There’s trouble in paradise for some of Europe’s biggest clubs.
A handful of football’s most decorated sides are mired in uncharacteristically poor starts to their respective campaigns, and with two months worth of football in the rearview, there’s now a large enough sample size to provoke concern.
With that in mind, here’s a look at five of Europe’s most revered clubs, the problems associated with their poor starts, and how much panic should be felt within their camps with a third month of domestic football on the horizon:
After capturing a third La Liga crown in four tries last season by a healthy 14-point margin, Barcelona entered the 2018-19 season with the goal of repeating that feat while ending a three-year wait for Champions League honors. So far, so good on the continent with six points from six, though domestically, it’s gone a bit awry in La Liga, with the Catalan colossus failing to win any of their last four matches, including a drab defeat at Leganes.
Luis Suarez needs a break. So too does Gerard Pique, though an injury to Samuel Umtiti makes that a tough task, and of all the early-season concerns, Ernesto Valverde’s squad rotation is paramount.
There also appears to be some disconnect between boardroom brass Pep Segura, Eric Abidal, and president Josep Maria Bartomeu, perhaps explaining the signings of Arturo Vidal and Malcom, both of whom have struggled for first-team minutes. With a visit from table-topping Sevilla on the other side of the international window followed by a continental clash with Inter and the first El Clasico on the slate, the fleeting patience La Blaugrana buffs have with the gaffer will be in short supply if the team’s slump continues.
On the bright side, Lionel Messi is still Lionel Messi, midfield marauder Arthur has proved a smart addition, and there’s been plenty of goals from Philippe Coutinho and Ousmane Dembele. Also, Barcelona’s two direct rivals for Spanish silverware, Real Madrid and capital city foes Atletico, have yet to display the form necessary to usurp the 25-time league winners.
Panic level: 1/10
4) Bayern Munich
Imagine for a moment the plight of Bavarian behemoths Bayern Munich.
Winners of six Bundesliga titles on the trot, Bayern have a stranglehold on the German top flight because their financially feeble foes have been willing to sell the record 28-time league winners their best players. Entering the season, a domestic trophy haul and a first Champions League conquest since 2012-13 were the realistic goals.
Fast forward two months, and Bayern’s principal rival, Borussia Dortmund, hold the top spot as the division’s only unbeaten side on 17 points, four ahead of Niko Kovac’s lot. And it’s Kovac – who replaced Jupp Heynckes over the summer – who’s the common target of derision, with some doubting if the former Eintracht Frankfurt gaffer is up for the gig.
There’s also concern that Bayern’s aging squad is running out of gas, as the club continues to rely too heavily on Arjen Robben, Franck Ribery, and Jerome Boateng. James Rodriguez is apparently unhappy, Leon Goretzka isn’t up to snuff, Thomas Muller is in rapid decline, and Corentin Tolisso is sidelined long-term. After Bayern’s summer of stagnation, perhaps this outcome was foreseeable.
But who are we kidding? Bayern have won each of the last six league titles by an average margin of 16.3 points, and the squad still boasts match winners all over the park. Once Dortmund’s incredibly young backline is stretched too thin by virtue of competition on five fronts and Paco Alcacer’s form regresses to the mean, expect Bayern to snatch a seventh Meisterschale shield on the spin.
Panic level: 3/10
The smallest of the five teams on this list, 2016-17 Ligue 1 winners Monaco made an obscene profit after selling the majority of the players from that side. Which is why they kicked off the 2018-19 campaign with modest goals: Make Paris Saint-Germain’s inevitable title run as uncomfortable as possible, and progress from the group stage of the Champions League.
Well, things haven’t quite gone to plan, with Monaco sitting in the relegation zone on six points, a staggering 21 points adrift of Les Parisiens.
An opening-weekend win over Nantes followed by five defeats and three draws will do that, and with Leonardo Jardim now sacked and Arsenal legend Thierry Henry reportedly waiting in the wings, patience on the principality would be wise.
A risky transfer policy that sees bonafide stars replaced with emerging talents has met its worst-case scenario, and even a trusted veteran core featuring Radamel Falcao and Kamil Glik has been underwhelming. If the likes of Youri Tielemans, Benjamin Henrichs, Kevin N’Doram, and Youssef Ait Bennasser have the pedigree to take the next step, now would be an ideal time.
Could it be 2010-11 all over again? Eight years removed from relegation to the second tier, Monaco is again playing with fire. Still, Les Monegasques are just 10 points back of fourth-placed Montpellier, and there’s a chance to make up ground, with the next three league affairs on the slate against Strasbourg, Dijon, and Reims before a date with the capital city hulks.
Panic level: 5/10
2) Manchester United
Football’s equivalent of a captivating telenovela rife with backtalk and backstabbing, Manchester United entered the 2018-19 campaign on the fringes of title-contender status, hoping to best a 2017-18 last-16 dismissal in the Champions League.
Not much has followed the blueprint Jose Mourinho had in mind for the season.
A stunning three-goal second-half charge was needed to avoid complete embarrassment against Newcastle at Old Trafford on the other side of the break. Even with that result, United are seven back of local rival Manchester City for the top spot.
Paul Pogba and Mourinho are like a feuding couple, Antonio Valencia had a temper tantrum, David De Gea is reportedly balking at a new deal, the backline is atrocious, and Alexis Sanchez, Anthony Martial, Marcus Rashford, and Jesse Lingard are all astonishingly out of form. Ouch.
The Red Devils also struggle to score goals, with just 13 tallies in eight matches, the third-worst haul in the Premier League’s top half. They aren’t any better at defending, conceding 14 times already after allowing just 28 a year ago.
Mourinho’s comments about transfer failings have only exacerbated United’s issues. It’s clear the Portuguese manager and Ed Woodward don’t see eye to eye, and with the club’s chief exec failing to recruit the players necessary for a title challenge, one, or both, have to go.
Also, Tottenham and Arsenal appear better suited to nick the coveted final Champions League spot.
Panic level: 6/10
1) Real Madrid
Even with the exit of their biggest star, Real Madrid started the season with eyes on a fourth straight Champions League crown and a repeat of the 2016-17 La Liga title. Replacing Zinedine Zidane was never going to be easy, but there was plenty of reason for faith considering how well Spain played under Julen Lopetegui.
When Gareth Bale said in mid-September that “I suppose there is more of a team, more working as one unit rather than one player” following Cristiano Ronaldo’s move to Juventus, little did the ponytailed Welshman know his side would lose three of its subsequent six matches in all competitions.
They did that without Bale scoring, and now Los Blancos are averaging just a goal-and-a-half a match in La Liga after bagging 2.5-per-outing last year. Defeats to CSKA Moscow and Alaves are as close to rock bottom as this iteration of Real can permit, and the pressure is on Marco Asensio and Isco to become leaders of a squad on the grizzled side of elderly. Injuries have also been an issue for the second straight season.
Club president Florentino Perez is to patience what a flat tire is to a smooth ride, and if Lopetegui hasn’t updated his CV, there’s no time like the present. Even with a similarly poor start, Barcelona appear better positioned to win both La Liga and the Champions League, and an elderly team witnessing the declines of Toni Kroos and Karim Benzema is a reason for worry.
Panic level: 8/10