Can Solari fix Real Madrid? PLUS: Why Chelsea signed Pulisic; it's time to fix the FA Cup
The last time Real Madrid lost at home to Real Sociedad was on the final weekend of the 2004 season. Florentino Perez was there -- it was his first stint as president, and the wheels had started coming off -- and so was Santi Solari, albeit on the pitch. It was their fifth consecutive defeat and they finished fourth that season.
Sunday's 2-0 home defeat leaves them fifth, 10 points off the pace. It's not a perfect symmetry but there are parallels that go beyond Florentino and Solari. At the start of the season, believing his "Zidanes y Pavones" policy would yield results in perpetuity, Florentino made no signings. In fact, in the previous three years, he bought just one A-list Galactico: the original Ronaldo, who arrived in the summer of 2003.
Now look at the club's top signings in recent years. The closest you get to Galactico level is Thibaut Courtois. Instead, they've looked to accumulate youngsters like Lucas Vazquez, Theo Hernandez, Dani Ceballos and Jesus Vallejo.
The obvious conclusion? Then, as now, the club tried to squeeze as much as they could out of their existing stars for as long as they could and looked to bring in youngsters who could develop and become the next generation of superstars. There was a logic to it. It was fiscally prudent and hey, they kept winning all those Champions League titles, right? It was a bit like the pre-2004 experience, when they won two Liga titles and a Champions League over the previous three seasons.
The problem with this sort of approach is that you need to get the balance right. If the youngsters develop into great players but not Galactico-caliber ones -- that's arguably what happened with the likes of Marco Asensio and Isco -- you end up riding your veterans even harder. And if your manager quits after winning the Champions League, and his replacement gets sacked, and the guy after him is perpetually fighting fires -- well, you get what we have here. It's all compounded by the fact that the greatest goal scorer in the history of the club decided to jump ship over the summer.
Solari shifted the focus after Sunday's defeat to the officiating and VAR, or lack of it, and he has a point when it comes to Geronimo Rulli taking down Vinicius: Given how far away the referee was, at the very least you'd expect the VAR official to say "Hey, why don't you take a look at this?" (Lucas Vazquez' second yellow was perhaps a bit "by the book," but not absurd either.)
That said, none of it explains a chaotic, disjointed performance in which Vinicius was the only attacking bright spot, and only some Courtois saves kept the score as close as it was. Solari's decision to replace Casemiro with Isco didn't help much either, forcing the club to play with little cover for the final half-hour. In fact, Luka Modric put it best when he said: "We can't start like s--- every single game ... the problem isn't the referee and it isn't VAR."
He's right. Having inherited this mess, Solari has a big task on his hands. You only hope he gets the necessary support to at least try to fix it.
It's time to revamp the FA Cup
Every year, it gets you. Every year, you get suckered in by this "magic of the FA Cup" narrative, and every year you see the competition becoming more and more like an early-round League Cup fixture, with armies of kids and scrubs getting on TV.
Just look at who was not starting for some of the bigger clubs: Hugo Lloris, Toby Alderweireld, Harry Kane and Christian Eriksen (Spurs), David De Gea, Nemanja Matic, Marcus Rashford and Victor Lindelof (Manchester United), Lucas Torreira, Granit Xhaka, Alexandre Lacazette and Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang (Arsenal), Aymeric Laporte, Leroy Sane, Bernardo Silva, Fernandinho, Sergio Aguero and David Silva (Manchester City) and N'Golo Kante, Eden Hazard, Jorginho and Cesar Azpilicueta (Chelsea).
I get why they do it. There's no winter break, everybody is banged-up after the extra holiday fixtures, there's more than four months left in the season and everyone has bigger fish to fry in the league campaign. It's further dispiriting that it's not just the big clubs who do it; lower league sides also rotate, as do those who frankly have little to play for.
(Yes, Leicester City: I'm looking at you. You're seven points away from a European spot via the league and 15 points clear of the relegation zone. You are the prototype of a mid-table side. Yet you play the second-string against Newport County and you get bounced out. I'd be tempted to say you got what you deserved, but you're probably delighted you're out of the FA Cup.)
What seems obvious is that we need some sort of revamp. The problem is that English football is big on tradition, and this, as we're so often reminded, is the "oldest cup competition in the world." Keep going down this path and it will be the "oldest irrelevant cup competition in the world."
Messi and Suarez to the rescue for Barcelona
Between them, Lionel Messi (16) and Luis Suarez (12) have scored more goals (28) than Real Madrid and Atletico Madrid (26). They scored the two first-half goals that helped Barcelona win away to Getafe, 2-1, although it could have been a different story if Jaime Mata's goal, struck off for a foul by Angel on Clement Lenglet that only the referee saw, had been allowed to stand.
Against a gritty, hard-running side like Getafe, Barcelona struggled more than they should have (Sergio Busquets' absence from the starting lineup was felt) but the quality up front made all the difference (again). It's OK -- that's why Messi and Suarez are there. That's what they do. On a different day, though, it might not have been enough, suggesting Ernesto Valverde still has work to do.
Breaking down Pulisic's move to Chelsea
How about some numbers to put Christian Pulisic's transfer from Borussia Dortmund to Chelsea into context?
The fee ($73.1 million) is higher than the next seven most expensive transfers involving U.S. players combined. It's also the 25th highest fee in the history of the game. And just two players have moved for more money at a younger age: Kylian Mbappe and Ousmane Dembele, the latter's fee being inflated by the fact that Barca were panicking and sitting on the money generated by the Neymar sale.)
Chelsea view it as a calculated risk -- heck, if someone is willing to pay nearly two-thirds of the Pulisic fee for Callum Hudson-Odoi, who is 18 and has played 71 minutes of top-flight league football, maybe it's not such a risk -- with a big upside.
The talk about Pulisic's marketing potential is likely overstated. Yes, it helps that he's the biggest football star from the world's biggest economy, but it's not as if Chelsea are an unknown brand in the U.S., and assuming his agent isn't a fool, you pay for the privilege of commercialising footballers. In fact, folks close to the club say it is purely a footballing decision: Pulisic played in a high-pressing system under Thomas Tuchel, has a great engine and is tactically very sharp. In other words, he's made for Maurizio Sarri's style of play.
What about those concerns, voiced by some, that Chelsea is an unstable club because of the high number of managerial changes, nine in the past decade? Well, three of those (Guus Hiddink twice and Rafa Benitez) were interim bosses, for a start. Of the others, I don't think anyone would argue that Antonio Conte, Jose Mourinho, Roberto Di Matteo or Luis Felpie Scolari were sacked on a whim. Throw in the fact that those 10 years brought three league titles, four FA Cups, a League Cup, a Europa League and a Champions League and, well, if that's instability, most clubs would happily sign up for it.
As for Chelsea's supposed reluctance to play youngsters, that might be a factor if not for Pulisic's enormous fee (he's their second-most expensive player ever) and the fact that of the five guys who play his position, four -- Pedro, Hudson-Odoi, Willian and, of course, Eden Hazard -- go out of contract in 2020. It's safe to say that at least one, perhaps two, will be gone in the summer.
Ribery's bizarre outburst over a steak
After 18 seasons and 600-plus games, Franck Ribery's career is winding down. I'd hope younger fans will remember him for something other than the $1,365 gold-leaf steak he ate at Nusret Gokce's steakhouse in Dubai, and the furore it caused.
Ribery was on holiday with his family and decided to eat at the celebrity chef's joint. As so often happens at Chez #saltbae, he was immortalized on social media, which in turn prompted critical media coverage and loads of abuse. (FIFA boss Gianni Infantino ate there too, although he got considerably less aggravation, possibly because he didn't eat a slab of meat covered in gold. Ribery shot back with an expletive-laced tirade -- you can read it in the AP story linked above -- and as a result, Bayern sporting director Hasan Salihamidzic ended up fining him. Not for his angry reaction, which Salihamidzic thought was justified, but for the language he used.
Leaving aside the most important issue -- are these gold-covered steaks really so good that they're worth paying $1,365? -- it's somewhat surprising that Ribery would flip out like this. You're pictured yukking it up with a gold-encrusted piece of beef that costs more than most of your fans earn in a month, and yeah, folks will get crabby. People will see it as crass ostentation of wealth -- regardless of who paid for the steak, regardless of how much money Ribery pays in taxes or donates to charity -- and react badly. He's not a kid; he shouldn't be shocked.
That said, I'm not sure Bayern fining him serves any purpose whatsoever beyond drawing even more attention to the incident. His words weren't very nice, and he represents the club, but those dishing it out ought to be able to take it. Still, you can't help but wonder: how much better does a steak taste when it's covered in gold leaf?
Atletico, Sevilla settle for a point
It was the usual script at the Sanchez Pizjuan, where second-place Sevilla were held, 1-1, by another performance straight from the Diego Simeone playbook. Pablo Machin's crew had most of the initiative for much of the match but struggled to create clear-cut chances against an undermanned (no Lucas Hernandez or Filipe Luis, which meant we saw Saul at full-back again) but no less feisty Atletico. When they did break through, we witnessed another Jan Oblak masterclass between the posts.
Even after they took the lead with Wissam Ben Yedder, it always felt as if Atleti would sneak an equalizer, and they did with Antoine Griezmann, who uncorked a masterful free kick. Both teams gave their all, but unless they find another gear, neither will challenge Barca this season.