Tactically Naive: What Europe’s year of repeat league champions means for elite men’s soccer
For Europe’s repeat champions, being the best at home may no longer be enough.
Hello, and welcome to another edition of Tactically Naive, SB Nation’s weekly soccer column. This week we’re walking along at just the right angle so a giant pair of pigeon wings appear behind our shoulders.Inherited titles
Meet the new champions! Same as the old champions!
For the first time in history, the champions of European men’s football’s five Big Leagues have all retained their titles. Barcelona, Juventus, and Paris Saint-Germain picked theirs up a few weeks ago, Manchester City took care of business last weekend, and now Bayern Munich have rounded out the set. Congratulations to anybody who had money on all five. Enjoy your twelve euros.
(The five Big Leagues are England, France, Germany, Italy, and Spain. The trick to identifying a Big League is to ask yourself the question: does this league contain a club rich enough to pay Neymar’s wages and famous enough that Neymar would play there? If the answer is yes, that’s a Big League.)
This being the end of the season, it’s natural to want to look back and consider things in the round. What does all this mean? Does all this mean anything? What does it mean, that we ask if it means something? And can we keep these questions going all the way to the start of the World Cup?
If we’re looking for common themes, then we have to start by noting that the paths to the titles weren’t all quite the same. Barcelona, for example, were given a pretty light race by their usual antagonists, Real Madrid, who were busy having one of those seasons where they tear themselves to pieces.
Over in France, PSG should have picked up the trophy in early April but decided to have a nervous meltdown with the finish line in sight. Fortunately, the combined powers of Kylian Mbappe and A Huge Pile Of Money, No, Even Bigger Than That One You’re Imagining saw them over the line.
Meanwhile, Juventus were given a strong assist by the rest of Italy, which doesn’t contain a single sensible football club. This is a good thing for the tenor and mood of Italian football generally, as beautiful men in beautiful kits lurch from farce to crisis and back again, but it doesn’t make for great title races. (Between the predictable victors and the constant dribble of institutionally-ignored racism, Serie A is so hard to love these days.)
City and Bayern, however, were pushed closer toward the brink: City by an almost-as-perfect Liverpool, and Bayern by Borussia Dortmund, who led the early stages of the season, but couldn’t match the relentless pace of the eventual champions. Since December, after they fixed their mini-crisis, Bayern have dropped a mere nine points. That’s pretty tough to keep up with, even if the race did go to the final round of fixtures.
But while the details differ, perhaps the unifying theme is a kind of ambient sense of incompleteness. As highlighted by Gab Marcotti here, winning a title doesn’t quite have the same resonance as it used to:
Allegri has left. Kovac could yet leave. And many would not have been shocked if Valverde and Tuchel had been asked to leave. That's four title winners from the Big 5 leagues. Kinda extraordinary. Game has changed.— Gabriele Marcotti (@Marcotti) May 20, 2019
It’s possible, of course, that Allegri just fancies a bit of a rest before the Manchester United job comes up again, but the other three have all underwhelmed in one way or another, even as they picked up their trophies. Their league titles, lest we forget. Their official certificates of being the best in the country. Shankly’s bread and butter.
The spectre of Europe looms large here, particularly for Tuchel and Valverde, who both oversaw hilarious/humiliating implosions in the Champions League. That made two in a row for Valverde, who now stands accused of one of football’s most egregious crimes: wasting Lionel Messi.
Kovac’s Bayern were knocked out by Liverpool in more straightforward fashion, but they were still gone before the last 16: that’s not very FC Hollywood. Nor too that strange beginning to the league season, with back-to-back losses against Hertha and Borussia Mönchengladbach. And Kovac suffers generally from being having been a bit of a left field appointment, at a bit of an odd moment, and taking to the job … fine. Maybe OK? Well enough. All words which leave plenty of space for: could be better.
Obviously City won’t be moving Guardiola on any time soon, not after modelling the entire club around his particular needs. They have a scouting department that exists only to deliver Guardiola players for the present and the future. Every seat in the Etihad stadium is molded to perfectly fit his saintly buttocks. And at some point this summer, club officials will take Mikel Arteta aside for a quiet word, and he’ll return to public life entirely bald. He will not be taking questions.
Yet even Guardiola has been musing this week that his City, this 100 point-getting domestic treble-winning juggernaut, “will be judged at the end on whether we win the Champions League.” He may only be speaking for himself, but that is telling enough: he, after all, knows his performance review targets better than anybody else.
There is, perhaps, a delicate irony here. These are the clubs that have best weaponised their huge piles of money, and they’re obsessed with the one trophy that is most vulnerable to football’s occasional eruptions of weirdness. City survived their 3-2 Premier League loss to Crystal Palace because they had 37 other games and they knew that most of them wouldn’t be even slightly weird. But a few moments of explosive oddity against Tottenham, and the Champions League was gone.
On the other hand, the attitude of the super-rich towards delicate, inconvenient ironies is to throw more money at them and see if there’s any way to make them go away. Plans to spend millions of euros on new players are already in motion; plans to render the Champions League a closed shop are being discussed, if not universally welcomed.
And of course, it seems likely that all five teams will be favourites to retain their titles next year, no matter who’s in the dugout, nor how little their victories please anybody.
Save us, Real Madrid, Liverpool. You’re our only … wait, no. That doesn’t sound right at all.