Hello, and welcome to another episode of Tactically Naive, SB Nation’s weekly soccer column. Do columns come in episodes? Did your correspondent mean to type “edition” but miss? For the answer to neither of these questions, read on …
The Premier League has a Liverpool problem
On Saturday, Spurs played Liverpool. That’s a big game, right? You know it is. Spurs. Liverpool. Big teams equal a big game. Premier League. Lions roaring. Let’s do this.
Also on Saturday, a mid-table team under new management played another team that was 28 points ahead of them (and half that ahead of everybody else). That second team hasn’t lost a league game in living memory, and is on course to be champions before the crocuses bloom.
As games go, that second one doesn’t sound particularly big, does it? You might watch if you had nothing else on. You wouldn’t expect much. But! What if we told you that the two games described were the same game.
[The crowd gasps. There is scattered applause, some screaming. Three people faint. Tactically Naive is chased out of town by an armed posse.]
We played ourselves, of course. We turned up and tuned in expecting the first game — Spurs! Liverpool! — and got the second. After the event, Jose Mourinho got it in the neck for Spurs’ approach, which was typical for Mourinho but atypical for Spurs: ew, no, we don’t want the ball. You can have the ball. Go on, take it. Please. Phew.
TN can’t help but think that some of the criticism against him is a little harsh. Mourinho only got the job because Spurs were looking pretty miserable under the last bloke, and he’s had it less than two months. Harry Kane is crocked, and Christian Eriksen transferred his mind over the summer, though his body has yet to catch up. And hey, they nearly nicked a point. Now, if they’re still playing like dedicated miserabilists in a year’s time — and the odds are good — then TN will be pitchforking it up with the best of them. But not yet.
Also, Liverpool. It is obviously stupid to suggest that a team can win a title too well, but Liverpool’s lead, now at 14 points with a game in hand, is so vast that it is distorting the rest of the competition.
This has two consequences. The first is long term: if Liverpool keeps picking up points at the same rate they are now, they’ll finish close to 30 points ahead of Manchester City. We may get to a point where their lead is so big that it stops being about Liverpool. Win a league by 10 points, and you’re brilliant. Win a league by 30 points, and something weird has happened.
Imagine a child, 50 years from now. To kill a quiet moment in the Third Water War, they’re looking back at old league tables. They get to 2019-20, and see a 30-point gap. Do they think, “Well, they must have been good?” Or do they think, “What the hell was everybody else up to?”
The more immediate effect is that the big games — the tentpoles of the Premier League project, the things that make Sundays super — are having the Bigness drained out of them. Manchester United go to Liverpool next weekend, hoping to make a dent into a 27-point gap. Manchester City host Liverpool on April 4th, and the title race could be over by then. Actually over, that is; not just obviously over, as it is now.
Absolutely none of this matters to Liverpool fans, of course, and nor should it. But it does put the rest of the Premier League season in an odd place. Maybe Sky could pivot coverage over to the relegation race early? Or we could all go watch Serie A, where— oh man, Juventus are back on top. Come on.
Valverde does what needs to be done
For most of a football match, the red card rule is a perfectly acceptable way of policing football’s rogues and renegades. But for the last few minutes, it becomes a liability. There is a point when it is worth risking a red card over a near-certain goal. The former becomes less of a punishment as the time in a match dwindles down. By the end, it’s almost no punishment at all.
Which is why Fede Valverde was able to win the Spanish Supercopa for Real Madrid with this poem, this gem, this vision of glittering, cynical beauty:
— Football Whispers (@FB_WHISPERS) January 13, 2020
Obviously, a sport that makes doing this sort of thing sensible is, in an important sense, a little bit broken. But on the other hand, a sport that can have a cup final swing on such a moment is, in a significantly more important sense, very funny.
And there is a certain kind of clear-eyed focus that goes into these moments. A lesser person would have panicked and tried to make a clean tackle, or gone too far the other way and done something dangerous. Valverde went at this like a surgeon. No wonder Diego Simeone was impressed.
In truth, it was a fitting end to this strange Supercopa, a tournament that was expanded to four teams, just in case one of Real Madrid or Barcelona managed to miss it, and played out in Saudi Arabia, because it’s a lovely place this time of year. Cynicism begets cynicism. Never has a man of the match award been so deserving.