The thing that keeps us coming back to this beautiful game of ours, the thing that’s got us so hopelessly hooked, is that we don’t know. We think we know, but really we don’t know.
For all of soccer’s predictability, it somehow also remains entirely unknowable. Everything is preordained yet at the same time it’s all still possible. All scenarios remain on the table. The season starts and it’s all supposed to be a slow march to a foregone conclusion, because in the end, it does seem to turn out that way. Bayern Munich has been the German champion without interruption since 2012-13. Juventus has won an astounding eight Serie A titles in a row. FC Barcelona has won La Liga four out of the last five years and eight times out of the last 11. Paris Saint-Germain has claimed Ligue 1 six of the last seven years. And even the supposedly hyper-competitive Premier League has seen two teams win five of the last six titles.
But along the way, soccer proves capricious. The ball remains round and all of that.
Which is why it’s November and Borussia Moenchengladbach leads in Germany, and Granada went into the weekend on top of La Liga, where Real Sociedad now shares the lead with Barca and Real Madrid. It’s why Leicester City, Sheffield United, Bournemouth, Brighton & Hove Albion and Crystal Palace all sit above Manchester United and Tottenham Hotspur – last year’s Champions League finalists – in England. It’s why Inter Milan finally threatens to give Juve a real title race in Italy. It’s why Angers is second in France.
About a third of the way in, it’s been a season of delightful chaos.
And right about here would typically follow a parable about parity in any rumination on the predictability of soccer. But parity is an illusion – a lie, even, when used to justify the artificial suppression of player salaries. Any globally popular league is controlled by, at most, a handful of juggernauts – if not only one or two. Soccer’s staggering international growth – as an entertainment product, a vehicle for tribalism, and a booming business – has been driven by the same big clubs that stand accused of ruining the sport with their dominance.
Parity isn’t all that it’s made out to be. The few leagues that have it long for superteams. The ones that don’t want more suspense. But you can’t have 20 superteams in a league – although 12 of the 24 richest teams in the world, per the most recent Deloitte Football Money League standings, were English.
Yet for the systemic absence of balance, weekends like this past one nevertheless happen.
Bayern Munich suffered its biggest loss in a decade in a 5-1 clobbering at the hands of Eintracht Frankfurt. The next day, manager Niko Kovac was fired.
Manchester United lost 1-0 to Bournemouth on Saturday, actually giving the club that has dominated the Premier League era a losing 3-4-4 record so far this season.
After the transfer window closed, PSG somehow found that it not only still had Neymar and Kylian Mbappe on its books, but that it had also added Mauro Icardi to its corps of forwards already bloated with Angel Di Maria and Edinson Cavani. Yet the Parisians lost to 16th-placed Dijon, a third league loss in a dozen games.
And then Barca, with Lionel Messi finally back healthy and in a full pomp, somehow followed up five straight league wins by a 16-2 combined goal margin with a 3-1 loss to little Levante – a victory entirely deserved by the home team. That makes it three league losses for Barcelona too, as many as in all of last season, but with 27 games left to play.
In this topsy-turvy weekend, upsets came in smaller ways as well. After Southampton had lost 9-0 to Leicester, the question was whether Manchester City would hit double-digits against their hapless visitors. Yet it took a second-half comeback and an 86th-minute winner from backup right-back Kyle Walker to secure a 2-1 victory. Leaders Liverpool, in similar fashion, didn’t muster a Sadio Mane winner against an entirely anonymous Aston Villa until very deep into stoppage time. Arsenal blew yet another lead against Wolves for a 1-1 tie. And Spurs settled for the same score on a 97th-minute equalizer by Everton.
Almost nothing happened quite as it was supposed to. Because in the end, we don’t really know. And every now and again, once a generation or so, Leicester wins the Premier League. Or Blackburn wins the Premier League. Or Montpellier wins Ligue 1.
Because parity isn’t actually what matters. It’s that you have a sense of how things will turn out, but aren’t ever entirely sure.
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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