Hello! And welcome to another edition of Tactically Naive: the soccer column that bought not one but two spider plants over the weekend. Oh yeah. Get some leafs in your life.
Sergio Agüero is still ridiculous
Quite frankly, it isn‘t fair. There are rules about this sort of thing.
You go up, across, and down.
That’s how a footballer’s career is supposed to go. Up, across, and down. You get better, you get to your best, you stay there as long as you can ... and then you decline. Of course, the across rarely looks like a straight line, but the overall shape is always the same. Up around the age of 20, across for a decade or so, and then comes 30 and the down.
Well, Sergio Agüero isn’t having it. Though he began his fourth decade last June, and though he’s been playing professional football since the age of 15, he’s still bouncing along very nicely. In fact, he is getting better. The swine.
Against Chelsea on Sunday, Agüero began his day by missing an open goal from approximately two yards. He made up for this a few minutes later by lashing one into the net from 20 yards, the first goal in a hat trick that showcased the striker’s art: first a wondergoal, then a scruffy piece of opportunism, and finally a nerveless, never-in-doubt penalty.
He hit the bar with a header, too. Would have been a bit much. True greatness is as much a measure of restraint as it is excellence.
Agüero did all this on the wrong side of 30, while getting on 700 games in his legs. A few years ago, foolish people — Tactically Naive very much among them — wondered if the arrivals of Pep Guardiola, and later Gabriel Jesus, might leave little space for Agüero. Such a pure goalscorer could have no place in the ultramodern, multidimensional intricacy of Pepball.
And maybe we were right, early on. Maybe he didn’t press enough. Maybe he wasn’t offering enough outside the box. (Obviously he was still scoring goals. That’s a given.) But watching him scurry around now, doing his thing and doing all the other things, it’s impossible not to admire this late career leveling-up. A triumph of coaching and application and willpower. And also a complete betrayal.
Up, across, then down: that’s the bargain that the footballer makes with the universe. Thirty comes around, and the knees start to ache, and it’s time to make peace with a long and uncertain future. The Sisyphean torture of management? The long drift of retirement? Some ill-advised business manoeuvres? Punditry?
To be improving as a player at this stage of a long career is simply unacceptable. As such, TN will be writing to Agüero to request that he confine his footballing activities to those appropriate to his age and his mileage: hanging around the penalty area, complaining about persistent hamstring strains, and occasionally turning up on television wearing unfeasibly tight trousers.
These are the best teams
Right, the Champions League is back after its winter hibernation, and TN is more than a little excited. First, because the football is usually good. And second, because this serves to spice everything up at home as well. Suddenly, the best teams have extra games and need to start juggling their resources. We’ve got intriguing title races bubbling away all over the continent, and this is only going to make them intriguing-er.
There are four games this week as the Round of 16 gets its first legs in order. Let’s have a look at how all the runners and riders have been getting on.
Roma vs. Porto
They may still be in the Champions League, but Roma aren’t exactly pulling their weight in Serie A this season: they’re five places and 25 (!) points behind leaders Juventus. They do, however, have the best shirts left in the competition, which we’re betting will distract a Porto team used to facing the drab garments of the Primeira Liga.
Manchester United vs. Paris Saint-Germain
When this tie was drawn, we all knew what was coming. Jose Mourinho’s miserable United were going to try and nil-nil PSG until they fell asleep, And they were going to fail. But now! United are a freewheeling, fun-bringing festival of football, and PSG’s injury list is so long it needs an index. Still, Kylian Mbappé is fit. So is Phil Jones.
Ajax vs. Real Madrid
Ajax’s Frenkie de Jong is (a) the absolute business, and (b) going to Barcelona at the end of the season. And since we’ve all been such nice boys and girls, the gods of footballing narrative will deliver us an early clásico present, right? Not that it matters. Nobody’s going to be watching this one ...
Tottenham Hotspur vs. Borussia Dortmund
... because this one is on at the same time, and this one is deliciously hard to pick. Even without Harry Kane. Dortmund are great, and are still leading the Bundesliga, but threw away a three-goal lead at the weekend in baffling fashion. Spurs, meanwhile, do not draw. Ever. They win most of the time, they lose occasionally, and either way Son Heung-Min continues to be the world’s most adorable footballer.