Football is back! The German Bundesliga continued this past weekend (with Dortmund vs. Bayern to come on Tuesday) and several other leagues took further steps toward resuming the 2019-20 season following the coronavirus outbreak. Gab Marcotti reacts to the main talking points in the latest Monday Musings.
Jump to: Serie A's playoff plan? | Bayern's wake-up call | Deeney sets example | Time for soccer's luxury tax? | Werner continues to dazzle | Premier League's contract cliff-edge | What makes Havertz so good
Serie A's playoff plan?
Barring another U-turn -- and it wouldn't be the first -- this Thursday, authorities in Italy will approve the return of Serie A on either June 13 or, more likely, June 20.
It's been a nervy, confrontational road back in Italy, particularly relative to how smoothly things have gone thus far in Spain, another country that was hit as hard by the pandemic -- let alone Germany, of course. But amid the many frustrating delays and lack of clarity, there is one thing they're doing right, provided they follow through: they're pushing the possibility of playoffs to determine winners, European places and relegation should it become impossible to complete the fixture list.
Simply put, that's common sense. There are 124 fixtures left to play in Serie A, plus three in the Coppa Italia. That's a ton of football to cram in there, even if you play twice a week. Unless you're happy to stretch the season into August (or beyond), you're left with very little margin of error.
Should there be a spate of unexpected positive coronavirus tests forcing an entire team into quarantine or, as lockdown restrictions are eased, a local flare-up that prompts authorities to postpone more games, there simply aren't going to be free dates you can rely on to finish the season. And so playoffs become a viable "Plan B" to settle things on the pitch.
If there's one thing we know about this pandemic, it's that there's so much we don't know and that things can take sudden, unexpected turns. Having a playoff format as an alternative means that, if you return in June and play another six or seven games but are forced to stop again, you can come back and settle matters on the pitch with a reduced number of fixtures. It may mean playing games in neutral venues, it may mean single elimination and it may be imperfect, but at least it will be on the pitch. And, most importantly, you'll be deciding things before we get underway, which means you won't be caught up in legal challenges, red tape and endless discussions down the road.
How might it work? There are myriad solutions, but the guiding principle will be the points separating teams in the table. If they're less than three points apart, maybe you have a single, head-to-head game. If they're split by 3-5 points, maybe you determine the team with fewer points has to win to come out ahead, whereas the other team can draw or win. If they're more spread out, you leave it, or maybe there will be the opportunity to have two or three matchdays, in which case you'd do things differently.
It's far from ideal, but remember: it's a Plan B. And remember what the alternative is: playing some games, stopping and then arguing endlessly about what to do if you have a window left in which to play safely. It's better to sort this out now, ahead of time, while also hoping you'll never have to turn to it.
Bayern get a wake-up call (kind of) from Eintracht
Bayern Munich's 5-2 demolition of Eintracht Frankfurt suggested that, as the cliche goes, they can be their own worst enemy. With a 3-0 lead and rolling along early in the second half, their dominance had been so comprehensive that you wondered why Hansi Flick wasn't taking off Robert Lewandowski in order to give him a little rest before Tuesday night and spare him the risk of suspension (he was one yellow card away from a ban).
Maybe that's what Flick was thinking, but in any case he didn't act quickly enough and, most likely, was glad he didn't. In what felt like the blink of an eye (but was actually a full three minutes), Eintracht struck twice via Martin Hinteregger to make it 3-2.
Blame poor set-piece defending or blame a general switch-off against an inferior opponent in Eintracht, who had done nothing to threaten Manuel Neuer's goal to that point. Either way, it was a bit of a scare, but one to which Bayern reacted well, closing out the game with two late goals. If it reinforces the importance of concentration and ruthlessness needed at this level, Flick might even be grateful for those two goals conceded.
It's fine for players to sit out if they don't feel comfortable
Watford captain Troy Deeney has made it clear that, for the time being, he doesn't feel safe returning to training. Deeney cited concerns over the fact that the coronavirus outbreak in England disproportionately affects black and Asian people, as well as the fact that his infant son has respiratory problems.
Deeney signed a contract to play football for Watford, but not under circumstances that make him feel unsafe. Nobody should be forced to work in conditions where they feel unsafe. Equally though, Watford should not be in a position where they have to pay him while he sits out. A logical solution here is to simply put those players who don't want to play on unpaid leave: they don't receive wages, but they have no obligation to train either.
It's not a solution you could adopt in other fields of employment, where many people live from paycheck to paycheck. But that's not the case in the Premier League, where a few months of unpaid leave won't put anyone's livelihood in peril.
Should Dortmund risk Sancho's fitness vs. Bayern?
Borussia Dortmund's 2-0 win at Wolfsburg was more professional than breathtaking, but that's fine. Against a tough opponent, they showed defensive solidity (even after Emre Can came on for the injured Mats Hummels) and displayed the ability to turn it on when it mattered.
Erling Haaland had an off-day, punctuated by a miss-of-the-day contender, so it's as good a time as any to remind ourselves he's still 19. What was really encouraging for Dortmund was the 26 minutes they got from Jadon Sancho, who offered strength, movement and creativity on his way back to full fitness. The big call from Lucien Favre will be whether to start him against Bayern on Tuesday night or whether to bring him on as a game-changer.
Why a luxury tax might make sense for post-coronavirus soccer
UEFA president Aleksander Ceferin has again raised the possibility of inserting a "luxury tax" element into Financial Fair Play. For those who don't know, a luxury tax is a mechanism where each club has a pre-set wage or spending limit but are free to go beyond it, provided that for each dollar they "overspend" they pay a set amount into some sort of central pool, which can then either be redistributed among other clubs or used for other purposes. It's a way of disincentivizing overspending and keeping costs down.
I think it's a worthwhile concept and I argued as much years ago, when FFP was introduced. However, I'm not holding my breath: Ceferin talked about UEFA considering a "luxury tax" in 2017, 2018 and 2019. So it's not his first rodeo.
He evidently considers it worthwhile, maybe all the more so post-pandemic. But if it hasn't happened yet, it's likely because there simply isn't enough support from the clubs. So while it's a good idea, I wouldn't hold my breath.
Timo Werner continues to show his class
Last week, Leipzig flattened Freiburg only to be held to a 1-1 draw because, well, it's football and stuff happens. This weekend, they showed the same form, slightly better finishing and won 5-0 away to Mainz.
Timo Werner scored a hat-trick and took all the headlines. Rightly so, I might add. There was a time when he was seen as purely a speed merchant, capable only of running behind defenders, but his first two strikes showed just how far he has come in terms of movement. He looks like a real striker now, blessed with a quality of movement and intuition of where the ball will end up.
But while he's the standout at the attacking end (just like Dayot Upamecano is at the other end), there's a lot more to Leipzig than those two guys. And frankly, this isn't a side in which it's easy to stand out: Julian Nagelsmann's approach is so team-oriented, his players so hard-working and unselfish, that everybody seems capable of hurting the opposition at different stages of the game.
Premier League heading for contract cliff-edge without a plan
Rob Dawson is reporting that Manchester United fear they could lose striker Odion Ighalo when his loan deal with Shanghai Shenhua expires at the end of May. Let that be a warning to all those who seemed to underestimate the "June 30" cliff-edge when player contracts and most loan deals expire. It's an issue that affects nearly one in five Premier League players: Unless deals are renegotiated, those players will simply disappear from squad lists.
The return of Marcus Rashford and the fact that you feel that United can chuck some more money at Shanghai Shenhua and keep him around for a few more months probably means this situation is less critical than it appears. (And, by the way, the shoe is on the other foot with other players like, say, Dean Henderson, whose loan deal with Sheffield United expires June 30, theoretically giving Ole Gunnar Solskjaer a golden opportunity to weaken a direct opponent when it matters most.) But this promises to be a serious can of worms when the Premier League returns.
Havertz continues fantastic form
No Bundesliga player has come out of the gates post-hiatus faster than Kai Havertz. His two goals on Saturday helped sink Borussia Monchengladbach as Bayer Leverkusen won 3-1, leap-frogging Marco Rose's men into fourth place.
Havertz, who doesn't turn 21 until next month, is one of those talents whose skill set is so unique that managers have yet to find his ideal role. He's been playing up front, sort of, albeit with his own free-ranging interpretation of the role and his combination of size, cultured feet and seeming ability to move quicker with the ball than without it creates all sorts of mismatches around the pitch. Peter Bosz has played him there and it has worked largely because of the pieces around him and Leverkusen's aptitude for possession.
Not many teams fighting for a spot in the Champions League have the guts to disassemble their side in order to accommodate a 20-year old. But Havertz is so unusual, and so difficult to pin down, that giving him the requisite freedom to find space (and the ball) wherever he can find it, while freeing him of defensive tasks, makes sense.