Your Champions League Semifinal Mailbag

Are Ajax lucky? Who's on the CL All-Star team? Who would you draft after Messi? And much more!

The games start in eight hours, and there are lots of words here, so let’s just get into it. Thanks for all the full-time subscribers who sent in questions. This was fun. I love you all.

How many players on Ajax will leave over the summer?

But more seriously, for someone still trying to understand the finer points of the beautiful game, can you break down how they’ve been able to go on this run? How much of it has been luck?

-Tom

Let’s answer these in reverse order. There’s been a tiny bit of circumstantial luck. The biggest teams in Europe aren’t as good as they’ve been in the past, and that decline has opened up a little bit of room for an Ajax run. Would the current version of Ajax beaten either Real Madrid or Juventus from, say, two years ago when they both made the Champions League final? Perhaps! But those games would have certainly been tougher. Here’s the progression of the Elo ratings at the top of Europe over the past two seasons:

But I don’t really think that should matter much because on the field in the Champions League this year, Ajax haven’t really been lucky at all. They had the lowest annual revenue of any team in the quarterfinals -- and the gap between them and the three teams in semis is wide enough that it deserves consideration on Mike Gravel’s list of policy proposals -- and yet they’ve played both of their matchups so far like they’re the favorites. In the combined four games against the three-time defending champs and the team that’s won Serie A eight years in a row, Ajax racked up 7.6 expected goals worth of chances, while conceding just 5.3. They deserved to go through both times. This graphic from 21st Club’s Ben Marlowe tells the story pretty nicely:

I’ve written about the genius of Ajax’s roster construction -- oodles of young talent, surrounded by undervalued, accomplished, not-necessarily-cheap veteran players. And with that squad, Ajax have done what almost no team from a smaller league is ever able to do: Play the same way they do at home. I think one of the toughest things for the so-called minnows who make it into the Champions League is how differently the competition typically forces them to play. The teams that win the Dutch, or Scottish, or Ukrainian leagues are often those leagues’ versions of Barcelona or Bayern Munich. They dominate most of the games they play, they have the better players, they can possess and press and create a ton of chances, and their opponents have to play a reactive style to whatever their doing. But that dynamic gets flipped on its head when, say Celtic, has to play PSG. Celtic are the PSG of the Scottish league, but then against PSG they suddenly have to play like they’re a 1-in-a-million underdog despite rarely training for that style of even purchasing players who excel when their team doesn’t have the ball.

Not Ajax, though. They can’t be quite as dominant in Europe, but they’re still roughly the same team against a higher level of competition. In the Eredivisie, they lead all teams in the number of loose balls recovered, forward passes, dribbles attempted, possession percentage, possessions won in the attacking third, possession won in the middle third, and touches in the opposition box. Among all teams in the Champions League this year, they’re fifth in ball recoveries, second in dribbles attempted, fifth in forward passes, ninth in possession percentage (but still with the majority of the ball at 55 percent), first in possessions won in the attacking third, second in possessions won in the middle third, and sixth in touches in the opposition box.

In other words, Erik ten Hag’s team wants to press the hell out of you and then either work the ball into your penalty area by overloading one side of the field or just have Hakim Ziyech let it rip. No one’s been able to stop them from doing that yet, and I don’t expect Tottenham to, either.

As for who’s going to leave this summer? Well, Frenkie de Jong is already going to Barcelona, and it seems like literal man-child Matthijs de Ligt might be following him. Other than that, who knows -- Ziyech turns 27 next season, so it’s time for someone to buy him if they want his best years, and some of the other, less developed guys -- like Donny van de Beek and David Neres -- could be on the way out, too. But there’ll be plenty of time to talk about that once the season’s over; as I said in December, let’s just enjoy this team before it’s too late.

I'm considering taking a year off watching Arsenal if Mustafi is back on the squad next year because I need to respect myself more than spending another year hoping Arsenal amount to something with that dingbat still on the field. Is this unreasonable?

-Aaron

I picked this one mainly because Aaron used the word “dingbat”, which is a great word that feels like it's nearing extinction but truly deserves a usage renaissance. (I also picked it because Arsenal are in the Europa League, which technically makes this germane subject matter.) “Ding” is basically the perfect word on its own. Even if you’d never heard it before, you could figure out what it means just from thinking about how it sounds. When I hear “dingbat” I picture a small, googly eyed, winged beast flying into a window or falling off a barstool.

That is, however, not what it’s supposed to represent. From The Word Detective:

This sense of “dingbat” first appeared in print (as far as we know) in 1915. An adjectival form, “dingbatty,” had popped up in 1911, indicating that the word may, in fact, be a bit older and raising the intriguing possibility that “dingbat” may be related to “batty,” which has been slang for “insane” (implying that one has “bats in one’s belfry”) since the end of the 19th century.

The curious thing about “dingbat,” however, is the fact that while it first appeared meaning “nut case” around 1911, “dingbat” had been widely used since the early 19th century with a wide variety of other meanings. At that time, a “dingbat” could be “a sum of money, or coins or bills themselves,” “an unidentifiable or nameless object or tool” (equivalent to “thingamabob” or “whatchamacallit”), a tramp or hobo, or a hard or heavy object suitable for throwing (overlapping with “brickbat,” a piece of broken brick used as a weapon). The use of “dingbat” to mean “an ornamental item of type” appeared around 1921 and is almost certainly based on “dingbat” meaning “a nameless object.”

Shkodran Mustafi, the player Aaron is referring to, fits all of these etymological definitions, too. He throws himself around the field like a brickbat. Given his constant ineffectiveness, Arsenal fans no doubt imagine the “sum of money” wasted on his continued employment. He has a similar on-field sense of direction as a run-of-the-mill vagrant. And “unidentifiable tool” is a G-rated version of what people have shouted from the stands as they’ve watched him play.

Here is a completely unfair compilation of his lowlights, titled “Mustafi awful player”:

I, personally, would never want Mustafi on my team. He’s a wild, inconsistent, utter liability in a position where consistency is the most important quality. When you hear great defenders talk about defending, they often allude to this idea that if you ever actually have to make a tackle, it means you’ve already done something wrong. The best defenders, according to the best defenders, don’t do much of what the average person thinks of as “defending”. Meanwhile, Mustafi’s 90 minutes are typically spent sprinting out of position and sliding at attackers, like he’s trying to harvest corn with his legs. Stats don’t work that well for center backs yet, and Mustafi is Exhibit A:

Anyway, to answer your question, Aaron: No, it is not unreasonable. Arsenal’s defense has been mediocre for a few years now. If they go out and buy another attacking midfielder instead of actually addressing the team’s core issue this summer, you have my permission to riot.

I'll give you a few options:

  1. Who would be in your all-remaining UCL team starting 11?

  2. How sad is it that Mbappe is not in our lives right now?

  3. If Ajax wins the whole thing, beating Barca in the final, should they get to keep De Jong and the transfer money?

-Sam

This would be cheating if there were any sort of legislative infrastructure to judge the legality of your emails off of. However, I am an autocrat who wields his absolute power with the discretion of a dizzy-bat contestant. So, here we go:

No. 1...

Keeper: Alisson, Liverpool (See: here)

Left Back: Andy Robertson, Liverpool

Center Back: Virgil van Dijk, Liverpool

Center Back: Samuel Umtiti, Barcelona (I know Ernesto Valverde has benched him; I think he should play!)

Right Back: Sergi Roberto, Barcelona (Confession: I have a soft spot for center midfielders who play fullback; they interpret the position with a different kind of geometry, and this team needs a hybrid player to represent the modern game honestly)

Center Midfield: Frenkie de Jong, Ajax

Center Midfield: Christian Eriksen, Tottenham

Center Midfield: Dele Alli, Tottenham (I actually think this midfield could function in real life; Dele’s become a defensive dynamo this season. However, this was probably the hardest choice ... Sergio Busquets isn’t what he once was. Could Fabinho fit here? Is Arthur this good yet? Is Rakitic still the pick here even though his attacking output has declined? DID YOU GUYS SEE OX AGAINST HUDDERSFIELD ON FRIDAY?)

Forward: Mohamed Salah, Liverpool

Forward: Luis Suarez, Barcelona

Forward: Lionel Messi, Barcelona

No. 2 ...

Let’s see what’s going on in Paris right now:

Oh ...

Er ...

Uh ...

Not doing yourselves any favors here, fellas. A reader named Nassim, who is a PSG fan, sent me this after they were eliminated from the Champions League by United:

I think that loss kind of broke me, but only because football and PSG allowed me to escape reality: the Champion’s League is an adventure and kind of gives structure to the year, and in my mind we would, at least, last until April, with Neymar coming back. It left a weird emptiness. I didn’t expect us to win the Champion’s League. At all. But I can’t rationalize that loss. Especially after the Barcelona loss, two years ago…I read that supporters were waking up, checking their phones to see if it had really happened. That was the feeling. « Wait. Really? »

France won a World Cup last year, and I know that the most intense emotion happened before the finale, so I know that winning things in football is, well, not the real thing; I wanted to see Neymar play with us, with Mbappé, with Verratti, with Marquinhos, so having the adventure ends for nothing was extremely violent. If Ajax doesn’t make it to the semi-finales…who cares? They’ve already done it. 

But now Cavani is still injured, Neymar can’t play yet, Di Maria is injured, Marquinhos is injured, Thiago Silva is injured, Rabiot can’t play. We’ve lost 5-1 against Lille after a red card. Outside the anormal—how can Manchester United score three times with the team they had…?—I think there are real issues with the team: too many injured players after February, every year, some weird trauma that makes them scared to play even when Barcelona has to score 4 times to eliminate them/Man.U 3 times…

Maybe I’m frustrated for nothing, maybe they can’t play, fully, through the year. The adventure is only in my head. I’d like to be eliminated in a normal way. I know that we’re a challenge for Big Data: what can’t happen always happen with us, that’s the miracle of life! But…anyway, I’ve lost faith. I’ll keep watching, I’ll keep loving, but I’ve stopped hoping.

Please pray for Nassim.

And no. 3 ...

I’m already dreading the possibility of Ajax and Barca playing in the finals ... and Frenkie de Jong suddenly coming down with a mystery injury in a Mario Gotze 2.0 situation. So, I’d actually take this a step further. Not only do Ajax get to keep Frenkie if they win -- along with the transfer fee -- no, I think they should also get Luis Suarez back. Look at this!

Has there ever been a clearer “neutral’s choice” team at this stage of the tournament than Ajax? The other underdogs who’ve made it this far recently were either absurdly wealthy in different ways (City, Monaco), an acquired taste (Atletico Madrid), or Roma last season. To bring this around to the beginning of the previous paragraph, Jurgen Klopp’s 2012-13 Dortmund come the closest. But you know what, Ajax should also be able to absorb any former players who they defeat and then use them in the next round. So, if they beat Tottenham, they get to take Christian Eriksen, Toby Alderweireld, Jan Vertonghen, and Davinson Sanchez with them to the final. And no, Liverpool have too much money; they don’t get to take Coutinho and Suarez if they beat Barca.

If there was an NFL draft for players in the semis, who goes Top 5?

And who would be the best late round sleeper pick?

-Simon

Love this. Is Giants GM Dave Gettleman drafting in the top five? If so, he’d overpay for the guy who just scored 19 goals but 18 of them came on penalties. He’s do everything in his power to get one of those wingers that plays really hard, never actually gets into the box, creates any chances, or takes any shots, but rips off an unending barrage of lofted crosses. He’d also probably be really into Joe Hart.

But rather than projecting all of football’s front-office foibles onto this, let’s just say that everyone’s starting with a blank slate and each team is trying to draft the most valuable player. I actually think we need to know how many teams are drafting, because then player-scarcity matters. There are only four starting keepers, and though keepers would presumably not be drafted until later on, if you think one or two of the keepers are on a much higher tier, then you should draft them higher. And we also need to know how long we’re drafting these players for since that would bring age and future performance into consideration. So, I’m gonna tweak these rules and say there are four teams drafting -- since there are four teams worth of players -- and so I’m only going to give you a top four, because we don’t need five picks for four teams. On top of that, the draft is just gonna be for a single season.

All right ...

First pick: Lionel Messi. He’s the best ever and also by far the best right now. Gettleman would probably trade him for a draft-pick and then take Vincent Janssen (?) with the extra pick.

Second pick: This is where it gets interesting. To me, center back and “attacker” are the two most valuable positions in the sport -- transfer fees seem to suggest the same. However, these teams all have a bunch of valuable attackers, so there’s a deep pool of viable, winning attacking players. Given that, I thiiiiiink I’d take Virgil van Dijk here. He’s a transformative presence -- we’ve seen him drop into a mediocre backline and immediately make all of the players around him better. Now, there are a lot of good center backs to choose from, too -- you won’t believe this, but these teams all have lots of good players; that’s why they’re in the semifinals. However, I think van Dijk let’s you play a more aggressive attacking style because of the space he covers but he can also tighten things up when you don’t have the ball. You’re passing up on Salah, but you can get Mane or Firmino or Suarez or Dembele or Son or Coutinho or etc. later on.

Third pick: Mohamed Salah. He was basically as good as Messi last year, and he’s the clear no. 2 attacker remaining. Plug him in, run your attack down the right side, and everything else is a little easier to figure out from there. He also has a knack for important goals ...

Fourth pick: I don’t take a midfielder here; midfielders are the running backs of this draft. The difference between a good and a great one just doesn’t have a huge effect on winning. I might even prioritize keeper over midfield, especially since I think Allison and Marc Andre Ter-Stegen make a clear top two, with a drop off to Hugo Lloris, and then another drop-off to Andre Onana. This pick kind of sucks because there’s a clear top three to choose from, in my opinion. I’d trade down from this spot if I could convince Gettleman it’s worth his while to reach for Simon Mignolet here. But that ruins this exercise, so I’m going with Luis Suarez. There are three players remaining in the tournament who are in the top 50 in Europe in open-play expected goals+assists per 90 minutes. Two of them have already been selected. Although he’s 32 and is having a rough finishing season (21.42 xG from open play, just 17 goals), I’m taking a chance on the underlying performance (and recent history) that’s way better than anyone else on the board at the most important position on the field.

As for my sleeper, I kinda like Daley Blind. I’ve always thought he was underrated. He’s versatile, and teams love these hybrid half-center-back-half-fullback types because of the spaces they can cover and how they help with build-up play by positioning themselves in areas opposing presses have trouble covering. I know this was over four years ago, but a couple of these passes would be some nice late-round value:

I also think you’d be able to get some pretty nice steals with the various players who’ve fallen out of favor with the various sides. Umtiti is literally on my All-Star team and he’d surely drop because of his lack of playing time. You’d probably be able to get by with Malcom as one of your wingers. Eric Dier could be your starting defensive midfielder with a late-round pick. Liverpool have about 18 different midfielders who’d be viable starters, too. I know Dusan Tadic has produced like a mad-man this season, but he wouldn’t be a high pick. If I’m the team that drafted Salah, playing Tadic with him as a false-nine -- a much cheaper alternative to Firmino that would allow me to strengthen elsewhere -- would be my goal.

Don’t get me wrong, I love this Ajax team, and I respect Tottenham as a formidable side, but is it actually a good thing for the quality of the CL semis that their opponents in the previous rounds (Manchester City and Juventus) didn’t advance? I am not in favor of a European super league, as has been discussed plenty in recent weeks, but I really think that something is lost when the heavy hitters of European football (Bayern Munich, Real Madrid, PSG, Atletico, Dortmund etc.) are out in the early rounds. Football is a meritocracy, I understand, but the talent pool is not evenly dispersed in European football the way it is in American sports, so missing the big squads means some of the best football players in the world are left watching the competition from home while playing Hannover 96 or Huesca on the weekends. What if there was some kind of amendment to the Champion’s League where all the sides eliminated in the knockouts would play a one-off mini-tournament for 1 spot back in the next round? While this would most likely never happen, I definitely think it’s something that should be discussed because regardless of their historic win against Man City, I’d rather watch even Neymar & Mbappe go at defenders and Lewandowski score a hat trick than see Kane- and Son-less Tottenham play against a team of Premier League rejects and players under 25 who have never been in this moment.

-David

I hate this idea, David! For starters, Ajax are just a ... better team then Juventus and Real Madrid. I’d much rather watch them play than a decaying Madrid or a boring, cross-heavy, no-midfield-whatsoever Juventus. Do I think it would’ve been more fun to watch Man City in the semis rather than a weakened Tottenham? Maybe. And yes, I absolutely think PSG would’ve stood a better chance against Barcelona than Manchester United in the quarters. But the eliminations or City and PSG were absolutely incredible moments that I’m going to be thinking about for the next 15 years! You can’t have the drama and insane, suffocating tension of the knockout rounds without the potential for ... good teams to be knocked out for good.

David, I don’t think your issue here is with the structure of the tournament. (What you’re describing -- fail-safes for the biggest teams -- is essentially the Super League in disguise.) Rather, I think what you’re upset about is that the typical powerhouses -- Madrid, Juventus, Bayern Munich, and even Atletico and Dortmund -- just aren’t as good as they used to be. Ajax are my favorite team to watch since, well, I can’t really even remember a team as compelling as they are. That they’re doing it with a team made up of imperfect Premier League discards and 90’s babies makes it even better.

Would the USMNT make it out the Group Stage?

-Jamal

You mean the, uh, team that took 10 combined shots in two games against the 17th and 33-ranked teams in the Elo ratings? The U.S. is 30th, by the way, one spot behind ... Qatar. While we’re here: go read The Away Game. It’s an awesome dual-track look at this massive scouting project the Qatari’s undertook, scouring the entire African continent for talent to bring to the Aspire Academy, and then, well, the exact purpose remains unclear. While telling that story, the author, Sebastian Abbot, weaves in a ton of science, research, theory about developing athletes and how we really still don’t know that much about soccer.

Back to the question -- national teams are just worse than club teams for obvious reasons: the coaching isn’t as good (remember: Gareth Southgate and Roberto Martinez were World Cup semifinalists), the training time is extremely abbreviated, and the player pools are limited to eligible players. I think the U.S. probably has three Champions League-level players right now: Tyler Adams, Weston McKennie, and Christian Pulisic. They’re all 20 years old, and they’ve all already been significant contributors for very good teams. If you squint a tiny bit, you could convince yourself that John Anthony Brooks is also a league-average-ish Champions League defender. Wolfsburg’s defense isn’t terrible -- rated seventh in Germany by FiveThirtyEight -- and Brooks has played more minutes than anyone on their back line. At worst, he’s a solid Bundesliga contributor. Beyond those four, though, it doesn’t look great! Gregg Berhalter might end up being a great coach someday, but Mauricio Pochettino wouldn’t even be able to get this group of players out of the group stages.

Going with the "final four" theme, how would you transpose the NCAA men's basketball seeds with the four remaining teams. Barca would clearly be a "1" seed, it seems like Liverpool would probably be a "2" seed, and Spurs perhaps a 3 or 4. Ajax seems like the real wild card here - it seems like they would probably be the bracket-busting 9 or 10 seed that no one expected in the final four. Definitely curious to get your take. Relatedly, if my memory is correct, the  the lowest-seeded team to go all the way and win the NCAA bball championship was Villanova as No. 8 seed.

-Jeremy

I’m taking this a step further and comparing each team to their analog in this past year’s NCAA Tournament. Barcelona are Duke -- wildly talented Nike-brand name that is somehow reliant on a single, transcendent talent. So yes, they’re a one seed. Liverpool are Michigan -- a once-dominant team with some recent success but no trophies to show for it, coached by a guy with a specific, eccentric style. They lost the national championship last year, and so did Liverpool, so boom: There’s your two seed. Tottenham are Kansas -- a ton of talent that’s been together for longer than you’d ever expect it to be given the current economic realities of the sport, and a group that’s lost various key players all throughout the season. (No, I don’t think Poch is Bill Self, but it checks enough boxes. VCU-era Shaka Smart was the Poch of college bball.)That’s your four seed. As for Ajax, they’re Wofford -- a dominant team from a non-major league that put their underdog tag in the trash and plays a heavily offensive style not unlike the most successful teams at the highest levels of the professional sport. And so, they get a seventh seed, which I think fits because they’ve so far avoided either of the competition’s top favorites -- City and Barcelona -- who they may have already been matched up against were they an 8 or 9 seed.

I really enjoy your newsletter and your writing in general. So thank you for that.

That being said, I'm a Barcelona fan so I wish you misery in the Champions League.

Here's my question: which player from the other remaining teams do you think would most improve each side? As in, what player from Ajax, Tottenham, or Liverpool would strengthen Barcelona the most? And so on.

Have a good week. And then a bad Wednesday next week.

-Pablo

Ouch! The customer is always right, so thank you for your extremely rude email, Pablo, and despite offering to shake my hand and then pulling it back at the last second to slick your hair back -- despite doing that twice -- I’m going to answer your question.

We need one strict parameter here: I can’t pick Messi. I don’t care who your midfielders are, what kind of attacking talent your can throw out there, or how awful your center backs and goalkeepers may be. Messi is going to improve every team more than anyone else -- regardless of position. So, what non-Messi player in the semis would each team benefit the most from being able to steal and add to their roster?

Ajax: Gotta be van Dijk. Ajax have the second-best attack in the world -- and the best one remaining in the tournament -- per FiveThirtyEight, and FiveThirtyEight’s ratings have been way higher than Ajax this year than anyone else. They were dead right about that, so I’m trusting them here, too. Ajax’s defense, meanwhile, is wayyyyyyyyyyy down there, outside of the top 100 teams in the world. Van Dijk also already plays with Matthijs de Ligt on the Dutch national team, so there’s an added bonus of familiarity that other teams wouldn’t get from adding perhaps the best defender in the world to their roster.

Tottenham: Mohamed Salah. They’re on the verge of potentially sending out both Fernando Llorente, who is a 34-year-old sedentary fir tree, and Lucas Moura, who is an aggro-fascist Brazilian attacker who never shoots, in the Champions League semi finals. This team needs someone who can generate his own shots and push the ball into the box. For those things, Salah’s the best player remaining not named Messi.

Liverpool: No one. This team is perfect. Just kidding. The midfield -- especially from a creative standpoint -- seems like the clear spot to upgrade. I’m honestly tempted to pick Coutinho here because 1) of the familiarity, and 2) of the knowledge I have that he can fit into Klopp’s midfield and still contribute to the attack. But I think the weakest spot in the starting XI from a pure talent standpoint is the CB slot next to van Dijk. Yes, part of the beauty of Big Virgil is that he seemingly turns whoever’s next to him into Jaap Stam, but I can’t shake the feeling that a mistake from this position could send LFC packing. So, gimme Umtiti -- I like pairing a left-footed CB with a righty. I’m probably spending way too much time talking about a guy who’s unlikely to play in the semifinals!

Barcelona: This is a layup. It’s De Jong, and they know it. The midfield has kind of been a mess this season because they haven’t been able to find a configuration of players that doesn’t throw the team out of whack. With an aging, limited Sergio Busquets still a guaranteed starter, if you toss Coutinho in there, you might as well also just roll out a red carpet directly from the center circle into the back of the net. And if you play a more conservative trio or duo to help Busquets do the work he used to be able to do own his own... you have to rely on Messi to do everything, which is what they’ve done and, well, it’s worked thus far. But De Jong both facilitates the attack by moving the ball upfield quickly or putting his foot on it and turning the possession into a more patient, sustained build-up. He also covers a ton of space and makes a ton of plays on the defensive end.

From a tactical perspective, De Jong doesn’t force you to make any trade-offs in how you approach the game. That’s how we’re used to seeing Barcelona play, and while it hasn’t been the case this year, De Jong could change that dynamic from the minute he arrives.

For each of the four remaining teams, what would the narrative be if they won? Every year across sports, we try to find lessons in which team wins a championship—the Astros and Cubs won, so tanking is a good idea; the pre-Durant Warriors won, so teams can shoot 3s and win now; the Eagles won, so spread offenses can work; and so on. What would that takeaway be for each of the potential UCL winners?

-Zach

Love this. Here’s what I think we’ll get:

Ajax: You don’t need to be rich to win. Everything the past 15 years have taught us -- wages equal wins, you need an all-time superstar or a super-squad to win it all, INEQUALITY IS GROWING -- is wrong. I also think we’ll hear a lot of talk about how underdogs don’t need to be so conservative or cynical. And with the Dutch in the Nations League finals, you’ll also get some “Dutch soccer is back”.

Tottenham: Pochettino is god and the transfer market is overrated. The “yeah but he hasn’t won anything” retort is somehow still being used as the cudgel to beat down Pochettino’s reputation. It’s a bad-faith argument made by trolls, and it would instantly evaporate as soon Spurs lift the trophy. Since Spurs haven’t bought anyone since January 2018, I guarantee we’d get some commentary about how lavish spending actually isn’t the best way to build a team. Also: I am 100-percent going to push the “Harry Kane Ewing Theory” narrative if Tottenham actually goes all the way.

Liverpool: This one’s a little tougher because Liverpool were already in the final this year, and we’ve reached the stage of the title race where I think most people have accepted that both Liverpool and City are two high-powered buzzsaws that can only be stopped by the whims of the Soccer Gods. We seem to have gotten over the idea that Liverpool were choke artists just because they drew a couple games in February. All of which is to say that I feel like Liverpool have been developing narratives all year long at an absurd pace, so I’m not sure where this will land. This won’t be a mainstream angle, but “analytics and the American sports model works” is something that’ll be said (likely by me). John Henry owns the team, they operate with a built-out front office the structures of American teams, and they rely on numbers as much as any big team in the world. I bet someone counts this as “another championship for Boston” because of the ownership group. “Klopp is the best manager in the world” surely gets some burn. As does “Liverpool are officially back to where they were in the late 80’s”. But I think these two narratives get the biggest push: “The Premier League is the best league in the world again” and “Are we sure ... Virgil van Dijk isn’t the best player in the world?”

Barcelona: It’s official: Lionel Messi is the best player in the world. There’ll probably be some course-correction for all of the Ronaldo love over the past three years. If Barcelona win it all, it’s really hard to see it happening without some epic Messi performances, specifically because of how the team is so heavily reliant on him. And with Messi dominating, there’ll be a bunch of people who haven’t watched him play much in La Liga over the past few years and now go, “Oh shit, this guy is still amazing!” It was funny to see a portion of the British press go crazy about Messi’s performance against Tottenham at Wembley in the group stages ... as if he hasn’t been playing like that, night in and night out, for more than a decade now. If Suarez scores a couple important goals, I think you’ll get some re-appreciations of him, too.

It was never going to be United.

When teams break long cycles of misery it is almost happens the way you expect, the way anyone would expect. Usually, something cosmically weird goes down. The Red Sox needed to come back from three games to break the curse in 2004. The Eagles won a Super Bowl after losing their quarterback and everyone writing them off.  The Cubs finally got their rings after the most batshit World Series ever. The Cavs won a title by beating the 73-9 Warriors after being down 3-1 and with JR Smith on their roster.

My point is that Liverpool were never going to win their first premier league title in walk, by just perfunctorily being better than the rest of the league at soccer. To throw off the collective weight of 30 years without a title, of the "slip" and Arshavin and everything else that has happened, it is going to take a real "darkest before the dawn" moment of transcendent apotheosis.

So it was never going to be United. It's going to be Leicester. I don't need to explain all the reasons why it needs to be Leicester, why it needed to be Leicester all along. Deep down you knew it was never going to be as easy as United or Spurs giving us the points. The cycles of time spin in more peculiar ways.

It's going to happen, Liverpool are going to win the league.

-Patrick

Patrick > Pablo. Sorry Pablo. I’m sharing this because I have it memorized. It’s my Nicene Creed, and I read it before bed every night.

OK -- I can’t end this without predictions. So, here goes:

Ajax over Tottenham: Spurs are just so depleted in midfield and attack, and losing Heung-min Son for the first leg is huge. I have a hard time seeing where their goals are gonna come from, especially since they basically beat City because Son is an amazing finisher (and a ball may or may not have hit Fernando Llorente’s hand and then ricocheted into the goal). I have a hard time painting a tactical story in my head where Spurs generate the balance of better chances and win because of that. Pochettino has done an incredible job with this team; they’re on, I don’t know, iteration 15 of the ongoing, in-season tactical evolution. Ajax, though, know who they are more than maybe any team remaining in the tournament. At this stage in the competition, where every moment can decide the tie, the edges you get from knowing exactly how you want to play are huge; it makes it easier to work through those inevitable stretches where things start to go haywire. Ajax are going to do what they always do, while Spurs are probably going to have to approach this matchup by doing something they’ve never done before. I picked Ajax to beat two teams who were heavily favored; I’m not gonna stop now that the odds are even.

Liverpool over Barcelona: Messi is God, and he could put this to bed in the first leg. Slithery players like Eden Hazard and Leroy Sane and Neymar have given Liverpool trouble this season, and Messi is just a much better version of all of them. But Liverpool are the better team; I truly believe that. Their attack can be devastating, their defense is the best one left, their keeper can bail out any breakdowns, and well: the press is starting to heat up. Before January 1, Liverpool’s pressing rate was lower than eight other Premier League teams. Since then, though, they’ve been pressing more aggressively than any other team’s season-long rate. We saw United pin Barcelona in their own half at Old Trafford with high-up-the-field defending; they just didn’t have the players to make anything of the turnovers. Liverpool are quite literally built to make things off of those turnovers, and I hesitate to say it because of a brain that has been culturally conditioned to be superstitious about sports and avoid say anything positive about a team I support, but the lopsided nature of Barcelona -- great attack, suspect defense -- gives this tie the potential for one for one of those epochal Champions League blowouts where a high-intensity style rips apart an aging, talented team that’s just not equipped to handle it. I’m absolutely not predicting that! But I really do think that this lines up well for Liverpool. Their biggest disadvantage: The other team has the best soccer player anyone has ever seen.