Just wait for the knockout phase of the Champions League. That’s when the season really gets going, that’s when the real football begins. That’s when you get the festival that justifies the tedium of the group stage, the greatest football ever played, the glorious pay-off for the grotesque iniquities of the game’s financial structure.
Perhaps the second legs will be better. Or perhaps it’s actually the quarter-final stage when everything gets started. But on the evidence of the first legs of the last 16, the super-clubs, en masse, aren’t very good this season. There are exceptions. Until the turn of the year, Liverpool were brilliant. Manchester City, fuelled by their sense of grievance, were impressive in winning at the Bernabéu – although whether despite or because of Pep Guardiola’s tactical tinkering no one seemed quite able to agree. Bayern Munich have added pace and looked both dynamic and well balanced in dismissing Chelsea 3-0 at Stamford Bridge.
But a lot of the other giants are having what might kindly be termed transitional seasons. In losing to City, Real Madrid looked a disjointed mix of those on the way up the hill and those on the way down, with barely anyone actually at their peak. In their inhibitive dependency on Lionel Messi, Barcelona, who lurched to a 1-1 draw at Napoli in the first leg, increasingly resemble Argentina. The comparative lack of quality of both was evident again in last Sunday’s scratchy clásico.
Both may argue that they are rebuilding. Madrid had been based around Cristiano Ronaldo and so were always going to require some adaptation once he had left. Barça have arguably not worked out in which direction they’re heading since the Guardiola era ended, and any sense of strategic competence disappeared amid the panic that has followed Neymar’s departure. But equally it’s hard not to think that both might have begun to address their failings earlier if their stature didn’t essentially guarantee them a top-three spot in la Liga. It’s not as though Barça’s stretched and creaking midfield hasn’t been exposed repeatedly in Europe over the past three years.
Juventus, stuttering in Serie A, were desperately uninspired in losing at Lyon, who are fifth in Ligue 1. Juve’s problems are almost entirely self-inflicted and born of a sense that domestic success can almost be taken for granted. The idea that five league titles and four cups in five years (and two Champions League finals) might somehow be inadequate seems absurd, but that was why Max Allegri was let go. Maurizio Sarri was appointed to manage a shift to a more progressive, possession-based game, but no one seems to have asked how he was going to achieve that with Ronaldo, who was brought in at great expense the summer before last seemingly on the logic that his prodigious goal return would bring Champions League success. Sarri talks constantly about how hard he is finding it to get his team to move the ball quickly, but it’s hardly a surprise when the focus of the attack is essentially static.
And then there’s Paris Saint-Germain, untouchable in France but unfulfilled in Europe. There were moments in the group stage when it seemed that Thomas Tuchel had finally got the midfield right thanks in large part to the signing of Idrissa Gueye but the return of Neymar has seemingly scuppered that. Brilliantly skilful he may be, but his erratic defensive work inevitably destabilises his team against high-class opposition. Borussia Dortmund, their young and vibrant attack built on the shakiest of foundations, are deeply inconsistent but outplayed PSG at home in the first leg and may regret not beating them more convincingly than the 2-1 they did manage.
There is a common theme there, and that is a feeling of complacency or self-indulgence: these four giants, fatted on domestic dominance, losing sight of basic planning (or being lured into short-termism by presidential elections, the curse of democracy in sport) and becoming convinced that celebrities will bring success. In fact one of the reasons that the outcry against the basic inequality of the sport has reached such a pitch in England recently is that Manchester City and Liverpool have achieved the highly unusual feat of being both rich and extremely well-run (City’s financial fair play breaches notwithstanding). Football could bear an uber-wealthy elite so long as it squandered most of its money. Once the super-clubs start buying players with potential to fit the long-term plan of a highly gifted coach, the result is 100-point seasons and a realisation the system is broken.
But even City are flawed this season, undone by their failure to replace Vincent Kompany in the summer, which left them vulnerable to just the sort of long-term injuries to a centre-back that Aymeric Laporte has suffered. And Liverpool, apparently unstoppable so recently, have slowed over the past two months as some combination of fatigue, injury and pressure (or relief) have taken their toll. Bayern, meanwhile, have just lost Robert Lewandowski for a month.
This does happen occasionally. Sometimes the elite do all, for various reasons, simultaneously have an off-season, or at least an off-couple of months, offering an opportunity to a lesser force. Perhaps Atlético Madrid, a goal up against Liverpool after the first leg, could do what Chelsea did in 2012 and, after years of near misses, finally lift the Champions League just as it seems their chance has gone. Or perhaps Julian Nagelsmann, the mini-Mourinho as Tim Wiese called him, could do what the actual Mourinho achieved with Porto in 2004 and lead RB Leipzig to an unexpected success.
But if there were to be a surprise winner – even little Atalanta, who beat Valencia 4-1 in their first leg – it would not invalidate the basic point that the elite is over-dominant and greedy for more. However romantic Atalanta’s story, this remains the first season in which the last 16 have all been drawn from Europe’s richest five leagues.
Still, it is one of football’s pleasing ironies, almost a natural check and balance, that nothing is more likely to deflect a side from dominance than the complacency that seems naturally to be inspired by dominance.