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Few Teams Are Equipped for European Soccer’s Relentless Schedule

Last weekend’s lopsided results, shocking upsets, and controversial finishes are a prelude to what will be an unpredictable season

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

Last weekend was the first real glimpse of a phenomenon I had anticipated this season. The simplest way to describe it is widespread footballing chaos: wild results, goals galore, upsets, penalties awarded after the full-time whistle had already been blown. The unpredictability— much like the pandemic that continues to dictate how the sport is administered across Europe (many countries continue to play without fans)—might be around longer than we think.

A brief, but by no means complete, summation of the weekend’s havoc: West Brom raced to a 3-0 lead at home to Chelsea in a game that ended 3-3; none of the top five teams from last season’s Bundesliga campaign won, most notably Borussia Dortmund and Bayern Munich; Manchester United was awarded what was essentially a post-match penalty kick to beat Brighton 3-2; Manchester City was hammered by Leicester City 5-2; and Atlético Madrid scored six goals in their season-opening win over Granada, which is one more goal than they scored in their first five games to start last season. Two clubs chose not to partake in the drama: Liverpool maintained its perfect start to the Premier League season by beating Arsenal 3-1 after an incredible first-half display, and Barcelona beat Villarreal 4-0, scoring all of their goals before halftime.

Wild, right? Personally, I had a sense of calm through it all. To be clear, I’m sympathetic to the emotional roller coaster some fans must have felt—only a monster couldn’t empathize with those forced to watch referee decisions against their teams be microscopically analyzed over and over, like some form of perverse emotional torture. The never-ending dose of VAR-inspired controversy and shockingly lopsided results left me grinning maniacally from the comfort of my own sofa, like some kind of footballing Hawthorne Abendsen, and saying to myself, “It’s happening. It’s really happening!”

For many reasons, the chaos was easy to predict. Last season was billed as being like no other season in history after the three-month shutdown canceled some competitions and forced others to a halt. The lingering effects of the pandemic will continue to impact teams that face a relentless European schedule without the benefit of a normal preseason. There will also be shortened winter breaks to ensure all competitions are completed in time for next summer’s international tournaments, including the Euros and the Tokyo Olympics.

Bayern Munich might already be feeling the effects. They completed last season’s treble with their Champions League victory on August 23, giving them less than a month before their Bundesliga season opener on September 18. As if that truncated preparation time wasn’t enough of a hurdle, they traveled to Budapest last week to play Sevilla in the European Super Cup, winning 2-1 in extra time, before returning to Germany to travel to Hoffenheim on Sunday, which might explain why their heavily rotated side looked so sluggish in a 4-1 loss.

This week, although not technically an Englische Woche—a German term used when a team plays midweek games ahead of their weekend matchups—Bayern and Dortmund will face each other in the German Supercup on Wednesday, which was delayed from its usual slot as the Bundesliga’s ceremonial season opener. Bayern’s example is representative of the challenges teams will face, and there’s an argument about whether the Supercup should even take place at all this year, especially seeing as Bayern are both league and cup winners.

Bayern’s shocking defeat last weekend might have bolstered the hope of a more competitive Bundesliga title race this year, had Dortmund not already lost to Augsburg the previous afternoon and the rest of last season’s top five also failed to win. Mostly, Bayern’s loss highlighted how the departures of Thiago, Ivan Perisic, Philippe Coutinho, Álvaro Odriozola, Michael Cuisance, and (potentially) Javi Martínez have left them without the depth they once had. Hoffenheim showed that even Bayern will not be immune to the chaotic forces at play this season.

Despite a century and a half of brilliant minds endeavoring to exert control over what happens in a soccer game, the sport remains, at its heart, incredibly unpredictable. Studies have shown that if we resist the urge to try and control our surroundings, we’ll become happier. Last weekend, I decided to let go. I didn’t get angry about the stupidity of VAR; I did not let myself partake in an existential inner monologue about whether Dortmund’s mentality is strong enough to genuinely challenge for a title or not, nor whether Real Madrid were the beneficiaries of some kind of referee bias. Arsenal, the side I support, weren’t in action until Monday—a game which featured its own VAR debate—so there was something almost peaceful about observing a weekend of such bedlam from my own quiet part of the world.

Amid circumstances that continue to threaten some clubs’ very existence, it’s important to maintain some perspective this season. COVID-19 cases are expected to rise further throughout Central Europe, so the possibility of postponing games, or players missing games after positive tests, remains a possibility. Thiago has just tested positive and will miss the next two Liverpool fixtures, at least; PSG’s Kylian Mbappé and Manchester United’s Paul Pogba both missed their teams’ most recent games after testing positive; West Ham coach David Moyes managed West Ham to a 4-0 home win against Wolves via Zoom after his positive test.

Spurs freed up a bit of their busy schedule—four games in eight days—following the postponement of their Carabao Cup tie last week against Leyton Orient. Spurs had paid for Orient’s players to be tested, and after several tests returned positive, the game was canceled and Tottenham were awarded the win. With the constant threat of positive cases, in addition to injury and fatigue, none of us can fathom the strain teams will be put under, regardless of their squad depth and resources, nor what results they can provide.

Football is escapism, so it can be hard for fans to accept the volatility of this unprecedented season. Some of these circumstances have implications far greater than controversial VAR decisions. There comes a point where it may be wise for us all to sit back, let ourselves go, grin maniacally, and embrace the chaos. We better be ready to drink it in, because it’s going to be around a while, and we ain’t seen nothing yet.