Three of the world’s biggest football clubs enter the international break in a state of uncertainty, with Real Madrid, Manchester United and Bayern all being forced to consider managerial changes just a couple of months into the new season.
Jose Mourinho, United say, will remain in charge at Old Trafford though his long-term outlook remains bleak. The Old Trafford club are not close to the level of the two teams expected to challenge for the Premier League title, Manchester City and Liverpool, with the added pain of those teams being their biggest rivals.
Ongoing issues with key players and the board have spilled out into the open in a way that has isolated Mourinho. The comeback victory over Newcastle on Saturday was so dramatic because of the fate that awaited the Portuguese had they not managed to overturn that 2-0 deficit. That said, the Daily Mirror reported on Friday night that Mourinho would be sacked irrespective of the score. Now we wait to see how this week’s meeting with the board goes.
In Spain, the big two are finding that they have come back to the pack slightly. Ernesto Valverde’s title-winning first season and good start to the Champions League this year means that he is under no immediate threat, even if questions were asked about his suitability for the role after a four-game winless streak. At the Bernabeu, however, the last-minute defeat at the hands of Alaves on Saturday was just the latest chapter in a poor start to the season by the platinum-plated standards of Real Madrid. They sit fourth, a point behind their great rivals in second.
It is no secret that Julen Lopetegui was sixth or seventh-choice for the Madrid post in the first place and with Florentino Perez boasting a magpie tendency to be attracted to the next shiny thing that catches his eye, Lopetegui only appear safe for as long as good coaches remain in work. There was always likely to be a bit of a hangover when Cristiano Ronaldo left, because over the years this club had built themselves on a way of playing that masked his flaws, bestowed no defensive responsibility on him and put him in a position to score goals. In return he won them big games and scored lots of goals against mismatched domestic opponents but as much as Ronaldo filled his boots in comfortable victories, he also had a habit of popping up with a couple of goals when Madrid found themselves inexplicably struggling against La Liga’s lesser lights.
Without Ronaldo the assumption was that Gareth Bale, Karim Benzema, Isco and Marco Asensio would step up as a combo but for differing reasons they have found it impossible to replace the Portuguese’s production in front of goal. Bale was withdrawn as a precautionary measure yet again as he continues to wrestle with fitness issues. Benzema has looked lost without his old foil. Isco has had injury issues while Asensio, who has the highest ceiling of them all, has plateaued a little in his development.
Lopetegui is finding out very quickly that managing Madrid is nothing like coaching Spain. The pressure cooker of Porto was too much for the Spaniard, who bombed out in a league he was expected to win, and to avoid the same fate at the Bernabeu he will need to begin getting results or Florentino’s eye might catch one of those glints in the distance.
Usually the model club and the very definition of stability, Bayern are in a somewhat precarious situation too. They passed on one of the world’s best young coaches, Julian Nagelsmann, in favour of a former player in Niko Kovac in a bid to maintain the club’s culture of having people who know the institution installed in senior roles.
Kovac is already facing serious questions over his leadership, however, with Bayern heading into the international break after four games without a win and, most worryingly, two dreadful home performances on the spin.
In scraping a draw against Ajax at the Allianz Arena in midweek, FCB’s ageing squad was shown up by a bunch of young, energetic up-and-comers. Kovac switched around his line-up for the visit of Borussia Monchengladbach but it was another stale performance devoid of ideas. “This isn’t Frankfurt,” James Rodriguez is reported as saying in the changing room post-match, the latest hint that people within the club as well as outside it are yet to be convinced that Kovac can make the step up from his previous role with Eintracht.
Bayern had a lot of possession but posed such little threat to a Gladbach team that was organised but little more. The visitors scored with all three shots on target as an off-colour Manuel Neuer was beaten from distance and then played his own part in the sloppy run-up to the second goal.
Neuer, Jerome Boateng, Mats Hummels and Arjen Robben are struggling to get things going while the youthful injection of energy – the likes of Renato Sanches and Serge Gnabry – add spark but not necessarily the finished product.
Dortmund’s last-minute winner against Augsburg on Saturday means they stay top and unbeaten. while Gladbach’s win over Bayern sees them leapfrog the Bavarians.
The Bundesliga could be more bunched in quality this year, as La Liga also appears to be shaping up. The worry for Bayern in fifth place right now is that with Hoffenheim, Schalke and Bayer Leverkusen currently hovering just above relegation, those three will surely improve.
Top four interlopers Werder Bremen and Hertha Berlin may similarly regress but in a year where the league looks like it may be tougher than ever, Bayern enduring a bad start to the season as a coach with much to prove puts Kovac at risk.
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