Which European League Would Have the Best All-Star Team?

In honor of a potentially weak week of Champions League games, we come bearing a thought experiment

If there ever was one week of the Champions League knockouts to skip in order to respond to work emails more promptly, spend more time with your loved ones, or read whatever New York Review Books classic re-print was cheapest at your nearest used-book store, this would be the week! After the first legs of the first four matchups, the only one that seems like it’s still truly up for grabs is Roma-Porto, which FiveThirtyEight currently lists as a 50-50 proposition. But even that seems likely to be a game that quickly gets swallowed up by the sands of the next few weeks; both teams project with a whopping one-percent chance of winning the whole thing. Meanwhile, after multi-goal first-leg shutout wins, PSG and Tottenham are at 97 and 95 percent to advance, respectively.

Of course, Ajax-Madrid is the big one, with the three-time defending champs a 75-percent proposition to move on to the quarters after an opening 2-1 win in Amsterdam. The FiveThirtyEight model might be a little too bullish on Ajax, as they’re ranked no. 9 overall in SPI, but aren’t even, um, in first place in the Dutch league. However, those crazy kids really did take the game to Madrid in the first leg -- 19 shots to 13; 121 completed passes in the attacking third to 70; 25 in the box to 5; 2 xG to 1.3 -- and Madrid nearly blew two similar leads at home last year after first-leg wins of 3-0 against Juventus and 2-1 against Bayern Munich. Also, the team is much worse this year and they’ll be without their captain Sergio Ramos for multiple games after he ... admitted to reporters that he did something illegal. And! The odds for a Madrid win have dropped from around -350 back in mid-February down to -150. But despite all that, the most likely outcome still seems like Madrid comfortably advancing since Ajax have to score at least two goals to have any shot of overcoming the aggregate deficit.

Since these four games seem to hold a high probability of predictability, I’m gonna use the return of pan-European competition to reach back into the mailbag. But first, a reminder: If you want to receive more than just the Tuesday newsletter, you can become a paid subscriber! Last week’s subscriber-only stuff included the weekly Friday crib sheet, plus some post-game analysis of El Clasico. Use the green button below to exchange legal tender for lots of extra content:

OK, here’s the question, from Jeremy:

If there was a hypothetical "all-star" champions league tournament where each domestic league fielded their top players, who would win? La Liga? EPL? Bundesliga?

Here is my cop-out answer: It’s Ligue 1. You could make a reasonable argument that they have the best players in the league at every position. Please make your case for Nabil Fekir or the French Ted Cruz in the comments. What? Look at this guy!

PSG have also been coached since the summer by, in my opinion, one of the best five managers in the world, Thomas Tuchel. Let’s say each team in this hypothetical competition were coached by a random fan, i.e. someone with literally no influence whatsoever over how the team plays. The Literally the PSG Team team would still benefit from all the coaching they’ve gotten from Tuchel and all of the time they’ve spent playing together in games and in training. After all, most in-game coaching is more mannerism-heavy fashion show than it is performance optimization, anyway. Throw in the fact that their front three of Neymar, Kylian Mbappe, and Edinson Cavani might actually just be better than any cherry-picked All-Star front three from any of the other four leagues under consideration here, and Ligue 1 is the clear choice. Also, this ... this is good:

Picking Ligue 1 is, unfortunately, no fun at all, and nihilism is nothing to strive for in a made-up question about a game that most people watch for their personal enjoyment. So, here’s the workaround: France doesn’t count. They’re not among the top four in UEFA’s league-rating coefficient, and so for all intents and purposes, they no longer exist.

I’m striving toward light objectivity here -- and I really don’t want to argue over which Federico is better: Chiesa or Bernardeschi? -- so to create each league’s All-Star team, I used the most valuable eleven’s created by Transfermarkt’s market values. No, they’re not perfectly representative teams, but they were all created by the same mechanism so we’re all just gonna have to live with that, OK, Marco Reus's immediate family? Each team is playing a 4-2-3-1, as it allows for an extra attacker to get on the field but also acknowledges the fact that top teams rarely play with two strikers anymore. Each team is being managed by a random fan or a league-average manager; the point is that the person coaching the game will have the same effect on each team; that is, none whatsoever! This is what the teams look like for the Premier League, La Liga, Serie A, and the Bundesliga:

Perhaps the first thing that stands out to you is the same thing that stood out to Dan Altman, proprietor of North Yard Analytics and formerly a consultant with Swansea:

On the one hand, yes, exactly, fine, sure, whatever, this is the same thing as the PSG argument, except Bayern Munich even rate more highly than PSG in various modeling systems. (A troll might call this team “Bayern’s 2019-20 starting lineup”.) On the other hand, are we really sure that Niko Kovac is much better than a league-average manager? On a panel with Houston Rockets GM Daryl Morey at last week’s Sloan conference, Statsbomb’s Ted Knutson reiterated what I’ve said here before: most managers don’t make much of a difference on a team’s performance. There’s a tiny elite group of self-immolating shit-wreckers and tiny elite group of wizard-like ceiling-raisers, but the vast majority sit in a massive trough in between those two. Kovac hasn’t done a bad job necessarily, but I haven’t seen anything to suggest that he’s improved the team at all. So, I am not awarding them with the residual Tuchel Effect bump. Plus, I actually do think that talent gap here is rather big: Both the La Liga and Premier League sides have total market values north of €1 billion; the Bundesliga side’s combined value is less than €600 million. Pitting the Bundesliga team up against these other collections of stars would be a fascinating little experiment and a potentially nice way to look into the value of training, familiarity, and ingrained playing patterns versus the value of sheer talent. That won’t ever happen, though, and this is also 4/5ths of a defense-plus-keeper that finished last at the World Cup in a group that didn’t include a single team that made it past the quarterfinals. So, they’re out.

Same goes for Serie A. Or maybe more like ... Serie Nah? The midfield would get completely overrun. Pjanic ... passes the ball sideways a lot, and Milinkovic-Savic is more of an end-product midfielder rather than someone who’s gonna help control the game. They also lack creativity; in terms of expected assists per 90, the leader is Joao Cancelo (0.22), but that’s not even in the top 20 in Serie A this season. More than anything, though, Serie A just hasn’t been great this year. Napoli and Inter both got knocked out of the Champions League in the group stages, while Juventus got tonked by Atletico Madrid in the Round of 16, and AC Milan, currently in third in Serie A, didn’t make it out of the Europa League group stages. Italy has three teams in the top 20 of FiveThirtyEight’s rankings; England has six, Spain seven. In other words: I’m not going to pick the hypothetical All-Star team from the objectively worse league to win the hypothetical competition against the hypothetical All-Star teams from two objectively better leagues.

And so, onto what I think the actual tangible takeaway is from this exercise: La Liga and the Premier League have much better best players than everyone else. That’s perhaps mirrored by where things stand in the two European competitions: England has four Champions League teams left and two in the Europa League, while Spain has three sides in each. La Liga has the two super-spending super-powers in Madrid and Barcelona, plus the always-evolving-and-overachieving collection of talent for Diego Simeone at Atletico Madrid, while the Premier League, quite simply, has six of the top 10 richest teams in the world. Combine those things with what seems like a slight decline of talent in Germany after a World Cup-winning generation, and that’s how you get the current state of things.

But who would win? My head points me toward the Premier League, and you guys agreed, ever so slightly.

All the pieces on this team just make sense. The backline has versatility and balance, with Walker’s experience playing as a third centerback and even Laporte’s ability to play closer to the touchline as Robertson pushes higher up the field. Then, Hazard loves to cut in from the sideline, and Roberton’s overlapping runs would be a compounding problem for defenses to deal with. On the other side of the field, Walker plays a little more conservatively to cover while Salah pushes higher and closer to the hybrid striker-winger role he inhabits at Liverpool. Kante and Pogba literally won a World Cup playing next to each other in the midfield, and the limited prep time and thrown-together team-selection of a summer international tournament sort of mirrors what’s happening here. Kevin de Bruyne hasn’t really done much at all this season, but he had 34 assists in the previous two Premier League campaigns, and he’ll feed Salah, Kane, and even Pogba, who can make runs past him into the box. Bonus points for KDB and Hazard playing together for Belgium. Meanwhile, Van Dijk might be the best defender on the planet, and we’ve seen De Gea almost single-handedly win games many times over the past few years

On top of that, the overall value of the team is slightly higher -- €1.08 billion to €1.06 -- and while that difference is negligible enough to be meaningless, this whole exercise is straw-grasping fantasy, so I’m counting this as another point in favor of the Prem: the economist Stefan Szymanski found that the overall values of players on Transfermarkt were almost as good at predicting Premier League results as betting odds. We’re making England’s All-Stars the slight betting favorites.

And yet, we’re picking La Liga anyway -- for two reasons.

First, the Premier League team has the weakest link between these two squads. You could argue that it’s Andy Robertson or Kyle Walker. It’s Robertson, based on the Transfermarkt values, but I think in reality it’s probably Walker, based on the number of high-profile errors he seems to make. Those mistakes might come out in the wash of a 38-game season thanks to everything he brings to the table, but we’re talking about three games here, so just one of those miffed back-passes or pointless, blatant fouls in the box could equal game over. There’s even some research to support this idea. In The Numbers Game, Chris Anderson and David Sally looked at data from the 2010-11 season and found that improving your best player by 10 percent was worth five points per season but improving your worst player was worth nine. “[Stars] provide the glamour, the genius, the moments of inspiration,” Anderson and Sally write. “They sell shirts and fill the seats. But they do not decide who wins games and who wins championships. That honor falls to the incompetents at the heart of the defense or the miscommunicating clowns in midfield. Soccer is a weak-link game.”

Except, there was one player they had to remove from their data set because he was so much better than everyone else that he was skewing the numbers. He is the second reason:

Drats! Yet another column devolves into Messi worship! But when you talk about this game at the absolute highest level, the conversation still starts and ends with him. He’s 31 years old, and he has six more goals+assists than anyone else in Europe’s top five leagues. Over this arbitrarily small sample of games that I have created, Messi is still the most likely to make something magical happen multiple times. (Also, it doesn’t hurt that Oblak might be De Gea’s equal, or even superior, on the other end.)

We said it four years ago, and it’s still true today. What’s your question? The answer is Messi.

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