On 29 May, when the dust settled on the 2020-21 season with the Champions League final between Chelsea and Manchester City, there was one element of normalcy in what has been a turbulent eight months of football. Pep Guardiola fluffled his lines again at the biggest stage in club football. He overthought his tactics, needlessly complicated a stable formation and gameplan, and finally looked bemused as one more year went by since his last Champions League victory, with Barcelona in 2011.
Other than that, this has been a pretty nuts season.
The greatest surprise was in store in the Italian Serie A. On 1 May, Antonio Conte’s Internazionale defeated Crotone 2-0. Second placed Atalanta were held by Sassuolo and Inter were champions. In doing so, the Milan team ended Juventus’s 3,283-day reign as the kings of Italy, a run of 9 consecutive titles that had begun when Conte had led The Old Lady of Turin to the pinnacle of Serie A in 2011-12. When he joined Inter in 2019, he had to lift a team of also-rans and perennial underachievers. Juventus were in their pomp and city rivals AC Milan and free-scoring upstarts Atalanta were in the ascendancy. Conte instilled discipline, a gameplan focussed on pressuring mistakes from opponents and quick counter attacks. It wasn’t pretty, expansive football, but it was highly effective. Players like Achraf Hakimi and Romelu Lukaku, ludicrously talented but hungry for success, were transformed under Conte, the former helping lock down a miserly defence, and the latter scoring 24 goals and providing 11 assists. Just days after this feat, however, Conte had quit, his vision of the future at odds with the cash-strapped club.
Juventus did make it easier for Conte by handing Andrea Pirlo his first ever managerial job at the beginning of the season. The bearded maestro, one of the finest footballers of his generation with a fine taste in watches and wines, couldn’t get the required style or grit out of an expensive but aging and jaded squad, and Juventus barely squeaked into the top four on the final day. Pirlo was sacked.
The Premier League provided a plethora of subplots. Liverpool, runaway champions in 2019-20, led the early running till the end of December, top of the league on New Year’s Day and seemingly secure. Then came an uncharacteristically disastrous run of form, including six home defeats on the trot, that saw Jürgen Klopp’s team plunge to 8th in early March. Then came an equally thrilling resurgence, as the Reds won 8 and drew 2 of their last ten games to finish third.
Manchester City, by contrast, started the season terribly, sitting in 9th in the table in mid-December and written off. Pep Guardiola tweaked his tactics, built a stronger defensive base around the brilliant Rúben Dias and the ageless Fernandinho, and City went on a streak of 13 consecutive wins to reach the top spot by mid-January. They held on to it for the rest of the season to win their third title in four years.
While newly-promoted Leeds thrilled (and won matches) under legendary coach Marcelo Bielsa, and Brendan Rodgers won the FA Cup with a brilliant Leicester team, the story of the season was Chelsea. Thomas Tuchel took over as manager on 26 January after Frank Lampard was sacked for leading an expensively assembled team to mid-table mediocrity. If Lampard’s Chelsea was directionless, tactically a mess and extremely brittle, Tuchel oversaw an immediate turnaround. By the end of May, he had led Chelsea to a top four finish, an FA Cup final and, most impressively, the summit of Europe.
Along the way, Tuchel bloodied Guardiola’s nose thrice, out-manoeuvring the Spaniard with a tactical tenacity that played to Chelsea’s strengths: a strong defence, Europe’s standout midfielder in N’Golo Kante and a fast counterattacks. This was in stark contrast to Guardiola’s constant need to tinker with formations and tactics, most notoriously in the Champions League final. Guardiola played a first eleven with no striker and no defensive midfielder—both Fernandinho and Rodri had been brilliant in this role for City all season—in order to befuddle Chelsea. He only managed to confuse his own players, and Tuchel ended up masterminding a famous win. This was also his third win in three meetings with City this season. Along with Klopp, Tuchel is another German coach seems to have Guardiola’s number.
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Paris Saint-Germain, the club that had sacked Tuchel in December, could only reflect on what might have been. Tuchel had, after all led PSG to the Champions League final in 2020 and had also led the French club to two consecutive Ligue 1 titles. This season, they were pipped to post by a brilliant Lille, who became champions after a decade.
If there was any feeling of status quo, that was in the Bundesliga. Bayern Munich won the league for the ninth time in a row, and Robert Lewandowski scored a ridiculous 41 goals during the campaign. In doing so, he broke a 49-year-old record by the legendary Gerd Müller for the most goals during a Bundesliga season. However, even here, there are signs of change. Coach Hansi Flick departed the club after winning seven trophies in two years with Bayern, including two league titles and a Champions League. Along with him leaves some of the veteran players of Bayern’s sustained decade-long success story, such as Javi Martínez, David Alaba and Jérôme Boateng. Next year will be one of transition under new coach Julian Nagelsman, who left RB Leipzig after guiding them to a second place finish in the Bundesliga.
The pandemic also gave the elite clubs of Europe perfect cover to attempt a coup in mid April with the shocking announcement of a breakaway European Super League. It was a move that threatened to destabilise modern football—12 super-rich clubs overseeing their own private tournament at the expense of Europe’s biggest club tournament, the Champions League. An immediate and furious backlash from fans and governments spelled the death of this outrageous coup in 24 hours as nine of the twelve clubs decided to backtrack from the breakaway league. However, the fact that the three main clubs behind this proposal—Real Madrid, Barcelona and Juventus—are still stubbornly standing their ground means that the threat is not over.
The main reason behind this move was the ailing financial health of these super clubs. After at least a decade of profligate spending and living beyond their means, the economic devastation caused by the covid-19 pandemic has left the clubs staring at an uncertain financial future. Inter, for example, are reported to have debts of about €630 million, while Real Madrid are staring at debts of over €900 million. Clubs like Manchester City and Chelsea, are a little better insulated, funded as they are by a petro-state and an oligarch respectively, but the situation is dire across the board. The coming season’s transfers, as well as performances of respective squads may well reflect this.
The 2021-22 season will make for interesting viewing. For one, it is unlikely that, outside of clubs like Chelsea, City and PSG, we will see any eye-watering big-money moves for marquee players. Clubs will have to make do with the players they already have, and hope that they manage injuries to key players better. We may also see a deepening of the safety-first approach that has been the hallmark of all successful clubs this season. A club like Atlético Madrid, who won the Spanish La Liga through sheer bloody-minded grit, may well be the tactical benchmark for the next few years. Spectators are going to slowly return to stadiums in larger and larger numbers, and this will certainly have a galvanising effect on teams. TV viewers too will be spared the agony of fake crowd sounds. The one thing that’s been made amply clear in the past year is that while sport can be played in empty stadiums, it can ultimately seem pointless without fans.