CHAMPIONS LEAGUE MAILBAG

"The Chaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaampions!"

I don’t know if it’s because I just wrote a 3,500-word column about the tournament or if it’s because that tournament seems more wide open than ever before, but I seriously feel like today is only a lesser version of Christmas. I wouldn’t get a Champions League tattoo, but I would at least consider wearing a Champions League-brand hat for a couple hours today — that’s how fired up I am for these games to start.

For the newer fans, this is how the Champions League knockout round goes: Begin with 16 teams, divided into eight match-ups. Those teams play two games, home and away. You add up the score from both games. Whoever has more goals after 180 minutes advances. If the number of goals are equal, whichever team scored more goals on the road advances. If things are still tied after that accounting, the second game goes into non-sudden-death extra time (away goals still count here). And if it’s still tied after that, then there’s a shootout. After the Round of 16, there’s a random draw for the quarterfinals, and then the same for the semis. Every round is two games … until the final, which is one. Here are the match-ups:

All right, mailbag time. Like when we did the first one, I was blown away by the volume and depth of the questions you guys sent in! If you sent one in and it went unanswered, I’m sorry I couldn’t get to it. I’ve either A) answered a similar question asked by someone else, B) filed it away for potential use in a future mailbag, or C) am considering using it as the basis for an entire newsletter because the complexity and thoughtfulness of your inquiry cannot be contained by the quick-hit structure inherent to the form of the online Q&A! So, enough preamble. You have too many words ahead of you. Thanks to all for sending your questions in, and thanks, as always, for reading.

Has Man U's defense improved at all since the Mourinho left? And if he has, has it improved enough so that a Neymar-less PSG should have real trouble to score against them?
-Luis

The two most common question types were non-Liverpool fans trolling me or actual Liverpool fans asking, indirectly, for me to provide them with some kind of confidence boost. But beyond the still-somewhat-befuddling psychodrama surrounding a team that made the Champions League final last year and is currently in first place in the Premier League (???), the next most-common Q was about Manchester United.

Since interim manager Ole Gunnar Solskjaer took over for Jose Mourinho in December, United still haven’t lost in the Premier League. Their eight wins and one draw in Solskjaer’s nine games in charge is the best mark in England over that stretch. They even have more points and a better goal-differential than Manchester City, who have played an extra game and just beat Arsenal and Chelsea by a combined score of 9-1. United are back in the top four in England, and PSG won’t have Neymar or Edinson Cavani for the first leg of their their match-up. (Neymar’s out for both.) PSG manager Thomas Tuchel has said that the recent spate of injuries has forced him to go from “Plan B to Plan D”. Back on December 17, the day of the draw, this match-up seemed like assured obliteration for United, but now all their trend-lines are pointing up, and PSG are bouncing their way down the emergency alphabet.

However, Luis is asking the right question, which is why I’m now answering it. United have allowed just six goals in OGS’s nine PL games in charge, compared to 29 in the 17 games prior. But! The defense hasn’t really improved too much. Under Mourinho, United allowed 1.55 expected goals per game. Under Solskjaer, they’re at 1.39. When you take into account the soft schedule — they’ve only played one team in the top half of the Premier League since Mourinho left — it’s hard to say they’ve really improved at all on the defensive side of the ball.

In their one game against a top-half side, they won 1-0 against Tottenham, thanks to another out-of-this-world performance from their goalkeeper, David de Gea. Even against a Neymar-and-Cavani-less PSG, I have a hard time seeing United advancing without de Gea standing on his head a couple more times. Remember: Kylian Mbappe’s still on the team.

Who has the Most Soccer Hair in the knockout round? I’m not talking about Best Hair, I’m talking Most Soccer: Beckham’s weird Mohawk, Quaresma’s crop circles, etc etc. 

I’ll hang up and listen.
-Sam

This is harder to answer than it should be. In years past, there’d always be at least a few guys who’d immediately come to mind as examples of the purest distillations of Soccer Hair — when Robert Lewandowski looked like a B-grade villain from a Disney Channel cartoon, for example — but perhaps due to the ongoing minimalist makeover of our culture, you just don’t get as many players making what the kids are now calling “a choice”. Where’s my Millennial Abel Xavier at?

Paul Pogba would’ve been an easy answer — the guy shaved a Pokemon emblem into the side of his head at one point, and that was like the 17th-most ridiculous haircut he’s had — but Pogba currently has neither Japanese imagery, nor added color incorporated into head at the moment. That’s a shame, imo, and hopefully he shows up for the PSG game with, I don’t know, a to-scale image of Roy Keane telling him he has a bad attitude wrapped around the back of his skull.

So, instead, let’s go with Arturo Vidal. He’s always had some version of the shark-fin Mohawk, with added lines and ornamentation dressing the sides, presumably to transmit various bits of sacred info to whatever extraterrestrials were watching his games. What I appreciate about the current iteration, though, is how tight and potentially sharp and extremely hazardous it is. Vidal’s 31; it’s fucking hard out there for a guy who was alive during the Reagan administration to exist in the world with hair like that, but if you trace the subtle evolution of his ‘do, you can pretty easily convince yourself that as Vidal’s gotten older and has therefore started to slow down, he’s modified his hair in order to claw back whatever pace he’s lost in the form of added aerodynamicism. Here’s a nice look from up-close. Happy belated New Year!

And here’s what it looks like in the wild:

You could easily cut a pepperoni pizza into eight slices with that thing, right? But what makes this soccer hair the most Soccer Hair? I’ve always thought that having Soccer Hair was about somehow flouting convention and embracing trends, all at once, and I can’t think of anything that does both of those things better than an “understated Mohawk”.

Glad to see I’m not the only one obsessed with that grey sweater/coat thing Pep wears. He’s worn it so much the pockets have gone saggy and it looks even worse. But what is his excuse for today’s atrocity?

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-Tricia

I received this email WHILE I WAS STARING AT A PHOTO OF PEP GUARDIOLA WEARING THIS BERT AND ERNIE-ASS TURTLENECK. Love you guys. Pep wore the saggy “sweater/coat thing” again this past weekend, and Tricia, it looked even saggier and even worse than before.

Pep used to be an icon. I’m really at a loss here, so I asked my buddy Sam Reiss for his thoughts. This is a different Sam from Sam, the Soccer Hair syntax obsessive. This Sam is the proprietor of Snake America, the best newsletter in the world. It is about vintage clothing, high-end thermoses, and pre-Revolution Bulgarian weightlifting. I trust Sam’s style sense with my life. Subscribe to his newsletter here, and now listen to him on Pep:

The striped one is insane. looks like something quebec city natives wear in the winter. the cardigan is also pretty stylish but looks more slovenly than what pep normally wears … he really used to have incredible style … but my theory is his style is just as good … but people have caught up a bit … he’s something … everyone who's bald w a beard looks like theyre hiding something

You know what also makes you look like you’re hiding something? Wearing a giant cardigan with huge pockets that are clearly filled with things you’re obviously hiding! Someone’s gotta tip this guy upside down for a few seconds and see what falls onto the floor.

CHAMPIONS LEAGUE PICKS!! GIVE US YOUR PICKS RYAN!!!! And get a podcast.
-Ben

The first sentence is not a question, and neither is the second, nor the third. I DON’T KNOW YOU BUT I LOVE YOUR ENTHUSIASM, BEN.

Lets pick some winners! Who you got?
-Andrew

OK, that’s more like it. I’ll run through each match-up with a brief bit on all eight.

  • Roma–Porto: This is the game everyone’s going to skip. It’s on at the same time as United-PSG and also involves two teams that probably aren’t going to make it very far! But it’s also the most evenly balanced of all of the the ties. Betting markets slightly favor Porto; FiveThirtyEight has it as a straight toss-up, with Roma grading out as just four tenths of a point better on their rating system. They were in an easy group, but Porto won more points than any other team in the group stage, and they’ve given up fewer goals per game than every team in Europe’s Big Five Leagues outside of PSG and Liverpool. Roma’s defense is a choose-your-waste-management-metaphor adventure, but they’ve got a top-10 attack (by expected goals). Gimme Roma, the soccer team but also the movie, which was incredible.

  • Manchester United–PSG: You can probably tell where I’m leaning. United are fun to watch again, but they’ve yet to really prove that any of this new bubbly stuff can stick against a good team. PSG are, I think, a great team. They score more goals per game than any team in Europe’s Big Five; they allow fewer. Pretty easy to understand, huh? They’re getting buried by injuries, but Mbappe’s a lightning field on his own, and I just don’t see United keeping up on either end, beyond some hot finishing and incredible goalkeeping. PSG is the pick. Should be a good time, though!

  • Tottenham–Borussia Dortmund: The Something’s Gotta Give Derby! Outside of Juventus, these two teams have outperformed their expected-points totals more than anyone on the continent. This was a literal dead-heat in betting markets when the draw was announced in mid-December, while Tottenham have moved ahead as slight favorites since. Both teams play weird anti-midfield styles that aim to zap the ball up the field as quickly as possible at the most opportune moments, so watch this instead of drinking a second cup of coffee. I was about to pick Dortmund, since Harry Kane and Delle Alli, Tottenham’s two best attackers, are out injured. But then Marco Reus, Dortmund’s best attacker, got hurt playing in a cup game; (WHY WAS MARCO REUS, WHO ALWAYS GETS HURT, PLAYING IN A CUP GAME?) The guy’s been on fire this year — 11 goals, six assists — so I’ll trust manager Mauricio Pochettino to figure out a way to get Tottenham past a Reus-less Dortmund.

  • Ajax–Real Madrid: What’s that you say? Real Madrid have won five La Liga games in a row, including a combined 5-1 scoreline against third-place Atletico Madrid and fourth-place Sevilla? Oh, and Ajax recently lost a game to a team in the Dutch league by the score of 6-2? YOU’RE GONNA HAVE TO SPEAK UP I CAN’T HEAR YOU OVER THE BAHRAINI TRANCE MUSIC ON THE 17 HIGHLIGHT MIXTAPES I HAVE PLAYING AT THE SAME TIME. AJAX IN SIX.

  • Lyon–Barcelona: Lyon have already beaten Manchester City and PSG this season. They’re not consistent by any stretch of the imagination — Europe’s “can beat anyone, can lose to anyone” team — but man, Barcelona feel like they’re there for the taking, while also concurrently feeling like they could comfortably crush any other team on the planet. This could end with Lyon pulling off a 4-3 uppercut on aggregate, or Barca could win, like, 6-1 with six goals and six assists for Messi. Given the declines at Barca, Madrid, and Bayern, I do think there’s a chance we see a bunch of wacky results this year, but c’mon. I’m not picking against Madrid and Barcelona.

  • Liverpool–Bayern Munich: Center back and weighted safety blanket Virgil van Dijk really just might be Liverpool’s best player. However, he’s suspended for a game, and his replacement — Dejan Lovren, Joel Matip, an out-of-position Fabinho? — will be Liverpool’s worst player in whatever lineup Jurgen Klopp decides to trot out next week at Anfield. That downgrade could totally be the difference here; FiveThirtyEight has Bayern as 51-to-49 favorites, while bettors give Liverpool a slight edge. In fact, FiveThirtyEight rates Bayern and Liverpool as the nos. 2 and 3 teams in the world, respectively. The major difference: Liverpool have turned dominant performances into dominant results all season long, while Bayern’s been a little unlucky on both ends of the field, and their once-great goalkeeper might now be terrible. Couple the consistency of Liverpool’s season with the fact that Klopp’s been to the Champions League final twice (including last year!), while this is Bayern manager Niko Kovac’s first Champions League knockout tie, and I’ll give Liverpool the slightest edge.

  • Atletico Madrid–Juventus: Atletico were bad against Madrid over the weekend, conceding three goals (and 1.6 xG) at home to their intra-city rivals. That was their second loss in a row after an insipid 1-0 defeat to Real Betis, where they barely created anything after going down a goal around the 60th minute. I was wrong about them turning a corner! And while I’ll never count out a Diego Simeone team, Juventus have a better defense than Atletico does — in fact, better than anyone other than Liverpool and City — and they also now have Cristiano Ronaldo, who’s currently being investigated after being credibly accused of rape. It’s difficult to imagine a path to victory for Atleti that doesn’t involve a bunch of luck, a lack of goals, and maybe a penalty shootout. Juventus probably grinds out a 3-1 win over two games or something like that.

  • Schalke–Manchester City: One of these teams is the worst team remaining. The other team is probably the best team remaining. Manchester City will be playing multiple guys you’ve never heard of by the second leg.

My long-term pick: Manchester City to win the whole thing. They’re so deep; they’re not dependent on any one player; they’ve scored six more goals than any other team in Europe. They probably won’t win — those four words apply to every remaining team, mind you — but their incredible roster and its tactical versatility makes them better-prepared for all the random crap that gets thrown at you over a season than anyone else. Picking the favorite isn’t anything special, though, so I’ll add that my other feeling heading into this thing is that City and Liverpool are the two best teams in the world. Both teams can dominate a game played at any pace, and I wouldn’t say that about any of the other 14 teams. So, I think we might see something like what we saw in 2012-13, when Borussia Dortmund and Bayern Munich just totally throttled a handful of the traditional powerhouses and seemed to briefly reset the balance of power in Europe. We also might not! The Champions League spits out a ton of madness every year; here’s to more of it this time around.

Was the 2005 AC Milan team the best team to not win the CL? Are there ELO rankings for teams during that time?
-Yeil

To the first: No! To the second: Yes! We can attempt to answer this question objectively. For the uninitiated, here’s how the Elo ratings folks describe the system:

TLDR: Common metrics to measure team strengths such as titles or points are insufficient and sometimes misleading as they do not sufficiently account for the random nature of football nor opposition strength.

The Elo ratings on this website provide a strength estimation based on results for every European club in past and present while trying to consider these factors optimally.

Basically, it’s the best way we have of comparing teams across different years and different eras. The highest-rated team was Pep Guardiola’s 2011-12 Barcelona side during mid-April of that season. They … didn’t win the Champions League or La Liga! (Although they won both the year before.) This is the season Messi scored 50 goals in domestic play, and also tossed in 16 assists. Real Madrid bested Barca in La Liga, though — Ronaldo scored 46 goals, while current Arsenal hostage Mesut Ozil led the league with 18 assists — and Barca lost to Chelsea in the Champions League semifinals thanks to an insane second leg in Spain that saw Chelsea go a man down after 35 minutes and 2-0 down after 44 minutes, only to draw 2-2 (and win 3-2 on aggregate) after, among many other things, a missed Messi penalty.

The second-highest rated team ever: 2013-14 Bayern Munich. They were also coached by Pep Guardiola. They also lost in the Champions League semifinals. Draw your own conclusions, man.

Away goals! UEFA is thinking about doing away with it. What do you think is the best option? Extra time imo usually doesn’t end up with the best quality soccer and then penalty shootouts. Away goals isn’t great but also how often are cup ties decided by them?
-Marc

I think they should keep it! Omar Chaudhuri of the consultancy 21st Club outlined all of the reasons not to scrap the rule in this thread, which I recommend reading in full, but here’s the big reason it needs to stay:

In basketball, a runner at the buzzer can turn a one-point deficit into a one-point win. In football, a last-minute drive can flip a six-point gap into a one-point margin. And in baseball, you’ve got two-run, three-run, and four-run homers that can accomplish the same thing. That can’t happen in soccer! Ice turns into water turns into gas; a loss turns into a draw turns into a win. Since goals are only worth one, the line between devastation and elation isn’t as agonizingly thin—that is, unless you have the away-goals rule.

Listen, the Champions League is insane! Players, coaches, and clubs — their legacies get defined by two-off match-ups that are often decided by random bounces of the ball, refereeing decisions, and various other things that are outside of their control. It is almost certainly not the best way to determine the best team in Europe: Last year’s final featured the fourth-place team in England against the third-place team in Spain! But throwing all of the best players in the world into this kind of vacuum-sealed environment of near-perfection where everyone is so incredibly talented and every little decision has a chance to make of break their team’s season? It makes for the most compelling competition in professional sports. And the away-goals rule is a huge part of that.

Last year, Roma beat Barcelona 3-0 in the second leg, after a 4-1 loss in Spain in the first game, to advance on away goals.

In a split-second, Roma went from being eliminated to being in the Champions League semifinal, and Barcelona experienced the exact opposite reversion of emotion. Pieter Bruegel was a hack. Look at this human tapestry!

We need more moments like this. Not fewer.

Is CL more important than winning your respective league title?

Or maybe another way of asking this could be, if your club lost the league title because your franchise icon slipped at midfield against a rival, your girlfriend dumped you, and then someone knocked off your side view mirror when your car was parked without leaving a note, would kicking Real Madrid’s ass in the CL final make up for it?
-Joe

What the hell is this shit?????????? I’m going to ignore that hypothetical because I believe we all need to prioritize self-care. However, a couple of you asked if I would prefer Liverpool to win the Champions League or the Premier League. Interface with your fandom however you want, but I … don’t care at all! This team hasn’t won a major trophy in 14 years; I’m not gonna be picky here. I’ll be overwhelmed by the endorphins either way.

I’ve always been of the opinion that Messi is *significantly* better than Ronaldo. How did Madrid go from 3-peating the UCL to looking like they don’t give a damn every game? 

I have no statistical basis for this theory, but watching Madrid this season, it just feels like they either a). don’t care or b). are not confident, compared to last year. Meanwhile, Juventus are undefeated in league. 

Am I the only one that feels like Cristiano (besides his obvious talent) just has a majorly impactful, intangible presence on the field? Almost like his teammates are afraid to let him down? Am I wrong and his team success can be supported statistically? Why has Ronaldo been a leader of greater team success than the more talented Messi?

I never felt like Madrid were close to losing out in the knockout stage last year. Now I wouldn’t be surprised at all if they lost to Ajax. What would you say if Juve won this year?

-Austin

Believe it or not, I believe in intangibles. I don’t think anyone who’s ever worked in sports or any other industry that requires collaboration between individual would deny that people can affect other people in unforeseen ways. In fact, baseball teams have even tried to find ways to measure things like team chemistry. The takeaway: it matters but there’s not much upside in searching out why.

And that’s where I fall on this whole thing. It’s too amorphous to really mean much in any substantive, consistent way. If you poke the idea of “Ronaldo wills his teams to victory” even just a little bit, it all falls apart. If he can will his teams to win … then why did they only win two La Liga titles during his nine years at Real Madrid? Why did he only win four of the 18 league games he played against Barcelona? Why did Portugal lose to Uruguay in the Round of 16 at the World Cup? Why did the U.S., not Portugal, get out of their group at the 2014 World Cup? And if his presence is so important, then why didn’t Portugal totally capitulate at the 2016 Euros as soon as he got hurt in the final?

Obviously, none of this is fault! Just like none of the trophies are all down to him, either. Same goes for Messi. Eleven people play soccer; no one player has possession of the ball for more than three out of the 90 minutes; random shit happens all the time; be careful pinning results on a single player.

Now, Ronaldo absolutely does make his teammates better. I’m sure that his famous work ethic has inspired some teammates to work harder, but that kind of difference only really occurs on the margins. And sometimes those margins matter! But it’s really impossible to know how and when and why. The main reasons Ronaldo makes his teammates better are because he’s a once-in-a-century goal-scorer who’s built like a comically overemphasized Greek sculpture and because he moves as an intelligently in the final-third as any player who’s ever lived.

In La Liga this year, Real Madrid have played 23 games. They have 45 points. Through 23 games last year? They had 45 points. Of course, that only means something if you want it to.

As I said last time, and now say every time: If you enjoyed this, please subscribe! And please pass on the word to anyone you know who might be interested. Call your boyfriend. Tell your girlfriend. Inform your mortal enemy. Everyone is welcome … unless you’re a fascist — in which case, get the hell outta here! Thanks, as always, to all you non-fascists for reading along.