Football Flops: Europe’s surprising losers
With 2020 coming to a close, Calum Muldoon takes a look back at the teams in Europe’s top leagues who have been performing below their usual standard and evaluating why that might be the case.
It’s been a ridiculous season so far, one like no other. It has been fascinating to see the negative impact that a lack of fans has made on the performance of some teams, while others who have had little presence in recent years climb their respective leagues in dramatic fashion.
There’s Tottenham Hotspur, chasing their first league title in nearly 60 years this season, while AC Milan have returned to their former glory at the peak of the table with trophy-hungry rivals Inter Milan nipping at their heels in Serie A. Across the whole of Europe, we’ve seen something of a power shift. Titans of the game have crumbled under the pressure and some underdogs have adapted to the current climate to take an early advantage in the title race. Perhaps, the biggest surprises in this unprecedented season are coming in the form of poor performances from some of Europe’s top teams. So, we must reflect – what is really going on at a number of UEFA’s elite clubs?
Perhaps the biggest fall from grace comes in the form of Spanish giants, FC Barcelona, with the Catalan club seeing a massive shake up to their usually dominant form in La Liga. This past weekend, Barca suffered their fourth loss of the season, falling to newly-promoted Cádiz for the first time since 1991. Sloppy defending cost Barca in this encounter, only scoring at all by way of an own goal from Pedro Alcala. The loss has left Barcelona in ninth, twelve points off of league leaders Atletico Madrid. In a typical La Liga season, the El Clasico teams have blitzed into a well-established lead at the top of the table, but while Real Madrid are slightly off the pace, Barcelona are nowhere near where they should be, with clear and obvious issues prevalent at all levels of the club, with plenty of the issues being widely publicised in recent months.
One could wonder whether or not Barcelona have been able to fully recover from the transfer request they received from none other than Lionel Messi in the summer. There have been rumblings about a potential exit for the Argentine superstar, and his play style seems to suggest exactly that – he fired 10 of Barca’s 21 shots at Cadiz’s goal, but his apparent reluctance to involve himself much further than just applying the finishing touch speaks volumes and has brought an element of clumsiness to Barcelona’s typically slick and stylish play style. He has never shied away from publicly expressing his disdain for the club’s board and president, sparking a desire for change within the fanbase, with an internal power shift now almost inevitable in the club’s upcoming presidential election. While manager Ronald Koeman has produced a run of victories in recent weeks, winning six out of seven of their last matches, this defeat will be seen as a major setback in Barcelona’s return to the title race. Only time will tell if this is a mere blip in the return to glory or if this is a return to the poor form they showed in the early stages of the La Liga title race this season.
Despite having been a fair distance from a serious title challenge for a number of years, Arsenal’s start to this Premier League season has been much worse than expected. In fact, statistically, this has been their worst ever start to a Premier League season – having won once in their last five, the club currently lie in 15th, 11 points behind league leaders Spurs.
Club legend Mikel Arteta has recently come under fire for his questionable tactics and poor judgement, much like his predecessor, Unai Emery. The Spanish manager has chosen to implement a heavier focus on defence, after the backline leaked so many goals last season. Switching to a back five, chances have dried up significantly for the Gunners – club captain Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang, fresh off the back of a £375,000-a-week contract extension, has only managed two league goals in his first 11 matches, with fans outraged at his lack of creativity. Furthermore, the club have completely frozen out Mesut Ozil, with the German playmaker missing out on squad registration for both the Premier League and Europa League – with a lack of creativity, Ozil could be a dependable option for the situation, but there doesn’t seem to be any chance of his return any time soon.
In fairness, the blame for the dull football on display at the Emirates cannot solely belong to Arteta and Aubameyang, as the entire team have been wholly inconsistent throughout the season so far, making far too many mistakes which opposition forwards have been all too happy to capitalise on. Arsenal have had issues for years, with certain problems dating back to the days of Arsene Wenger, but it has become apparent that the problems have hit their boiling point and if club owner Stan Kroenke doesn’t recognise these issues at the Emirates, there will be no going back for Arteta and his men.
While it could be argued that Barcelona and Arsenal have had it the worst out of any major European team this season, poor form has plagued a number of Europe’s top clubs throughout the 20/21 league season. One such team has that come into the public eye more recently is French club OGC Nice. The Ligue 1 club have put in some absolutely woeful performances so far this season and while they don’t tend to be one of the more dominant teams in the French top flight, but they currently find themselves sat in 11th, far from the position they would have expected to find themselves in at the beginning of the season.
Former Arsenal legend Patrick Vieira was running things as the club’s manager, having joined from New York City FC in the summer of 2018 – “was” is the optimum word, as Vieira was removed from his post by the Nice board, having endured a five match losing streak and being convincingly dumped out of the Europa League at the group stage.
While a reduction of fixtures this season could help to turn their season around, Nice are facing an uphill battle ahead, especially considering they now have to search for a new manager to get their results back up to scratch.
Going across the border and back in to Spain, we can take a look at the flaws of the other half of the El Clasico in Real Madrid. Their main issues come on the European stage of the Champions League, highlighted by their two defeats to Ukranian champions Shakhtar Donetsk in the last month. Alongside these shock defeats, Real are unhappily boasting their worst ever defensive record in a European group stage, having conceded nine goals in five games. Manager Zinedine Zidane has just one match left to turn his club’s European fortunes around – if not, Los Blancos may well be playing Europa League football for the first time in their history.
Madrid are also struggling with their squad this season – a number of players are performing nowhere near their usual standard, while Eden Hazard is still combatting various injury problems. The former Chelsea winger arrived at the Santiago Bernabeu last summer and since then, he’s only been able to amass a measly 28 appearances in all competitions, only scoring three goals in the process. Furthermore, the La Liga champions could potentially lose club captain Sergio Ramos from the heart of their defence, with the defender’s contract expiring next summer – however, if Real want to recoup some much needed money, they may well have to move some players on in January, including Ramos.
It’s clear that Real have plenty to do if they are to return to their former glory and while the situation is less dire than that of their Catalan rivals, they cannot afford to shrug these weak spells off if they want to have a chance at winning any silverware this season.
This season has been the most unconventional year for many clubs in the footballing world, and times like these can often expose clubs for their adaptability, with some clearly better suited to deal with the new way of life than others. As the season chugs along and medical advancements allow fans to make a slow and partial return to stadiums across the continent, it’s a concern as to whether these clubs will be able to deal with the added pressure that live spectators bring. While football remains unpredictable and a season can offer up any number of stories and problems, these clubs will have to face the music soon and make necessary changes in order to stand a chance of improving their fortunes this season.