Welcome to Onside/Offside! Each week, Luis Miguel Echegaray discusses the latest from the soccer world, including standout performances, games you might have missed, what to keep an eye on in the coming days and of course, certain things that probably deserved extra love and criticism.
This week, LME talks about a perfect PSV, explains why wingers will be the key for Man City vs. Liverpool, the ugliness at Maracanã stadium between Brazil and Argentina and why it might be time for a player's strike.
Man City vs. Liverpool: The wingers' game
Man City are top of the table by a single point with Liverpool hot on their heels in second, and the difference between first and fifth is a single victory. That's pretty much the scene for Saturday's clash between the two and I don't think we need to search too far to realize this is a massive game. In terms of strategy, there are plenty of areas and storylines we can focus on: from Erling Haaland's availability to Mohamed Salah stepping up in big games.
But I think this specific fixture is going to be all about the wingers: City's Jérémy Doku and Liverpool's Luis Díaz. Both are gifted with the art of trickery, difference in approach, and share the same swagger and confidence of a 90's NBA star.
Let's begin with Doku, the closest we'll get to Sonic the Hedgehog and Tyreek Hill on a soccer pitch. As if Man City weren't strong enough, this season they added a game-changer. A one-man dynamite. I still remember the words of Thierry Henry, back when he was the assistant coach of the Belgian national team.
"When you're one on one with him, there's only one thing left to do," he said. "Pray." You only need to check out his highlights against Bournemouth to know what the French legend is talking about. The 21-year-old Belgian now gives Pep Guardiola another element and City, who collectively exhaust out the opposition with possession, use this advantage to drag players away from the left-hand side where Doku, like a ninja from Mortal Kombat, waits to attack. The defender has no choice but to fall down.
With Trent Alexander-Arnold pushing so high up or inverting into the midfield, it will be the role of the right-sided center-back (presumably Joël Matip) to deal with this Belgian nightmare. Per Opta Analyst, Doku has the most successful take-ons so far in 2023-24, which is more than any other player in the top five European leagues. His presence on Saturday will be key.
On the other side, I think the same of Díaz but in a slightly different way because the Colombian will likely start on the bench, with Diogo Jota to start in order to show a more compact front line for Jurgen Klopp. But as the game progresses, Díaz -- who has been dealing with an unbelievable amount of emotional stress in recent weeks after his father was kidnapped and eventually rescued -- has his own opportunity to be a complete game-changer.
He scored twice against Brazil in the international break, giving his nation and aforementioned father happiness and now carries a level of confidence that can help Liverpool when counterattacking City's possession-based game. Díaz is a tricky winger, because he has this arachnid ability to move when you least expect him to. He starts on the left but thanks to his collaboration with another hot-in-form South American in Darwin Núñez, he often goes central to capitalize spaces. I think Kyle Walker has to play a smart game on Saturday.
So, there you have it. A huge game awaits as the current two best teams in the league face off against each other. With all the star power surrounding this game, I think it will be the wide men that will have the last say. The question will be...which one will come out on top?
The perfect PSV
Back in 1987-88, Guus Hiddink's PSV Eindhoven had their best ever campaign after completing a treble, which included their first and only European Cup, an achievement that prompted them to sign Romario for the following season. In 1999-2000, partly thanks to goal machine Ruud van Nistelrooy (also their former manager), the club won the league with a 16-point gap over runners-up Heerenveen.
Now? PSV are so far destroying the opposition and could very well create another historic campaign. After 12 matches in the Eredivisie, Peter Bosz's side lead the table with 36 points. All of them have been victories, making them the fourth team in history to do this. In addition, the club from Eindhoven has scored the most goals (a whopping 40, only Bayern Munich have more from the top six European leagues) and possess the best defensive record (five goals) in the division. Another six wins in a row and they will equal Hiddink's aforementioned treble-winning side's record.
Bosz's side is more controlled and possession centric than last season under Van Nistelrooy's strategy, which was more direct. Their 33-year-old captain Luuk de Jong has found his groove again on his return to his homeland (17 goals in all competitions) while Guus Til, Hirving Lozano and Noa Lang have all contributed to goals. Their 20-year-old Belgian star Johan Bakayoko -- who's basically the right-sided version of Jeremy Doku -- is a nightmare for defenders and Joey Veerman is the team's architect in midfield. Then there's the American influence in Malik Tillman, Ricardo Pepi and Sergiño Dest, who have all been integral.
We'll see how the season develops and how far they can go in the Champions League, but so far, this is quite the season for the perfect PSV.
The injuries -- just like the fixtures -- keep mounting
Ale Moreno details why Gavi suffering an anterior cruciate ligament injury on international duty is such a blow for Barcelona.
Here I go again, writing about injuries and the the amount of overwhelming fixtures, coupled with the ridiculous number of competitions and the added headache of extending stoppage time in Premier League matches every time a player sneezes. And don't forget the constant intercontinental travel -- all of it adds up to the fact that these players are dropping faster than defenders going one-on-one against Doku (see what I did there?).
Gavi was the major storyline during the international window. Never mind the fact that he had accumulated nearly 1000 minutes for Barcelona (leads all outfield players) as well as playing a full 90 minutes for the Spanish national team against Cyprus. Luis de la Fuente, claiming that superstars thrive with more playing time, decided to start him again when they faced Georgia. Even though De la Fuente made rotations across the squad, he kept Gavi on.
I am not saying the injury is totally the manager's fault as Gavi's awkward fall on the pitch could happen to any player regardless of minutes, but you can't help but think that when you play so much, you're equally not as physically apt. Would this have happened to a fresher Gavi?
Then it was 17-year-old PSG wonderkid Warren Zaïre-Emery, going down with an ankle injury against Gibraltar, a game they won 14-0. Now, the young man is out for the rest of the calendar year. If we focus on the Premier League, per a new study by The Athletic, there is a 15% higher spike of injuries compared to previous seasons, while hamstrings are up 55% on a four-season average. That's just the Premier League.
My biggest issue, however, is with the overuse of minutes with young players. Gavi being a case in point. They're simply being asked to play too much at a developing age. According to a study on the extreme calendar conversion from FIFPRO, young players these days are playing a significant amount more than previous eras and this is detrimental to their physical and mental well being. Our own Graham Hunter summarizes some of the points from the study in his article: "Vinícius had, by the age of 22, already played 18,876 minutes of club and national team football; more than twice as much as Ronaldinho at the same age."
Gavi leads ALL Barcelona outfield players in minutes, appearances, and starts in all competitions since he joined the first team in the 2021-22 season.— ESPN FC (@ESPNFC) November 20, 2023
He's only 19 😳 pic.twitter.com/wNr6arVmrf
Something has to be done but sadly, the driver of all football narratives is money and it is controlled by decision-makers and stakeholders who prioritize financial gain, marketing growth and control above anything else, including a player's welfare. I only envision one solution: If we learned anything from the entertainment industry it is that the only thing that might work is a collective strike from players across the game. If FIFPRO can lead such an act, then maybe the rest will listen.
Brazil vs. Argentina: a chaotic mess that didn't need to happen
Brazil's World Cup qualifying loss to Argentina was one story, but the other was the horrific scenes prior to kickoff where fights between both sets of fans, coupled with clashes between visiting supporters and Brazilian police, was once again another dark highlight from South American football. As a South American, it pains me to see a continued theme of violence and chaos in football. It was only a few weeks ago when similar scenes occurred at Rio de Janeiro's beaches before the Copa Libertadores final.
Tuesday's situation angered me even more because it could have been avoided. The game, which is obviously the most anticipated rivalry in South American international football, was sold out inside Maracana stadium. Some 69,000 people packed the famous ground, 3,000 of them were Argentinian fans.
Given the nature of this game, there is often significant separation between both sets of supporters and usually, the away fans sit on the upper corner of the ground with a neutral buffer area created to give the distance between both fanbases. But this did not happen in this game, specifically in the area where the chaos happened, as Brazilian and Argentinian fans were literally right next to each other.
Yes, in a perfect world, we would just get along, but this is not a perfect world. The stadium organizers and federations should have known better.
Notts County, currently third in League Two, is an excellently managed team and they have one of the best young managers in the lower divisions in Luke Williams. Here, he talks about a personal passion of mine and something I love: short corners. He explains the reasons for why they're so good and the misconceptions about corners and dead-ball situations in general.