Your European Soccer Crib Sheet, 1/18 Edition
It's Messi, and then there's an entire galaxy, and then there's everything else.
Last week, I asked for suggestions. You all: responded with suggestions! Thanks to anyone who took the time to send me a note. I’m still blown away by the number of people who read this thing, and as I try to stand back up, I’m again blown away by the number of people who care enough to tell me other things they’d like to see me do.
Before we begin: a quick note of condolence to the few Tottenham-fan readers who sent me nice messages but also tried to convince me that Tottenham were, in fact, title contenders. Their leading goal-scorer, Harry Kane, is now out injured until March, and after losing at home to Manchester United last weekend, here’s what their title odds, per FiveThirtyEight, look like …
Stay strong, Spurs supporters. Probabilities provide no empathy, but we’re here for you.
OK! Here’s a quick rundown of how the Friday newsletter works, for anyone who’s never been here before:
The first bullet will cater toward my mother and anyone else who’s a casual soccer fan. The second one will aim toward the average fan, someone who knows the table week in and week out and also has a handle on all of the major figures of the moment. And the third and final section will be for the uber-nerd who knows all about xG and has also watched every minute of every Ricardo Quaresma YouTube video.
Now to the weekend…
Lionel Messi is the only thing that matters.
Forget everything I’ve ever told you. The Premier League: pointless. Kylian Mbappe: irrelevant. Expected goals: you’re a nerd. Christian Pulisc: never heard of him. Frenkie de Jong: more like Frenkie de-lete-this-guy-from-your-memory. Paul Pogba: played out. Real Madrid: really mad I wasted so much time thinking about you. Liverpool: liverwurst.
Lionel Messi is 31 years old. Soccer players are supposed to peak somewhere around 27 or 28, and then, in the best-case scenarios, gently taper off before eventually calling it quits somewhere in the mid-30s. Messi has taken the concept of the age curve, bent it into a straight line, and pointed it up toward outer freaking space. The best soccer player of all-time is, somehow, having the best season of his career.
Messi is the sun. We’re all just trash-particles, worthless space-plankton getting our nutrients from his benevolent warmth, floating in what would be an otherwise incomprehensible darkness were it not for him.
When a team has possession of the ball, the game breaks down into three phases: 1) moving possession up the field, 2) using that possession to create an opportunity for a shot, 3) taking a shot. Messi is the best shot-taker. He’s the best chance-creator. And (according to this stat, which “finds passes and runs that progress the ball 10-15 yards beyond where it had reached so far in the attacking move, or into the penalty area”) he’s the best ball-mover. He’s Tom Brady, Barry Sanders, and Jerry Rice — all in one.
Watch a 10-minute video of his best goals, and you’re still only seeing a fraction of what makes Messi, well, Messi:
When I try to describe to describe him — and it’s actually quite hard, and getting harder; there’s no reference point; he keeps doing and doing things we’ve never seen before — the word I keep coming back to is “omnipotent”. In a way, that’s absurd. The word comes from a Latin term (“Omni Potens” or “All-Powerful”) that was used only describe Roman emperors … and gods. And yet, that’s what we’re seeing now, and what we’ve seen from Messi for the past 15 years. He hasn’t just permeated each attacking aspect of the game; he’s dominated every single one.
Last weekend, Messi scored his 400th La Liga goal. In Europe, per-game goal-scoring rates peaked around 3.75 at the start of the 1960s, plummeted over the following decade, leveled off around 2.6 at the end of the 70s, and have then stayed there all the way up today. Despite that and despite everything else he does, Messi is the only player to ever score 400 goals in a major European domestic league. He’s everywhere, and he’s everything. The past is his, and so is the present. Stop reading this, and just go watch him play. You won’t ever regret it.
Make Marcelo Bielsa the next James Bond.
Marcelo Bielsa serves as something like the spirit animal for a large portion of the soccer world (myself included). Pep Guardiola, Manchester City manager and the closest thing to a current consensus best coach in the world, has said of Bielsa, “He’s the best coach in the world”. Tottenham manager Mauricio Pochettino, who played for Bielsa in Argentina, said, “He is like my football father. We are a generation of coaches that were his disciples.” And Atletico Madrid’s Diego Simeone, overseer of perhaps the greatest single-season achievement in Europe this decade, said, “I have the influence of several coaches … Bielsa taught me the most.”
Bielsa is currently managing Leeds United, a team in England’s second division. To which you might then say: If he’s so influential … why is Bielsa currently managing a team in England’s second division? Well, for his entire career, Bielsa has struggled to reconcile his ideas with the constraints of reality. Pretty much all of Bielsa’s ideas are the same ones that now dominate the top-level of European soccer: He wants his team to push the ball vertically up the field. He wants everyone on the field to be comfortable with the ball at their feet. He wants midfielders and fullbacks who can play centerback. He wants strikers that are comfortable rotating in and out with their flanking wingers. And! He wants everyone to press high up the field and swarm the ball as soon as possession is lost.
By combining all of those ideas together, Bielsa was way ahead of his time, but he also set up an impossible ideal he seems destined to never reach. It’s really hard to find a team of players with the technical skills to play four different positions at once. It’s also really hard to find a team of players with the physical capacities to run their asses off for 90 minutes. It’s pretty much impossible to find a team of players that can do both. This is why Bielsa has famously said, “If players weren’t human, I’d never lose”. Just look at this video of training from when he was managing Marseille in France. You don’t need to know what he’s yelling; you just need to imagine sprinting up and down the field with a ball at your feet for two hours while he’s yelling at you.
TFW you just finished a Bielsa training session:
Due to what he demands from his players and the type of players he demands from upper-management, Bielsa has only lasted for 100 games at one stop since his managerial career began with Newell’s Old Boys in Argentina in 1990. In 2016, Lazio hired him as manager on July 6. On July 8, he resigned! Outside of Lazio, though, all of Bielsa’s teams do seem to reach spectacular stylistic heights for a brief period … until his players burnout, he gets bored, or his board decides they’ve had enough. Bielsa currently has Leeds in first in the Championship — four points clear of second-place, with a 76-chance of promotion to the Premier League, per FiveThirtyEight.
Not that anyone gives a shit! Last Friday, before Leeds’ match against Derby County that same day, it was reported that a member of the Leeds coaching staff was spotted spying on a Derby training session. The report was then confirmed, before the match, by Bielsa. Leeds won 2-0. Then, on Wednesday, Bielsa held his own previously-unscheduled emergency press conference, which he began by … admitting that he’s had a member of his staff watch opponents’ training sessions before every game this season. Why’d he do it? I’ll let him tell you:
So why did I send someone to watch them? Just because I thought I wasn’t violating the norm. All the information I need to clarify [my tactics] I gather without watching the training session of the opponent … but we feel guilty if we don’t work enough. Watching it [the opponents training] allows us to have less anxiety and, in my case, I am stupid enough to allow this kind of behaviour.”
And then Bielsa proceeded to give a 70-minute powerpoint presentation detailing the uber-meticulous scouting report he and his staff produced for the Derby match. The full text of Bielsa’s press conference, né homily, is gathered here, and I’ll leave it up to you decide which category of Pulitzer consideration it belongs in.
So, what does it all mean? My take: nothing! Spying on training sessions isn’t illegal per league rules, though perhaps it violates some high-minded-never-fulfilled spirit of fair competition, and my body is unfortunately not physically capable of executing the extended “wank motion” that sentiment deserves. I’m also not sure this necessarily means that Bielsa’s teams are better-prepared than everyone else just because he let us see all their work. More than anything, it was a hilarious, honest, slightly concerning window into the anxiety that drives meticulous idealists like Bielsa. Coaching really seems like its a bad thing for a lot of people — recently, NFL and NBA coaches have taken leaves due to various stress-related ailments, and Huddersfield manager David Wagner just resigned because, as the club put it, he “needs a break from the rigours of football management”. Except, I can’t imagine Bielsa doing anything other than coaching, and I’m sure he can’t either. So, here’s to him getting to do it in the Premier League.
Hoffenheim are your favorite team you’ve never watched.
A bunch of you have suggested that I start doing some kind of “Game of the Week” preview in the Friday newsletter. Consider it noted for the future, and consider Bayern Munich vs. Hoffenheim this week’s game of the week. For Americans, the game is today (Friday) at 2 PM EST on Fox Sports 1. (To all you non-Americans: I assume you know how to locate soccer schedules? If not, here you go.)
At The Ringer — along with Zach Kram and Shaker Samman, two talented wiz-kids who I absolutely adore — I helped create the soccer watchability rankings. It’s a simple-ish formula that rates how good a team is at pressing, creating quality chances, dribbling, and completing deep passes, and then adds those four scores together. The thinking: All of those things are fun to watch!
Currently six points back of first-place Borussia Dortmund and eight back in goal differential, Bayern Munich aren’t as good as they have been in years past, but they’re still currently third in watchability. They’re better than just about everyone else at progressing the ball deep into opposition territory (helps to have a Thiago!), and they’re also above-average in the other three categories. None of that is surprising to you.
What is surprising: Hoffenheim are currently fifth in the watchability rankings. The same Hoffenheim that, you know, finished last in their Champions League group and are currently in in seventh in the Bundesliga! In fact, per expected goals, Hoffenheim have the third-best attack on the planet—behind the two clubs owned by small oil- or gas-rich Gulf nations. The big reason they’re only in seventh in Germany and couldn’t even clinch the consolation of Europa League qualification is that they, uh, also have to defend. For reference, Hoffenheim concede about 1.7 xG per 90 — the same number Tottenham create each game. Among the top 10 attacking teams in Europe, Hoffenheim’s defense is the worst, by a good margin.
The other reason Hoffenheim aren’t higher in the table is bad luck/variance/whatever other description of randomness helps you sleep at night. They’ve got five more xG than real G, and on average, their performances would have produced around 30 points. The Soccer Gods, instead, have them on 25. They’ve played like a top-four team in Germany, but their Champions League qualification chances sit right around 1-in-4.
One thing you’ll notice about most of the teams in the above chart is that they have a ton of money! And that follows straight-forward team-building logic: The easiest way to build a better attack … is to buy better players. Hoffenheim, however, have spent €10 million to acquire a player just once in the history of the club. (That player: Andrej Kramaric, the Croatian striker/midfielder who’s currently fifth in Germany in non-penalty expected goals+assists per 90 minutes.) Historically, most teams have overachieved their resources by focusing on the defensive side of the ball. It’s easier for the manager to have an effect on that end — defense is organization; goal-scoring is creative inspiration — and defensive players just don’t cost as much as attackers.
Instead, Julian Nagelsmann — the glorious 31-year-old, tunic-wearing (and I mean this lovingly) asshole who’s young enough to be Sean McVay’s grandson — has decided that trends are for the Style section. “You have to be brave and try to do something with the ball,” he’s said in the past. And so he has the team playing a wide-open style that leaves them vulnerable defensively because that’s the only way for them to create this many chances. A club like Hoffenheim will just never have the attacking talent to generate an elite level of firepower without pushing a ton of bodies forward.
Nagelsmann has already agreed to take over at RB Leipzig next year, so he basically has nothing to lose this season — and you can feel it when you watch Hoffenheim play. If we score, great. If not, you’ll probably score on us, and then we’ll do it all over again. Bayern Munich, meanwhile, really can’t afford to lose many — if any —more games. So, if you want to see goals and lots of shots paired with dramatic, emotional volatility, try to catch this game. And if you don’t want those things, well, I’m surprised you’re still here!
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.