Hello, and welcome to another edition of Tactically Naive, SB Nation’s weekly soccer column. There’s a magnetic spot on the side of our laptop and, if you stick a nail to it then flick the end of the nail, it makes a very good noise.
Every now and then, Tactically Naive likes to try and work out why football — of all the various diversions humanity has created for its own amusement — holds such a special place in our heart, and in the hearts of so many around the world.
Sometimes we decide it’s the democracy of the thing, this game that flourishes in the poorest corners of the world, kept alive through tin cans, tennis balls, and bundles of rags tied together with old socks. Other times, we think it’s the capacity for surprise and shock that’s built into a sport where goals are rare.
Or perhaps it’s the way in which football is so intertwined with, well, everything else. This is a game at once global and hyperlocal, one that is just as vital and animating at the bleeding edge of international power politics as it is in the hearts of communities, and the dreams of children.
But really, honestly, truthfully, and at the end of the day, Clive: it’s probably own goals.
(Broadcast rights and region-locking being what they are, you can click here to see BT Sports’ UK-approved replay of Marçal’s stupendous own goal, and here to see beIN Sport’s replay for the United States.)
What makes a great own goal such a compelling spectacle is the intensity of the moment. A vision of heroism created, then utterly destroyed, all in a few seconds. There is more humanity, more comedy and tragedy, crammed into that short sequence of improvisational pinball than plenty of Oscar winners. Well, at least one. Give us back those two hours, Crash (2004). Give them back so we can waste them better.
Anyway. Here is our hero, Lyon defender Marçal. He is in danger. His whole team is in danger. They’re two goals down away to Paris Saint-Germain, who are stomping through Ligue 1 and who are, more pertinently, stomping down the wing. Look, here comes Julian Draxler. Look, there goes the goalkeeper. Look …
Interception! The covering defender is here to calmly roll the ball out of play. Set yourselves for the corner. Find your man. Crisis averted.
But wait! Counter-interception! Draxler, rather rudely, hasn’t just stopped moving after playing that last pass, and is there to get involved. Back comes the ball! Crisis back on!
Heroic counter-counter-interception! And so, here comes Marçal. He knows that the calm pass into touch has failed already, and he has no intention of repeating that mistake. Power is what is called for. Power, and just a little bit of panache. This ball is going up and over; the crisis is heading into the night sky. Here it goes. Bang.
All of human life is here. The hope that comes with realising that you could be the hero. The despair at finding out that you are, in fact, the idiot. The pointed laughter of an entire planet. The ground that refuses to swallow you up and take you down into darkness, where you can rot away peacefully, untroubled by the world above. The rich getting all the luck as well as all the money.
Football isn’t the only sport in which own goals can happen, but few of the others record them as such. In hockey, ice and field, goals that hit a defender last are awarded to the most relevant attacking player. Basketball does the same, if a defender gets a finger on it.
But in football, unless the shot was on target, it’s the defender’s name that goes down in history. The self-inflicted punch to the wrong face is carved in stone. You broke it, you own it. And fair to say that few have broken it with such giddy, unrestrained violence as Marçal here. Here he lies. Remember him. Honour him. For he was only trying to help.
While the Premier League’s schedule was almost totally wiped out by a winter break and a passing storm, we still had time for a couple of this season’s more heart-warming stories to develop. First, Everton picked up another win, and we can all surely agree that it’s quite good for the Premier League’s most consistently cursed club to have a decent run. For a change. Before the horror reasserts itself.
Dominic Calvert-Lewin scored again. Isn’t that nice? So did Richarlison. Isn’t he excellent?
The other result of note was Sheffield United, who beat Bournemouth, 2-1, to move back into fifth place, just two points shy of Chelsea in fourth. Fourth, of course, is the promised land of Champions League qualification. We’re going to guess that this wasn’t one of manager Chris Wilder’s targets for the season. Unless his bosses are psychic or monstrous.
Their fifth place is a little precarious: they’ve played one more game than all the teams around them, and the scrap between fifth and ninth is murderously tight. United are the beneficiaries of the fact that three of the Big Six are having decidedly small seasons, and Spurs sit just two points back with a game in hand.
But barring a terrible collapse, it seems that United this season will at worst replicate Wolves’ campaign last time around, and finish with an impressively comfortable place in the mid-table. The stories are different in details, of course; United don’t have the money or the Jorge Mendes links.
Instead, they’ve got Chris Wilder’s Ajax-esque tactical stylings — t’tal football? no? absolutely fair enough — and a squad full of players that all know exactly what they’re doing.
It’s just a shame there won’t be any Manager of the Year awards going spare this season. Jurgen Klopp will be taking them all. But while kicking a league to pieces with Liverpool is impressive, so too is taking a club from League One to the edges of European qualification in just four seasons. With just the occasional scrap along the way.