, 2023
Online: Live updates via NBCSports.com
How to watch: TUDN, Paramount+
Champions League semifinal schedule
May 9 – First leg
3pm ET: Real Madrid vs Manchester City
May 10 – First leg
3pm ET: AC Milan vs Inter Milan
May 16 – Second leg
3pm ET: Inter Milan vs AC Milan
May 17 – Second leg
3pm ET: Manchester City vs Real Madrid
Champions League semifinal score predictions – By Joe Prince-Wright
May 9 – First leg
Real Madrid 1-1 Manchester City
May 10 – First leg
AC Milan 1-2 Inter Milan
Champions League quarterfinal results
Quarterfinals – 2nd legs
Tuesday, April 18
Chelsea 0-2 (0-4 agg.) Real Madrid – Recap/highlights/analysis
Napoli 1-1 (1-2 agg.) AC Milan
Wednesday, April 19
Bayern Munich 1-1 (1-4 agg.) Manchester City – Recap/highlights/analysis
Inter Milan 3-3 (5-3 agg.) Benfica
Quarterfinals – 1st legs
Tuesday, April 11
Manchester City 3-0 Bayern Munich – Recap/highlights/analysis
Benfica 0-2 Inter Milan
Wednesday, April 12
Real Madrid 2-0 Chelsea – Recap/highlights/analysis
AC Milan 1-0 Napoli
Our experts choose their composite Real Madrid vs Man City XIs
By Oliver Kay, Carl Anka and more
It is a game that would have been a fitting finale to this season’s Champions League.
Instead, Manchester City take on Real Madrid in the semi-finals, with the winner certain to be anointed as the overwhelming favourite to go on and win the final in Istanbul on June 10.
They are, by common consensus, Europe’s strongest teams. But who would make a composite XI, assuming every player from both clubs was fit and available? We asked our experts…
Let’s start with my five non-negotiables: Thibaut Courtois, Rodri, Kevin De Bruyne, Erling Haaland and Vinicius Junior. All five would be very strong contenders for a World XI.
In recent years, you could have said similar of David Alaba, Toni Kroos, Luka Modric and Karim Benzema, the latter trio being three of the outstanding players of the past decade and more — and you could certainly make a case for Eduardo Camavinga, Aurelien Tchouameni, Phil Foden and Rodrygo, who will be among the stand-out players for the next decade.
But we’re talking about the here and now, aren’t we? As much as I’ve marvelled at Benzema’s enduring greatness, I would take Haaland over him in 2023. As much as I love Kroos and Modric, I don’t think they’re at the level they were four or five years ago. Their strengths lie in controlling periods of matches rather than entire matches. I hope none of that sounds blasphemous.
Real have been the Champions League team of the past decade and, with so many outstanding young players, they are set up to be the team of the next 10 years, too.
But right here, right now? My selection is rather City-heavy. They were much the more convincing team until stoppage time in the second leg of last season’s semi-final and I still find it extraordinary they lost it. I fancy them to make amends this time.
The impish answer would be to name City’s starting XI from their 4-1 victory over Arsenal and let everyone yell at each other in the comments section. Pep Guardiola’s side are the form team in Europe. While any Real players we insert here would make the team more conventional/understandable, they might remove the intangibles that make City so formidable at the moment — in the Premier League at least.
But let’s go for it. A back four of Kyle Walker, John Stones, Ruben Dias and Manuel Akanji means you can defend against counters, large open spaces and man-to-man challenges. Luka Modric joins a midfield of Rodri and Kevin De Bruyne in a trio that can hurt you in myriad ways and use possession as a defensive tool if the opponent gets ideas above their station.
Haaland as the striker. Vinicius to be our Super Jack Grealish on the left, drawing in double teams and frying any full-back you put against it. On the right, I’m going for Rodrygo over Bernando Silva or Riyad Mahrez. The Brazilian has something of Thomas Muller about him in his ability to find space at the back post and chip in with valuable goals on the biggest occasions.
The calibre of player you have to leave out of this side is frankly ridiculous, starting with Ederson, though it has not been a vintage year for the Manchester City goalkeeper. Thibaut Courtois offers a greater sense of security, and edges in.
Nathan Ake is in form, though injury may keep him out of the first leg. Eder Militao is suspended, too, but makes for an aggressive partnership with Ruben Dias. John Stones is inverting from right-back to join the best holding player in Europe at the base of midfield.
That security in the middle allows a more adventurous selection ahead of them and — with apologies to Luka Modric, Ilkay Gundogan and Bernardo Silva — I’d be interested to see Federico Valverde as a box-to-box, roaming No 8 alongside the no-brainer pick of Kevin De Bruyne.
Erling Haaland is in ahead of the current Ballon d’Or holder and, incredibly, it isn’t really a contest. Jack Grealish is unfortunate to be up against perhaps one of the few players in Europe that is just as good at taking the ball and moving it up the pitch. Vinicius Jr is joined by Rodrygo, whose improvement over the past year deserves more recognition.
Thibaut Courtois is my goalkeeper. Possibly Ederson’s footwork is more valuable for Pep Guardiola’s playing style, but if we assess pure goalkeeping quality, hardly anyone compares with Courtois.
John Stones is at right-back — he’s evolved into a complete defender who reads the game as a No 10, defends the box like an old-school 1980s centre-half and slots into midfield with frightening ease. Right now, he’s the best right-back too.
Eder Militao (for his physicality) and David Alaba (for his pedigree) are my centre-backs, while Nathan Ake comes in at left-back; he has been among City’s top five players this season. Ahead of them, Rodri is the best holding midfielder in the Champions League, so he is a given.
Ilkay Gundogan plays on the left (Luka Modric could very well be here, but Gundogan has been more influential overall this season), while no manager would leave out Kevin De Bruyne. On the right, Bernardo Silva will always be in my team. He is a tempo-reading, space-detecting, superior-quality attacking midfielder.
Erling Haaland is the centre-forward. While Karim Benzema is one of the greatest strikers of the past decade, I don’t think I need to make a big case here to justify picking a 50-goal-a-season player ahead of him.
And on the left, it has to be Vinicius Jr. Jack Grealish has been great, but Vinicius Jr is the best left-winger in the world right now.
Thibaut Courtois gets the gloves on account of his medal collection; he knows what it is to win the Champions League. He understands these ties are decided by little moments and I can depend on him to make a crucial intervention — or five. He makes me feel safe.
There’s a back four in front of him. We’re losing some footballing ability by leaving Ederson out, so John Stones and David Alaba are compensatory picks who also provide some positional flexibility should it be required.
It’s an all-City midfield three. Ilkay Gundogan’s record of scoring timely goals is hard to ignore. Luka Modric and Toni Kroos are more stylish and Aurelien Tchouameni and Eduardo Camavinga are individually more intriguing, but Gundogan has that habit of being a defining factor. He’s also the perfect mid-point between Rodri and Kevin De Bruyne, neither of whom can really be left out.
Up front, Erling Haaland will bring me goals and Vinicius Jr will surely triumph in any one-on-one contest he faces. That makes this team’s attacking punch heavy enough, so Federico Valverde can offer a combination of providing more horsepower under the bonnet and an extra man in midfield without the ball.
I must apologise to Manchester City for choosing Ederson over Thibaut Courtois. Given that the Belgian stopper used a media snub to motivate him in last season’s Champions League final, we can only assume he’ll be similarly pinning this piece on the dressing room wall as he hypes himself up to face City.
My defence has a nice balance to it — right foot/left foot, pace/nous, steel/style — and it’s similar in midfield. Rodri is probably the best in the world in his position and I’m convinced Luka Modric is actually getting younger, while Kevin De Bruyne complements those two nicely.
Finally, up top: Vinicius Jr is a shoo-in, I like the balance and industry Federico Valverde would provide down the right, and… well… the 51 goals scored by Erling Haaland mean he has to be the No 9. But it’s an absolute scandal that Karim Benzema is left on the bench.
I’m already composing a strongly-worded letter to whoever picked this team.
Thibaut Courtois, despite his mistake at Anfield, continues to perform at the level that helped Real Madrid win the Champions League last season. Likewise, at right-back, Dani Carvajal edges ahead of Kyle Walker for his special performances in Europe.
At centre-back, Eder Militao is a step above John Stones, but Ruben Dias — one of the best defenders in the world — is in. At left-back, Eduardo Camavinga has passed big tests in Barcelona and at Chelsea, although his future is in central midfield.
Luka Modric continues to be Madrid’s great reference point, along with his fellow five-time Champions League winner Toni Kroos. Few fans in white would argue that Kevin De Bruyne deserves to join them in this combined XI.
And in attack, we have to start with Vinicius Jr, Madrid’s most dangerous player of the season. Rodrygo is now an undisputed starter for Carlo Ancelotti, too, and has already scored decisive goals at this stage of the competition. In between them, there is Erling Haaland, who will surely be a contender for Karim Benzema’s Ballon d’Or.
Well, someone had to do it. We’re 4-4-2, with Erling Haaland and Karim Benzema up top together. In fact, this is about as cavalier as it gets and that means Rodri is doing some seriously heavy lifting in the centre of the pitch to hold it all together. Equally, let’s not overlook the fact that it’s the opposition who will spend the game defending.
The outstanding Vinicius Jr has to play wide on the left and I considered picking Jack Grealish on the right for — and I wouldn’t have imagined typing this a few years ago — his defensive work. But that doesn’t fit with the theme here, so Rodrygo gets the nod instead.
At the back – yes, we do have a defence – it’s essentially City plus Thibaut Courtois. Nathan Ake’s inclusion might surprise a few but I figured what this team could really do with is a left-back who pops up with the odd goal. In all seriousness, Ake is underrated.
Oh, finally, Ancelotti is in charge –you’d need a cool head on the touchline with this XI.
This ought to be a combined XI with no wrong answers, but it sort of feels like there are no right ones.
Erling Haaland has found an unlimited goal hack but Benzema’s rambling creativity is still more interesting to watch. For chemistry’s sake, we’ll give him Vinicius Jr — who’s grown up to be the best winger in the world this side of Kylian Mbappe — and Rodrygo, who might be the most underrated. The fact that all three like to play different versions of left wing at the same time is part of the fun.
With no disrespect to Madrid’s world-conquering midfield, Rodri and De Bruyne are pretty clearly a cut above right now, and Bernardo Silva’s versatility gives him the edge over Toni Kroos and Ilkay Gundogan.
Out of City’s stable of centre-backs, Dias gets the nod as an anchor, Stones to pop into midfield and Walker to run the flank. Since nobody seems to have a left-back anymore, Camavinga is free to get weird in his new hybrid role.
And yeah, I know Courtois pretty much single-handedly won last year’s Champions League, but Ederson’s passing from the back is too good to pass up. No right answers, remember?
How to beat Manchester City: a blueprint
May 9, 2023
There’s no good way to beat Manchester City. That’s just an unfortunate fact. The last time anyone managed it was three months ago, and that was before they moved John Stones into midfield, unleashed Kevin De Bruyne on the counter, and evolved into an unstoppable juggernaut for the zillionth different time in Pep Guardiola’s never-ending quest for perfection.
But City have looked unbeatable before, only to come unravelled late in the Champions League knockout rounds. If anyone’s going to keep up tradition and pull off the impossible this year, here’s a little brainstorming session for where to start.
Turn them inside-out
As scary as De Bruyne and Erling Haaland can be on fast breaks, Guardiola would always rather keep things under control. City tend to be extra cautious in the early stages of big games, trying to break opponents’ pressing schemes — and their spirits — with a slow, deliberate show of force.
If you’re brave enough, that can mean chances to try to catch them on the ball in their own half.
When City scored against Arsenal a couple weeks ago off a long ball to Haaland, Guardiola acted weirdly upset about it. The apparent crime was that his goalkeeper had shovelled the ball sideways to a centre-back instead of building through the middle.
You could sort of see what he was mad about — even though the play came off, the situation right before the long ball wasn’t pretty. Martin Odegaard had pressed the sideways pass to split City from the inside out, trapping Stones in a tight spot in the corner. His last-second heave into midfield could just as easily have fallen to Arsenal for a break the other way.
Maybe Guardiola was feeling touchy because Bayern Munich caused them problems with similar inside-out pressing patterns in the Champions League just a couple of weeks earlier.
By splitting City’s centre-backs with their striker and getting tight in midfield, Bayern repeatedly squeezed play out wide and forced the type of passes straight up the sideline to a winger that Guardiola has always hated.
Their saving grace was Jack Grealish, whose magnetic feet enabled him to corral the ball with a defender at his back and curl into midfield to get free. It’s difficult to dribble out of that situation, though, and pretty easy for the winger to take a loose touch in a dangerous part of the pitch. If that’s how City want to play out of pressure, it would be smart to let them.
Sooner or later, City’s build-up will grind down even the best pressing scheme, but if you were drawing up risks you’d like to make them take, lobs and blind turns into midfield would be pretty high on the list. Both start with getting an opposing forward between the centre-backs and forcing them inside out.
Deny them their favourite zone
There are a lot of ways an attack built around Haaland can hurt you. But lately, City have leaned on two particular patterns in the left half-space.
Nearly all of their most dangerous passes from the top of the box are aimed to the left of the penalty spot. That’s partly because it’s Haaland’s favourite area to shoot from, but a lot of those passes actually come from Haaland himself. He’s gotten good at receiving with his back to goal between the centre-backs, drawing all the attention to himself, and then slipping a left-footed through ball to Grealish or Ilkay Gundogan.
The second kind of killer ball starts on the left side of the box and hits Haaland at the far post. You might think it would make more sense for City to find their left-footed finisher with De Bruyne’s whipped crosses from the right or cutbacks from Riyad Mahrez or Bernardo Silva — and don’t worry, they can do all that too — but in the past few months, those sneaky runs onto passes from left to right have been Haaland’s bread and butter.
Knowing that City love running their attack through the left side of the box and being able to stop them from getting there are two different things, but it might be a good idea to stay alert for Haaland’s lay-off passes at the top of the box and his back-post runs on the right.
Everyone knows City can ruin you with the ball, but some of their most soul-crushing domination lately has come from what they do without it.
In the Champions League round of 16, they surprised RB Leipzig with curved pressing runs that caught the Germans’ build-up in a military-grade pincer movement. The secret to the trap, Guardiola explained after the game, was Bernardo’s ability to “press three players in two movements”: first he slid sideways to cut off the outlet to the full-back; then, when the centre-back turned inside, Bernardo chased the ball back to a panicked goalkeeper as Grealish closed in from the other side.
The two-pronged press has been a winner for City, who usually sit off in a tight 4-4-2 until they sense a chance to pounce. But when the wingers spring forward into 4-2-4 attack mode, it opens two tiny areas of opportunity on the flanks. Teams that can find their full-backs behind City’s front line have a real chance to break the press.
There are two basic ways to pull this off. Option one is to zip a pass to the feet of a dropping midfielder to bounce it out wide. With two City forwards patrolling those passing lanes at the edge of the box and Rodri and Stones closing in from behind, that’s a high-risk proposition. Any loose pass or stray touch will put Haaland in on goal before you can take a sip of milk.
The safer play is to chip the ball over the pinched wingers into the pocket behind them. Sure, the goalkeeper might not place it perfectly every time, but giving up a throw-in from an overhit attempt isn’t the end of the world. If the chip does find a full-back’s feet, you’re between City’s lines while their wingers are running the wrong way. That’s when things get fun.
Play through, not over
The latest version of City have gone supersized at the back: three centre-backs spread from sideline to sideline plus Stones and Rodri in midfield. The beefed-up aerial presence makes them tough to beat on long balls and crosses, but if you can slip a ball between the lines — like with the full-back chips described above — you’ve got a chance to test the back five for pace.
The mistake most teams make is trying to airmail the ball straight to their wingers on the counter. That’s exactly what Guardiola’s tall, wide back three are in place to prevent. What Bayern did instead was target the space on either side of City’s midfield line, where a free man could spin around and zip a more precise through ball to a winger racing behind the retreating back line. That’s a good idea. Do that.
Will any of this stuff actually work? Listen, this is Manchester City we’re talking about — not much does. But if you have to try your luck against the best team in the world, it’s best to have some ideas about where to start.
(Top photo by Alex Livesey – Danehouse/Getty Images)
Manchester City vs the treble: Could they finally equal United’s side of 1999?
May 9, 2023
As the years passed, it always felt like Sir Alex Ferguson became less nostalgic about his greatest triumph, rather than more so.
Every year we would ask him whether Manchester United — or occasionally a rival — might have a chance of emulating their remarkable treble success. Every year he seemed to demystify the momentous events of 1999.
“No, we won’t get that,” he said in early 2001 with his team 11 points clear at the top of the Premier League. “A lot of things went in our favour last time. Henning Berg was the only player to miss the (Champions League) final through injury. We got a terrific trouble-free run right the way through. That’s what you need to get with cup ties in particular.”
“No chance,” he said in 2005 when asked whether Chelsea might do it. “They’ve had a great season, they’ve got great momentum and their consistency is good. Yes, people will talk about the breaks they’ve had, but everyone needs breaks when they win something. In 1999 we only had one player, Henning Berg, injured for the run-in. It’s very difficult to think it will be done again.”
By 2008, he had changed his mind. He felt he had a stronger team and a deeper squad than nine years earlier — Rio Ferdinand and Nemanja Vidic at the back, Wayne Rooney, Carlos Tevez and Cristiano Ronaldo in attack — and that it was not beyond the realms of possibility. “But you hope you don’t get any injuries. In 1999, only Henning Berg…”
You get the picture. Ferguson always insisted luck was the biggest factor that distinguished the 1999 team, winners of the Premier League, FA Cup and Champions League over the course of 10 unforgettable days in May.
Not that he was saying they got lucky in 1999, of course; even when they snatched victory from the jaws of defeat against Bayern Munich, he insisted they deserved it for the spirit they showed to turn that Champions League final on its head.
But Ferguson would swear to this day that only misfortune denied United another two or three Champions League titles and at least one more treble: a pile-up of defensive injuries before the Champions League semi-final against AC Milan in 2007; a controversial refereeing decision or two in an FA Cup quarter-final loss to Portsmouth in 2008 as they closed in on the Premier League title and Champions League. “He (Ferguson) knew that was the chance of doing the treble again,” Wayne Rooney said of the Portsmouth defeat.
Tomasz Kuszczak was sent off against Portsmouth (Photo: Getty)
The point is that the stars have to align. They certainly did for United in the final weeks of that historic 1998-99 campaign — Peter Schmeichel saving Dennis Bergkamp’s penalty in stoppage time in the FA Cup semi-final against Arsenal, a succession of dramatic late comebacks, culminating in that incredible drama at the Camp Nou, only Henning Berg on the treatment table… but plenty of us would share Ferguson’s belief that the 2008 team was stronger.
And yet, 1998-99 is the campaign that truly stands the test of time. It defines Ferguson’s legacy and United’s modern history. The league title, the FA Cup and the European Cup in one season: no English team had done it before and none has done it since.
Liverpool won the league championship, League Cup and European Cup in 1984; Manchester City won the Premier League, FA Cup and League Cup in 2019; while Arsenal and Chelsea have both completed domestic trebles in the women’s game. But when it comes to English football, the treble means United in 1999.
Until this season, potentially. Because City are closing in on glory on three fronts: a point clear of Arsenal at the top of the Premier League with a game in hand and gearing up for an FA Cup final against Manchester United and, next up, a Champions League semi-final first leg away to Real Madrid, with AC Milan or Inter Milan lying in wait in the final.
This is not new territory for City, who, under Pep Guardiola, have become accustomed to winning the Premier League (four of the past five seasons) and going deep in Europe. Winning that elusive first Champions League title is their biggest priority, but thoughts of matching United’s treble success are not far from the surface.
Guardiola, however, has demanded perspective. “Look how far away to start to talk about that,” he said two weeks ago when asked about the prospect in a news conference.
“It’s just 11 games,” the City manager was told.
“Oh, ‘just’, yeah. ‘Just 11 games’, yeah, yeah. ‘Just 11 games’,” he said, embracing his love of withering sarcasm. (It is now potentially ‘just’ eight: four in the Premier League, one in the FA Cup and, if all goes to plan, three in the Champions League.)
“We are far away. I said how many times, how many times in this amazing country have trebles been done? How many years? How many times?
“How many times is one. Our neighbours they did it — in how many centuries?”
In terms of United’s history, it is once in 145 years. Which is once more than any other club in English football history. But here’s the thing. As the game’s wealth has been concentrated among a smaller group of super-rich clubs, doubles and trebles have become far more common than they used to be.
United’s treble in 1999 was only the fourth in European football history, following Celtic in 1967, Ajax in 1972 and PSV Eindhoven in 1988. But as competitive balance has been eroded across European football, it has become more common. Barcelona did it in 2009 and 2015, Inter Milan in 2010, and Bayern Munich in 2013 and 2020. That’s five trebles in the past 14 seasons, an era in which Bayern and Paris Saint-Germain (and for a time Juventus) have been so dominant on their domestic fronts that falling short in the Champions League, completing only two legs of the treble, has sometimes felt like failure.
It has never really been like that in English football, where City’s domination over recent seasons, like Liverpool’s in the 1970s and 1980s, and United’s in the 1990s and 2000s, has at times been tested to the limit. The competition is so intense that no trophy can be taken for granted.
Last season underlined just how difficult it was and is. City seemed to be well placed to win the three leading competitions, but then they lost to Liverpool in an FA Cup semi-final and then, even more painfully, lost 6-5 on aggregate in their semi-final against Real Madrid, having been 5-3 up going into the 90th minute of the second leg. It took a dramatic comeback of their own on the final day of the campaign, coming from 2-0 down to beat Aston Villa 3-2, to hold off Liverpool in another exhausting Premier League title race.
Liverpool, for their part, raised hopes of a quadruple by winning the League Cup and FA Cup — both of them on penalties against Chelsea after 120 minutes of nerve-shredding football — but fell just short of City in the Premier League and then succumbed to Real in the Champions League final. All those dreams of winning four trophies and they ended up missing out on the two they craved above all.
The Champions League is brutal. For a team to have been as near-perfect as City have been over the past six seasons and not win it is remarkable. Yes, it invites criticism of their record — of eccentric team selections, most notably in the 2021 final against Chelsea, and of certain frailties that have been exposed in pressurised moments in knockout ties — but it also underlines an obvious truth: being the best team in Europe does not necessarily mean you win the Champions League.
City won a record-breaking 100 points in the Premier League in 2017-18 and then 98 points a year later; for context, Arsenal’s “Invincibles” won 90 and United’s treble winners won 79. But City paid a heavy price for a couple of bad nights in all-English ties in the Champions League, conceding three goals in 20 minutes at Liverpool in 2018 and two goals in three minutes at home to Tottenham in a crazy second leg in 2019. Even then, a couple of big refereeing decisions went against them on both occasions. The margin between success and failure is so small.
To conquer Europe, you don’t necessarily have to perform consistently through the entire season. Liverpool in 2005 and Chelsea in 2012 are two obvious examples of that, but so are the Real Madrid of 2018, who finished a distant third in La Liga and relied on muscle memory during some tight, nervy second legs against Juventus and Bayern Munich in the Champions League knockout stages. Even last season, some of Real’s performances in the knockout stage, against PSG, Chelsea and City, were far from convincing.
It isn’t just about performing serenely, as City have done during the Guardiola years. The teams that win the Champions League tend to be those who have shown the ability to survive the type of barrage that invariably happens in the knockout stage.
Fernando Llorente scores in 2019 (Photo: Getty)
Think not only of the blitzes that did for City at Liverpool in 2018 or in Madrid last season, but of the way United spent long periods pinned against the ropes in their 1999 campaign (in both legs of the semi-final against Juventus and certainly the final against Bayern) and how Real just about survived spells of intense pressure against PSG, Chelsea, City and Liverpool in last season’s knockout stage before emerging victorious.
Or, as Guardiola put it five years ago, before leading his team into a storm at Anfield: “In the bad moments, you have to remain calm. Madrid, Barcelona, they are taking a cup of coffee (in those difficult moments) because they know their chance is coming. That’s the big difference.”
Even his fabled Barcelona team had to weather a storm or two, particularly when it came to a chaotic semi-final second leg away to Chelsea in 2009 (when they were grateful for some eccentric decisions from referee Tom Henning Ovrebo and then a stoppage-time goal from Andres Iniesta which, on the brink of elimination, took them through on the away goals rule) and, in a different way, a bitterly attritional semi-final against Real Madrid two years later.
Above all, it is about staying in contention for the biggest prizes all season and then hitting a peak of performance at precisely the right time. In 2017-18, there were just a few signs of fatigue by the time they reached the Champions League quarter-finals. In 2018-19 and 2021-22, there was a slight sense of nervousness and tiredness, which they did well to overcome in the Premier League (coming from behind on the final day to win the title on both occasions) but couldn’t quite get over the line against high-class opposition in the Champions League.
This City team looks sturdier, more resolute. A little less free-flowing, maybe, than the 2017-18 and 2018-19 sides, but more physically imposing following the addition of Manuel Akanji, the improvement of Nathan Ake and the reinvention of John Stones — less susceptible, perhaps, to the type of meltdown that occurred at Anfield in 2018 and at the Bernabeu in 2022, when some of us were quite insistent they were, nonetheless, the best team in Europe.
That ability to roll with the punches is the one area United’s treble winners of 1999 are unsurpassed. That entire campaign felt like an exercise in buccaneering brinksmanship. They came from behind to win on no fewer than nine occasions (most famously in the final against Bayern but also in the semi-final second leg against Juventus and in an FA Cup fourth-round tie against Liverpool when the treble was the last thing on their minds). On another eight occasions, they came from behind to salvage a draw.
They were a very different kind of team to Guardiola’s City: far less dominant, less controlled, far less prolific at one end of the pitch, more porous at the other. But football was different back then: still dominated by the richest and most powerful clubs but not to the degree it is now. The three lowest winning points totals of the Premier League era came in 1996-97, 1997-98 and 1998-99 (75, 78 and 79 points). The four highest points totals of the Premier League era have all been in the past five seasons. Similar patterns have been seen in La Liga, the Bundesliga, Serie A and Ligue 1 over the past decade.
Almost every tweak of the laws of the game, as well as its financial distribution model, has served to widen the gulf between the best and the rest — and that is before we come to the influence of Guardiola, whose Barcelona, Bayern and City teams have taken dominant, free-scoring football to a new level.
It seems incongruous, given the excellence of his sides, that Guardiola has not won the Champions League since 2011. It also seems strange that his City team, synonymous with composure and control, have so often found themselves embroiled in chaos — and ultimately overwhelmed by it — when the stakes have been highest in the Champions League knockout stage.
They are a truly great team nonetheless. Only the degree of greatness is open to question. As far as back as 2019, after the second of their league titles under Guardiola, none other than former United defender Gary Neville said they had a strong claim to be the greatest champions of the Premier League era.
Winning the Champions League would not eliminate the many questions about City’s ownership or about the means by which their empire was built. On the contrary, it might intensify the focus on those 115 alleged breaches of the Premier League’s financial regulations, which naturally the club denies. But purely in terms of how Guardiola’s team is recognised more widely, it is essential. It would remove the one argument against their claims to greatness.
And if they were to win the Premier League and FA Cup in the same season, beating United at Wembley along the way, it would match the crowning achievement of the Ferguson era — at which point the riposte from Old Trafford would surely be that no team could ever do the treble as dramatically as they did in 1999, all those dramatic late twists, all those heart-stopping late comebacks. “Football, bloody hell,” as Ferguson famously, breathlessly said.
The treble — not just the achievement, but the manner of it — is at the heart of United’s identity. They won another seven Premier League titles under Ferguson after that, as well as another European Cup nine years later, but the treble, secured by that instinctive flick of Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s right boot, trumped everything. For a long time, as Ferguson said, it seemed unthinkable that any team would match it.
No team did jeopardy quite like United’s treble winners did. But no English club has done clinical perfection like City under Abu Dhabi’s ownership and Guardiola’s brilliant, relentless leadership. And so the treble, the mystical, elusive, unparalleled treble has begun to be seen as something within reach of a club which was gearing up to an excruciating play-off final against Gillingham in the third tier when United, in the words of ITV commentator Clive Tyldesley, reached the promised land in 1999.
(Photo: Matthew Ashton – PA Images via Getty Images)
As Matt Dickinson wrote in ‘1999: Manchester United, The Treble And All That’: “Another English team will win the treble one day. But they cannot possibly win it like this.”
That is probably right. After all, it was almost unthinkable that United won it the way they did in 1999. Great teams really shouldn’t find themselves in that position anything like as often as they did.
And they were a great team. The greatest? Some of us (Ferguson included) are not entirely convinced they were United’s greatest, but that unparalleled triumph put them on top of the pantheon of great English club sides — destined, Ferguson felt, to remain there, unequalled, untouchable.
For that reason, United’s supporters will be willing on Real Madrid in the Champions League semi-final, willing on Arsenal in the Premier League title race and, most of all, willing on their own team in the FA Cup final on June 3.
So much that has happened over the past 12 years has felt like an inversion of the old order. A City treble, meaning victory over their neighbours in the first all-Manchester FA Cup final followed a week later by the club’s first European Cup triumph, might be too much to bear.
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Milan vs Inter: A tactical preview of the Champions League semi-final
By Liam Tharme and Mark Carey
AC Milan and Inter Milan are in unfamiliar territory.
Neither has reached the Champions League semi-final since they won the competition in 2007 and 2010 respectively, but that is now where they will face each other in a Derby della Madonnina. Meanwhile in Serie A just two points separate Inter (63) in fourth and Milan (61) in fifth as they fight for a top-four spot.
Wednesday night’s European clash comes 20 years after they faced each other in the semi-final of the 2002-03 Champions League — the Rossoneri came out on top via the away goals rule — and it will be the fourth and fifth meetings between the sides this season, the most times they have faced each other in a single campaign.
Mark Carey and Liam Tharme pick out the key statistics and tactical trends ahead of the tie…
While this season’s progress in Europe is better than their previous 15 campaigns, Milan’s season has been mixed. Stefano Pioli’s side arrive at the semi-final with a weaker team than last season’s Scudetto-winning campaign.
This is reflected by FiveThirtyEight’s Soccer Power Index (SPI), which estimates a team’s overall strength between zero and 100 using difficulty-adjusted match results and underlying performance metrics to model a team’s offensive and defensive strength.
Milan’s peak under Pioli was at the start of the 2020-21 season, when the Rossoneri lost just once in their first 24 games in all competitions, but the post-World Cup slide this season was sharp, as they went seven games in all competitions at the turn of the year without a win.
Milan have experienced a second wind in recent weeks though — the result of a tactical tweak. Pioli had almost exclusively played a 4-2-3-1 until the end of January, when Milan’s form had dropped off a cliff, including a 3-0 Supercoppa final loss against Inter, when they were continuously overloaded by their rival’s advancing wing-backs.
“The things that worked up until a few weeks ago are not working, so it’s clear there will be some changes,” said Piolo after the 5-2 loss at home to Sassuolo on January 29. “It would be foolish on my part to carry on down a path that isn’t getting results.”
Milan adapted to a 3-4-2-1, and while they had injuries to contend with (first-choice goalkeeper Mike Maignan, Fikayo Tomori, Zlatan Ibrahimovic, Alessandro Florenzi), Milan stemmed a flow of 18 goals conceded in their first seven restart games, during which they had failed to keep a clean sheet.
Milan won four and drew twice in their next eight, though that included a 1-0 defeat against Inter, one of just four goals they conceded in that time, with five clean sheets, including in both round of 16 Champions League legs against Tottenham.
Milan show Spurs the value of pragmatism and being tactically flexible
That said, when in possession, Milan rotated to attack as a 4-3-3 with right wing-back Alexis Saelemaekers pushing on (out of shot) into a winger role, right centre-back Pierre Kalulu providing the width on the right, and Rafael Leao playing inside close to Olivier Giroud.
When faced with three fixtures against Serie A champions Napoli, Piolo tweaked back to the 4-2-3-1 to balance Napoli’s 4-3-3. Though with Brahim Diaz and Leao as the ‘wingers’, they attack lopsidedly and are reliant on the excellent, complementary Leao and Theo Hernandez (left-back) pairing to penetrate opponents.
Two wins — including 4-0 at the Stadio Diego Armando Maradona — and a draw was an excellent return, highlighting the strength of the system and adaptability. Milan conceded once in two Champions League quarter-final legs against Napoli — in second-half injury time of the return leg, which they won 2-1 on aggregate.
Transition, Leao, and Milan’s left side
One of Milan’s key strengths is their transitional, counter-attacking threat.
None of the quarter-finalists had registered more than Milan’s 42 direct attacks — a possession that starts in a team’s defensive half and ends in a shot or touch inside the opposition box within 15 seconds — in the UCL this season, which highlights how much they look to spring forward upon regaining the ball.
No player encapsulates Milan’s direct style of play better than their Portuguese speedster, Leao, who at the time of writing was still an injury doubt for the semi-final, even though the player downplayed concerns.
His sensational assist for Giroud in Milan’s quarter-final clash with Napoli was exactly what he is about: driving forward with the ball at his feet, drawing players towards him and instilling panic in the opponent’s back line.
Leao’s 3.7 carries into the final third per 90 places him in the top five per cent of wide players in Serie A this season, with his progressive carry distance of 140 yards per 90 also one of the highest among his peers in Italy.
In the Champions League, only Real Madrid’s Vinicius Junior (99) has attempted more take-ons than Leao’s 76, with the 23-year-old’s 19 attacking runs — which are chance-creating and shot-creating carries — being the fourth highest in the competition this season.
When Leao turns up the heat, very few players can handle him.
However, his next task is to maintain a level of consistency that matches his talent. While Leao is Milan’s top goalscorer in Serie A, his own dip in form saw him go 11 games without scoring before bagging two goals in Milan’s 4-0 battering of Napoli in April.
How Rafael Leao harnesses chaos to create footballing beauty
Leao is the man that Milan turn to for creativity. His 14 open-play chances created — and 2.7 expected assists — are comfortably higher than anyone else in the Rossoneri squad in Europe, with his direct running into the lucrative half-space providing the most potent element of Pioli’s attack in this year’s competition.
Of course, to solely attribute Milan’s left-side threat to Leao would be wrongly overlooking Hernandez’s contribution — he plays a similar supporting role internationally for France, behind Kylian Mbappe.
At times, Leao and Hernandez will switch positions but frequently play one-twos to get around opponents and into situations where they can switch play and attempt line-breaks, or get Leao driving at defences.
This was evident within five minutes of the quarter-final first leg at home to Napoli. Milan’s central midfielders (yellow dots) move fluidly, but Diaz’s narrowness off the right requires right-back Davide Calabria to advance to maintain balance, hence why most of Milan’s best attacks are down the Leao/Hernandez side.
With a simple one-two, Hernandez has bypassed the Napoli midfield and, through Diaz, the ball can be switched to Calabria, who has a cross cleared.
Leao (823) and Hernandez (768) are second and third for Milan in European minutes played behind Sandro Tonali (873) and are, unsurprisingly, also the top two for final third touches (Leao, 213; Hernandez, 127).
Having been dropped to the bench for Milan’s last meeting with Inter in February, you can be certain that Leao will be hoping to make up for lost time in the biggest Derby della Madonnina of his career — if he’s fit.
Will they go back three/five or back four?
How inclined Milan are to match up with their rivals depends on their desire to control the game. Possession was equally balanced (47/53 per cent) in the 3-2 Milan win in August, but they ended up with 66 per cent of the ball in Riyadh when Inter flew out of the traps and won 3-0 to clinch the Supercoppa.
They had just 36 per cent possession and tried a 3-5-2 in early February, losing 1-0 against Inter courtesy of a Lautaro Martinez header from a corner — their best of the three meetings this season in terms of a defensive performance.
“We decided to defend a little bit deeper,” he said, feeling that Milan “clearly improved (…) in terms of solidity, attention and compactness.”
Against Napoli, they defended in a 4-1-4-1 with man-marking.
“We’ve tried both formations (back three and back four), we’ll choose the best one,” Pioli said before the 4-0 league win away to Napoli last month.
It is a real string to Milan’s bow, particularly in knockout competitions, that they can be so tactically adaptable. Piolo’s side have won 16 of the 18 league games and five of the six Champions League games when taking the lead this season, drawing the others. They are capable of sitting deep and hitting teams on the break.
Psychologically, Inter might have the upper hand in this Derby della Madonnina, having beaten Milan in two of their three meetings this season and are currently sitting two points ahead of them in the Serie A table.
They also won the Supercoppa last season, as well as the Italian Cup, beating Milan in the semi-finals and keeping clean sheets in both legs. It is a tournament they are in the final of this season.
Inter’s style is clear and contrasts with Milan’s. Inzaghi religiously plays a 3-5-2 — defending as a 5-3-2 — with his side having registered the most open-play crosses of any of this season’s quarter-finalists (143), logging just nine through balls across the competition. It’s comfortably the fewest among the cohort.
Milan’s back four could not handle Inter’s wing-backs in the Supercoppa, evidenced by the opening goal.
Matteo Darmian finds the feet of Edin Dzeko, who slides through on-running central midfielder Nicolo Barella.
Barella squares it to left wing-back Federico Dimarco for the simplest of finishes.
Inter’s left flank has typically been more potent in Europe this season, channelling 38 per cent of their attacking touches down that third of the pitch, compared with 33 per cent down the right.
Creatively, left wing-back Dimarco (four) and, interestingly, left centre-back Alessandro Bastoni (three) lead Inter’s assist count in this season’s Champions League.
Bastoni, an outside centre-back, showed his adventurousness and crossing quality in the last round against Benfica, driving forward after receiving a pass and delivering from deep.
Inter typically push both wing-backs forward, often making a front five when central midfielder Barella makes a trademark forward run, with Bastoni picking him out to open the scoring in the tie, with the pair combining similarly against Barcelona in the group stages.
While Dimarco has shared his minutes at left wing-back with Robin Gosens, the Italian’s 33 open-play crosses in the Champions League is the highest among his team-mates this season, with no Inter player logging a higher expected assists total than the 25-year-old — highlighting how much threat has come from Inter’s left flank.
Dimarco’s remit as left wing-back is different from Denzel Dumfries on the right side, with the Italian far more likely to be involved in Inter’s attacking phase with neat interplay and crosses from wide.
In the second leg against Benfica, Dumfries starts the move for the second goal with a throw-in switch to Bastoni, who plays wide to Dimarco.
Dimarco and Henrikh Mkhitaryan combine, with the wing-back underlapping.
And he finds Lautaro with a cutback to extend Inter’s lead, but again note the four Inter players attacking the ball, including Barella and wing-back Dumfries.
By contrast, Dumfries’ qualities lend themselves more to off-ball runs and providing an aerial threat in advanced areas to pin the opposition full-backs into their defensive third. Each flank brings its own strengths, and width is likely to be crucial to Inter’s approach across both legs.
Inzaghi’s selection dilemma at right wing-back will perhaps be more focused on defence than anything else, with Hernandez and Leao attacking that flank. The Inter manager opted for Darmian in two of the three meetings this season, with Dumfries’ only start against Milan being the 3-2 Serie A loss.
Lautaro and Dzeko or Lukaku?
Romelu Lukaku will possibly play a decisive one in this tie, having made just five appearances in all competitions pre-World Cup. He has four goals and four assists in Serie A since the restart and scored in each of the last two Champions League rounds.
“Romelu likes to play more between the opposition defenders to turn them, while I like to seek the space between the lines,” said Inter captain Lautaro when asked about the difference between Lukaku and Dzeko’s styles.
“With Edin, we keep a close eye on each other and adjust depending on the situation. I am learning a lot from both of them.”
Lautaro and Dzeko have been the starting pair in the Champions League this season, lining up together in seven of the 10 games.
Regardless of the partnership, the idea that Lautaro is solely the ‘little man’ in an old-fashioned front two is far from the truth — Inter rely on his back-to-goal play, particularly as an outlet in transition, and Dzeko is a strong runner of the channels too, as Inter’s second and third goals against Milan in the Supercoppa showed in January.
At the other end of the field, Inter’s shot-stopper Andre Onana has been particularly impressive across his 10 games played in Europe.
To succeed in any cup competition, you need a degree of overperformance along the way, and Onana’s “goals prevented” rate is the most of any goalkeeper in the Champions League, saving 6.7 goals above expectation based on the quality of shots he has faced.
As shown by the graphic above, Onana has been particularly strong with reaching low to his right side — most memorably making a crucial double save during Inter’s last-16 clash with Porto, keeping a clean sheet to help his side progress when the margins were tight.
This will be a poignant Champions League semi-final, played out at a San Siro about to be redeveloped in a city with 10 European Cups/Champions League trophies between them — seven for Milan and three for Inter.
Only one of them can reach the final, and it is worth reminding ourselves that Inter navigated a “group of death” containing Bayern Munich and Barcelona to reach the knockout stage, before dispatching Porto and Benfica, the strongest two teams in Portugal.
But any side that reaches the semi-final of the Champions League is there on merit.
What is Erling Haaland really like?
Sam Lee May 8, 2023
“Coming regularly we’ve got Ruben Dias, Maximo Perrone, Rodri, Jack Grealish, some former players,” says Beppe Francesco, owner of Vero Moderno. “Obviously somebody quite big and famous too, but he would rather remain anonymous because it’s the only chance he gets to have a bit of time off and unwind.”There is no confirmation from Francesco that the “big and famous” guy is Erling Haaland, but it is possible to join the dots. In September, a video was shared online showing the striker casually walking the streets of his new home — and if you look closely enough, you can see the ‘Vero’ signage of the small Italian restaurant in Salford, a short walk from Manchester city centre.In October, The Athletic’s Pol Ballus revealed that Haaland had hosted Francesco and a colleague in his box at the Etihad Stadium — the largest of all the players’ hospitality arrangements.
Francesco has no problem disclosing Grealish and Rodri’s regular visits because they are open about it on social media, and he tells a story of how Oleksandr Zinchenko was almost turned away on his first visit because he was wrapped up warm and hard to recognise. But regarding Haaland, if indeed it is Haaland, he is much more discreet.“I’ve got a story about one of the main guys who prefers to remain private,” Francesco says. “He put a story on his Instagram profile about our pasta. He didn’t put our name because I think he did not want people to hassle him and bother him because everywhere he goes he gets stopped.“We said that what makes him perform so well is the pasta we make for him, and we said, ‘Do you like the pasta so much that you keep coming back for the last seven months or is it because you are superstitious?’”All of the players’ favourite dishes are kept under wraps but there is an added layer of secrecy regarding Haaland.
The 22-year-old rarely goes out drinking around Manchester, as many of his team-mates like to do (as they are usually within their rights to). But he will go out late for pasta; restaurants, including one of Manchester’s San Carlo outlets, keep their doors open after hours so he can eat in peace“One day my father made me some lasagne to eat,” Haaland told the media earlier this season. “I ate it and the next day I scored a hat-trick. What can you do then but keep eating it? Next home game, he made lasagne, hat-trick. OK, I have to eat lasagne the day before a home game for the rest of my life.”
Perhaps superstition does come into it, because it has indeed become a regular fixture of the striker’s pre-match routine ever since — and that is on top of the regular visits to restaurants each week.
The lasagne is one of the few things that is known about Haaland’s life away from football. That video of him walking down the street in broad daylight stands out for two reasons: it shows the Premier League’s newest superstar, as noticeable as he is, casually walking without a care in the world. It is also the only such video.
In the days after his arrival in Manchester he was also photographed in a Sainsbury’s supermarket, shopping for items to fill his new flat near Victoria train station. Things like that have dried up now, too, and sources close to him, talking anonymously to protect relationships, talk of just how difficult it is to be out in public these days since things really took off on the pitch.
After he reached 50 goals for the season against Fulham at the end of April, Nike beamed a giant Haaland hologram onto the side of the National Football Museum in the middle of Manchester.
Back home, Visit Norway, the country’s tourist board, is planning to use him in a commercial and his hometown club, Bryne, have sold over 500 Haaland City shirts from their own club shop since last summer.
During his Borussia Dortmund days, he could walk the streets of Bryne normally, but he has, as far as is known, not been back since his move to England and the expectation is he will have to approach life there much the same as he now does in Manchester.
Sightings of him out and about are rare now. Even the autograph hunters who hang around City’s training ground daily, and regularly get signatures from the club’s other superstars, have hardly ever seen his car, a blue Rolls Royce – let alone him.
He gifts signed shirts to those he is close to – Bryne FK have several from him, as do many of his favourite restaurants in the town and now in Manchester — but it is apparently much harder to grab a casual signature without a pre-existing relationship.
After scoring twice in City’s 3-1 victory over Leicester City in April, he walked through the post-match interview area with Aymeric Laporte and Bernardo Silva. The latter, knowing exactly what the reaction would be from all parties, tried to push the much bigger man towards the reporters, joking, ‘Would you guys like an interview with Erling?’. He breezed straight past, and also past a small group of fans invited by sponsors to get signatures and selfies.
A signed Haaland shirt hangs in the window of a sporting memorabilia store in Manchester’s Arndale centre, an exception that proves the rule: they are supposed to be hard to come by.
Musician Noel Gallagher was one of the few lucky ones to have a post-match audience with Haaland, even if he was stripped down to his underwear, after the recent game against Arsenal.
Those who spend a lot of time around Haaland, including his team-mates, say he is quiet in the company of those he does not know. He can come across as aloof but that is often put down to being a little shy, sometimes awkward. “Remarkably normal”, as one person who met him recently puts it. “There was no ego.”
Haaland was never going to give that non-obligatory interview to the written press because, among various reasons, he has plenty of other mandatory requirements, both after matches and during the week.
Before joining City, he used to do one-on-one interviews with Norwegian press during every international break, but those have dried up now. When he attends sponsor events, or City’s in-house filming days, though, he is described as polite, friendly and engaging. He knows the names of the staff involved in City’s shoots and interacts with those present — which sounds routine but is not always the case.
As highlighted on camera for a recent Etihad Airways sponsorship, he is often funny, too. When John Stones pronounced “The Louvre” in his Yorkshire accent, Haaland hilariously impersonated him.
He has a very good relationship with Stones — and Grealish — and when the defender scored against Arsenal recently and the Etihad Stadium sang his name, Haaland joined in.
“See how he celebrates the goals of his mates,” Pep Guardiola highlighted the day beforehand. “What impressed me the most is that normally the strikers just think about ‘my goals, my goals’, and he wants to score goals, but you see his joy and his happiness when other players score.”
When he was ruled out of City’s victory against Liverpool a month ago, he could be seen jumping around in celebration just like any of the other fans in the stadium.
“If you ask me about how he is as a boy, it’s this example,” Guardiola says. “It’s difficult to find a striker with these numbers and normally you think, ‘Oh, it’s just me, me, me and me’, and he’s a guy who’s completely the opposite. That’s what surprised me the most about Erling since he arrived.”
The point about Haaland’s relative lack of selfishness was underlined again on Saturday when he gave Ilkay Gundogan the chance to complete a hat-trick against Leeds from the penalty spot. Haaland, as the club’s designated taker, would have been within his rights to take it; moments after Gundogan had missed, Guardiola left the striker in no doubt that he should have done.
Considering the amount of attention on him, Haaland manages to fly under the radar most of the time. There is talk that he has a girlfriend, but the fact there is no proof of that demonstrates how he and his team — his dad, Alfie, and the man dubbed his ‘uncle’, Ivar Eggja — protect him.
Several times this season, when the City players have been given a couple of days off, he has flown to his villa in Marbella. That is part of the joint commitment, by player and club, to keep him in tip-top condition.
“We take care of him 24 hours — we have incredible doctors and physios,” Guardiola says. “They are behind him every second of the day.”
One of City’s sports therapists, Mario Pafundi, joined Norway’s medical staff to ensure he is getting joined-up treatment and Haaland reserves particularly large pitchside hugs for Pafundi after matches.
Haaland was taught the benefits of good sleep — particularly the importance of limiting screen time before bed — when he was coming through the ranks as a teenager at Bryne and he has taken it seriously ever since. He wears orange-tinted goggles to help with that, too.
He is determined to look after his body and extend his career for as long as possible, which is part of the reason he was actually leaning towards a move to Real Madrid over a year ago — he felt Spanish football would be more forgiving than the rough-and-tumble Premier League.
Erling Haaland with Jack Grealish (Photo: LINDSEY PARNABY/AFP via Getty Images)
During attempts to persuade him to choose City instead, club officials suggested that were he to move to the Bernabeu he would have to play every game, lest the manager and therefore president, Florentino Perez, come under pressure. That would, therefore, lead to overexertion and more injuries.
City promised they would do all they could to take care of him, including not playing him if he felt he needed a rest, and it is one of the reasons he is taken off so quickly if he has scored goals and the game is deemed to be over.
He is delighted with how these promises have been kept and it is one of the reasons a contract extension is on the cards.
“We know we have to keep a watch because he’s so big,” Guardiola adds. “Physios, massage, backs, shoulders, tendons, everything.
“He works so much inside the training centre, much more than on the pitch. Today in modern football, players train more behind the scenes than on the pitch.”
Those in the building cannot emphasise enough how often Haaland receives a massage: in his early days at the club it became a running joke among the players that he would be on the massage table for some kind of rub-down.
They also joked, ‘How many will you score today?’ during those blistering first couple of months, to which he simply smiled. Perhaps unbelievably, though, in the very early days his finishing was not something that stood out in training, especially compared to his physical attributes. That soon changed, of course.
He is not especially impressive in City’s rondos, though, and his frustration at being passed around has been caught on camera a few times in the rare 15-minute glimpses the media are granted before European games.
Normally his stronger emotions are reserved for opponents who cross his team-mates, like when Ben White confronted Phil Foden after the Arsenal game recently, or when Newcastle’s Dan Burn picked a fight with Grealish. Both times Haaland had been joking before noticing the trouble and darting in as if a loose ball had broken inside the penalty area.
Claims attributed to Bayern Munich’s Leon Goretzka that Haaland “farted every time we approached him” have been debunked as false — although there is a video which suggests something along those lines may have happened. Brentford defender Ben Mee, though, has revealed Haaland kept pinching him during a game earlier this season.
Those guys have paid the price for getting too close to him, which is not something that is easy to do.
What it’s like to play at Real Madrid’s Bernabeu fortress on a Champions League night
Dermot CorriganMay 8, 2023
I remember the emotion was amazing with our fans in the stadium, very high up in the third tier of the stadium,” former Italy defender Giorgio Chiellini tells The Athletic, of the night at the Estadio Santiago Bernabeu when his Juventus team eliminated Real Madrid in the 2014-15 Champions League semi-finals.
“My brother was there too, lots of people from my family, and I celebrated with them in the stand,” continues the now Los Angeles FC centre-back. “Also in the locker room afterwards with the team, we were very excited about the win. Because it does not happen every time. Usually you go back crying from the Bernabeu. But fortunately that time was different.”
That 2015 success makes Chiellini and Juventus one of the few teams to have been celebrating after a Champions League meeting with Real Madrid over the last decade.
Since Madrid ended their long wait for the ‘Decima’ European Cup in 2013-14, they have played 25 Champions League knock-out ties and gone through 21 times, often after stirring and dramatic ‘remontada’ comebacks at a noisy and heaving Bernabeu.
Within the last 16 months, Paris Saint-Germain, Chelsea (twice), Manchester City, Liverpool have all been eliminated by Madrid, and City are back there on Tuesday evening for a semi-final first leg.
Another with personal experience of visiting the Bernabeu on a big Champions League night is former Atletico Madrid goalkeeper Miguel Angel Moya.
“Everyone in Europe knows the worst team to draw in a Champions League tie, or especially in a final, is Real Madrid,” Moya tells The Athletic. “But, faced with this challenge, players will say, look lads, last year at the Bernabeu they knocked out PSG, City and Chelsea. And they are doing it again this year. But we have to respond, make sure that does not happen to us. City’s players know that playing Madrid will be their most difficult game possible.”
Back in 2015, Chiellini and Juve came to the Bernabeu to defend a 2-1 semi-final first-leg lead, against the Madrid side who had won the Decima the year before.
Before the game, coach Max Allegri predicted “95 long and interminable minutes”, and so it turned out. Cristiano Ronaldo scored an early penalty, but Juve rolled with the punches and Alvaro Morata’s strike kept them in control of the tie.
“I remember with pleasure the semi-final in 2015,” recalls Chiellini. “It was a beautiful game. It was tough, we suffered a lot because it is always very difficult to play against Real Madrid. I also conceded a penalty which they scored. But in the second half, Morata equalised. Over the two legs, in the end, we deserved to win. But also, when there is a game like that, you need to be lucky. Near the end, they might have scored a couple of times, it was the same for us also.”
Chiellini’s next visit was in April 2018. This time Juve had lost the first leg 3-0 in Turin, a game which featured Ronaldo’s memorable bicycle kick. In the days before the return, Allegri gave his players belief by predicting that, if they got one goal back, nerves from the crowd could help them.
(Photo: Massimiliano Ferraro/NurPhoto via Getty Images)
Mario Mandzukic headed into the net after just 76 seconds, and by the hour mark it was 3-3 on aggregate. The game seemed set for extra time until Madrid were awarded a penalty in added time, which Ronaldo converted.
“A few days before, Allegri started to tell us to believe,” Chiellini says. “Maybe it could happen, and don’t worry. If we score, they will struggle. And everything he said happened during the game. We scored early, and managed the game. Our mistake was to think it was finished. Then a small mistake, positional mistake, doubts, and unfortunately we lose. But it was one of the greatest games I played with Juventus.”
English referee Michael Oliver whistling the debatable penalty enraged Juve on the night, with Juve goalkeeper Gianluigi Buffon red-carded before the kick was converted by Ronaldo. Asked if match officials can be influenced by the Bernabeu atmosphere, Chiellini remains diplomatic.
“I think it was a 50-50 call,” says Chiellini. “But you have to think of the importance of the game. It could be a penalty in the first game of the regular season after 10 minutes, but maybe not in injury time in a Champions League quarter-final. But in the end, it’s done. (Oliver) is a very good referee. He was an assistant in the Euros (Euro 2020) and I told him I apologise for our attitude after the game. He could understand, especially with our disappointment, our sadness.”
Another team to thrive in unlikely circumstances at the Bernabeu were Bundesliga side Schalke. A member of the team who came to the Bernabeu for a 2014-15 last-16 second leg was Christian Fuchs, who would later win a Premier League title with Leicester in 2016, and is now a coach at MLS team Charlotte FC.
“After losing the first leg 2-0 at home, we were the clear underdogs,” Fuchs says. “The expectations were minimal, which gave us freedom in how we approached the game. We started on the front foot, and confidence grew over the game. We began to believe we could make something special happen.”
Fuchs himself increased that belief by cracking a shot past Madrid keeper Iker Casillas to open the scoring on the night. The former Austria international says that for many opponents the chance to play at the Bernabeu and do something special can be an extra motivation.
“The moment when the ball hit the net was very emotional,” Fuchs says. “A youth coach told my team back then that one day he wishes one of his players would play in the Bernabeu and score a goal. I called him right after the game.”
The early goal set in motion a helter-skelter game. Schalke led on the night three times, but Madrid scored when they had to through Ronaldo and Benzema to progress 5-4 on aggregate. At times the 4,000 visiting German fans were making more noise than the Madrid supporters.
“It was extraordinary,” Fuchs says. “The atmosphere was electrifying. We were able to turn the crowd on their own team. And even though we didn’t progress into the next round, we celebrated the win with our travelling fans. It’s a night I will always remember.”
Moya’s debut for Atletico was at the Bernabeu, in a Supercopa de Espana game that finished 1-1. He was also part of Los Rojiblancos squads who won there in both La Liga and the Copa del Rey, but Real always had the upper hand in the Champions League.
Diego Simeone’s side were edged out by their neighbours in the 2014 final in Lisbon and 2016 decider in Milan, while in the other two seasons the Bernabeu legs were decisive.
“I don’t believe in coincidences,” Moya says. “We always tried to make it tactically a difficult, tough game for Real Madrid, with a very organised defence, trying to take advantage of set-pieces and counter-attacks. But the personality, character and quality of Madrid’s players comes through in the Champions League. Even in Milan, Madrid had sufficient personality to know how to manage the shoot-out better than us.”
In the 2015 quarter-finals, Madrid’s Javier ‘Chicharito’ Hernandez scored the only goal of the tie with just minutes remaining in the second leg.
“I remember those games as lots of tension, lots of emotion,” says Moya, who was on the Bernabeu bench that night. “Watching you have a lot more nerves. On the pitch, you can control the situation more, so your heartbeat is more relaxed. It is your city rival, a Champions League tie. Arda Turan’s sending off made it even more difficult, but derbies are like that.”
The 2017 ‘derbi’ first leg was not so tense, as Ronaldo headed Real in front early, then completed a hat-trick late in the second half.
“Maybe we did feel deja vu,” Moya admits. “In the end, we players are not machines. We are people, with emotions, and feelings. So when Cristiano scored, it is impossible for these things not to pass through your head. It’s happened again, it’s just not going to happen for us. But you have to fight against that feeling, and the team did not drop off.”
The story has been repeated again and again over the last 15 months, but there has been less drama this season as Ancelotti’s experienced side have comfortably managed to progress against Liverpool and Chelsea to return to the last four for the 11th time in the last 13 years.
Chiellini says that rival players are well aware of Madrid’s record in the competition, even when (as this year) they are not having a good season domestically in La Liga.
“It is special to play in the Bernabeu because Real Madrid has a particular legacy with the Champions League,” he says. “They are very able to turn a not-beautiful moment in the Spanish league into an amazing performance in the Champions League. We all remember what happened last year, they conceded in all three knockout games, were almost out, but at the end, they reached the final, and they won another trophy.
Real Madrid celebrate winning the Champions League in 2022 (Photo: Mustafa Yalcin/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images)
“Real Madrid have a good fanbase, but it is not always 80,000 fans with their team to the death. The atmosphere for the Champions League is different. But more than the Bernabeu fans, or the narrative, or the history, it is the players who are decisive. The very best players, like those at Real Madrid, are formed in games like these. How many of these types of games has (Toni) Kroos played, or (Luka) Modric, (Karim) Benzema, (Thibaut) Courtois, (Dani) Carvajal? Or Casemiro, Cristiano, (Sergio) Ramos when they were there? These are players who have played Champions League finals, World Cups, European Championships. Madrid have an advantage due to their players’ experience.”
It can help Madrid when rival teams decide they want to show their quality and class and look to open up and attack at the Bernabeu, Moya says.
“Chelsea this year did not have the responsibility of other seasons, they have been having a difficult season in the Premier League,” Moya says. “But if Man City or Bayern come to the Bernabeu, like PSG last year, they want to take them on as equals. (City) will have moments when they are even dominating the game and the possession. But Madrid are among the best teams in the world in knowing how to come through difficult moments. That is when their players like Modric, Kroos and Benzema do not feel any pressure. They are able to show their very best version of themselves, which is what makes Real Madrid special, in my opinion.”
Chiellini’s Juventus were one of the very few teams to deal with that pressure and turn it back on Madrid. He also says the key to coming through a big night at the Bernabeu is to be ready for those key moments in games when it seems all is going against your side.
“Teams have to defend, but it is not just defending,” says Chiellini. “You have to be prepared that everything could change in a few moments. Remember last year Paris Saint-Germain won 1-0 at home and were winning 1-0 in Madrid. They were dominating Madrid, creating a lot of chances, (Kylian) Mbappe seemed unstoppable. Then in 15 minutes it all changes. A small mistake, in this stadium, and they punish you. They have the players, they have the history, they have everything. So Manchester City, in order to win in Madrid, have to be perfect. But they can do it.”
Few opponents know as much or talk as much about Madrid’s relationship with the Champions League as City manager Pep Guardiola. As a coach, Guardiola has taken teams to the Bernabeu four times – he won 2-0 with Barcelona in the 2010-11 semi-final first leg, but lost 1-0 in the 2013-14 semi-final first leg when at Bayern Munich.
With City, his team won 2-1 at the Bernabeu in the 2019-20 last-16 first leg on the way to eliminating Madrid, and last season they brought a 4-3 advantage to Spain but were knocked out 6-5 on aggregate.
The Catalan has talked up Madrid as ‘kings of the European Cup’ before previous visits. Moya is not sure that is the best message to send to his own players ahead of a visit to the Bernabeu.
“Guardiola has a difficult job, to choose his approach, and Plan B if needed,” Moya says. “The message from Guardiola, and how his players take it on, will be crucial. City’s players are used to playing these games, but have not yet reached the record of those at Madrid. Now we will see how City handle it, whether they have learned their lesson, whether they are able to eliminate Madrid.”
Chiellini laughs when The Athletic asks if, as one of the few rival players to have success at the Bernabeu in the past, he has any advice for Pep or City.
“I cannot give advice to the best coach in the world, and also they are a very amazing team,“ he says. ”They are doing very well this season, it was not easy to overcome Arsenal and lead the Premier League. I really will enjoy this game as a football fan. Anything could happen in this game.”
Why U.S.’s U-20 men’s World Cup squad won’t include some of its best young players
By Tom Bogert May 8, 2023
When the U.S. men’s U-20 team lines up for its opening U-20 World Cup match against Ecuador on May 20, it won’t be the strongest possible XI.The problem isn’t unique to the United States. Roster construction is a complicated maze for all federations, as the youth tournament does not fall in a FIFA-mandated international window and clubs can decline to release players. Federations lobby for the players’ release and clubs grapple with the decision. Do they keep first-team players with the squad or send them to represent their country in Argentina at the world’s premier youth tournament?Players generally want to go. Representing their country at a World Cup, albeit an age-specific precursor to the iconic senior event, is an unforgettable achievement. It can also be another major stepping stone in their careers.“It’s kind of shocking that I see some of the guys I know not being released, and it sucks,” Atlanta United’s Caleb Wiley said. “I’m super thankful the club released me to represent my country. This is something that doesn’t happen often. For me to be able to go to Argentina, it’s special.”When the tournament kicks off, European clubs are wrapping up their seasons, with titles, continental tournament qualification, relegation and cup finals still on the line. MLS clubs have games that Wiley, a key starter, will be missing.“Think about the kids — and I’m getting fired up — this is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity that they may never get back again,” Philadelphia Union head coach Jim Curtin said. “To prevent them from playing in a U-20 World Cup? I’m sorry, I don’t agree with it.”Curtin said the Union will “excitedly release any player” called up. It’s expected the Union’s Jack McGlynn, Quinn Sullivan and Brandan Craig will get the call for the U.S. Rosters have to be submitted to FIFA by May 10. McGlynn has won a starting spot with Philly, Sullivan is an important rotation attacker and Craig is currently one of only four first-team center backs Curtin could call on amidst a jam-packed May schedule.It’s not that simple at other clubs, though.“Sometimes there are moments in life where you have a choice between a bad solution and a bad solution,” Chicago Fire sporting director Georg Heitz told The Athletic. “This is one of those moments.”
For Heitz and the rest of the Chicago Fire, the decision was to decline to release midfielder Brian Gutierrez and goalkeeper Chris Brady. Both were expected to be on the roster if released by the clubBrady is the club’s first-choice goalkeeper. Gutierrez is the starting No. 10, even after Swiss international, and the league’s second-highest paid player, Xherdan Shaqiri returned from injury. The Fire have missed the playoffs in nine of the last 10 years, and fired head coach Ezra Hendrickson on Monday.“My job is to defend the interests of the Chicago Fire, to defend the interests of our coaching staff and, of course, the players,” Heitz said. “There you see the problem — It’s a conflict of interest. The strongest argument not to let them go is the schedule. We have so many games in May, and we need these players. They are pillars in this team, we’re speaking about our No. 1 goalkeeper and our playmaker.”Brady and Gutierrez won’t be the only ones held back by their clubs. Croatian side Hajduk Split already announced American midfielder Rokas Pukstas will not be released either. Pukstas has started each of the last 11 Hajduk matches he was available for, playing all but one minute over that timeframe. The club has four league games left, as well as the Croatian Cup final coming on May 24.The statuses of Eintracht Frankfurt midfielder Paxten Aaronson and Wolfsburg winger Kevin Paredes aren’t defined, either. Aaronson broke into the Frankfurt matchday roster quicker than anticipated after a winter transfer from the Philadelphia Union, appearing in each of their last three games off the bench. Frankfurt is in the German Cup final on June 3.
“If the player is playing a huge role in the team in a professional league — against adult men in first divisions where there’s pressure on the standings — are you willing to release a player playing a significant role inside your team?” LA Galaxy head coach and sporting director Greg Vanney said. “There are different beliefs on that. In most places around the world, if a young player is playing, a lot would say no. There’s a reason why FIFA doesn’t make this mandatory (to release players). A club has to reflect on that.”
For the Galaxy, the player to reflect on is center back Jalen Neal, who has been a crucial figure over the U-20 cycle and even made his senior national team debut in January. But he’s become an indispensable starter and a bright spot for the Galaxy, which has just one win in 10 games and saw center back Sega Coulibaly go down with an injury in the first half of Saturday’s 3-1 loss to Colorado.“If I feel like I can cover the team and I can afford Jalen some level of experience in this, I’d love to do that,” Vanney said. “I need to talk to him to see where his head is at but I also need to look after the other players who are here and trying to win games, win championships.”The Galaxy could have had as many as four players at the tournament.In addition to Neal, fellow Americans Mauricio Cuevas and Markus Ferkanus were also on the U.S.’s qualifying squad. Unlike Neal, they haven’t broken into the first team rotation, with Cuevas arriving from Club Brugge in April. Vanney said Cuevas and Ferkanus will be released if called.They also have Argentina youth international Julián Aude, who was acquired from Lanus in March. Aude was a starter for Argentina at the U-20 South American championships, but was not called into their squad for the U-20 World Cup.
Vanney indicated there was a collective agreement between the player, his camp, the Galaxy and the Argentine federation that it would be more beneficial for Aude to remain with the Galaxy, where he quickly became a starter.“Some of it is a little bit cultural in terms of where in the pecking order of the priority list we put the U-20 World Cup relative to first division soccer,” Vanney said.
MLS clubs are caught in the crossfire more than European clubs.For one, clubs in the United States’ domestic league are expected to be more cooperative than those abroad. The league calendar also means it’s the early part of the season and in a league that has a playoff system in which more than half of the teams qualify.ADVERTISEMENT
“Sometimes you’ll hear from sporting directors or coaches who say ‘development, development, development,’ but then when it comes time, it’s ‘well I can’t sacrifice points here,’” Curtin said. “We all have to be in it together and really be about it, not just talk about it.”
Another key starter in MLS who is eligible for selection is San Jose Earthquakes homegrown winger Cade Cowell, who has started all 10 of the club’s MLS games. Like Neal, Cowell has been a crucial figure in this U-20 cycle and has made his debut with the senior national team.
“There’s more that goes into it than what people probably realize,” San Jose Earthquakes sporting director Chris Leitch said. “How does it impact our club? In the case of Cade, he’s a week-in, week-out starter. That’s a consideration, but it’s also about what’s best for the player. … He’s played in a lot of MLS games but he hasn’t played in a U-20 World Cup. We’re collaborative with the player.”
Cowell and other standouts from the U-20 World Cup could be called into the senior national team this summer, as well. The Nations League and Gold Cup tournaments run at the same time as the MLS season. How long can clubs be without key starters?
“It’s not just like ‘oh okay, he’s invited, let him go.’ There’s a lot that goes into this,” Leitch said. “But if you’re going to pride yourself on developing players, you have to give them opportunities in a different competition, even if it’s not best for your club. Also you’ve got to be willing to say ‘let’s see what the next guy is able to do with this opportunity, as well.’”
There’s also an obvious monetary value to this proposition.
FIFA U-20 World Cup Winner’s Trophy. Photo: Harold Cunningham/FIFA
Competing at a U-20 World Cup is another pedigree marker for any player, and it’s a tournament all clubs across the world are watching.
Players from the United States’ squad at the 2019 U-20 World Cup like Mark McKenzie, Chris Durkin and Julian Araujo have since moved abroad. Tyler Adams, Erik Palmer-Brown and Auston Trusty were at the 2017 U-20 World Cup.
“It is the premier youth tournament, it’s heavily scouted and the hope is there’s a value-add in putting more eyeballs on watching a player live,” Leitch said. “You watch Cade Cowell on video, you see he’s fast. You see Cade Cowell live and you’re like, holy cow, he’s world-class fast. … You can see it on the video, but seeing it live? You see how electric that really is.”
Catching the eye of clubs higher up the global food chain is important for players, as well as testing themselves against the best players in the world in their age group.
“You want to play in World Cups as a player, right?” Atlanta head coach Gonzalo Pineda said. “U-20 (World Cup) is a tournament that is very important for getting attention from European clubs, for understanding where you are in the world with your performance. You see where you’re at in your age group.”
It’s not exactly the same discovery for players in the United States as it previously may have been, though. Through advancements in scouting technology, globalization in the soccer world and more clubs figuring out elite talent can be produced in any corner of the world, the starlets who will represent the United States are already well-known to scouts across the world.
“I’m not sure a player goes there and does a whole lot for their value,” Vanney said. “Scouting is so sophisticated. Jalen is an example, when he played 200 minutes as a teenager, it’s already hitting flags in every scouting department in Europe that there’s a 19-year-old center back playing in MLS.”
The Fire have already rejected a transfer offer from Club Brugge for Brady almost a full year before he made his first team debut (as first reported by ESPN in 2022). Gutierrez has already turned heads in Europe with two goals and five assists across 1,693 minutes in his age-18 season last year.
“I would bet both players will make their way to Europe, with or without the U-20 World Cup,” Heitz said. “We’ve proven it with Gaga (Slonina) and (Jhon) Duran: You can make big, big transfers out of MLS directly.”
Some clubs will release players, some won’t. The equation is different for each situation.
“It may not be a black-and-white answer,” Vanney said, “but there’s a gray answer in there somewhere that makes sense for everybody.”
Whitecaps, Crew and Dynamo look very different from their 2022 MLS season finishes
By Jeff Rueter and Joseph LoweryMay 4, 2023
At times, MLS preseason prognosticating may seem like a frivolous pursuit due to the league’s intentional parity and lack of visible preseason friendlies. But make no mistake, teams and their fanbases take the speculative process very seriously. We’ve seen predictions become the lifeblood of a year’s worth of “nobody believes in us” or “prove the haters wrong” from the league’s head coaches. Last year, Austin FC even turned this concept into a tangible object by running the league website’s preseason picks through a laminator.
Acknowledging where we would like more insight into how a team is preparing for a new year, we dug into the numbers of three teams that made seemingly small changes (mostly overlooked in preseason) to turn their bottom-half finishes in 2022 into promising starts to 2023.
This trio of teams, which missed the playoffs last year, has looked significantly improved through the first third of 2023. Two of them, unsurprisingly, made a coaching change and the third signed a designated player at striker (albeit one who was far from a record signing). No matter the scale of the modifications, it appears that brighter days have arrived for the Vancouver Whitecaps, Columbus Crew and the Houston Dynamo.
2022: 9th in West
First third of 2023: 9th in West
On the surface, not much has changed for the Vancouver Whitecaps. Sure, MLS has decided that a mid-to-lower-table standing is worthy of a playoff berth, but it’s hardly progress.
Don’t let the table fool you, though. The 2023 version of the Whitecaps is better than any we’ve seen in nearly a decade — including the Vancouver team that went on a red-hot run under then-interim manager Vanni Sartini to make the playoffs at the end of the 2021 season. Sartini, who is now in his second year as the club’s permanent manager, is coaching a sleeping giant. Despite the club’s unassuming place in the table, they have the third-best expected goal differential per 90 minutes (+0.62) in all of MLS, according to FBref, which puts them behind only two teams: LAFC and the Seattle Sounders.
A huge part of Vancouver’s promising play has been its sharp attack, even if it hasn’t quite translated to high-level results just yet. They move the ball quickly, have a clear structure and deliberate final-third patterns that have led to clear chances.
So far this year, the ‘Caps are second in MLS in non-penalty xG per 90 (1.69). Vancouver uses a 4-3-2-1 shape with a pair of attacking midfielders or one attacking midfielder and a striker in that band of two. We’ve seen that Christmas tree shape from other MLS teams in the past – you wouldn’t even have to leave the Cascadia region to revisit the Portland Timbers with Diego Valeri and Sebastian Blanco playing underneath a central striker. What makes Sartini’s version unique (and truly goal-dangerous) is how Vancouver creates width and overloads in the attacking half.
Instead of asking the attacking midfielders or even the fullbacks to provide consistent width, Sartini gives his central midfielders the freedom to make overlapping runs from deep areas to destabilize the opposing defense. This is especially clear with Julian Gressel on the right side of the field.
Playing as the rightmost center midfielder, rather than in his more standard outside back role, Gressel has been an absolute monster through this first chunk of the season. Per FBref, he’s in the 99th percentile in expected assisted goals per 90 and the 96th percentile in expected goals per 90 among MLS midfielders so far this year. While he starts sequences in central positions, Gressel uses his speed and understanding of space to get forward and add an extra number on Vancouver’s right side. He then uses his elite right foot to deliver pinpoint passes into the box.
That’s good news for Ryan Gauld, who has been Vancouver’s chief (and often only) creator since joining in 2021. Even with Gressel’s involvement, Gauld sits ninth in MLS with 4.58 open play chances created per 100 touches of the ball. With a worthy distributive deputy, Sartini’s team has become very difficult to contain.
Down below, you can see how the Whitecaps’ chance creation has changed from last year to this year. In 2022, 34% of their open-play chances were created from the right wing and the right halfspace. This year, that number is up to 45%. That’s the Gressel Effect, folks.
Here’s what Gressel’s attacking involvement looks like in practice, via a clip from Vancouver’s most recent game against the Colorado Rapids. Gressel starts inside as a No. 8 before rotating out wide, breaking forward and playing a teasing ball into the box for Gauld.
Below is another example of Gressel’s attacking impact, this time letting right back Javain Brown do the hard running. The newly minted U.S. international, Gressel, stays in the halfspace, waits for a return pass from Brown and then whips a ball right onto Brian White’s head.
With the new attacking rotations – and some other margin-exploiting moves like Brown’s masterful long throw-ins – Vancouver has created chances and controlled games for long stretches of the year. According to Opta, they’re fourth in MLS in passes per sequence (3.84). They’ve also registered more touches in the opponent’s box per 90 (28.9) than any team in the league.
So why aren’t they higher up the table?
While the ‘Caps do a lot of fun things, they’ve been wasteful in the attack. They’re 20th in shot accuracy (32.2%) and are under-performing their non-penalty xG by more than five goals, according to TruMedia, the fifth-most wasteful return from their chances in the league. Those numbers are far from ideal, but getting DP striker Sergio Córdova back from his hamstring injury should help if their tactical and personnel advantages sustain.
Deemed expendable by FC Augsburg after they signed Ricardo Pepi, Córdova was loaned to the RSL in 2022 before being sold to the Whitecaps last winter. His 0.19 xG per shot clip in 2022 was tied for fourth-best among all players who averaged at least one shot per match. Once fully recovered, he should bring exactly what his team is begging for: someone who’s prolific at finishing inside the box.
2022: 8th in East
First third of 2023: 6th in East
The Columbus Crew won an MLS Cup under Caleb Porter in 2020, but the club struggled to find the best version of itself under its former manager.
Wilfried Nancy, who came to Columbus during the offseason fresh off of finishing second in the Eastern Conference with CF Montreal, certainly appears to elevate the Crew. How is he doing it? Well, at least part of Columbus’ success stems from its newfound ball-heavy approach. Under Nancy, the Crew has become the single most possession-dominant team in the league with an average of 58.6% possession per game, which is up from 52.5% last year.
Everything that Columbus does — from its positioning to its passing tendencies, to its pressing — is designed to help the team control the ball. They play in a 3-4-2-1 shape, usually with three center backs and two deep central midfielders forming a very narrow pentagon shape.
The midfielders and center backs are extremely patient on the ball, almost treating buildup like a training rondo. Pass, pass, pass, break lines. Repeat. Pass, pass, pass, break lines. Repeat. Nancy instructs his players to stay calm in possession because he wants to force the Crew’s opponents to make the first move. Eventually, opposing defenders get tired of waiting and step forward out of their shape, which then opens up space for Columbus to play forward.
In the below clip from its most recent game, the Columbus Crew is in possession in its own half. After they move the ball from the left side of the backline to the middle, center back Philip Quinton puts his foot on the ball, daring Inter Miami striker Leo Campana to step forward. He wants Miami to press. Campana and Miami oblige, which prompts the Crew to start moving with purpose. Center back Steven Moreira then finds a progressive pass to attacker Alexandru Matan between the lines, and after just a few more seconds, Columbus has the ball in the final third.
Here’s what the cat-and-mouse game looks like in practice.
For all of the Crew’s pretty passing, its attacking play still needs work. They’re really good at getting the ball into the final third, but once it gets there things break down. According to FBref, they’re 13th in MLS in non-penalty xG per 90, which is decidedly average.
There are a few possible issues behind Columbus’ struggles. First, it takes time for players to adjust to a new system. Moving from a mostly simple 4-2-3-1, like the one Porter used, to Nancy’s hyper-controlled 3-4-2-1 isn’t easy. Second, star striker Cucho Hernandez has played just four games this year due to a knee injury. A fit Hernandez could make a difference in Columbus. Third, outside of Hernandez and No. 10 Lucas Zelarayan, the Crew doesn’t have a lot of top-end attacking talent. None of their wingbacks or other attacking role players are proven game-changers in MLS.
But even with work to do in the final third, the beauty of Nancy’s style, and Columbus’ adaptation of it, is that ball control isn’t just an attacking mechanism. It’s a defensive one, too.
Crew manager Wilfried Nancy on his philosophy and the changes across MLS
Through 10 games, the Crew is allowing just 0.96 non-penalty xG per 90, according to FBref. That puts them fourth in MLS, behind only LAFC, Nashville SC and the New York Red Bulls. If the opposing team doesn’t have the ball, it’s impossible for them to create a chance or score a goal. Columbus knows that — which is why they try to win the ball back as quickly as possible. According to Opta, they have the third-lowest passes per defensive action in MLS, which means they engage the ball more often outside of their defensive third than all but two teams. With a commitment to ball dominance, which is shown through counter-pressing and defensive activity, Columbus has been one of the best defensive teams in the league.
It’s that defensive work and overall control of games that makes the Crew such a difficult team to play against in the Eastern Conference.
2022: 13th in West
First third of 2023: 6th in West
Last year was rough for the Houston Dynamo. In its first full season under new ownership, Houston finished second-to-last in the West, fired its coach in the middle of the season and didn’t see much improvement once star Mexican international Hector Herrera joined in the summer. But with Herrera available from the start of the season and Ben Olsen on the touchline, we’re seeing signs of progress in Houston.
Looking at the technical area first, Olsen is a more experienced manager than former Swope Park Rangers/SKC II head coach Paulo Nagamura was ahead of his brief stint with the Dynamo last year. In 2022, a fluctuating roster and coaching changes made it difficult for Houston to establish on-field rhythm, patterns, and chemistry. Sure, the Dynamo used both a 4-2-3-1 and a 4-3-3 shape in possession, but they lacked any real consistent style. Olsen, who arrived in Texas in the offseason, was a stabilizing force after a decade in charge of DC United. He has opted for a straightforward approach: a 4-3-3 possession shape that shifts into a 4-4-2 mid-block.
Within that rough attacking shape, players have the freedom to interchange and move into different lanes depending on the moment. Unsurprisingly, no player has more freedom to roam than Herrera, who plays as a nominal left central midfielder but often drops deep, moves wide or steps forward to dictate the game as he sees fit.
It’s clear that Olsen is making a concerted effort to help Herrera get on the ball more in 2023 by asking the entire team to hold the ball for longer stretches.
It’s a novel concept that Nagamura and interim successor Kenny Bundy struggled to implement. Entering the weekend, Herrera is just over 50 minutes shy of matching his ledger from last season. Similar sample sizes help show just how Olsen’s midfield is playing compared to his predecessors’ — starting with putting greater trust in the club’s most important player.
Plucked straight from Diego Simeone’s team sheet at Atlético de Madrid, signing Herrera last summer was seen as a major coup for the Dynamo. The Mexico captain was still in his prime (albeit, perhaps, its tail-end) playing consistent minutes for one of Europe’s great clubs. By the time he arrived in Houston, he found himself trading Champions League starts for a headlining role on a historically bad Dynamo.
With greater clarity under Olsen, Herrera and co. look increasingly organized. A class above nearly all MLS midfielders, Herrera has enjoyed more freedom to get on the ball, making nearly 18 more touches per 90 minutes played than he had last fall. Rather than forcing long balls up the pitch in desperation, Herrera is opting for carries whether he’s collecting the ball from a teammate or an opponent. Letting Herrera keep the ball at his own feet rather than launching it forward jives well with his game.
The star midfielder’s altered deployment has helped keep the Dynamo from getting stretched in the transition while also allowing them to retain a slightly greater rate of possession (50.3%, up from 48.5% last year). They’ve also flipped their field tilt — a stat that tells you what rate of aggregate final third touches were made by the Dynamo — from a meek 44.4% last year to a more competitive 50.6% clip through the first eight games of 2023. That may have as much to do with keeping opponents off the ball as any other factor. While the Dynamo’s average time of possession has risen from 24.4 seconds last year to 25.2 thus far, their opponents have seen that rate drop far steeper, from 24.8 seconds to 20.3.
All of this helps drive home what’s needed to take Olsen’s turnaround project to its next stage: a dependable goalscorer.
Moroccan newcomer Amine Bassi made MLS history, becoming the first player to score a penalty kick in four consecutive games, but the team won’t likely be so lucky the rest of the season. Among players with at least 350 minutes logged (and three shots on target, to weed out opportunistic defenders), Herrera is the only player among the league’s top 77 players in non-penalty goals per 90 minutes. Most MLS teams can expect to have two or three attackers who are more prolific than Houston’s best, with Bassi ranking 78th on 0.18. Paraguayan winger Iván Franco ranks 44th league-wide with 1.9 non-blocked shots per 90 — just behind Herrera (2.0) and well behind former Dynamo striker Christian Ramirez (now with Columbus) on 2.96.
Still, the Dynamo is tactically sound, not over-exerting themselves to make a strong first impression, but rather establishing a metronomic tempo to sustain over the duration of the season. Perhaps the goals will come from Sebástian Ferreira, who was the club’s record signing last winter but has largely been frozen out this season. Perhaps Franco will be moved on to open a DP slot this summer, or they’ll get real production from new U-22 Initiative attacker Ibrahim Aliyu or a summer signing.
Whatever the case, the start of this season has brought one thing which has been in short supply among Dynamo fans in recent years: hope.
It’s time for Manchester United to move on from David de Gea after yet another costly error
- Mark Ogden, Senior Writer, ESPN FCMay 8, 2023, 11:00 AM ET
- Erik ten Hag has earned a reputation for making tough decisions as Manchester United manager this season, such as sanctioning the departure of Cristiano Ronaldo in November and dropping out-of-form captain Harry Maguire. But his ongoing faith in goalkeeper David de Gea could cost the club a place in next season’s Champions League.
United have other areas of concern, such as scoring just three goals in their past six games. But, by failing to drop De Gea, Ten Hag risks allowing the club to fall back into the rut of rewarding mediocrity rather than displaying the ruthless streak that provides the backbone of every successful team.
Sunday’s error from De Gea during United’s 1-0 defeat at West Ham United, when he was beaten by a weak Said Benrahma shot from 20 yards, was the latest costly mistake that he has made in recent weeks. What was once a rarity is becoming the norm for the 32-year-old. Yet, despite his declining form, sources have told ESPN that United remain committed to extending De Gea’s stay at Old Trafford into a 13th season — although not necessarily as the club’s No. 1.
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Only two goalkeepers — Gavin Bazunu and Alex McCarthy, who both play for bottom club Southampton — have a worse save percentage in the Premier League this season than De Gea’s 68%. And yet the United No. 1 is also leading the race to win the Golden Glove award for most clean sheets with 15 shutouts — two more than Alisson, Nick Pope and Aaron Ramsdale. Nothing quite sums up the enigma of De Gea than those two starkly contrasting statistics.
On the one hand he has become a liability in Ten Hag’s United team. The West Ham error came less than a month after the Europa League exit against Sevilla when three De Gea mistakes led to a 3-0 quarterfinal second-leg defeat. But De Gea can also produce moments of incredible agility and reflexes, making match-winning saves to support those who believe he is still one of the best goalkeepers in the world. Yet De Gea’s inconsistency is now the only consistent element of his game and United’s outfield players are performing without the reassurance that comes with having a goalkeeper at the top of his game.
Premier League Table
|1 – Man City||34||+58||82|
|2 – Arsenal||35||+44||81|
|3 – Newcastle||34||+32||65|
|4 – Man United||34||+9||63|
|5 – Liverpool||35||+25||62|
|6 – Tottenham||35||+7||57|
|7 – Brighton||32||+22||55|
|8 – Aston Villa||35||+3||54|
|9 – Brentford||34||+7||50|
There is no escaping the reality that De Gea’s poor distribution with the ball at his feet is a recurring problem for United. That was identified by former manager Louis van Gaal as far back as 2015, when Sergio Romero was signed to provide competition for De Gea, who almost completed a move to Real Madrid during the summer transfer window. It is also why De Gea has not played for Spain since October 2020, with former coach Luis Enrique not even taking him to Qatar as part of his 2022 World Cup squad due to reservations over his footwork and reliability.
At United, De Gea’s poor communication skills have led to misunderstandings with his defenders, while opponents now regularly target him at corners by crowding him out and exposing his reluctance to be assertive when the ball is in the air. It’s a throwback to how he struggled when he first arrived from Atletico Madrid in 2011, before toughening himself up against the more physical demands for a goalkeeper in the Premier League.
Ten Hag said that De Gea “has my full belief, no concerns,” following the West Ham defeat, but statistical evidence is mounting to suggest that the United manager is either in denial or protecting his goalkeeper in public while harbouring concerns over his reliability. During the past three Premier League seasons, 27 goalkeepers have played 30 games or more, and De Gea’s numbers within that group place him at the wrong end of most of the key categories.
He ranks 13th in terms of goals prevented, while only five keepers have conceded more goals than De Gea since the start of the 2020-21 season. He is seventh when it comes to Expected Goals Against, and only Leeds United‘s Illan Meslier has a worse save percentage (65.5%) over the last three seasons than De Gea (68%).One positive for De Gea during that time frame is that he is a respectable sixth when it comes to clean sheets with 32 — Manchester City‘s Ederson is top with 49. He also broke Peter Schmeichel’s club-record 180 clean sheets in February, albeit having played 137 more games at the time than the Treble-winning keeper.With De Gea’s contract due to expire at the end of this season, the club has assessed alternative options; Switzerland No. 1 Yann Sommer was considered in January before he left Borussia Monchengladbach for Bayern Munich following Manuel Neuer‘s season-ending leg injury.A source close to De Gea told ESPN following the Sevilla defeat last month that, after 12 years at United, he was keen to return to Spain this summer. However, he accepted that he had no realistic option due to Real, Atletico and Barcelona all having settled goalkeepers and no other club in LaLiga able to come close to matching his £375,000-a-week salary.
De Gea also accepts that he will have to take a substantial pay cut to stay at Old Trafford, but sources have said an agreement between player and club is close to being concluded. It is not the most positive situation, though, for a contract to be signed due to the player having no alternative options and the club realising that it would be cheaper to keep him on reduced wages — even is he has been given no guarantees he will be first-choice next season.– than sign a new, more reliable goalkeeper.
Ten Hag’s squad is burdened with a number of players who signed new contracts despite a failure to justify them with their performances. It seems that history is about to repeat itself with De Gea. Unless, of course, Ten Hag displays the ruthless streak that accounted for Ronaldo and Maguire by drawing a line under the De Gea era.
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