It’s way too early to say anything definitive about the European soccer season—the Bundesliga hasn’t started yet, and no one else in the big five leagues has played more than twice—but that doesn’t mean interesting things haven’t happened! Ahead of this weekend’s games, let’s take a look at what the small sample size hath wrought thus far.
1. Ronaldo is literally irreplaceable.
I should’ve known better. After talking to a bunch of people around Europe, I believed the possibility of Real Madrid being better off—or at least, not worse off—without a 33-year-old Cristiano Ronaldo seemed plausible, potentially even logical. Lose his inefficient shots, gain some better looks from other younger, top-level players, and there you go.
No, here you go. As Ringer contributor James Yorke pointed out to me, in their first game without CR7, Madrid took just 10 shots. Last year, they averaged around 18, and guess how many of those came from Ronaldo? About seven. Are his former teammates afraid to even dip a toe into the Ronaldo vortex, lest it launch them on their own trajectory toward an unflattering bronze statue being erected upon a hill in their own hometown? Did new manager Julen Lopetegui watch his former team, Spain, play keep-away against Russia, lace his fingers together, and whisper to himself, “Yes, that is the good stuff”? The three-time defending Champions League champs won their opener against Getafe 2-0 and barely conceded any chances thanks to keeping 78 percent of the ball, but they’ll need to generate more shots than 2017-18 Burnley in order to stand a chance against Barcelona in La Liga this season.
As for Ronaldo’s Juventus debut? In the 3-2 win over Chievo, Massimiliano Allegri’s side registered 27 attempts. Last season against Chievo, they took 31 shots—in two games. Ronaldo is not replacing a zero; he’s replacing Gonzalo Higuaín, who, according to the consultancy 21st Club, rates as the 25th best player in the world! But man, if Juve’s able to add all of Ronaldo’s production to what they already had, everyone else is in trouble.
2. Eden Hazard is the world’s greatest super-sub.
Managers still don’t sub enough. Soccer is a physically demanding game with constant motion and few stoppages. Bringing on a speedy player for the final 40 minutes of a match and letting him run wild against the opposition’s tiring legs should be the bedrock of good in-game management. Plenty of studies suggest that managers should always use all three subs, and they should do so aggressively rather than waiting until the final few minutes. Yet most subs still seem like a last resort, a Plan B, or a means to keeping the squad happy.
Eden Hazard—who is presumably still getting back up to speed after Belgium’s prolonged run to the World Cup semis and won’t be coming off the bench for Chelsea much longer—is the ultimate argument in favor of strategically subbing in star players. In the opener against Huddersfield, he played for 14 minutes, completed six out of six dribbles he attempted, and assisted a goal. Against Arsenal, he completed more passes in the attacking-third than anyone else—despite coming on in the 61st minute:
Here’s what that yellow line looks like in real life:
Part of me wants Maurizio Sarri to continue with the Tampa Bay Rays–esque experiment and keep rolling out Hazard in the second half so he can continue wreaking havoc and breaking all kinds of per-90-minute records. That likely won’t happen, but then again, Sarri’s now got N’Golo Kanté, the best defensive midfielder in the box, creating chances left and right, so who knows?
3. Marcelo Bielsa has finally found his Westworld.
The man who once said, “If players weren’t human, I’d never lose,” has ... yet to lose a game with his newest club. Draw your own conclusions.
Four games into the season, Leeds sit atop the Championship table with 10 points, 11 goals scored, and just four allowed. Bielsa has quickly turned them all into the caffeinated jitterbugs that his vertical pressing style demands: They’re third in the league in possession, but despite having that much of the ball, they’re also top 10 in tackles, interceptions, and fouls committed.
Although he’s now managing in England’s second division, Bielsa’s had as much influence over the current Premier League era as any anyone; Pep Guardiola’s said, “He makes the players much, much better and he helped me a lot with his advice,” while Mauricio Pochettino has referred to Bielsa as his “football father.”
El Loco, as he’s known, is infamously, and perhaps detrimentally, demanding of his players. A training session at Marseille ends with half of his team face down in the grass, considering whether fighting wildfires would be a less dangerous career:
Bielsa is also infamously, and definitely detrimentally, demanding of his employers. He left Marseille one game into his second season with the club. He quit Lazio before even managing a single match. And most recently, at Lille, he was suspended by the club and eventually fired because he offloaded all of the team’s older players. So, history suggests two things: 1) The Leeds era won’t last too long, and 2) we should keep watching until it goes away.
4. Benjamin Mendy was the like-a-new-signing of the summer.
Remember when Manchester City did that thing where they won the Premier League with a record 100 points, scored 106 goals, and only let in 27? Well, they did that thing without Benjamin Mendy, who’s recovered from his torn ACL and is making an early case for the title of “best left-back in the world.”
Benjamin Mendy. The deep block destroyer. Completely owned that left flank playing as an attacking fullback against Huddersfield. The final piece of the Guardiola masterpiece.— RB (@2SilvasYouKnow) August 20, 2018
Crossing is only inefficient if you don’t know how to do it; remember, the Golden State Warriors make more midrange jumpers than anyone in the NBA. Against Huddersfield, Mendy attempted more crosses than any City player did last season, but he’s not just doing the stereotypical and aimless “get down the line and whip one into the box.” No, he’s either playing early crosses into the space behind retreating defenders, or he’s getting deep to the endline and then cutting the ball back to the penalty spot.
It’s only two games, but you can see why almost a full episode of Amazon’s incredibly entertaining Pep-propaganda project, All or Nothing: Manchester City, was dedicated to the devastation of Mendy’s early-season injury. Just look how excited Guardiola is to have him back:
So far this year, he’s been City’s most important player in possession, and he’s the only player in Europe with three assists. There are only a few guys in the world who can cover an entire side of the field by themselves, and there’s a similarly select group of fullbacks with the passing chops to pinch inside and function as an auxiliary midfielder. We saw Mendy do both against Arsenal and Huddersfield.
5. Barcelona are the best team to watch.
We’re going to wait another week before we publish the first set of this season’s watchability rankings, but it might not even matter if the Bundesliga hasn’t kicked off yet.
Last year, Barcelona topped the list—and they also topped it the year before, and the year before that, and the year before that too. In 2017-18, they were first in dribbles attempted, second in deep completions per game, and third in expected goals per game. However, they were a frankly pathetic 11th in passes per defensive action, or how aggressively they pressed their opponents. Well, this year they’re adding full seasons from Philippe Coutinho and Ousmane Dembélé, two products of aggressive pressing systems at Liverpool and Borussia Dortmund. And they also signed Arturo Vidal, one of the most tenacious, hyperactive midfielders on the planet. Might they be even more aesthetically dominant this season?
After their 3-0 win over Alavés to open the season, they’re already no. 1 in the watchability rankings. Given that we’re no more than two weeks into the season, the result of these observations are extremely “subject to change,” but as long as Messi is still a benevolent god—he took eight shots, scored twice, dribbled past six defenders, and created five chances—and he’s flanked by an increasing amount of frenetic talent, why would there ever be anything better to watch?