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August 5, 2020
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Bundesliga looks different, but return of soccer felt good

Football is back! The German Bundesliga restarted on Saturday after a two-month suspension due to the coronavirus outbreak, and other leagues can take a lot of inspiration from it, too. Gab Marcotti reacts to the main talking points in the latest Monday Musings.

Jump to: What Bundesliga’s return felt like | Get used to “new normal” | Haaland, Dortmund keep rolling | La Liga’s new kickoff times | Bayern carefree in title race | Emery on Arsenal exit | Leipzig’s title chase over?

Bundesliga return looks different but feels great

It’s back. Or, rather, some form of it is back.

Maybe you’re old enough to have bought a pirated DVD of a first-run movie from a dubious street vendor. If you are, it’s a little bit like that. Sure, you paid five bucks to watch “Titanic” on your laptop, except the sound is crappy, there are subtitles filling half the screen and you soon realize the guy who recorded it on his handycam inside the theatre was munching popcorn throughout.

Not quite the same thing, is it? But it’s what we have.

The ambient sound is akin to what you might hear at a sparsely attended swim meet. The players look silly bumping elbows instead of engaging in hugs and high-fives. The empty stands are jarring, just like they always are when something that’s so important to so many of us is witnessed almost exclusively by people who are paid to be there, and not the other way around. The ubiquitous facemasks — everywhere but on the pitch — are reminders of the horror we are living through.

But if you’re here for the football, as opposed to the neatly packaged football-related entertainment show the game sometimes impersonates, you’ll be OK with it.

On the pitch, it was interesting to see which players looked match-fit and which did not. Six weeks of training via Zoom followed by just a couple weeks of full practice clearly took its toll on some. It was predictable that, Erling Braut Haaland apart (but he’s a freak of nature anyway), bigger, more heavily muscled players looked more sluggish than smaller, slighter ones, which may explain why we saw some central defenders struggle and why several games were tentative out of the gate.

The fact that there were no fewer than eight muscular injuries in the first eight games probably isn’t coincidental, either; it should provide food for thought to the other leagues plotting to come back because, make no mistake about it, they’re watching the Bundesliga.

This is the single biggest competition in team sports that has reopened, and it forms the blueprint for La Liga, the Premier League and Serie A. How fans, media and, of course, the virus reacts will help determine whether we’ll get some kind of fix this summer or whether we have to wait until the autumn … or longer.

Get used to soccer’s new normal?

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4:54

La Liga experts Sid Lowe and Ale Moreno test their Messi & Ronaldo IQ in the latest FC quiz.

Writing in El Pais, Jorge Valdano talked about how the game’s conservatism — since the offside law was introduced in 1925, the only significant change was the back-pass rule in 1992 — simplicity and stability was at the heart of its popularity. He’s not saying the game hasn’t evolved, just that the evolution has come from the abilities of those on the pitch and on the sidelines. (I’d add in those in the boardroom who’ve marketed it and grown it.)

Most popular team sports, from basketball to rugby to American football, have undergone deeply transformative rule changes — let alone mere cosmetic transformations in how the game is presented — and audiences have, largely, accepted them. Not in football, and perhaps that’s why this weekend was so jarring to some. It’s one thing to accept the odd game behind closed doors. Realising that this is the “new normal” for the foreseeable future is a shock to the system.

You suspect most will get used to it. Some — perhaps diehard fans who see themselves as part of the spectacle as well as, at the opposite end, casual fans who are attracted by the hype and the noise — will not.

Haaland superb as Dortmund keep rolling

Erling Haaland’s scoring rate continues to decline for Borussia Dortmund. Before his return Saturday, it was one goal every 63 minutes. Now, it’s one every 65 given that he managed only one goal in Saturday’s 4-0 hammering of Schalke.

I’m kidding. Haaland lived up to the hype big-time, scoring a peach of a goal to open proceedings and then being involved in the other three as well.

He showcased exactly what he was supposed to showcase for each goal, too. The frenzied yet calculated pressing of Schalke keeper Markus Schubert that led to Dortmund’s second goal. The fearsome way he seemed to pick up speed and power as he drove fearlessly through the middle of the pitch before his high-speed collision with Salif Sane. And, of course, the vision, weight and trickery of a natural assist-man to set up the fourth.

Haaland gets the headlines (and rightly so), but it’s worth noting how thoroughly dominant Dortmund were despite the absences of Jadon Sancho, Marco Reus, Emre Can and Axel Witsel (plus, Giovanni Reyna, who was set for his first career Bundesliga start only to get injured during the warm-up). When you can spot the opposition four starters and still steamroller them (true, Schalke were abysmal and have now gone eight games without a win), it says something about your strength in depth.

A word on Spain’s new kickoff times

La Liga also will look and feel different when it returns, and not just because it will be behind closed doors. As they wait for the final green light — at this stage, it appears to be a formality — league president Javier Tebas revealed what the the schedule will look like, with matches every single day, kicking off at 6 p.m. and 7:30 p.m. local time during the week and anywhere from 7.30 p.m. to 11 p.m. on weekends.

In other words, it will feel more like a World Cup which, I guess, is fitting since most of it will take place in the middle of summer. Those late, late kickoffs — literally starting one day and finishing the next — are, I guess, a necessary evil when you consider the temperatures reached in some parts of Spain in late July. Yet you can’t help but wonder: If you have to play at 11 p.m. because of the heat, why is it any different during the week? Are weekday summer nights cooler in Spain?

Bayern show no nerves in title race

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Craig Burley explains how the Bundesliga’s return could impact Bayern’s chances of winning the Champions League.

Victories for Borussia Dortmund and Borussia Monchengladbach led some (OK, me) to suggest that Bayern might have felt a bit uncomfortable on Sunday, needing to win away to Union Berlin to preserve their four-point lead. We should have known better.

Perhaps if Anthony Ujah had taken his chance early, things might have turned out differently. But he didn’t, and you felt it was only a matter of time before the Bavarians unpicked the opposition, first via a Robert Lewandowski penalty (his 40th goal of the season) and then with a Benjamin Pavard header.

Bayern looked sharp without needing to overexert themselves, letting their superior technique make all the difference. Leon Goretzka, deployed wide as a winger, gave them a different, more physical (if less pacy) dimension and looked very effective. It’s definitely a theme to revisit. Thomas Muller was in vintage form too, suggesting that he evidently found a way to stay fit and sharp during the layoff.

Bayern’s clash away to Borussia Dortmund in eight days’ time looms large on the horizon.

Emery explains what went wrong at Arsenal

Nearly six months after his departure from Arsenal, Unai Emery offered his side of the story in an interview with Sid Lowe. Sacked managers are often careful to put their points across without slamming their previous employers, and that’s pretty much what Emery did. In his case, given that he’s naturally cautious (he might say balanced) in his assessments, this was especially so.

We learned that it might have been a different story had the club hung on to Nacho Monreal and Laurent Koscielny, two players Emery didn’t want to let go. (Fine. But Monreal was 33 and the club had signed Kieran Tierney to go with Sead Kolasinac, while Koscielny, understandably, wanted a multiyear deal and, on the eve of his 34th birthday, wasn’t going to get one.) We learned that he wanted Wilfried Zaha instead of Nicolas Pepe. (Again, the two would have cost about the same, but one is three years older.) We learned that he wanted Mesut Ozil to play a starring role on this team, but it required a “high level of participation and commitment.” (That’s fine. Ozil is everybody’s favourite punching bag anyway.)

Most of all, we learned that Emery “felt alone” at Arsenal and that by his own admission, he did his own work when he was “protected” by a strong, vocal and visible chief executive or director of football who could deflect media attention and be the face of the club from time to time. It’s pretty much what I wrote when he got sacked.

Emery was very honest on that point. In a football world that prizes either cult-hero visionaries (Jurgen Klopp, Pep Guardiola) or dyed-in-the-wool alpha males (Jose Mourinho, Antonio Conte), he’s neither. It might put some clubs off hiring him. But at least, if he does get another job, his new employers will be prepared.

Leipzig’s title hopes finally extinguished?

RB Leipzig‘s 1-1 home draw with Freiburg leaves them seven points adrift of the top, and without a head-to-head against Bayern left on the schedule, it means their hopes of a Bundesliga title are probably dashed. That’s a blow for a team that was on top as recently as January (or, to put it in non-coronavirus terms, six games ago).

You can point to Robin Koch‘s disallowed late goal and even conclude they might have lost this. True, but this was also a classic encounter where the score had little to do with what actually happened on the pitch. Freiburg’s goal — a blind back heel from Manuel Gulde — was pure luck. (Or, more accurately, it’s luck when a big defender does it, skill when Lionel Messi does it.) Outside of that, Leipzig battered the opposition from beginning to end despite numerous absentees (Emil Forsberg, Dayot Upamecano) and only poor finishing and some solid saves from Alexander Schwolow kept them out.

If this is the game that cost Julian Nagelsmann the title, so be it. But take nothing away from what this team has achieved this season and the football they have played.

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