Man City’s gritty Premier League triumph, Mbappe picks PSG, Ten Hag era begins at Man United
Well, that was a fun end to the season, wasn’t it? AC Milan rolled to the Serie A title over Inter Milan, but of course, the biggest stories were Manchester City‘s dramatic comeback to pip Liverpool to the Premier League crown — their fourth in five seasons — and the end to the Kylian Mbappe saga, as the PSG star completed his deftest trick yet in committing to Paris over joining Real Madrid.
It’s Monday, and Gab Marcotti reacts to the biggest moments in the world of football.
Jump to: PL’s dramatic final day | Why Mbappe chose PSG | Real Madrid furious | Milan win Serie A | Ten Hag era begins at Man United | Juve’s weak season | Conte, Spurs magic | Leipzig’s first trophy | Barca’s rebuild begins
Man City edge Liverpool to their fourth Premier League crown in five years
After an emotional and dramatic final 90 minutes of the Premier League campaign, let nobody speak of a “lack of personality” on Pep Guardiola’s team. For the second straight game — against Aston Villa on Sunday and against West Ham the week before — they came back from two goals down to get a result in games they were losing until 21 and 12 minutes from the end. (They would have won that West Ham game, of course, if Riyad Mahrez had converted his penalty, but then we would have had a far less dramatic final day of the campaign.)
Folks will point to the vast financial resources at Guardiola’s disposal, at the dubious human rights record of the club’s owners, at the fact they were found guilty of breaching Financial Fair Play in 2014 and found guilty of refusing to cooperate with a subsequent investigation, and at the fact that they are still being investigated by the Premier League for various reporting violations (an inquiry that began more than three years ago).
And they’d be right. But guess what? Sometimes more than one thing can be true at once. The fact that Guardiola had enormous financial resources at his disposal doesn’t mean what the club has built is any less impressive. Would it be more impressive with a smaller budget? Of course, just like a 5-foot-10 guy who can dunk is more impressive than a 7-footer who dunks. But that doesn’t take away from the way they play and the way they won this Premier League title.
Indeed, when it comes to resources, it’s also worth noting how they got here.
I wrote before that they began the season with 19 senior outfield players and finished it with 17 because Benjamin Mendy and Ferran Torres were not replaced. Pep’s choice, Pep’s problem, right? Sure, but that doesn’t change the fact that they were two men down. And then they got further down because Kyle Walker and Ruben Dias got injured (Nathan Ake and John Stones too, though both were involved). That’s how you ended up with a 37-year-old defensive midfielder like Fernandinho impersonating a center-back (and struggling) in a title decider.
Grit saw them through at the end as much as talent, though the contributions of Kevin De Bruyne and substitutes Ilkay Gundogan and Raheem Sterling were immense. And that’s not something to be taken for granted, even at this level. Money buys you talent; it doesn’t buy you chemistry and personality.
Of course, grit united with quality was also the story of Liverpool’s season too. They went down to the wire in every competition they entered (four in total) and by the end of the campaign, the wear and tear showed. At one point, in January, they were 14 points behind City. With two games in hand, sure, but still two games you need to win. And at the end, the margin was a single point. In fact, since drawing with Chelsea on Jan. 2, Liverpool played 18 league games and dropped points just twice: away to City and home to Tottenham. To maintain this relentless pursuit — while at the same time advancing to the finals of two domestic cup competitions as well as the Champions League — borders on the superhuman. That, presumably, is what Klopp means when he talks about his “mentality monsters.”
These two clubs graced us with a tremendous season and it’s not a coincidence that both their points totals (93 and 92 respectively) are in the all-time Premier League top 10. Only one got to win the Premier League trophy, but both “won” this Premier League season thanks to the football they served up, the inspiration they provided and the emotions they kindled.
What makes zero sense in the Mbappe deal … and what might be behind it
I appreciate few might be up for more Kylian Mbappe speculation after 15 straight months of it. I wrote about this on Saturday, but there’s one thing that doesn’t add up to me unless there’s something we don’t know.
Mbappe held all the cards in this negotiation, as you’d expect from a free agent who is 23 years old and already one of the top players in the world. Both Paris Saint-Germain and his mother (who represents him, along with his father) say the two clubs’ offers were “comparable.” Believe it if you like — many don’t — but either way, when you factor in the potential commercial income that comes from playing at a bigger club in a bigger league over the next decade or so, at the very least, you realize they were in the same ballpark. After all, Real Madrid aren’t shy about paying top players top dollar — maybe not straight away, but very soon thereafter (look at Cristiano Ronaldo‘s last contract at the Bernabeu).
Now compare it to PSG. This is a club that lost $350 million between 2019 and 2021 and after acquiring Lionel Messi, Gianluigi Donnarumma, Georginio Wijnaldum, Achraf Hakimi and Danilo Pereira, are sure to take a massive loss again. Losses need to be funded and PSG, as we know, are funded by the Qatari owners. It’s fine right now because, for all intents and purposes, Financial Fair Play is suspended. But it is set to return at the start of the 2023-24 season, and it’s not clear at all how PSG can comply.
Kylian Mbappe discusses his decision to snub Real Madrid and stay with PSG.
OK, you might be an uber-cynic who argues that UEFA will look the other way because PSG’s Chairman, Nasser Al-Khelaifi, sits on UEFA’s executive committee. Fine. I’ll humor you … though a soft touch with PSG would enrage other clubs to the point that some will start singing the Super League blues and this time, they might have far more widespread support.
Let’s imagine there are no FFP difficulties for PSG. Would Qatar really continue to bankroll massive losses ad infinitum? Even after the 2022 World Cup has come and gone? (Remember, the whole point of investing in PSG was to showcase the country and football ahead of the big shebang.) But yeah, I’ll give you that one too. Let’s pretend there’s no FFP punishment and the Qataris will continue covering massive losses.
What about the sporting side? He’s playing in a frontline with Lionel Messi (who is 34, out of contract in June 2023 and coming off the worst season since he was a teenager) and Neymar (who is 30 and has started barely half of PSG’s games since arriving in 2017). Oh, and the sporting director has just been fired and Mauricio Pochettino will likely be on his way soon.
Fine. Maybe Mbappe has limitless faith on the sporting side too and is confident they’ll freshen up, or that Messi and Neymar will live up to their reputations (in a World Cup year, no less). But if that’s the case, why sign a three-year deal? Why not a five-year deal? All a three-year deal does is put you back at square one in terms of contract speculation in a year’s time …
That’s what I don’t get. If Mbappe is truly committed to PSG, the logical thing to do — for him and the club — is sign a long-term deal. Or you hedge your bets and you stay another season and enjoy the benefits of free agency — or, at least, the ability to choose — next summer. Which, if I was his mom — and I’m not — is what I would have advised if he really wanted to give it another go in Paris.
Maybe she did. Maybe there’s a release clause we don’t know about that frees him next summer. Maybe it’s the sort of thing you can’t publicise because it makes it look like you don’t have faith in the “project” so you dress it up as a three-year deal.
It’s pure speculation on my part, but it’s the only answer I can come up with.
Real Madrid are fuming, Javier Tebas too … but what now?
Gab & Juls debate who Real Madrid could look to sign after Kylian Mbappe extended his contract at PSG.
Some naturally revelled in the “schadenfreude” of Real Madrid missing out on Kylian Mbappe, and the fact that a club so used to getting their own way when it comes to transfers suddenly — and unexpectedly — got rebuffed. We may never know the truth about whatever verbal commitments may or may not have been made, but I imagine a guy like Florentino Perez, a man who has been around the block not just in football, but in the real world too, knows better than to take anything for granted until the ink is dry on the line that is dotted.
Still, it hurt, and it angered many, including Liga boss Javier Tebas, who threatened lawsuits over the fact that PSG were spending money they didn’t have. I don’t think the lawsuits will go anywhere — it’s not clear what court or jurisdiction applies here — but he does have a point. Financial Fair Play has de facto been suspended until the new rules come into effect a year from now. PSG boss Nasser Al-Khelaifi has always insisted that his club are compliant, but of course, they’ve been found guilty of breaches twice before and, more importantly, they racked up $350 million in losses between 2019 and 2021 and are sure to record massive losses again in 2021-22.
The ball will move into UEFA’s court a year from now. Al-Khelaifi is president of the European Club Association and a member of the Executive Committee, as well as a strong supporter of UEFA President Aleksander Ceferin. Unless something seismic happens (like selling Mauro Icardi for €500 million … don’t hold your breath) UEFA must ensure that one of two things occurs. Either PSG are sanctioned for breaching the new FFP rules, or if they are somehow found to be compliant, they need to offer a full, transparent and credible explanation for how they did it. Otherwise, FFP will have little credibility and the new rules will be getting off on the wrong foot, at the risk of prompting a revolt of the superclubs, led by Real Madrid.
Milan win Scudetto over Inter and defy conventional wisdom
Julien Laurens discusses how Milan’s Scudetto win bodes for their future in Italian football.
Serie A also came down to the final day of the campaign, albeit with substantially less drama than the Premier League. Inter, hosting Sampdoria, needed to win and hope that Milan lost away to Sassuolo. The Nerazzurri did their part, winning 3-0, but two goals in the first half-hour or so from Olivier Giroud dampened whatever hopes they might have had (Milan also won 3-0).
What’s remarkable about Milan’s campaign is the broader context around it. They decided they were going to balance the books and grow through youth, scouting, data and, above all, the collective rather than the individual superstar. And they were true to their word.
They were not held to ransom by guys like Donnarumma, Hakan Calhanoglou and, this year, Franck Kessie and Alessio Romagnoli, all of whom left — or will be leaving — as free agents. This was the youngest squad in Serie A, and players like Alexis Saelemakers, Pierre Kalulu and Rade Krunic came from (close to) nowhere. The analytics side worked hand in hand with the scouting, delivering guys like Mike Maignan, Rafael Leao, Fikayo Tomori and Theo Hernandez.
Zlatan Ibrahimovic — the one true, bona fide superstar — accepted a reduced role. And that fact that you struggle to name a “Player of the Season” — Maignan? Sandro Tonali? Theo? Tomori? Leao? — is evidence of what a team effort this was. So much for the old Serie A paradigm whereby winning required experience and veterans and “guys who have won in the past.”
Clubs in other leagues (primarily in Germany‘s Bundesliga) have taken this approach in recent years as well, but Milan did it in Serie A, the land of entrenched thinking, and won the title, and that’s a whole different kettle of fish.
As for Inter, they will look back and think of the many missed opportunities, starting with Ionut Radu‘s mistakes against Bologna and the points dropped in the derby. Sure, a bit of self-criticism and retrospective analysis is always worthwhile, but they would do well to reflect on how far they’ve come since last summer, when they lost Achraf Hakimi, Romelu Lukaku, Christian Eriksen and Antonio Conte all in the space of a few weeks, while the club was up for sale and burdened by debt and spending restrictions.
That they won the Coppa Italia, were the only team to beat Liverpool at Anfield this season and competed until the final day … all of it is a testament to the work Simone Inzaghi and his crew have done this season. Get the regrets and second-guesses out of the way, and build on what you have.
Man United end season with a whimper, starting Ten Hag era on wrong foot
Erik ten Hag confirms his desire to include Cristiano Ronaldo in his plans at Manchester United.
You might have heard that United’s 1-0 defeat at Crystal Palace means this is their lowest points total since the 1989-90 campaign, when they lost more games than they won and finished 13th. But at least that side won the FA Cup that year, and at least they had Sir Alex Ferguson, who had not yet become an Old Trafford legend (he was plain old “Alex Ferguson” back then) and, in fact, was often harshly criticised, but had nevertheless steered the side to second place two seasons before and had won European and domestic silverware with Aberdeen (breaking the Celtic-Ranges duopoly).
Now it’s over to Erik Ten Hag who, of course, can’t be compared not just to Sir Alex, but to the Alex Ferguson of 1990 either. He’s got a mountain to climb, and you hope the club can let him get to work without needless distractions — distractions like the ones we’ve had in the past 48 hours.
Ten Hag attended the Palace game with one of his assistants, Steve McClaren, but this was apparently news to the incumbent, Ralf Rangnick, who said he “wasn’t sure” whether Ten Hag was there, making him seem not just like an out-of-the-loop lame duck, but that nobody had the courtesy to tell him. And on Monday, when asked about Rangnick’s role as a consultant, Ten Hag said he did his own analysis and whatever Rangnick was going to do was “on the club.”
Ten Hag can work any way he likes, of course. But the less he offers up fodder for distraction, the better.
Ralf Rangnick speaks after Man United’s 1-0 loss to Crystal Palace on the final day of the Premier League season.
Allegri says Juve’s season was ‘dignified’ and that there’s a ‘good base…’
Juventus ended their 2021-22 campaign with a tame 2-0 defeat away to Fiorentina. It didn’t matter — Juve were going to finish fourth regardless — but it’s still a bit jarring to hear Max Allegri call it a “painless loss,” just as it was jarring to hear talk of a “dignified” season when this is Juve’s lowest points total since 2011 and eight points fewer than last year under Andrea Pirlo (when they also won the Coppa Italia). Sure, Pirlo had Cristiano Ronaldo and Allegri did not. Equally, Pirlo was a rookie manager and Allegri is, well, Allegri.
Allegri also said they had a solid base from which to rebuild. Sure, there’s Dusan Vlahovic, Manuel Locatelli, Federico Chiesa (assuming he’s the same player when he returns from injury) and Matthijs De Ligt. Luca Pellegrini, Weston McKennie and Dennis Zakaria too, plus some youngsters, but there’s no denying there’s a big rebuild ahead.
Some of the departures — essentially a natural turning of the page — might help when it comes to the likely exits of Giorgio Chiellini, Paulo Dybala and Federico Bernardeschi, and it will certainly help the balance sheet. But the key to the project will be Allegri. For better or worse, Juventus put their eggs in his basket.
Conte would make an awful bookie … and Son is criminally underappreciated
Janusz Michallik reacts to Tottenham sealing a place in next season’s Champions League.
It wasn’t that long ago that Antonio Conte said there was a “one percent” chance of Tottenham making the Champions League. Well, if he’d given me odds of 100-1, I would have certainly have taken that bet. As it turns out, he’s either a terrible tipster or he was being dramatic, because Tottenham’s 5-0 thumping of Norwich saw them qualify for the Champions League on Sunday.
Conte added his own postmatch drama by appearing to refuse to commit to the club, saying he needed to speak to chairman Daniel Levy and sporting director Fabio Paratici first. Long-time Conte-watchers (and Paratici) will know to take this with a pinch of salt. After all, Conte always says stuff like this after a season: he’s convinced it’s the best way to make sure the club give him as much as he can get in the transfer market. I don’t think there’s anything to fear, other than Levy loosening the purse strings.
Meanwhile Heung-Min Son bagged two goals to become the Premier League’s joint top goalscorer, alongside Mohamed Salah. And here it’s worth showing some appreciation for the Korean forward, who so often flies under the radar. Most would not put him among the Premier League’s top players, yet in terms of scoring contribution (goals+assists per 90), he ranks third (0.84), just behind Kevin De Bruyne (0.88) and Salah (0.94). Unlike the other two, he logged more than 3,000 minutes this season, a testament to his durability too.
RB Leipzig win first-ever trophy … still no popularity contests though
It was a classic contrast in styles in the German Cup final. Freiburg, with their pride as a true community club, against Leipzig, with their fizzy drink patron and their bending of rules (starting with 50+1). It wasn’t so much underdog vs. big dog because lest we forget, these teams were separated by just three points at the end of the Bundesliga campaign.
The match itself reflected this: a 1-1 draw that ended up going to penalties, with Leipzig winning the shootout. They won’t win popularity contests anytime soon and, in some ways, that’s the irony. They can rally around the “no one likes us/we don’t care” siege mentality and turn it to their advantage because other than how they got here, there’s so much to admire at Leipzig.
A final thought on coach Domenico Tedesco. This was Leipzig’s third cup final: the two managers who lost before him are Ralf Rangnick and Julian Nagelsmann, the guru and the Golden Boy of German coaching. Not bad for a guy who was so derided when he left Schalke.
Barcelona lose to Villarreal, but second place is locked up … now it’s over to the accountants and the front office
Xavi already “won” his chunk of season by taking over Barcelona in ninth place and taking them to second, as high as they could realistically go this year, so their final day defeat against Villarreal matters little. There will be regret for the manner of their Europa League exit against Eintracht Frankfurt, but there’s no question that the vibe at the club is positive.
They’ve already secured, in principle, Franck Kessie and Andreas Christensen for next season as free agents and are linked with Robert Lewandowski. All of which is great, but the next step will come late this month, when LaLiga’s beancounters confirm their spending limits for this season. That will set the baseline: beyond that, they will need to wheel and deal intelligently if they’re going to be able to register Kessie and Christensen, let alone pursue bigger ticket items like Lewandowski.
Xavi has been critical to turning things around on the pitch, but what happens next will be determined as much by men in suits, both accountants and the front office.