Welcome to Onside/Offside! Each week, Luis Miguel Echegaray discusses the latest from the soccer world, including standout performances, games you might have missed and what to keep an eye on in the coming days. This week, an ode to Julián Álvarez, Lionel Messi’s MLS MVP nomination, how to fix VAR and much more!
– Stream on ESPN+: LaLiga, Bundesliga, more (U.S.)
Álvarez is Man City’s Spider-Man
A few years ago, when Álvarez was still causing havoc with River Plate, I tweeted with an exclamative plea begging for my Aston Villa to sign the versatile teenager. Turns out that he was definitely on the club’s radar (in addition to Bayer Leverkusen and Manchester United) but Álvarez, who made his senior club debut in 2018 at the age 18 and ended winning practically every single title with River, opted for Manchester City.
As we approach two years since signing for City, the 23-year-old Argentina international is now a World Cup champion, a treble winner, one of the best young players in the game and, in my opinion, Álvarez could be more important than Erling Haaland this season. Yes, you read that correctly.
When Álvarez was a kid playing for Club Atlético Calchín, he earned the nickname “Araña” (“spider”) because his ball control and dribbling was so advanced that getting the ball from him was practically impossible and it seemed as if he had multiple legs, much like a spider. When I see his role for Man City, especially this season, this spider is more than just multiple legs — he is also quite dangerous.
Like an arachnid, Álvarez is strong, flexible and despite not possessing venomous fangs, so dangerous on the pitch for the simple fact that you just don’t know where he’s going to surface. His midweek goal against RB Leipzig and free kick against Wolverhampton Wanderers last weekend were the latest examples of his ability to strike from long distance.
Thanks in no small part to the injury absence of Kevin De Bruyne, Álvarez has transformed himself into a new-look No. 10 this season, playing deeper and behind Haaland. At the same time, though, he is able to cover most areas of the midfield. He is a striker by nature, though, so his instincts — like a spider’s — always tell him to attack.
To me, this is what makes him more important than Haaland, and it’s not surprising that he leads the Premier League in chances created, nor that he’s started all of City’s games in the competition. Don’t get me wrong, the Haaland/Álvarez combination is key here, but due to the responsibilities that the latter has had to take on, at this moment, Guardiola cannot afford to drop him.
Álvarez is a special player and most notably for Man City fans, he is making them forget about De Bruyne’s absence. If Man City do the unthinkable of repeating last season’s success, “Araña” will be a big reason why.
Just don’t get too close. Spiders bite.
Alonso is the best young manager in Europe
Throughout his career, Xabi Alonso had this uncanny ability to adapt his playing style in the midfield. Obviously, this came with age and the type of style he had to adjust to. At Rafa Benitez’s Liverpool, for example, his vision and engine helped them win the Champions League while at Pep Guardiola’s Bayern Munich, he would sit right in front of the backline and become a pivoting playmaker, winning the Bundesliga three times straight.
Now, as manager of Bayer Leverkusen, Alonso is demonstrating how adaptable he can be as a tactician.
When he first joined the club last season, Die Werkself were 17th in the table with just one win from their first eight matches. They finished sixth and made the Europa League semifinals. Now? They’re top of the table, undefeated, five wins from six and possess the joint-best attacking and defensive records.
Alonso’s philosophy revolves around helping his players understand a system through a series of patterns. It’s about controlling the game, step by step, movement by movement, allowing his 3-4-3 formation to mutate into whatever it wants to according to the game’s rhythm. Losing key players like Moussa Diaby allowed Alonso to adapt and help his players share the responsibility of pressing and passing. In fact, they pass it a lot. They average 576 passes every game — 24 more than the next best team in the Bundesliga.
It’s no wonder Real Madrid are looking at Alonso as Carlo Ancelotti’s successor. For now, though, the young Basque manager is perhaps on his way to doing the almost impossible task of dethroning Bayern Munich. It’s early days but so far, Alonso is pushing all the right buttons at Bayer Leverkusen.
How to fix VAR? Learn from ‘The Bear’
How does the saying go again? To err is human, to forgive is divine?
Well, when it comes to VAR and the current level of officiating in the Premier League — notably regarding Luis Díaz’s goal against Tottenham Hotspur, which was incorrectly ruled offside — it’s getting harder and harder to forgive the errors. Some of my colleagues took part in an excellent roundtable, discussing an overview of the situation (including PGMOL’s released audio on the aforementioned Díaz decision) and some thoughts on how to fix it, or at the very least, learn to live with it.
If we want to solve or save VAR, though, I’d like to use the excellent TV show “The Bear” as a metaphor. Indulge me for a minute.
In the show, a young chef (Carmen) leaves the demanding pressures of fine dining in order to save his family’s struggling but brilliant sandwich shop after the death of his brother. At the start of the show, Carmen (brilliantly played by Jeremy Allen White) attempts to implement new work habits for his reluctant employees. His aim, which is inspired by the way the best restaurants work, is to create a more productive, streamlined flow in the kitchen while simultaneously simplifying the menu.
His ideas are met with hostility at first, especially from his cousin, because great ideas — especially simple ones — are often received with resistance at first. The ideas work, though, because of three factors: one, they have a strict chain of command where one voice dictates the flow and everyone else follows; two, they are simple and effective; and three, there’s always an end product.
This is exactly what VAR needs: a simple, fluid, clutter-free flow where decisions are ultimately run through a hierarchy, which ultimately comes to the correct decision. If you listen to the audio regarding Díaz’s offside decision, it feels polluted with too many voices, where the primary objective is to robotically follow a procedure as opposed to a decision. There is no flow, but rather multiple directions that come to an incorrect final product. In that particular case, it was the use of the words “check complete,” which ended up as an incorrect conclusion.
Just like Carmen’s sandwich shop, VAR needs flow. One: a clear chain of command and deciding who’s in charge. Is it the match official? Is it the officials inside the VAR room? Unless there is an order of command that singularly directs the situation — just like a head chef — there won’t be order. Two: fewer people creates simpler results, which brings me to three: natural, streamlined communication (“hold on, Simon. Before you kick off, I can confirm Díaz is actually onside. Go ahead and allow the goal.”)
Laurens: Díaz offside the biggest VAR blunder of the season
Julien Laurens thinks Luis Díaz’s disallowed goal in Tottenham vs. Liverpool is the biggest VAR mistake in the Premier League so far this season.
Right now, VAR is the sandwich shop: a good idea that can be successful with the correct implementation, but at this moment, it is struggling as the Premier League’s version of Carmen has yet to arrive.
MLS award nominations and the Messi conundrum
Due to his recent injury issues after an arduous summer schedule in which he played 11 matches in the space of little more than a month, Lionel Messi has played a total of four matches in MLS. However, that didn’t stop the World Cup champion from being nominated for the Landon Donovan MLS MVP and Newcomer of the Year awards.
How can you nominate a player after only four matches, even if it is Lionel Messi? For starters, it’s important to remember that these nominations are not down to the league; they are voted in by clubs, so if you’re mad at someone, be mad at Inter Miami CF — who also nominated Sergio Busquets.
The club really should have given more respect to a player who had been there from the start, fighting for everything this season. Drake Callender, for example. Or DeAndre Yedlin. Serhiy Kryvtsov. They all accumulated significant minutes for Inter Miami and fought hard to keep any kind of relevancy. Callender, to me, has been exceptional.
Now that the nominees are in, the actual voting is down to current players, coaches and directors and local and national media who covered the league throughout the season.
Gomez: Messi’s MVP nomination undermining MLS
Herculez Gomez reacts to Lionel Messi being nominated for the MLS MVP despite only playing four games.
I finally finished Fisher Stevens’ “Beckham” on Netflix and found it to be a really entertaining, brilliantly composed docuseries about David Beckham, the man who single-handedly transformed the player/celebrity persona. The series chronicles Beckham’s career from his early days all the way to his retirement and ownership ventures with Inter Miami, but my favorite moments were with his family. I loved how Stevens, acting also as interviewer, incorporates scenes where the subjects — including Beckham — are watching highlights of specific matches or memories and the camera fixates on their facial expressions. It’s a nice touch, showing raw emotion.
I actually can’t believe the list of people who talk on it. From Sir Alex Ferguson and Eric Cantona to Florentino Pérez, Ronaldo Fenómeno and even Sporty Spice. It was quite the list. I only wished my great friend Grant Wahl was alive as he would have undoubtedly been part of this project as his move to LA Galaxy and MLS was brilliantly written by Grant’s book “The Beckham Experiment.”
I found Victoria Beckham to be the most important part of this series. It looked to me that there was a certain catharsis in expressing the difficult moments in their marriage, the paparazzi’s aggression and having to adapt to her husband’s constant need to be part of a club and the game.
More probably should have been done to discuss his recent ambassadorial role for the World Cup in Qatar, given the Gulf state’s treatment of migrant workers and LGBTQIA+ community, but in the end, the story was about a young kid from east London, his meteoric rise and how during a certain time, he became the most famous athlete on the planet.