February — when the tough get going.
The 2023-24 season has been another chock-full of surprises, but rarely have we seen quite so many at once. If Girona and Bayer Leverkusen are serious about their title chances, then their games this week would be the ones on which to assess their credentials. The opposition? Real Madrid and Bayern Munich respectively.
From England to Italy, Germany to Spain, four table-topping clashes jumped from the calendar. The Athletic watched them all. This is what they told us.
Bayer Leverkusen 3-0 Bayern Munich: The changing of the guard
We are 31 games into the season, and Bayer Leverkusen are yet to lose a game.
Without a major trophy in 31 years, Xabi Alonso suddenly has them as overwhelming favourites for two. They are in the last four of the cup, and five points clear in a league that they have never won — a title that no team other than Bayern Munich has held for 11 long seasons. The Bundesliga tide might finally have turned.
This was a demolition, from start to finish; one of Leverkusen’s most lethal performances with the ball. With their ability to switch up their attacking speed, from quick, punchy link-up through the midfield, to arrowed forward balls through the heart of the Bayern defence, Thomas Tuchel’s side were sucked in and sent sprinting towards their own goal.
No one passes the ball quite like Alonso’s side; only Manchester City have completed more per game this season, but over 57 per cent of those are short. With Granit Xhaka breaking the lines from the base of midfield, and the supremely talented Florian Wirtz dropping deep to demand the ball, technical players are close together in the build-up. From there, they can play quickly through the crowded centre, or look to move the ball out wide.
The build-up to their opening goal on Saturday — ironically scored by Josip Stanisic, on loan from Bayern Munich — showed Leverkusen’s press-baiting schemes in full flow, trusting their individual quality to help them breeze through pressure and into space.
With Stanisic in the side, the hosts gained an extra man in their 3-2 build-up shape, not as adventurous as Alejandro Grimaldo on the other side. From a goal kick, the team collapses inwards, five players in close proximity, with the dangerous Wirtz lurking for additional support.
Five passes later, and the ball is moved down the other side. Wirtz drops and then sprints in behind, dragging Leon Goretzka out of position and opening up the penetrative forward pass up to Amine Adli.
He lays the ball off to Wirtz, who skips through the two challenges, before slipping the pass back through to Adli. Five short passes lead to one killer ball, and Leverkusen are bearing down on an exposed back four.
All three goals in this statement victory were scored by wing-backs and that is no coincidence. Grimaldo has 17 goal contributions on the left this season, while the devastating pace of Jeremie Frimpong is a potent out ball from the tip-tapping build-up in midfield.
A euphoric night ended in bedlam, a glorious third scored with Manuel Neuer up for a corner, but this was anything but a chaotic encounter.
Leverkusen were organised, incisive and inspired, and in this kind of mood, might already have one hand on their maiden Bundesliga crown.
Real Madrid 4-0 Girona: A procession
Two games have ultimately defined Girona’s unprecedented shot at the La Liga title — their only two defeats.
Despite everything — gargantuan efforts, historic victories, irresistible, slick football — Michel’s side arrived at the Santiago Bernabeu in hope rather than belief. With their manager in the stands and their most experienced player suspended, they were overawed by the occasion, and overwhelmed by the team that will surely now take their pipe-dream prize.
A week-by-week slog with Real Madrid must be exhausting. Last-gasp winners at Alaves and Las Palmas in recent weeks, along with that comeback win over Almeria, will have been hammer blows for the Catalan side. Especially as Girona will know that Madrid have plenty more gears to click into. Vinicius Junior’s unbelievable opener after five minutes, sending an unstoppable drive dipping and curling past Paolo Gazzaniga, was ominous confirmation that they had their foot firmly on the pedal.
From there, the atmosphere changed and the quality told. A strange feeling of calm descended on the Bernabeu and the big-game apprehension dissolved, as it became abundantly clear that Madrid were in control. They had done this kind of thing countless times before; their plucky visitors had not.
The midfield battle was particularly lopsided, as the physicality of Jude Bellingham, Eduardo Camavinga and Federico Valverde smothered Girona’s build-up. This allowed the hosts to keep the pressure on as they charged into challenges up high.
That, in turn, meant that Toni Kroos could drop deep and set the tempo, peeling away from the pressure and spearing passes left and right to set Madrid down the wings.
Particularly in the first half, as adventurous full-back Miguel Gutierrez tried to get forward for Girona, the German midfielder landed pass after pass in behind down the right flank, as the below visual shows.
Daley Blind was a huge miss for the visitors. His temperament and big-game know-how would have helped to calm the nerves in shaky moments at the back. But Yangel Herrera’s presence in the midfield was also sorely absent.
Flanked by the attack-minded duo of Ivan Martin and Portu, Girona’s creative hub, Aleix Garcia, could not get a foothold in the game. He was swamped by Madrid’s trio of relentless runners. He completed 86 of his 88 passes — as his prominence in this pass network indicates — but was unable to link as expansively as he usually does with his team’s forward players.
It was a dose of reality for Girona, an effortless dismantling at the hands of a super-club. They have shown character throughout a scarcely believable campaign and will need to dig deep again with an equally daunting trip to in-form Athletic Bilbao to come.
As for the title though, this was as emphatic a statement as any. The kings of Spanish football are coming for their 36th crown.
Arsenal 3-1 Liverpool: Adrenaline
Early afternoon on a cloud-covered Sunday in the capital, and we’re squashed onto a Victoria Line train, rattling through the underground tunnels of London. The carriage is hot with boozy breath and excitement, stuffed with puffy black coats draped with red and white.
There are three hours until kick-off as the train pulls into Finsbury Park. It’s a big game.
Arsenal have a habit of making a racket under Mikel Arteta, and the visit of Liverpool to the Emirates was no exception. The buzz was amplified not only by serious belief that they could take down the league leaders, but by their growing need for points. Defeat would leave Arsenal eight points behind their visitors. A victory would close the gap to two.
The players had no choice but to win, as a fizzling atmosphere dictated a fast and frantic start. Arsenal flew out of the traps. As Martin Odegaard pressured Virgil van Dijk into an early scuffed pass out of defence — Kai Havertz, Bukayo Sako and Declan Rice all jumping forward in support — the tone for a relentless contest was set.
Four minutes later, and Arsenal were hitting hard in possession, launching a blistering counter-attack after a high claim and powerful throw from David Raya. This came just two weeks after the Spanish shot-stopper did the same to set up his team’s third goal against Crystal Palace. It would be one of five Arsenal direct attacks, a tally that they have only bettered three times in 155 Premier League games under Arteta.
The opening goal of the game would be about verticality too, but in the context of intricate, shape-shifting build-up.
In frame one, as the hosts circulate the ball around the back, notice that Havertz has dropped into the No 8 space alongside Odegaard. That leaves Liverpool’s centre-backs questioning whether to follow the forward into midfield, while leaving Arsenal with plenty of passing options, as well as creating a dilemma for Cody Gakpo.
A few passes later, Gakpo has been sucked in to mark Havertz, creating the space for the ball out wide to Oleksandr Zinchenko. He fires the ball into Odegaard — who has attracted Van Dijk with his movement — while Havertz charges through the gap and behind a defensive line that has been patiently tempted up the pitch.
Although Havertz can’t finish the chance himself — Saka instead bundles home the rebound — it is his powerful forward run that bulldozes through the man-to-man system.
No team have scored more goals in the opening 15 minutes than Arsenal since the start of last season, while their tally of 1.6 xG after the opening quarter of an hour here was the joint-highest of the Arteta era. The hosts were up for it, and a frenzied atmosphere only sharpened their instincts.
Liverpool played their part too, even if they were largely nullified by an inspired home performance. Now back to the top of the table after a 3-1 win of their own against Burnley this weekend, there were smatterings of technical quality throughout; not least from Alexis Mac Allister, who emerged from several rapid midfield rondos with the ball at his feet.
There is an elephant in the room, of course, and a significant chance that neither of these teams will end up winning the Premier League. But even if Manchester City use the distraction of this game to quietly surge to a fourth consecutive crown, both teams served up a quintessential top-of-the-table clash. There was atmosphere, adrenaline and tactical innovation at full tilt.
Inter 1-0 Juventus: Attrition
Last Saturday’s pre-match at the San Siro was less cacophonous, more spectacular. But beneath the spine-tingling tifo on Curva Nord, between the scarf-swinging and a booming anthem, the weight of the significance of the football game to follow was no less palpable.
Inter have only one rival for this season’s Serie A title, and they arrived in Milan on a 19-game unbeaten streak. They are stingy, battle-hardened, and able to match their opponents man-for-man in their resolute 5-3-2; but the only team in Europe to have conceded fewer goals per game than Massimiliano Allegri’s Juventus were the side that they were about to play.
Immovable object met immovable object, but something had to give.
Be it home advantage or table-topping confidence, Inter were the most inventive in the opening half an hour. Stepping forward from a three-man defence, wide centre-backs Alessandro Bastoni and Benjamin Pavard were comfortable striding into midfield with the ball at their feet, allowing the hosts to pen their opponents in.
Space was limited though, and the pass had to be perfect to find its way through. Marcus Thuram showed his potential in the opening moments, with a powerful run down the channel to win his team a corner, but both stalls had been set very quickly indeed.
The key for Inter lay in their dynamic midfield duo. While the tigerish Nicolo Barella tore up, down and across the San Siro pitch in search of the ball, the majestic Hakan Calhanoglu would drop deep to receive, showcasing a supreme quality of pass unlocked by his positional shift.
The former’s energy and drive are encapsulated in the eighth minute as he works overtime to pull apart a rigid system. See the No 23 alongside Calhanoglu in that clear build-up shape, with Thuram lurking offside.
Barely a second later, and he has set off to unsettle his midfield markers, darting between the lines and causing Adrian Rabiot to back-track.
By the time Calhanoglu receives the ball, Barella has covered the width of the pitch, opposition midfielders and defenders alike aiming concerned glances and taking tentative steps in his direction. By then, his Turkish teammate has opened up his body and fizzed a cross-field pass to Matteo Darmian, isolated on the opposite side.
In the end, this was a granite-grinding game taken by the more positive side. The one, decisive goal, as Barella swung in a cross that Pavard — from centre-back — attempted to acrobatically convert, was an illustration of the swirling flexibility and individuality that helped Inter find a way through.
The visitors created opportunities themselves — a huge chance for Dusan Vlahovic towards the end of the first half will live painfully long in the memory — but when a game plan is more smash-and-grab than front-footed football, those moments simply cannot slip from your grasp.
Inter have since gone on to follow up this momentous win with another, defeating a resurgent Roma 4-2 in the capital.
Now seven points clear, few can begrudge them their firm, hard-fought lead at the top.
(Top image: Getty Images)