Wild Days, New Faces and a Ticking Clock
The season is still young. The sample size is far too small to draw conclusions. Over the next month or two, order most likely will be restored. As the weeks clog with matches, as muscles tire and injuries occur, chances are that the familiar faces will be the ones left standing. That is the privilege of having deep pockets, of course: They tend to contain the deepest squads.
But a glance at the standings across Europe’s major leagues this week is enough, at least, to make you wonder if something strange is happening, if something, however small, has shifted, if all those factors that might have made this season less predictable — the absence of fans, the shortened preseason, the compacted schedules — have had some sort of effect.
It might only be in the Premier League that goals suddenly seem to come so easy, each weekend’s results now featuring fours and fives and sixes so frequently that they have lost their shock factor. Manchester United, Manchester City and Liverpool have all endured a humiliation. Chelsea is gleefully drawing 3-3 with everyone and anyone, whether you like it or not.
Those scores may be unusual, but that the table is led by Everton and, having not yet dropped a point, Aston Villa is not so different from what is happening elsewhere. Serie A, for example, has a top four of A.C. Milan, Sassuolo, Atalanta and Napoli. Juventus is down in fifth.
In Spain, the top seven contains Getafe and Granada and newly promoted Cádiz. Real Madrid is third, behind Real Sociedad and Villarreal, but Zinedine Zidane’s team has now lost twice in a row — once domestically to Cádiz and once in the Champions League to a Shakhtar Donetsk team decimated by coronavirus.
In France, Paris St.-Germain lost the first two games of its Ligue 1 campaign, though it has roared back since. It won five in a row and closed to within two points of Lille, the early leader, before Europe brought it low again, thanks to a chastening home defeat to Manchester United.
Bayern Munich is second in Germany, behind RB Leipzig, but it started its season beating Schalke, 8-0, and then managed to lose by 4-1 to Hoffenheim a few days later. Hansi Flick’s team almost dropped points at home to Hertha Berlin, too, conceding a late equalizer before scoring an even later winner. Even the best-run team on the planet is not immune to the wildness of these early-season days.
The same weekend as his team squeezed past Hertha, Flick took in Liverpool’s collapse against Aston Villa. The temptation was just to chalk it up as just one of those things, a Halley’s Comet of a result, where everything — Liverpool’s stand-in goalkeeper and its dysfunctional back line and Ollie Watkins’s suddenly transforming into Ruud van Nistelrooy — fell in Villa’s favor. It might have seemed just another surreal moment in a surreal season.
Flick, though, saw it differently, and it is worth lingering a little on his assessment as we try to work out just when — or even if — normal service will be resumed and the season will become, as it is supposed to be, a nine-month confirmation of the general principle that might makes right.
Liverpool and Bayern are, stylistically, very similar. Both play with a high defensive line — Flick, very proudly, pointed out that no team in Europe “plays further from its own goal line” than Bayern — and both do so because they are ardent, almost fanatical, counter-pressers. The main creative force behind both teams, for all their individual talent, is opposition error.
As soon as each team loses the ball, it seeks to win it back, hunting in packs at the precise moment when the game is at its most fractured, and its opponent is in what everyone now calls “transition,” switching from defensive to offensive mode. The high line is vital to that system: It compresses the space, squeezes the game, reduces the chance an opponent can escape.
It is a high-reward strategy. Done well, it not only gets results in the short-term — the foundational statistic of pressing is that most goals are scored within a few seconds of regaining possession — but it conserves energy over a long season.
“It is cheaper to play like this,” Ralf Rangnick, the former RB Leipzig coach, told El País. Rangnick is, together with Klopp and Marcelo Bielsa, one of the founding fathers of the modern pressing orthodoxy. “If you do it well, you complete a greater number of sprints, but reduce the number of long runs.”
But it is also high-risk. As Rangnick said, you “have to be on fire” to make it work. What Flick saw, as he watched events at Villa Park unfold, was a team sputtering out. Liverpool’s press failed — though whether through a lack of energy, of conviction or of organization is not clear — and, as it did so, it brought the team crashing down.
“Pressing is a style of play in which you have to be absolutely focused,” Flick said. “You need total intensity. Every single part of the team has to be part of that process. It cannot be 96 percent or 97 percent: It has to be complete. There has to be pressure on the ball at all times. There is always a huge space between the goal and the defensive line, and if you don’t have everyone absolutely alert to every moment of danger, you can suffer badly.”
Liverpool’s fate was, to Flick, a warning. Bayern, he said, “needed to learn” from what happened to Klopp’s team, just in case defeat at Hoffenheim and the close call against Hertha were not evidence enough.
For all of those unlikely league leaders and surprise contenders across Europe, though, it should offer hope. Over the next few months, Europe’s elite teams face a relentless torrent of games: Liverpool’s win against Ajax on Wednesday, for example, was the first of 17 matches in 75 days.
None of the teams has had a proper preseason. Fatigue is likely to be a more significant factor in this compressed season than normal, particularly for teams with both continental and domestic commitments. Managers will be forced to rotate their resources more than they might like. There will most likely be more injuries and less cohesion.
The bulk of Europe’s superpowers favor a style that has to work perfectly, according to Flick’s estimation, to work at all. They have to take that risk to reap the rewards. In these highly specific circumstances, this slog of a season, they may be more vulnerable than normal; they may be more susceptible to more days like the one at Villa Park, like at Hoffenheim, days when it all just falls apart.
And in that there is a glimmer for those teams who are steady, rather than spectacular. It may well be a season defined by variance — the lower the better — in which the determined tread of the tortoise has an advantage, for once, over the erratic bursts of the hares.
Across Europe, these have been wild days: breathtaking score lines and bottomless wells of goals and a sense that nothing is certain, not any more.
Those who stand to benefit, though, are those — perhaps Everton and Tottenham, maybe Real Sociedad and Atlético Madrid, even RB Leipzig and A.C. Milan — who resist that wildness the best, who grit their teeth and get their heads down and churn through the madness, those who do not waver, those who do not aim for a peak and so never see a trough.
You, Too, Might One Day Be West Brom
Another week, another plot to change the face of soccer forever exposed to sunlight. Hot on the heels of Project Big Picture — a revolution that lasted five days before everyone decided that actually everything was FINE — comes what is, by my count, the 254th version of that old trope, the European Super League.
The thinking behind this one is the same as the thinking behind all the others: the big clubs want to play each other more often, the small clubs are holding them back, they want to break free of the bonds of national leagues and leave UEFA and play soccer games in between swimming in money like Scrooge McDuck.
There are countless problems with this — and, in all honesty, while some sort of transnational elite competition is probably inevitable, this iteration of the idea is not the one that will make the breakthrough — but central to them is what should, I think, be called The West Brom Compulsion.
To the elite, the presence of West Brom — and all the many teams like it across Europe’s major leagues — is a hindrance. Nobody wants to watch them in Asia! They’re piggybacking our gravy train! If only we could get rid of them!
The problem, here, is a misunderstanding of how leagues work. If you have a league, you will, ultimately, end up with a West Brom, or several of them. It does not matter how glamorous and rich the teams you gather in your competition are, some of them are going to finish at, or near, the bottom. Their greatest immediate hope is for the security of mid-table, where their games do not attract an audience because they have little riding on them. They cling on by their fingernails in their meetings with the elite. They look like filler.
That, really, is the ultimate irony of the logic behind the super league as a concept: Some of these clubs that are desperate to get rid of West Brom and their ilk will end up taking that exact role themselves. That is also the risk: by losing West Brom, someone — maybe Juventus or Arsenal or A.C. Milan — will become West Brom.
The Center of the World Has Shifted
“Madness,” Iker Casillas called it. In 2011, over the course of 18 spring days, Barcelona and Real Madrid played each other four times: once in the league, once in the Copa del Rey, and then home-and-away in the semifinals of the Champions League. The games were tense, the atmosphere was toxic, and the rest of the soccer world stood still to watch.
Those three weeks, captured from the inside in “The Duellists,” the Italian journalist Paolo Condo’s account of the four clásicos, may well have been modern soccer’s peak: the two defining managers of their generation, the two biggest clubs on the planet, the game’s fiercest rivalry, the world’s dominant national team effectively split in two. It was, as the marketing spiel behind WrestleMania V had it, the moment the megapowers exploded.
This weekend brings the first clásico of this season and — even ignoring the fact that Camp Nou will be empty — it is impossible not to notice how reduced the game’s stature seems to be. It is not just that Barcelona has spent much of the last two years in crisis, or that Real Madrid has lost twice in a row entering Saturday.
It is not even, as it happens, that both sides seem to be fading. It is that soccer’s center of gravity has moved away from Spain. The best teams in the world are in Germany (Bayern Munich) and England (Liverpool and Manchester City). France is the world’s dominant national team, and its most prolific producer of players, while Germany is its most prolific producer of ideas.
For all the success Spanish soccer has had over the last decade in European tournaments, it is hard to make the argument that it still represents the game in its highest form. The clásico is still an event, of course, still an occasion, just not one that necessarily seems to hold the rest of the world transfixed. Instead, it is a reminder that, perhaps, the rest of the world has moved on, and left Spain just a little bit behind.
It has been a while, hasn’t it, since we packed a lunch, grabbed a sturdy jacket, laced up our boots and strode out deep into the weeds of the whole V.A.R. farrago? Both Jean McAuliffe and Bruce Jones have suggested a foray into that particular mind-bending wilderness, though, so it would seem rude to turn down their invitation.
Jean goes first, for this wonderful description of the use of technology in sports: “It has become the be-all and end-all in the game, a sci-fi movie slime which oozes, bubbles, gurgles and belches as it slowly grows and engulfs” everything. “There’s no use trying to get rid of it, so I suggest three changes. First: All reviews are finished in 20 seconds or the on-field call stands. Second: No slo-mo replays. Third: No artificial visuals can be used, no lines to measure if a fingernail is offside.”
Bruce is only after a little bit of transparency. “If it is clearly offside, then the fans ought to be given the video evidence that shows it as being clearly so. If it is not clear to fans, but it is to the officials, then they ought at least to explain how that is so.”
At the risk of repeating myself: the root problem is that the Laws of the Game did not come down with Moses from Sinai. (“And the eleventh stone says: ‘Thou shalt not place thine arms in an unnatural position or use thine arms to make thyself bigger, on pain of conceding a penalty,’ but tbh guys I don’t quite get that one.”) We just act like they did.
The laws are just conventions that people created. They are only legitimate if we believe them to be legitimate. Increasingly, I get the sense that most fans do not feel they are. At that point, it is not that the fans have to change to get used to the new rules. It is that the rules have to change to reflect what the fans believe.
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Have a great weekend.