Aberration? Illegitimate? Refreshing? Struggles of soccer's powers pose questions about this COVID season

·4 min read

There comes a point where upsets become so regular that they aren’t really that anymore. Rather than upsets, they become something more like blanket unpredictability, coating the entirety of club soccer, it seems.

You might prefer to call it chaos.

If last season was disrupted by the COVID-19 pandemic — or ended altogether, like in France and the Netherlands — and then forced an accelerated conclusion, the 2020-21 edition is affected in less obvious but more profound ways. The soccer hasn’t stopped (yet), but it has been compressed into a much tighter schedule, after a shorter preseason, and with less of a winter break for the countries that observe one.

This has led to a rash of injuries and an uncommon number of weird scores.

When the season started off with all of those topsy-turvy scores and performances — Aston Villa beating Liverpool 7-2; Tottenham pummeling Manchester United 6-1 away; a disheveling Barcelona; a shaky Real Madrid; an inconsistent Manchester City — it felt like a temporary thing. A spasm of a sport lurching back into something like normalcy, even with empty stands. Soon enough, all would be straightened out. Regression would be reunited with its old friend, the mean.

But after the third international window of the season, Paris Saint-Germain gave up a two-goal halftime lead against AS Monaco to lose its third game of the season on Friday, after just 11 fixtures. For comparison’s sake, PSG averaged fewer than six league losses over a 38-game schedule in the seven seasons prior to last campaign, which was cut short.

Neymar and PSG have looked uncharacteristically vulnerable this COVID-cursed season, as have a lot of European powers. (Photo by VALERY HACHE/AFP via Getty Images)
Neymar and PSG have looked uncharacteristically vulnerable this COVID-cursed season, as have a lot of European powers. (Valery Hache/AFP via Getty Images)

Saturday, Spurs comprehensively beat City 2-0 to hand Pep Guardiola’s side its second defeat of the Premier League campaign, meaning City now languishes in 13th place with a negative goal difference. A 10-man Arsenal, meanwhile, scraped out a 0-0 tie with newly promoted Leeds on Sunday, keeping the Gunners in 11th place, even on points and goal difference with 10th-placed United.

In Spain, Atletico Madrid beat Barca 1-0 Saturday to hand the Catalans a third loss in the last five league matches and dump them into 11th place. It was the first time Atleti had beaten Barca in the league in a decade, capitalizing on a bad error from goalkeeper Marc-Andre Ter Stegen. To make things worse, Barca defenders Gerard Pique and Sergi Roberto were both seriously injured, compounding manager Ronald Koeman’s problems. It may come as a relief that Real Madrid isn’t thriving either, and its Saturday tie with Villarreal kept it bolted to fourth place.

There isn’t anything we’ve seen from any of these teams to suggest that they are simply going through a slump. Barca is a shambles. City isn’t scoring goals. Neither is Arsenal. United remains maddeningly inconsistent. PSG continues to tower over Ligue 1, yet is also oddly fragile. In Italy, Juventus is going for a remarkable 10th straight title and has won only half its eight games, tying the other four and slipping to the desperate depths of fourth place. Even European champions Bayern Munich, while leading the Bundesliga yet again, appear thinner than it has in a long time.

Few teams will rampage to a title across Europe this campaign. There will be few, if any, 90-point champions. Certainly, nobody will run the table as Liverpool did last season, making a credible bid for an undefeated and record-setting season before the pandemic layoff slowed its momentum.

And if we get some unexpected champions, and a load of teams qualifying for the European competitions that will need to apply for passports for the first time, the question we will grapple with is how to account for it?

The litany of unusual conditions knocking down so many of the game’s giants early on offers different conclusions for those who seek them. You can view it as refreshing, a chance for the middle-class clubs, held down for decades, to dream of whatever they consider glory. You can see it as an aberration, a strange one-off in an unusual time that counts but isn’t quite the same. Or you can take the stance that this campaign is somehow illegitimate.

Where you fall probably depends on how your favored team has coped with its set of new challenges. But whether you take a romantic’s view of it or a cynic’s, soccer won’t be spared the deep strangeness of our current pandemic life.

Leander Schaerlaeckens is a Yahoo Sports soccer columnist and a sports communication lecturer at Marist College. Follow him on Twitter @LeanderAlphabet.

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