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On soccer

Do routs mean wrong route is being taken?

By Frank Dell’Apa
Globe Staff / August 30, 2011

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Maybe it was a matter of a few teams having bad days last weekend. But the overwhelming victories in matches involving Europe’s top clubs suggests more than coincidence.

Manchester City started the routs on Saturday afternoon, drubbing Tottenham, 5-1. Spurs were the home team and were willing to take on the role of the attacking side, which left a lot of open space. Gareth Bale and his teammates should have been able to exploit some of those openings, but, instead, the Citizens ran amok.

Later in the day, Manchester United wiped out Arsenal, 8-2. Then, Real Madrid spoiled Real Zaragoza’s home opener, 6-0. Yesterday, it was Barcelona’s turn - 5-0 over Villareal.

Are the Manchester clubs, Real Madrid, and Barcelona simply ahead of everyone else in preparation? Will the others catch up as the bigger clubs bog down while juggling priorities as the season progresses? Or, are we seeing the advent of a breakaway involving superclubs?

The obvious advantage of the superclubs is that they are super rich. Already strong, they were able to reinforce themselves in the offseason. Barcelona took Cesc Fabregas from Arsenal (25.5 million pounds) and Alexi Sanchez from Udinese (22.8 million pounds). Real Madrid took Fabio Coentrao from Benfica (26.4 million pounds). Manchester United bought goalkeeper David De Gea from Atletico Madrid (17.6 million pounds), defender Phil Jones from Blackburn (16.9 million pounds), and striker Ashley Young from Aston Villa (15.8 million pounds).

Manchester City waited, in the last week picking up Sergio Aguero from Atletico Madrid (39.6 million pounds) and Samir Nasri from Arsenal (24.2 million pounds). City now has offered AS Roma 25 million pounds for Daniele De Rossi.

Soccer now is like a high-stakes poker game, except everyone knows who has the winning hands. The traditional powers - Barcelona, Manchester United, Real Madrid - are going all in. Chelsea and Manchester City, capitalizing on the whims of Arab sheiks and Russian oligarchs, are calling their bluff.

Inter, which defeated Barcelona in the 2010 Champions Cup final, has decided to drop out of the bidding wars. Milan made a similar decision a couple of years ago. Arsenal appears to be following their lead.

After Fabregas departed, Arsene Wenger, Arsenal’s coach, noted the club had lost great players in the past and had been able to replace them. Wenger apparently wanted to use Nasri in the second leg of Champions League qualifying against Udinese last week. But that would have prevented Nasri (whose contract would have expired next year) from being eligible to compete for Manchester City, which threatened to call off the deal. Arsenal decided to pocket the money, essentially throwing in the towel on the Champions League, ensuring Nasri would not be leaving on a free transfer.

If Wenger is right, Arsenal is only reloading in an attempt to remain at the elite level. Like Liverpool, the Gunners’ main financing is American, so there will be some deep-pocket approaches to acquisitions. But Arsenal and Liverpool are occupying a niche just below the superclubs, and are being surpassed by the ambition of Manchester City’s Sheikh Mansour Bin Zayed Al Nahyan.

But it has taken Manchester City three years to reach this level. There is no guarantee that heavy investment will pay off quickly for other outsiders.

The backers of Malaga, Parish Saint-Germain, and Queen’s Park Rangers have the necessary resources. Former Soviet republics are sparing no expense, despite their long-shot status. Anzhi Makhachkala in Dagestan added Brazilian Roberto Carlos, then bought Samuel Eto’o from Inter and made him the sport’s highest-paid performer at about 20 million euros per season. Anzhi’s owner, Sulejman Kerimov, has the motivation and enough finances to match anyone. But Dagestan has all sorts of problems, including being threatened by terrorism. So, the players live in Moscow, riding limousines on the 1,000-mile trip to play home games.

UEFA is attempting to control this free-for-all with financial restrictions, scheduled to kick in next year. But it might be too late.

It is very difficult to enforce spending controls on powerful clubs and their owners. But even if finances can be evened out somewhat, the way the game is played today leaves average teams with little defense against superior players.

Before FIFA’s rule changes in the early ’90s - 3 points for a victory, not allowing goalkeepers to handle backpasses - the game was played more slowly. Underdog teams could frustrate opponents with delaying tactics, defenders could use their goalkeeper as a safety net when in trouble.

Not now. Referees are instructed to hurry the taking of goal kicks, they badger substituted players into hustling off the field. The game is played at a frenetic pace compared with 20 years ago.

And players are able to play the game at speed. At least the best ones are. Playing fast is not to be confused with running fast. It is a combination of having the technical skill and the mental capacity to execute passes accurately and quickly.

There are several hundred players at the top level who can fulfill these qualifications, plus have the commitment, conviction, stamina, and tactical sense to carry it out over a full season. There are enough of these players to supply several superclubs, enough for a European superleague.

If the top clubs stockpile this talent, essentially going with two squads in order to keep pace with domestic and international competitions, the gap will grow between them and less ambitious clubs.

Smaller clubs, even the Arsenals and Tottenhams, could change tactics. Wenger noted that Arsenal left itself vulnerable after choosing to go for the win while trailing, 2-1. Besides, eight Arsenal regulars were missing, the Gunners then playing the final 20 minutes with a man disadvantage after a Carl Jenkinson red card.

But Arsenal and Tottenham are not small clubs. Arsenal’s loss to Manchester United was its worst since 1895. If Arsenal and Tottenham are unable to put up a credible fight against the Manchester clubs, who will?

Frank Dell’Apa can be reached at f_dellapa@globe.com.

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