SOMETHING strange is happening this season, a curious set of events very much in keeping with the peculiar world we are watching behind our surgical masks. The Champions League last 16 has a familiar look, as it always does, but among the usual suspects there is not a single league leader.
Early season tables are misleading, but we are not four or five games in, it is around 11 or 12, and not one of the elite regulars: PSG, Barca, Real, City, Liverpool, Bayern and Juventus are top of their respective leagues. The leaders in the top European countries are: Tottenham, Lille, Bayer Leverkusen, AC Milan, Sporting Lisbon and Real Sociedad.
What is happening? There are a number of factors in play at the moment: fatigue (Tottenham have played 23 games, Crystal Palace 13); removal of home advantage due to empty grounds (43% away wins versus 38% home in the Premier); transition teams (Barcelona, Real Madrid); and system over-familiarity (Manchester City and Guardiola’s methods).
Managers always complain about fixture congestion, especially if they are not getting their own way. More likely, the systems certain teams use – Liverpool under Klopp are incredibly intense and Guardiola’s City, over three seasons, has possibly worn itself out – make it difficult to maintain momentum over a long period. This means a team may need turning over frequently to ensure it remains fresh and motivated. The way Liverpool and Manchester City have been burning away is unsustainable unless reinforcements are brought in to keep the squad fresh. Guardiola has been with City (five seasons) longer than any other club in his managerial career. Has he peaked at the Etihad? The stats this season are not impressive by his lofty standards – 17 goals in 11 games, two defeats in 11 and only five wins.
Barcelona are struggling because they are coming to the end of the Lionel Messi era. They also have internal politics to deal with and their finances are not looking good. Barca are very ordinary this season and have lost four La Liga games already. Real Madrid have lost three games and have scored 19 goals in 12 games, hardly title form, and their Champions League performances have mostly been sub-optimal. Atlético Madrid may have lost to Real in the recent derby game, but they have conceded only four goals this season and they are level on points and two games in hand on Real Sociedad The defeat against their city rivals was their first league setback of the campaign. They are in the process of reinventing themselves with a more expansive style and many pundits predict they will emerge as champions in 2020-21.
Bayern Munich have lost once this season in the Bundesliga and they have scored 35 goals in 11 games. They are in good shape. Juventus, meanwhile, are unbeaten in Serie A, but they have drawn five of their 11 games. Cristiano Ronaldo may be 35 years old, but he’s scored 14 goals this season, including 10 in Serie A. Dortmund have problems and they have just disposed of their manager, Lucien Favre, despite being in the last 16 and fifth in the Bundesliga.
Paris Saint-Germain have played 14 games and four of those have been lost, including home defeats against Marseille and Lyon. It is a tighter league this year, with Lille on top, Lyon second and PSG in third just one point behind the front two.
By the time the next round is played, the league tables will inevitably look different, but it seems clear the transition we have seen flickering over the past couple of seasons has moved on a notch. How much of what we have seen so far is down to the natural cycle of events in football, and how much can be attributed to the pandemic? Or is it simply too many games in a short space of time? In all probability, it is a combination of all three. We’re scratching our heads because we have become accustomed to the status quo not being challenged often.
The draw for the last 16 is: Borussia Mönchengladbach v Manchester City; Lazio v Bayern Munich; Atlético Madrid v Chelsea; RB Leipzig v Liverpool; Porto v Juventus; Barcelona v Paris Saint-Germain; Sevilla v Borussia Dortmund; Atalanta v Real Madrid.
Games to be played February 16 to March 17 2021.