It is surprisingly easy to feel sorry for Joe Gomez. It should, of course, be all but impossible. Gomez is in one of the most enviable positions in his sport. He is only 23. He is emerging as a cornerstone for England’s national team. He is a central part of a Liverpool side that has, in the last 15 months, won domestic, European and global honors.
More than that, as a central defender, he has the immense privilege of learning from and playing alongside Virgil van Dijk, generally regarded as the finest player in his position in the world, a $90 million security blanket. That is not to say Gomez is in some way undeserving, a lottery winner brought along for the ride.
He is not. He is hardworking, bright, richly talented. But he is, to most eyes, blessed. And yet it does not take long while watching Liverpool to start to feel as though to some extent, Gomez’s blessing is a curse.
Arsenal’s visit to Anfield on Monday night was as good an example as any. Mikel Arteta’s team arrived on Merseyside with a plan. Alexandre Lacazette and Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang were given instructions to try to isolate Gomez, to hang on his shoulder, to lurk in the channel between Gomez and his fullback, Trent Alexander-Arnold.
Those on Arsenal’s supply lines, meanwhile, had been instructed to search out the space behind Gomez. When Arsenal went high and went long, that was the area targeted; when it went short and neat, that was the pressure point exposed. Arteta wanted his team to turn Gomez, to disorientate him, to drag him from his post.
It is the same plan Gomez faces, on balance, once every three days. More often than not — as he did on Monday — he handles it adroitly. His focus does not wane, his positioning remains intelligent, his timing is impeccable. Should he need bailing out, as he did once against Arsenal, Alisson Becker tends to be on hand to help.
But occasionally, of course, the opposition’s plan works. Gomez does not track a run. He mistimes an interception. He is beaten in the air. Liverpool (sometimes) concedes a goal. On each occasion, it is seized on as proof that whichever team has profited was correct to see Gomez as Liverpool’s weak link. All the other games, the hours of composure and assuredness and calm, are forgotten.
There is an element here, though, of self-fulfilling prophesy; it is here that Gomez’s privilege becomes a pain. Gomez is no more error prone than any of his teammates. He just has more chances to make mistakes, because he is the one singled out by Liverpool’s opponents, the one asked to bear the brunt of their attacks. That is his lot because the alternative is trying to pick a way past van Dijk.
Van Dijk, of course, makes mistakes too. Not many, and not often, but they happen. There have been two glaring examples in recent weeks: at Arsenal, toward the end of last season, and against Leeds United, on the first weekend of this one.
What is intriguing is that his reputation is such that those momentary lapses are shrugged off as exceptions, rather than as evidence of some fractional weakness in his game. In the same way that Manchester City’s Pep Guardiola is the only coach who loses games because he is just too clever, van Dijk is the only defender who makes errors because he is too relaxed, too confident, too good.
The reason for that feels too intangible to be taken seriously in an era when soccer has, at last, embraced data and science and reason, but it is nevertheless true. Van Dijk’s mistakes can be dismissed because, basically, he has an aura.
It is one that is common to all those considered the finest defensive players of their generation: a sense of immutability and impermeability, that there is no way through and no way past. Paolo Maldini and Franco Baresi had it; so did Lilian Thuram and Fabio Cannavaro, John Terry and Vincent Kompany and Sol Campbell.
Like van Dijk, none of them were flawless (well, apart from Maldini). But like van Dijk, their aura was such that their mistakes did not impact their reputations. It would be (rightly) considered heresy to describe Peter Schmeichel, the great Manchester United goalkeeper, as error-prone, but flick back through his career and he, too, occasionally lunged from his line or allowed a shot to slip from his grasp. His aura, though, carried him through.
Van Dijk is at a similar stage. It is to take nothing away from his abilities — his reputation, after all, has been forged by his performances — to suggest that his mere presence is now enough to convince teams to train their fire on Gomez. Van Dijk, like Schmeichel, looms in opponents’ imaginations. He defends not so much zonally, or man-to-man, but by aura.
Only a handful of his peers can do the same: Napoli’s Kalidou Koulibaly, certainly, and probably still Giorgio Chiellini of Juventus. Thiago Silva did for a long time, though his unfortunate debut for Chelsea may cause it to blur a little.
How they acquired it is some confluence of ability and age, experience and image, plus a little sheer physical presence. Not all great defenders have that aura: Gerard Piqué has been unmatched for more than a decade, but teams have long felt he can be exploited. Sergio Ramos has an unparalleled track record of success, but there is always the suspicion he is about to be sent off.
But all great teams — partly inspired by van Dijk’s impact on Liverpool — recognize that they need it. It is why, for example, Manchester City, paid $75 million to sign Rúben Dias from Benfica. City’s attempts to strengthen its back line, to replace the aura of Kompany, have become an obsession in recent years: Guardiola, thus far, has spent the best part of $500 million on defenders.
Dias seems to have all the characteristics required: He is, by all accounts, intense and driven and “charismatic,” and his former teammates at Benfica attest that he is not afraid to issue instructions. Those are valuable qualities, of course; doubtless he is a talented, impressive defender.
But that is not the same as having an aura. He may yet develop one — though he will need an impressive start and an immediate impact — but it is a daunting challenge for a player who is still, by the standards of his position, in the development phase.
Soccer now demands a lot of its defenders, asking them not only to possess the tenacity to withstand attacks but the imagination to start them, too. To excel, they must play high and take risks, particularly in Guardiola’s system. It follows, then, that there are more ways to fail, more ways to seem weak, more ways for an aura to evaporate.
Dias must sidestep all of those potential pitfalls, and he must do it immediately, or City’s rivals will sense blood: The impression will start to form that he, too, can be singled out and examined in the most minute detail.
And then, as Gomez would tell him, no matter how well he does, no matter how talented he is, he will find himself having to deal with the same questions every three days, and getting the impression that no matter how many he gets right, all anyone is waiting for is the one wrong answer.
Reverse Engineering the Rules
Good news for all those fans left bewildered by the much-discussed new handball rule: Three weeks after following the rest of Europe’s lead and introducing it, the Premier League has decided to change it.
This new new version will be much easier to follow. Instead of a handball being awarded if a player’s arm is in any “unnatural” position, from now on referees will ignore it when a player handles the ball with their arm in an expected unnatural position, and only penalize those who carelessly place their arms in unexpected unnatural positions. See? Easy.
This is ground we have covered before, but soccer’s absolute determination to make life as difficult as possible for itself is, increasingly, actually quite admirable. England has at least managed to cotton on to the idea that the referees are not to blame for this mess, and nor are their colleagues sitting in the video replay room at Stockley Park.
The responsibility lies, instead, with soccer’s rule-making body, the International Football Association Board (IFAB), which is very 2020: nobody, after all, likes faceless, unaccountable elites these days. But even they, really, are in an impossible position.
For years, fans, players, managers, media, everyone became so consumed by the perceived crisis in refereeing that we eventually forced through the use of technology to oversee every decision.
It turned out, though, that the rules had not been designed to fit with what we thought we wanted: the absolute adherence to the laws of the game. They were too vague, too general, too open to interpretation. Now we are hurriedly reverse-engineering the rules to fit the technology, rather than either abandoning the technology or (and better) building the rules from scratch to reflect the existence of it. Until we do one or the other, there is no way out of a mess of our own making.
Familiarity Breeds Contempt
Lionel Messi coming face-to-face with Cristiano Ronaldo, once more, is just the start of it. As much as it is possible to ascribe any innate value to what is effectively paperwork being done in public, Friday’s draw for the group stage of this season’s Champions League was a good one.
Most of the pools have something to recommend them: Red Bull Salzburg’s insurgent enthusiasm against the established might of Bayern Munich and Atlético Madrid; the prospect of Ajax, Atalanta and Liverpool trading blows; Manchester United forced to confront Paris St.-Germain and RB Leipzig, finalists and semifinalists last year; and, of course, the latest installment of the Messi-Ronaldo show.
This is not a surprise, of course: However you pair up 32 of the best teams in Europe, the end result is likely to be some intriguing, enticing games. The problem the Champions League group stage faces is that — although the journey is eagerly anticipated and the process can be thrilling — it is hard to see anything other than an entirely predictable destination.
There are only a couple of cases in which it is possible to envisage teams from outside Europe’s Big Five leagues — suppliers of all last 16 entrants to the knockout round last time — surviving into the spring: Ajax could, conceivably, edge out Atalanta. Zenit St. Petersburg may be able to overcome Lazio. Salzburg could, at a push, catch Atlético cold.
This is not the first time that complaint has been aired, or that warning been issued, of course. It is not an especially original point. But it is one that’s worth making, again and again, because the long-term trend it highlights is not one that is getting any less damaging.
There are, it seems, plenty of you at your wits’ end with the impossible mosaic of channels and streaming services and subscriptions necessary now required to watch soccer. Lorraine Berry, for example, mentions how “dismaying” her mother — a lifelong Manchester City fan — found it that “after decades of waiting for soccer to make much of an impact in the United States” she must now contend with NBC’s showing games on both NBCSN and its Peacock streaming service.
Taylor Baldwin finds it “frustrating, to say the least” that much of the Champions League has been “relegated” to CBS’s streaming platform. “I have to assume ratings plays a role, but how did one of the biggest annual tournaments in the world fail to find a bigger home for a bigger audience?”
Fred Dingledy, at least, feels that Italy and Germany are well served by ESPN+: “It’s relatively inexpensive, and the Bundesliga is getting at least a couple of games on ESPN and ESPN2. This seems to be a move toward getting a bigger audience compared to its previous home. A broadcast network deal would be wonderful, but I don’t know how likely that would be.”
And thanks to Kate Larson, who took the bait and asked for the back story on Ian Midfielder. It’s a long and sorry tale, Kate. Ian was a breakout star at his first team, Hometown Club, but fell out of favor when a new manager, Brian Gruff, came in to stave off relegation.
There was a very unpleasant dispute over a new contract — fans largely blamed his agent, Tony Bonus — and, after refusing to play, he was sold to Bigsix United. He never quite kicked on, though, thanks to a succession of injuries and the fact that he was bought with 17 other players.
A raft of loans followed, to Industrial Town and Interchangeable Rovers, as well as a spell at Bigsix’s Peruvian sister team, Circumvent FFP, but he slowly faded from view, eclipsed by a new generation of talents like Mason Throughball. He’s trying to move to Club B to resurrect his career, but the social media reaction has been … troubling.
That’s all for this week. Get in touch at firstname.lastname@example.org if you want to complain about your cable provider, or anything else. I am considering devoting my entire Twitter to the already-exhausted Ian Midfielder trope, and Set Piece Menu this week asks a very simple question: Why has the Premier League gone crazy?