Your European Soccer Crib Sheet, 12/21 Edition
Christmas carnage, how to beat a team of aliens, and a Monaco meltdown
|Ryan O'Hanlon||Dec 21, 2018|| 11|
You’re still here! A week later! You’ve put up the weird numbers with x’s in front of them. You’ve digested the varying meditations on randomness. You’ve withstood me constantly wondering, Do we really even know ANYTHING? And you even decided to keep going after you received a newsletter about a bunch of peach-fuzzy Dutch millennials on the same morning that the richest soccer team in the world fired its manager. So, before we get started: Thanks! I’m still blown away by the number of people who seem interested in this. Some of you have reached out to me via email -- you can just respond directly to the newsletter, I think -- and that’s been both incredibly sweet and super-helpful. So, AN ANNOUNCEMENT: Next week, I’m gonna run a mailbag newsletter. Please email me or tag me on Twitter (@rwohan) with any and all questions. As my buddy Micah Peters likes to say: there are no bad questions, except for the bad ones. I want this thing to keep growing, and I also want the people who are already subscribed to enjoy it. Beyond the delivery mechanism -- I write it, I press a button, and it gets zapped into your inbox -- there’s no real set structure for this, and I imagine it’s form will be ever-changing. You know, kind of like the sport it’s about!
OK, yes, on to that sport. I’m running back last week’s Crib Sheet-style, and am planning on continuing with the later-in-the-week newsletter as a more segmented column. This week, we’re gonna look at three more interesting things happening in European soccer, but they’ll be ordered by increasing levels of soccer-nerdery. 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.
If that name isn’t familiar, here ...
... you go:
Is it unfair to just leave it there without any further comment? Absolutely, but various voyages down Ricardo Quaresma rabbit holes played a legitimately concerning role in making me the person I am today. So, please treat yourself to at least one trip.
All right, on to the weekend.
MERRY CHRISTMAS. WELCOME TO HELL.
I’m writing this from an airplane, on my way back to the East Coast to spend Christmas with my parents and the rest of my family. I love Christmas. I’ve watched at least one of the Holiday Edition Great British Baking Show episodes four times now because it makes me feel cozy. The writer George Saunders -- if you don’t know who he is, please unsubscribe and go read Tenth of December -- once described his general life-philosophy as trying to always be in that mushy-fuzzy-lovey place you get to when you say goodbye to someone you care about at the airport. That’s the vibe I associate with the holidays -- and it’s the diametric opposite of what the Premier League does to its soccer teams.
Since soccer is so physically (and mentally) demanding -- there are no subs! the field is huge! the clock never stops! -- most European leagues take a few weeks off right around Christmas. It’s roughly the halfway point of the campaign, and it allows players and coaches to go home, go to the Canary Islands, go do whatever they need to do in order to re-charge for the second half. Well, people, lemme tell you something: The Premier League didn’t start making $6 billion a year because it cared about the well-being of its players. No, they know everyone’s at home, getting bent on on eggnog, and so while most other leagues take a break, the Premier League makes its teams play double the number of games they typically play. From today, December 21, though January 3, all 20 Premier League teams will play four games.
The “festive period”, a euphemism if there ever was one, is basically a choke point for the season: Lots of players gets hurt, and even if they don’t, teams have to rely on bench players because it’s pretty much impossible to play at an elite level for 360 minutes in 14 days. Last year, Manchester City manager Pep Guardiola put it bluntly: “We are going to kill them”. A recent study found that “elite football teams that do not have a winter break (England) lose on average 303 more player days per season to injuries than those teams that do (mainland Europe).” And on top of that, the league does not equitably distribute rest throughout these crazy 14 days. Last year, a handful of teams even played two games in three days. Thankfully that’s not happening this year. Here’s what the stretch looks like this time ‘round:
Two big takeaways:
1) Manchester City and Liverpool are five and sixth points clear of third-place Tottenham, respectively. They’re both much better than the London-based side: Spurs (as they’re known) hosted both City and Liverpool earlier in the season and lost by a combined 3-1 scoreline, but it could’ve been much worse, as they conceded 5.25 expected goals over those two matches, and registered just 1.22. In case the gulf between these sides was not already clear, the Scheduling Gods seem likely to make it so.
2) This is also ... not a great situation for Arsenal! The Gunners (as they’re known) had finished in the top four of the Premier League (and thus secured qualification for the Champions League) in 20 straight seasons from 1997 to 2016. They then dropped out of the top four in each of the past two seasons, but under first-year manager Unai Emery this year, they’ve shown some renewed life and purpose, improving on their results from the corresponding fixtures last season, thumping hated-rival Tottenham, 4-2, at home last month, and clawing all the way up to within three points of fourth-place Chelsea.
However, the problems with Arsenal are twofold—and maybe soon to be threefold. To start, their defense is mediocre-at-best, as they’ve given up the ninth-most goals in the league (and the eight-most xG). Arsenal are tied for second in goals scored, but they’re so lopsided compared to the current top-four teams, all of whom rank in the top five of goals scored and goals conceded. Balance tends to be a good thing over a long season. The second issue is that the attack that’s making up for the leaky defense might just be getting lucky: They’ve scored 37 goals on a collection of chances just worth 25.77 xG. That could continue, but it’s more likely that it won’t. And now for the onrushing freight train that is their third problem: Three of Arsenal’s starting defenders (Shkodran Mustafi, Sead Kolasinac, and Hector Bellerin) have injury issues and a fourth (Rob Holding) was just ruled out for the season. So, a defense that was not very good to begin with now has a ton of health concerns and has to play four games with just seven total days of rest. I’m not saying that Arsenal will definitely come back to Earth between Christmas and New Years -- anyone who predicts anything definitive about a series of yet-to-be-played soccer games is an overconfident fool who must never be trusted! But, well, I’m not at all confident that it won’t happen, either.
Diego Simeone Is the One to Defeat the Aliens
On Tuesday, while I was sleeping and after that day’s newsletter had been scheduled, Manchester United finally fired their manager, Jose Mourinho. He’d seemingly lost the locker room, he’d stopped playing his best player (Paul Pogba), and the, uh, richest club team in the world had ... an even goal differential nearly halfway through the Premier League season. I’m skeptical of Mourinho’s remaining effectiveness at the absolute highest level now because, in a way that they haven’t before, most of the top teams in Europe now dominate games by defending from the front. They choke off attacks before they can get started, which in turn allows the dominant teams to control more possession of the ball and allows them to create especially high-quality opportunities because they win the ball back while the opposing team is transitioning to attack and has sacrificed its defensive solidity. Mourinho made his bones by ceding a lot more space and a lot more possession -- he’s quoted famously as saying, The team who has the ball has fear, therefore we don’t want the ball -- and holding opponents to low-quality chances in front of an organized defense before springing complex counter-play (I actually don’t think he gets enough credit for some of the beautiful combination play his teams have produced over the years) and creating H-Q stuff on the other end. At his peak, when he won the Champions League with Porto, dominated the Premier League with Chelsea this first time around, and won the Champions League with Inter Milan, Mourinho was better than anyone at getting the game to be played on his terms. But now that the likes of City, Liverpool, PSG, and Co. are so good at tilting the field in their favor, it’s not clear that Mourinho’s more passive approach can compete with those teams—and that is what Manchester United should be doing.
However, on Tuesday, one of my close friends told me this:
I got a bunch of responses, and I’m extremely disappointed in how few of you actually thought this through. (I’m really not; it’s a fuckin’ tweet.) Plenty of people suggested Pep Guardiola -- which, sure, he is the best manager in the world, but he also has a tendency to overthink things in knockout games (conceivably he’d have the entire pool of the human population at his disposal, and I could see him trying to play, like Giannis Antetokounmpo, a basketball player, as the keeper, and someone whose TED talk he liked at defensive midfield). Plus, we’ve rarely seen him coach a team with a significantly lower level of talent than his opponent. Some other people suggested Marcelo Bielsa, but that was also misguided: This is the guy who said he’d never lose if his players weren’t human; he’d rather manage the aliens. And as for Mourinho, 1) he lost to an average Sevilla team in the knockouts of last year’s Champions League, so I’m not confident in his game-to-game strategizing right now, and 2) can we really assume that he’d put aside his ego for the good of the human race? He’s had apocalyptic fallings-out with players at each of his last three gigs. Wouldn’t it be the ultimate (in both senses of the word) Mourinho move for him to not select, say, Lionel Messi because he didn’t, I don’t know, track back often enough or some shit? Principles over the prolonged existence of Planet Earth.
And so here is the correct answer. I used to be Mike’s editor at Grantland, and I am highlighting this and commenting “bingo!” (This is funny. Editing humor is funny and has a global reach.)
To create the optimal tactics for a single match, a manager needs to have an accurate sense of his team’s individual talent. The more goals in a game, the more likely the more talented team is to win. In a game against aliens, the humans would be the underdogs BECAUSE THEY’RE PLAYING AGAINST ALIENS WHO PRESUMABLY HAVE THE TECHNOLOGY AND VARIOUS MENTAL AND PHYSICAL CAPABILITIES THAT WE, AS HUMANS, ARE UNABLE TO EVEN CONCEIVE OF, BUT FOR SOME REASON THESE ALIENS HAVE DECIDED TO NOT IMMEDIATELY DESTROY THE EARTH, WHICH THEY MOST DEFINITELY COULD JUST DO, AND INSTEAD PLAY A SOCCER GAME AGAINST US (????) TO DETERMINE IF THEY’RE GONNA FUKUYAMA US FOR GOOD.
And so! We’d need a manager who could muddy things up and keep the goals at a minimum. We’d also need a manager with a long history of overachieving his resources. And we could probably also use a manager whose teams have even underachieved their underlying metrics. The aliens are winning the xG battle, whether or not they win the actual game, you guys. Simeone, in what [lowers voice to a whisper] I think was more impressive than Leicester's Premier League title run (wake me up when they do it against Barcelona and Real Madrid), won a 38-game La Liga season against two richer and vastly more talented teams in 2013-14. He’s also brought Atletico Madrid to two of the past four Champions League finals. Last season in Spain, they allowed 22 goals in 38 games -- the fewest in any of Europe’s top five leagues. They conceded 13 more xG than actual G, but we need to defy the numbers to win. Plus, Atleti’s actual goals conceded have been at least five below xG in each of the past three seasons. And on top of his potential to produce magic, we have to consider the fact that he’s one of the few people on this planet with the (albeit miniscule, but c’mon, we’re reaching here to begin with) ability to intimidate the aliens into suddenly deciding that this is actually a terrible idea and thus forfeiting their own game. Every marginal gain needs to be considered.
I mean, the guy already beat Lionel Messi and the superstar squad at Real Madrid. Is a team of extraterrestrials really that far removed?
Mourinho to Monaco?
No one really seems to care about Monaco -- except when everyone cares about Monaco during those seasons in which they’ve happened upon four future superstars all at the same time. The team’s training ground is one of the most beautiful sites in world soccer, and a third of the club is owned by the House of Grimaldi. This is what Monaco’s most devoted fans look like:
Well, let’s all drape our nicest statement a cable-knit crewenecks along our shoulders, lightly knot the sleeves just once, and then spare a thought for Benjamin Wigno and his crew of young emo-yachtsmen.
Two years ago, Monaco did the unthinkable and outlasted PSG to win Ligue 1. How’d they do it? They stacked together an absolutely incredible collection of young talent, and pretty much everyone on the team was on fire from start to finish. In 2016-17, Monaco created 76.04 expected goals. They scored ... one-hundred and seven goals! Two years later, all of those stars are gone: Kylian Mbappe, Bernardo Silva, Thomas Lemar, Fabinho, Bernardo Silva, Tiemoue Bakayoko, and Benjamin Mendy were sold for a combined €397.7 million. And gone too is the manager, as the club let go of Leonardo Jardim in early October. I hope Jardim gets another high-profile gig because he’s shown the ability to shape-shift his style toward his talent -- the 16-17 iteration was a wide-open team that blew your doors off, while the 14-15 that knocked off Arsenal in the Champions League Round of 16 allowed just 26 goals in Ligue 1 that year. Adaptability is a rare and valuable skill. Hell, I’d give him a serious look if I were Manchester United.
Monaco cut ties with Jardim just nine games into this season. They were in the relegation zone—18th place with just six points and had scored nine goals and conceded 13. That’s a long way away from first-place two years prior and second-place last season, but the results didn’t quite match with the quality of their play. Based on their underlying numbers (11.90 xG, 11.03 xGA), they were playing more like a mid-table team; they’d just been unlucky. Still not great, but far from a disaster.
Managing Monaco is one of the tougher jobs in the Big Five because the expectations are relatively high but there’s so much player turnover that you have to be able to re-tool the team on the fly in order to keep competing. Jardim balanced on that tightrope about as well as he could’ve ... and then Monaco decided to replace him with someone with no managerial experience at all! Listen, I loved watching Thierry Henry, the player, as much as the next non-Irishman: he was so effortlessly dominant that he made being the best player in the Premier League look like a hobby. But if you’re trying to steady a ship you think is sinking, you don’t bring in someone who’s never coached a professional soccer team before -- even if he played for your club at some point!
Under Henry, Monaco went from average and unlucky to bad and unlucky. In one fewer game than under Jardim, they’ve conceded more goals (14) and xG (11.62), and they’ve scored fewer goals (seven) and created fewer xG (7.81). The defense is still not good at all, and the attack isn’t even doing enough to scrounge together a goal per game. Monaco has dropped down to 19th, and they’re now three points out of the safety of 17th. Thanks to their talent level and the kinda-terrible bottom half of the French league, FiveThirtyEight only has their odds of being relegated at 23 percent. That’s still frightening for last year’s runner up, and while it’s early days in his tenure, Henry hasn’t really shown that he knows how to turn this thing around. (The biggest change since he took over, per data from Football Whispers, is that Monaco’s opponents now possess the ball ... for longer than they did before he got there.) So, if Monaco ever decide they need someone more experienced, I think I know a guy. (Shout-out to Marcus Speller, of the “On the Continent” podcast, for originally suggesting this.) He’s spent the last three years living in a Manchester hotel and could really use a ride on a yacht. Maybe Benjamin can take him out.
Happy holidays to you and yours! We’ll probably only do one of these next week, and remember to send me your questions. As I said last 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.