Fernando Torres’ famous goal in Vienna initiated a European mutiny. Spanish football had well and truly arrived. Yes, Barcelona and Real Madrid have always been European kings- but never more so than in the past decade. Since the 2008 Euro’s, there has only been one year where Spain hasn’t won a major tournament or a Spanish club hasn’t won the Champions League. A staggering statistic. Zidane’s Galacticos, Guardiola’s tiki-taka, that famous 2008 Spain midfield quartet of Xavi, Iniesta, Fabregas and Silva- it has been simply unfair. Patient possession play, tiki-taka, building from deep, attacking full-backs- Spanish football revolved around it. And while POMO was truly behind the Premier League, and Italian football was no longer focused upon the dark arts, their success- particularly Pep’s with Barça, has evolved world football tactics. Even Eddie Howe’s Bournemouth play a style reminiscent of that treble-winning 2009 Barcelona side. However, after another disappointing World Cup for Spain, with Real Madrid languishing in 4th place (such is the grandeur of the club that 4th place and ‘languishing are alined in a sentence) and on their second manager of the season, Barcelona looking suspect defensively and Atletico Madrid playing some insipidly reactive football could the tide have finally turned?
One thing is domestic form, another completely different thing is form in Europe. Look at the two finalists of 2018 : Liverpool were shipping goals for fun last season, but always turned on the style for those special Anfield European nights and ultimately outscored their opponents, including a 5-1 battering (on aggregate) of Manchester City. Real Madrid, on the other hand, were thought to be in the midst of some behind the scenes bust ups and, although they improved towards the end of the season, finished 14 points behind Barcelona on 76 points. In fact, there Champions League form was not scintillating either- they nearly capitulated against Juventus in the quarter-finals. But much like Liverpool, that European blood courses through the veins of the club and Los Blancos ploughed on to win their 13th title and third in three years. So to write teams off at this stage would be naïve: especially if it is on the basis of their domestic form. At the same time, the heavyweights are certainly not at their peak.
Despite my previous points, Real Madrid’s post-Ronaldo woes haven’t and shouldn’t go under the radar. The saga began back in June when Julen Lopetegui was sacked as Spain manager for premeditating a move away from La Roja to Los Blancos after the World Cup. As the season kicked off and they had 3 wins from their first 3 games the summer maelstrom was seemingly behind them. Only seemingly, though. Indeed, October would dispel that consensus in what was a torrid month for Lopetegui’s men. Between the 26th September and the 28th October Real Madrid lost 5, drew 1 and won 1. Their losses ? A 3-0 battering by Sevilla, 1-0 defeats to CSKA Moscow and Eibar , a 2-1 loss at home to Levante and- the straw that broke the camel’s back- a 5-1 annihilation at the Camp Nou. Lopetegui was subsequently relinquished of his duties. What went wrong, you ask ? It is debatable. Fundamentally, the Spaniard intended to implement a more sustainable style, one that differs from relying on individual brilliance- especially Ronaldo. His style of football revolves around giving the front 3 ( Bale, Benzema and Asensio) freedom to roam and disorganise defences while Isco or Modric, at the no.10 in the 4231, would orchestrate the build up play in between the lines. Kroos and Casemiro- the metronome and the bully- were also relied on to fill the gaps when the full backs bombed forward. What could do wrong ? A lot, in fact. Casemiro, Kroos and Isco were horribly off-beat from the off, perhaps flustered by their summer antics or even jaded by them, provoking an early switch to the 433 system and an introduction of Golden Ball winner Luka Modric- The Croat failed to make an impact though. Free to grasp the season by the scruff of it’s neck after Ronaldo’s departure, Gareth Bale disappointed aswell. And with half your team under-performing where do you look to ? A somewhat pathetically inexperienced bench, with barely anybody capable of making a significant impact. Quite a contrast to Manchester City, who ran out comfortable winners against Everton on Saturday despite resting Kevin De Bruyne, Sergio Aguero, Raheem Sterling and John Stones. This issue exposed one stark flaw in Loptegui’s arsenal: experience as a club coach and the lack of it. Healthy relations with young players is all well and good, but when they are not cutting the mustard and you have the money to invest you can’t hold back.
Santiago Solari is stabilising the sinking ship, but Real have some patching up to do before they can get back to their very best. 13km east at the Wanda Metropolitano things have become almost too stable. El Cholo Simeone, the dapper yet fiery Argentinian, is renowned yet often frowned upon for his reactive, defensive football methodologies. And it has certainly been more of the latter recently. Heading into the season, Atleti were said to be serious contenders not just in La Liga- but in Europe too. Having brought in Thomas Lemar, Gelson Martins and Nikola Kalinic to enhance their attacking potency, they looked the full package with Rodri and Thomas Partey sitting in front of that famously impermeable back five. Yet, their performances have often been stale and insipid. Don’t get me wrong, Simeone and Atleti are in no crisis but the former’s ultra defensive football is beginning to wear fans down. Thomas Lemar has even been brainwashed into a ‘Simeone player’ and appears inhibited by his relentless defensive responsibilities. It stretched to the extent whereby when 1-0 at home to Barcelona with 20 minutes still play, fans bouncing in ecstasy- they were defeating their main league rivals but Simeone completely shut up shot and tried to see out the game with 9 men behind the ball. Barcelona’s pressure eventually gave way and Ousmane Dembele equalised in the 90th minute to earn a well deserved point for the catalans. Partner this with their embarrassing 4-0 loss at Dortmund and, once again, you have one beatable side. And Juventus is no easy Round of 16 tie.
Now let’s just clarify : Barcelona can beat anybody when Lionel Messi turns on the style, and look somewhat unstoppable when Coutinho, Suarez and Dembele are at it too. And when Artur Melo, Rakitic, and Busquets are also on their game, they simply are unstoppable.
The only question mark over Valverde’s men is their shaky defence -they have only kept 3 clean sheets in their 15 La Liga matches this season. Samuel Umtiti’s serious knee injury is an unquestionable factor while Pique doesn’t look the player he was 5 years ago, hence those rumours of the promising De Ligt as one of many centre-backs said to be on their way to Camp Nou. Yet with seemingly flawless sides like Manchester City and Juventus this season, will these minor frailties be exposed ?
With three of the biggest not at their strongest, the competition begins to open up. Juventus, the European bottle jobs , are unbeaten at the top of Serie A while their German counterparts in Dortmund stand equally tall over their stuttering rivals Bayern Munich. Credit to the boss- Lucian Favre- who has injected belief, impetus and youth into a dejected dressing room after a disappointing 4th place finish last season. There couldn’t be a better place for Jadon Sancho to be developing. Tottenham will be no pushovers, though. Liverpool, meanwhile, face an ageing Bayern Munich squad- largely consisting of the German World Cup clowns, who haven’t shaken off their summer woes. As for Man United… (piece coming soon).