Football? Football! Soccer? Soccer! Welcome back to Tactically Naive, in which you can call this wonderful game whatever you want, as long as you are prepared to admit that it is Good. Even when it’s Bad. Onwards.
Julen Lopetegui wakes up. It is a beautiful summer day. He leaps out of bed, a song in his heart,and throws open the curtains. Oh no! He is immediately hit in the face with a large custard pie.
This is football. Things go wrong. Success is the punctuation that separates failure from failure, and joy the pinch of salt that really brings out the flavour of the persistent misery. But! Have things ever gone so wrong, so quickly, as they have for Julen Lopetegui?
Outraged, Lopetegui storms outside. Unfortunately, somebody has left a large bucket of whitewash outside his door. He steps in it. It’s stuck on his foot! He starts to clatter around, getting whitewash everywhere.
Just a few months ago Lopetegui was at the World Cup in Russia. He was in charge of Spain, who were going into the tournament as one of the favourites. His squad had come through qualifying unbeaten, scoring 36 goals on the way. Things were looking good … and then Real Madrid gave him a call.
He said yes. Spain said “what the hell, Julen?” Fast forward to now, through Spain’s early exit from the tournament, and Real Madrid side have lost five games on the bounce. They didn’t score a goal for eight solid hours of football. They are seventh in La Liga. They are Bad.
Finally, he gets the bucket off, and goes in pursuit of the pie-slinging miscreat. He sees some workmen with ladders working on the outside of the house. However, as he approaches them, a man with a ladder over his shoulder turns around. Poor Julen is caught flush in the head! He tumbles to the ground in a heap.
There is of course a sense in which none of this is Lopetegui’s fault. The unwritten rules of football serve to impose tragic flaws on its managers. You do not say no to Real Madrid. You just don’t. Even when you’re their fourth, fifth, sixth choice. Even when saying yes is an extremely silly idea, just a few days before a World Cup. Even when Cristiano Ronaldo’s gone.
Julen scrambles to his feet and begins to remonstrate with the man, who is extremely unapologetic. Other workmen clamber down and join the argument. Eventually they take their ladders and storm away. Angry, Julen thumps the side of his house, then sits down to have a good cry. There is a moment’s pause …
Because to say no to Real Madrid would be to betray the fundamental drive of the football manager. That whole tangled collection of ambitions — to work with the best, to win the shiniest, to make the most money, to make the most of your time — that, when taken all together, add up to reaching the top. Even when the top turns out to be a barren spot, cold, with a miserable view. And only the prelude to an embarrassing fall.
Managers have said no to Real Madrid, of course; either secure in their own projects or chary of the churn. Perhaps in some alternate universe, Lopetegui is striking matches on the World Cup trophy, puffing cigars as Spain take the Nations League by storm, and as some other sucker tries to navigate Madrid’s post-Ronaldo contractions. But not this one. In this one, there’s nothing left for him except the final phone call, and the only question is: when?
… and then the front wall of his house collapses on top of him. He sits covered in dust, inside the open window frame, looking at the rubble all around him. Then he looks, blank-faced, at the camera. Fade to black.
The continued decline of Jose Mourinho
Plot twist: Manchester United are fun! Saturday’s 2-2 draw with Chelsea was the second game in a row in which United have stepped up to the demands of the Competition Formerly Known as The Barclays, and delivered the untethered chaos and giddy silliness that the sponsors crave.
This doesn’t mean Manchester United are a good football team. Not yet. A good football team wouldn’t have been two down at home to Newcastle in the first place; a good football team would have squeezed out the win at Chelsea. But there’s definitely something starting to take shape in that jumble of a squad.
Paul Pogba may still be losing his man at corners, but he’s also creating equalisers with spinning shoulder-drops and nutmegs. A balance in midfield, at last.
A hammering from Juventus might kill this renascence stone dead, of course, and a hammering from Juventus is eminently possible. But for the moment, things are at least engaging. United look like they’re going somewhere, even if that somewhere might end up being nowhere again …
… and just as well, since the game at Stamford Bridge also served as final notice that Jose Mourinho is not the man he once was, and may never truly return to his glorious, inglorious majesty.
We’re talking, of course, about the not-fight at the end. It was almost perfect: the hold-me-back-hold-me-back Scrappy Doo stylings. The walloping hypocrisy of Mourinho — coat-flapper, eye-gouger, sprinkler-provoker — complaining about somebody else’s touchline conduct. The sheer glorious mess of it: ego and flailing machismo.
Being Jose Mourinho requires performing the part of Jose Mourinho, and it’s been a while since that performance had been anything other than just a bit sad. Here at least — at last! — it was funny.
Until an apology was offered and quickly accepted. What the hell? That’s not going to rumble on through the season. That’s not going to let bad feeling fester into bad blood. That’s not going to convince United’s players that everybody hates them and the only thing to do is show them, show them all, show them by by wasting time, by making tactical fouls, by winning.
The man can’t even beef anymore. It’s terribly sad.
Arsenal might be a thing again
On Monday night, Arsenal went 1-0 down at home to Leicester City, then roared back to win 3-1. Mesut Ozil was divine, in his ethereal way, and they scored another gorgeous, length of the pitch passing goal. Becoming a bit of a habit, that. Maybe passing the ball out from the back is … good?
Anyway, that’s ten wins in a row for the north Londoners, which isn’t bad going. Early days for Unai Emery, of course, but Tactically Naive is hear to warn you all that we may need to do some repunctuating in the near future. A change of emphasis may be coming. Because if this football club is actually going to be consistently good, then we’re going to need to swap out “Oh, Arsenal …” for “Oh, Arsenal!” Maybe even “OH! ARSENAL!”
It’s going to be a big shift. They’ve been a comedy event for so long that it’s going to be hard to take them seriously. So be aware. The world may be changing, and you’ll need to change with it. There’s nothing so embarrassing as being caught out in public wearing last season’s punchlines.
And the season before that.
And the season before that.
And the— no, no, we’ll stop now.