Hello, and welcome back to Tactically Naive, SB Nation’s weekly soccer column. We’ve spent the morning listening to Ennio Morricone soundtracks and now we are invincible.
The greatest moment of Arsenal’s season
It is a time of portents. Floods rack the land. Birds fly backwards. Oleg Luzhny is looking at his own arm and thinking “Hmm. Tasty.” And then, this weekend, it happened. The ur-sign; the flaming comet to end all flaming comets. Some of us couldn’t remember the last time it had happened. Some thought it never would again.
Liverpool. Lost. A. Game. In. The. Premier. League.
Well, to be precise, they didn’t lose. They got tonked. By a team that began the day in the relegation zone. Liverpool looked slow, uninspired, and unimaginative going forward, and excitingly vulnerable at the back. If you’d asked a newly-reawakened Rip Van Winkle which team was a million points clear at the top of the Premier League, he’d have said:
”What, 2020? Oh man, how long was I out? How many King Georges are we up to now? Must be, like, XII. Do people still play nine-pins?”
Well, that didn’t work. But if you’d asked somebody who was broadly familiar with the time period but had mysteriously been asleep for long enough to know the specifics, they’d have said:
”Probably still Liverpool, right? Sure, they’re having a bad day, but when was the last time Watford were miles clear at the top of anything? Ohh, this Ismaïla Sarr’s pretty decent, hey? I’m hungry.”
We just cannot get the imaginary staff.
Anyway. Rather unexpectedly, this is turning into a sticky couple of weeks for the champions-elect, greatest team in history, unstoppable red machine. They’re 1-0 down halfway through their Champions League tie against Atlético Madrid, they’ve lost to Watford, they conceded twice to West Ham — West Ham! — and coming up, on Tuesday evening, they’ve got a tricky FA Cup tie against Chelsea.
Given the way they’re playing, it’s not beyond the bounds of possibility that they end up out of both remaining cup competitions before March is halfway done marching. Liverpool fans won’t care, of course — the league! the league! — and you’d be a fool to bet against another one of Those Famous European Nights At Anfield.
But generally speaking, the teams that find their seasons over in March are those at the other end of the table, the helplessly and hopelessly relegated. The last act of this remarkable season could yet be rendered a little strange: an edgeless procession to an already-won title, and a surprising number of days off. Unless …
… no. No. Losing the league title from here would be apocalyptically unthinkable …
… apocalyptically …
… unthinkable …
… so, stop thinking about it? No. Shan’t. You first.
Sometimes people tell you who they are
Elsewhere in Europe, it finally happened. Referees, club officials, and players took note of unacceptable abuse from the stands and brought a game to a halt. Finally, action is being taken against the discrimination that blights our game: fans being rude to billionaires.
The billionaire in question is Dietmar Hopp, who owns and funds Hoffenheim out of his vast pockets. This vexes ultras groups around Germany, not least because it represents a violation of Germany’s famous 50+1 rule, which is supposed to ensure that clubs remain majority-owned by the fans.
There’s much winding backstory to the protests which erupted this weekend, but in extremely brief, what happened was this. First, Bayern’s ultras unfurled a series of banners, all variations of “Dietmar Hopp — son of a whore!” Then, in response, Bayern’s and Hoffenheim’s players, the referee, and Bayern’s club officials all flipped their collective wig.
The players were taken off the field, then reemerged to see out the last 20 minutes by just passing the ball to one another. There was talk of abandonment, then later of a dark day for football. Karl-Heinz Rummenigge even accused the ultras of ruining the club’s birthday. The big meanies.
You may be thinking: seems a bit much. You may also be thinking: where is all this energy, this fury, this doomsaying, when players are racially abused from the stands? Well, Tactically Naive is right there with you. Indeed, it’s hard not to read this as a pointed expression of class solidarity: they stand with Dietmar Hopp; they stand only with Dietmar Hopp.
This parallel has not passed unremarked by the ultras. A statement from Red Fanatic Munich (translation here) makes the point, and notes that Hopp himself has equated criticism of his stewardship of Hoffenheim with racial discrimination. It then castigates the DFP for appearing to agree with him, and the media and Bayern’s players and hierarchy for the “lack of substance” in their responses so far.
While we wait for the fallout, we can chalk this up as yet further evidence that reality’s boss is barely even checking emails at the moment. Football won’t stop play for racism but will for incredibly rich people? There’s no way any self-respecting satirist would have been allowed to get away with that. Our world isn’t just stupid. It’s badly edited.
A potential candidate for the #Puskas Award?— FIFA.com (@FIFAcom) February 28, 2020
Take a bow, Jordan Flores
Will we see this stunner nominated at #TheBest?pic.twitter.com/TZgF8asFzX
We’ve watched this goal a lot, and we still don’t quite understand the mechanics of it. It looks like it’s going to be merely spectacular, in a Zlatan sort of a way, and then just as the ball arrives there’s a weird glitch. It’s as if his entire body sneezes itself into a different shape. A bazooka, perhaps. Or a large animated six-shooter. And then he loads the ball, spins the chamber, and Roger Rabbits the ball into the goal.
Keeper gets a little touch, mind. Imagine if he’d saved it. Imagine the giddy Dadaist rush of ruining something that beautiful. Ah well. At least goal of the season’s sorted nice and early.
Oh, there was a clásico as well
Well, sort of.
Watching the clásico shuffle apologetically past, TN couldn’t help but wonder if this game will ever be That Game again. That glorious run of unimpeachable classic nonsense that stretched, roughly, from Ronaldinho’s ovation through to Mourinho’s desecration: did we take that for granted? Did we play ourselves, raise our expectations so high that nothing could match them?
Or are we perhaps now truly living after the golden age, the towers fallen, watching faded parodies pass through the motions. The pulse of the thing long ebbed away. Barcelona were meek. Madrid were better, in a highly localised sense. And the title race is still twitching away. That’s something, right? That’s something.