May 28, 2024

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, as the U.S. continues to celebrate Hispanic Heritage Month, LME will kick things off by highlighting a Latin American player that deserves some extra attention.

Stream on ESPN+: LaLiga, Bundesliga, more (U.S.)


ONSIDE

Darwin Núñez: the bull in ballet shoes

Liverpool’s visit to Tottenham on Saturday is set to be an entertaining spectacle, notably supported by the fact that these two teams — undefeated in the league — are currently playing some great football thanks to two forward-thinking managers who preach playing-style philosophies based on fluidity and overloading their attack. They are attractive going forward and resilient when facing adversity.

Liverpool — who have now scored three goals in six separate matches in all competitions (five consecutive) — could go top of the table with a victory coupled with a poor result from Man City (they travel to Wolves). Spurs could jump to second and leap frog Jurgen Klopp’s side with a win if Brighton fail to beat Aston Villa.

But allow me to digress from the match preview and focus on a particular player, Núñez, who this season is finally demonstrating the landscape of his talents.

In eight matches in all competitions, the 24-year-old Uruguayan has four goals and two assists, but what’s more impressive is that he’s done this in 336 minutes. That comes to an approximate goal contribution every 56 minutes. Now, let’s remember that he’s only started three times so far, and only twice in the Premier League. He has made the most of his minutes, and his goals have also been ridiculously good. How about the acrobatic volley against West Ham? Or his clutch-finishes against Newcastle United?

What’s been most impressive, however, is his work off the ball.

“And the defensive work he puts in now, that’s probably the main difference,” said Jurgen Klopp last weekend about Núñez. “He always wanted it, but he was less coordinated. Now it looks much better, we found a way that we can do it around him.”

The thing about Núñez is that he is a hybrid, a Frankenstein-like assortment of contrasting attributes. He is a technical wonder but he is also physically raw. Imagine the grace of a ballet dancer but the untrained power of a bucking bull. He isn’t a blank canvas but rather a sculpture not quite refined. In many ways, he hasn’t reached his peak and this makes him dangerous because an unfinished product who is yet to produce his full potential should be alarming to opponents and music to Klopp’s ears.

He is a chaos striker, immediately disrupting a defender’s rhythm with his pressing. Let’s not forget that Marcelo Bielsa is also now his national team manager for Uruguay, and this can only help him become a more dangerous disruptor. Now, as Klopp said, Liverpool have a team that can work around Núñez erratic energy, thanks to a smarter, more organized and dynamic midfield including the brilliant Dominik Szoboszlai and Wataru Endō, who in my opinion is one of the most underrated signings of the season. The chaos now has order.

Many questioned Núñez arrival to Merseyside last summer, specifically because of his €75m ($78.59m) price tag and the fact that he arrived at the same time as another physically dominant striker in Erling Haaland. But I said it then and I’ll say it again: With the Uruguayan, patience was needed and now that Núñez is more familiar with the league and has acclimated to his team’s tactics, we will see a more complete player. As long as he stays fit, we’ll see great things from the former Peñarol man in whatever capacity.

Welcome back, WSL!

The 2023-2024 Women’s Super League season kicks off this Sunday when Aston Villa host Man United and there are plenty of things to look forward to, including the growth of superstar talent in the league. Just under 100 players who will feature in the league this season played at this summer’s World Cup so the quality throughout different clubs is evident.

England forward Alessia Russo left Man United for Arsenal, who also picked up the talented young Australian midfielder Kyra Cooney-Cross, whilst the Red Devils replaced Russo with Japan‘s Hinata Miyazawa, who won the Golden Boot at the World Cup. Meanwhile, Villa strengthened across the lineup to help support their main woman and last season’s WSL player of the season Rachel Daly, whilst Man City made one signing, but it was reportedly a pricey one (a British record fee of £300,000) by bringing midfielder Jill Roord back to the league from Wolfsburg.

Then there’s the Goliath Chelsea, who have won the last four league titles. Is there anyone that can stop them? Man United got close last time around but in the end it wasn’t to be as Emma Hayes’s side proved to be too strong. There have been plenty of changes in then Blues’ squad — both incoming and outgoing — but they once again remain favorites.

Pernille Harder and Magdalena Eriksson left for Bayern Munich but Chelsea brought in some American flair in Catarina Macario and Mia Fishel. German midfielder Sjoeke Nüsken and England goalkeeper Hannah Hampton are also new members of the team, as well as the Canadian defender Ashley Lawrence, who joins from PSG. When you add them to the likes of Sam Kerr, Lauren James, Fran Kirby and Millie Bright, it’s difficult to go against them. Emma Hayes, however, is the main driver towards their success. Her managerial prowess is unmatched and if the squad delivers, it’s because of her leadership. Can they add more trophies — notably the Champions League — to their campaign? Time will tell.

Finally, let’s hope to see more record numbers in attendance, especially as clubs are now opening their main stadiums for the women. Last season’s highest number was the north London derby at the Emirates, where 47,367 people watched the Gunners win 4-0 against their rivals, but I think that number will be broken. Man United will host Man City at Old Trafford this season so there’s a chance that could be the one that breaks the record.


OFFSIDE

Napoli’s TikTok, Victor Osimhen and the lessons to learn on social media

Napoli‘s social media team suffered high levels of criticism this week after the club’s TikTok account posted two videos mocking Osimhen, forcing his agent Roberto Calenda to threaten with legal action. Despite the controversy and dispute between club and player, Osimhen scored on Wednesday night as his manager Rudi Garcia confirmed the Nigerian striker is “invested 100%” in the club, despite the player deleting images of him in his Napoli shirt shortly after the TikTok videos.

“I can assure you that Victor loves this jersey,” Garcia said after the club’s victory over Udinese.

Napoli issued a statement saying they “never intended to offend” Osimhen, and it seems this will eventually die down and both parties will kiss and make up. However, I think this needs to be a lesson for all social media managers who handle accounts for professional clubs: Understand the responsibility of your job.

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2:31

Marcotti: Napoli’s Osimhen posts an ‘act of self-destruction’

Gab Marcotti reacts to Napoli’s now-deleted social media posts that made fun of star striker Victor Osimhen.

I teach a class every semester at my former Graduate School of Journalism on the psychological undertones of social media and one major lesson I like to tell the students is that managing a social media account requires two important principles: self-control and trustworthiness.

When you handle a club’s account, these principles are even more critical. For most clubs (and sports websites) and their social media platforms, the need to generate likes or views is more important than meaningful engagement and this can sometimes be a problem.

The road runner speed of consumption based on TikTok trends and viral-searched content can be problematic, hence the Osimhen debacle. Why would you want to troll/abuse/mock — whatever you want to call it — your own player for the sake of clicks? It’s a self-destructive strategy and one that breaks the trust between club, audience and in this case, the player. And not just any player, your BEST player. Your star striker and hero who helped the club lift the Serie A title last season after a three-decade wait.

So, to those that work in the industry, take this as a lesson. Social media in sports can be a place that offers opportunity for meaningful engagement, connection and social conscience whilst simultaneously doing good work (see AS Roma’s strategy). Not everything has to come at the expense of someone else’s misfortune, especially if it’s your own player.

Premier League injuries

I hate to tell you I told you so…but I told you so. Last month in our Premier League preview column, I commented on the fact that the new EFL time-wasting regulations (referees to add minutes on time lost due to goal celebrations or any other sort of in-game antics) are a double-edged solution because more minutes also means an even bigger risk for injuries.

Now as we look ahead to matchday six, the absentee list is significant, especially for Arsenal. Gabriel Martinelli, Leandro Trossard, Thomas Partey, Declan Rice and Bukayo Saka missed the Carabao Cup fixture against Brentford and the latter is questionable for this Saturday’s game against Bournemouth.

Harvey Barnes also limped off for Newcastle United during last weekend’s emphatic victory over Sheffield United. Barnes could be out for months. Chelsea’s list remains substantial (Ben Chilwell came off injured in the Carabao Cup) as well as Man City, Man United and Aston Villa’s (Leon Bailey was substituted in the 28th minute during the League Cup), while Brighton also have key players on the sideline.

I remain stubborn on this. Something has to be done about the calendar, domestic and international. There’s just too much football being played and yes, even though we love this game and all the action that comes with it, I’d much rather focus on a player’s wellbeing so they can be at their best — mentally and physically — in order to deliver. Over and over again, it’s clear that in terms of the footballing schedule, less is more.

Final word

After their U.S. Open Cup loss to Houston Dynamo, Inter Miami, who played without an injured Lionel Messi, welcome NYCFC this weekend for an important game that dictates their MLS playoffs hopes. But I’m here to discuss the season ticket prices for next season, which were recently announced by the club.

Naturally, due to Messi’s arrival, the expectation was a rise in prices but fans have voiced their anger towards the spike. This season, the cheapest season ticket came to $485 but next year it is $884. In the northwest midfield area, the seats are priced from $4,420 to $7,650 with special access to various areas of the ground. These numbers also doubled from this year. Pitch-level season tickets on the east sideline include more access and they’re priced more than $13,000. Boxes? More than $40,000.

Here’s the thing, I understand the need to maximize Messi’s arrival and in the end, this is a business. However, season ticket holders are core fans, because they are the ones who were there before Messi and will be there after he leaves. They are the pulse, the beat and the drum. The club — like any other — has to be loyal to their presence because without them, there’s no club to build.

These prices, especially at a stadium that’s not even their intended proper ground, is not the way to pay gratitude for a community that’s vital towards the club’s success. I hope they rethink and adjust these numbers.


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