One of football’s favorite narratives is the “resurgence.” You can barely go a weekend without hearing about the resurgence of some team or player somewhere in Europe. The better the league, the bigger the hype.
Most of these so-called resurgences don’t actually amount to anything, because people tend to be looking for the wrong things. This post is inspired in particular by all the talk surrounding Real Madrid and Fernando Torres, but I’m not trying to pick on them in particular – they just happen to be the major talking points this season.
So here’s the thing: a resurgence isn’t playing well and managing a blowout. That’s what people like to call a resurgence, because it’s flashy and easy to identify, but that doesn’t make it real.
A true resurgence is a substantive, lasting change, not a short run of good results. A resurgence should radically change your fortunes: relegation to safety, safety to Europe, Europe to mounting a title challenge. It isn’t just playing well in individual games that gets you there – it’s winning when you’re not playing well. Most teams with any real talent on them can manage some ridiculous scorelines here and there.
In Spain this season, for example, almost half of La Liga has managed to put together at least one 4+ goal margin of victory in league games. This includes some of the likely suspects – Barcelona, Real Madrid, Atlético, and Málaga – but it also includes struggling Sevilla and relegation-threatened Osasuna, and neither Valencia nor Betis, who are contenders for a CL spot, have managed to put together even one league game which they won by at least 3 goals. Arsenal and Liverpool have achieved larger margins of victory more times than any other team in the EPL, yet they’re ranked sixth and seventh.
Almost any team can play well at least every once in awhile, especially the teams that people care enough about to notice “resurgences.” Consistency is important, yes, but the mark of a real resurgence is what happens when you don’t play well.
When you go out onto the pitch and your defense is poor, or your forwards are missing their chances, or you’re behind by a goal, do you find a way to win anyway? Are you beating solid teams? Are you stringing together results in a way that’s up to your standard? When you lose, do you find a way to bounce back from it and recover?
And, most importantly, has this been going on for more than a month?
If the answer to all of those is yes, congratulations. Your team is really and truly experiencing a resurgence. You should be proud of them.
There are a lot of examples of teams that really do experience this. Atlético experienced a nine-game unbeaten run in all competitions after Simeone took over last January, which was only ended when they met Barcelona in late February. They went unbeaten again until mid-March, when they lost to Mallorca. This season that resurgence has clearly continued, with them sitting second in the table. Part of that is that Real have been subpar by their standards, but part is that Atléti have just been really, really good.
Or we could look at Zaragoza last season. They realized some time in March that they really ought to start winning if they wanted to avoid relegation and ended up with one of the most memorable comebacks in history, beating Valencia, Atlético, Athletic, and Levante (among others) in the process.
Even Valencia this season have experienced a resurgence of sorts – despite their losses to Real Madrid, they’ve got an impressive record in the last 12 games: 8 wins, 1 draw, and 3 losses. They’re closing in on a Champions League spot, too, and should probably at least manage Europa.
What do all of these have in common?
Well, there are some convincing wins sprinkled in there, but there are a lot of scrappy wins, too, and some are against good sides. When you’ve been playing poorly, you usually can’t turn that around into playing well overnight, not if you want your resurgence to really last. You’ve got to be able to win when you play poorly.
That’s how Real Madrid won the league last year. It wasn’t won in the blowouts. Sure, those were essential, but they weren’t enough, not on their own, and RM will always, always manage those. They managed plenty in the season preceding last one but failed to win the title. Madrid could have done a little more poorly in some of those blowouts, and it wouldn’t have mattered. They weren’t really challenged, and they didn’t have to fight through adversity.
No. La Liga was won last year at Sociedad, with an early goal for Higuain and a solid game for the defense and Iker Casillas. It was won at Valencia, where Real Madrid dug in their heels when Valencia finally woke up in the last twenty minutes of the game. It was won at Mallorca, where Higuain and Callejón overturned a deficit in the last twenty minutes to win 1-2 (even though that offside call still infuriates me). It was won by Ramos’s header at Getafe. It was won with Ronaldo’s brilliant backheel at Rayo. It was won at Betis, where Mourinho and Ronaldo themselves said afterward that Betis probably deserved better. And it was won at Barcelona, with Ronaldo scoring in his third successive clasico. All were won by the slimmest of margins, and while luck was a factor – because luck is always a factor – the bottom line is that Madrid dug in their heels and got the job done.
It’s those results that signify a resurgence. Blowouts are just flashy. They don’t even come close to showing a club’s true form or true character.