Early leaders in European club football
Club football is well underway in Europe, and here’s an early season report card of how the big teams are doing
When football managers start quoting philosophers to defend their teams and tactics, one can be sure that all’s not well with them. And so, after Manchester United’s not-so-stellar beginning to the 2018-19 English Premier League (EPL) season, last week, José Mourinho took to quoting the German philosopher Hegel to prove how good a manager he is. While Mourinho may well be a student of philosophy and wasn’t just raiding Google, it’s striking that he’s had to reach for excuses after just three games.
The truth of the matter is that even though the season is young, the pressure is on for all the big European clubs. Until 15 September, all the leagues have broken for an international break. The EPL is considered to be one of the more open leagues in Europe, with six big clubs vying for the league title. Even so, the last three league champions, Leicester City (2015-16), Chelsea (2016-17), and Manchester City (2017-18) have gone on winning runs early on in the season, and have more or less maintained their lead over the chasing pack through the entire season. There were no neck-and-neck races, no photo-finishes. Last year, it was a procession for Manchester City. It is clear that teams will need to get their noses in front early and stay ahead through the year.
Of the big English teams, Liverpool and Chelsea have clearly got the memo. They went into the international break with four wins out of four (along with upstarts Watford). Defending champions Manchester City haven’t been as effervescent as they would like to be, with a draw marring their record. Similarly, Tottenham Hotspur flew high in their first three games, only to be brought down to earth with an unexpected away defeat to Watford last weekend. Arsenal are in transition under new manager Unai Emery and are still feeling their way into the campaign. And Hegel’s Manchester United have managed to win two, but also lose two. They already look off the pace, six points behind league leaders Liverpool. The Merseyside club’s fearsome attacking trio of Roberto Firmino, Mohamed Salah and Sadio Mané aren’t gelling the way they usually do but the team have added a brand new attribute to their game—defensive solidity. They’ve conceded just one goal so far, the fewest in the league. Chelsea, under new manager Maurizio Sarri, formerly of the Italian club Napoli, are internalizing his hard-pressing, intense style, and look rejuvenated.
In the German Bundesliga, the teams have played only twice, though, as expected, league bullies Bayern Munich are on top with two wins and six goals scored. But so far, it’s been fairly open, with only two points separating the top eight teams. This year, the German league is expected to be more keenly contested than usual, with Wolfsburg (who are currently second) Borussia Dortmund (fourth) and Hertha Berlin (third) all expected to push Bayern.
In the Spanish La Liga, the teams have played thrice, and the traditional duopoly of Barcelona and Real Madrid is alive and thriving. In their third game against the newly-promoted Huesca, Barcelona netted eight times. Real Madrid are adjusting to a world without former manager Zinedine Zidane and star player Cristiano Ronaldo, but that hasn’t stopped them from winning their three matches 2-0, 1-4, 4-1. These two will remain the teams to beat, with Atlético Madrid, who have had a patchy start, the only team expected to push the two.
The French Ligue 1 is even more unbalanced as a league, comprised as it is of financial behemoth Paris St. Germain (PSG) and 19 other teams. The youthful Monaco side that upset the PSG hegemony in 2016-17 by preventing the Parisians from winning their fifth consecutive title, has been dismantled. Their best players having long moved on to bigger clubs—including to PSG—leaving the defending champions with not much to do but swat the other teams aside and not get bored. A credible challenger might yet arise, but nobody’s holding their breath.
The Italian Serie A’s aura as the best league in the world has long been cast aside by the English and Spanish leagues, but it is showing signs of life. Juventus have won the league every year since the 2011-12 season, and although they are clear favourites again, having added Ronaldo to the ranks this summer, Napoli, Roma and Inter Milan look good for an upset. Having said that, after three games played, it’s unfancied Sassuolo, a mid-table team if there ever was one, that sits in second on seven points. Napoli have lost their manager to Chelsea, and Roma have lost their best player to Liverpool for the second season running, so by the time they find their groove, Juventus might already be jetting away towards league championship number 35.
Once the teams in all the leagues have played about 10 games, a clearer picture is expected to emerge, but the signs are already there. The more things change, the more they remain the same. Maybe we should look at a different Hegel quote: “We learn from history that we do not learn from history.”
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