European football: The plot thickens
For teams at top of the national leagues, things are not going according to plan, resulting in greater competition
A month is a long time in football. This is, as all football watchers will tell you, almost a cliché. But in the rarefied upper echelons of European football, this isn’t often the case. After the last round of matches played over the last weekend, league football has taken a break for two weeks, so that national teams can play a few friendlies under the faintly ridiculous Nations League. This is a “tournament" masterminded by the wise folks at the Union of European Football Associations (Uefa). Designed to eliminate the need for “meaningless friendlies", Uefa have gone and fashioned a meaningless biennial “tournament" that disrupts the football season, tires out already stretched players and, yes, tries viewer patience.
This is the second such international break since the league season began in August across Europe. Last month, most teams across Europe’s leagues had played just about three games each. By now, they’ve played about eight. Last month, we had looked at the emerging patterns of dominant teams and tactics in the early days of the leagues. Now, a clearer picture is emerging.
The most intriguing prospect is the English Premier League (EPL), where, at the top, things remain thrillingly open and difficult to call. Just two points separate the top 5 teams, and there’s a traffic jam right at the apex, with Manchester City, Chelsea and Liverpool all on 20 points, after eight games played, with only goal difference separating the three. Of these, Liverpool had started the season strongly, with six consecutive victories in the league. As Jürgen Klopp celebrates three years in charge as the team coach, Liverpool have discovered a defensive solidity to go with their attacking flair. Back to back draws with their two main contenders so far, Chelsea and Manchester City, has marred their 100% record, but they remain unbeaten. The same is true for City and Chelsea, who have identical records. The latter have adjusted to life under new manager Maurizio Sarri remarkably well, and look rejuvenated. Defending champions City, under manager Pep Guardiola, have not yet hit the heights of last season, yet they are still number one in the league.
But the surprise package has been Arsenal. When Unai Emery was installed as manager following Arsene Wenger’s 22 year reign, the club, already suffering from years of drift, was tipped to struggle further. Emery has now masterminded nine consecutive wins in all competitions, and his Arsenal are now combining the best of Wenger’s expressive football with a newfound hunger to press and harry opponents. The top 3 are definitely looking over their shoulder at this emerging dark horse.
The biggest shock so far this season has been the indifferent form of Bayern Munich, in the German Bundesliga. After seven games played, Bayern sit sixth—yes, sixth—in the league, having scored just 12 goals, and suffering defeats to Hertha Berlin and Borussia Mönchengladbach. In fact, the latter team is well above Bayern, at third place. Bayern has not been in such a situation for a long while, at least not since 2010, when they trailed an effervescent Borussia Dortmund team coached by Jürgen Klopp by 10 points. As it happens, Dortmund top the league at this point. Bayern’s new coach, Niko Kovač, is already under pressure with rumours of his exit doing the rounds.
In a somewhat similar vein, not all is rosy for the two biggest clubs in the world, Barcelona and Real Madrid, in the Spanish La Liga. In fact, Real Madrid are in some sort of a crisis, sitting fourth in the league, though only a couple of points from the top, which is currently occupied by unfancied Sevilla. For Real Madrid, it’s not so much about the points haul as it is about the hauteur and an aura of invincibility that they’re expected to exude. Under new manager Julen Lopetegui—who was famously sacked as Spain’s manager on the eve of the World Cup for having agreed a deal with Madrid behind the Spanish football association’s back—Real have looked lethargic and out of sorts, and quite predictably, there’s speculation about how long he’s going to last in the job.
Barcelona, though only a point above Real at second place, seem more sanguine. One reason for that is Lionel Messi, who seems to have gotten over an indifferent World Cup campaign and is looking back to his best. As an example, look to his star turn in the 4-2 shellacking of Tottenham Hotspur in the Champions League last week. High-flying Sevilla’s manager Pablo Machín might warn of a La Liga “vertigo" as they occupy the summit, but with forwards André Silva and Wissam Ben Yedder firing on all cylinders, Sevilla might just last the course.
If there’s one league where there cannot be any question of surprise, it’s the French Ligue 1. Paris Saint-Germain have maximum points from nine games played, and have scored a ridiculous 32 goals already. New manager Thomas Tuchel shouldn’t get too comfortable, however, since whenever PSG come up against other clubs of a similar stature in the Champions League—the tournament that they really want to win—they come unstuck. Exhibit A: their recent 3-2 capitulation against Liverpool. PSG are the best example of money being able to buy you league titles, but not the Champions League.