Your European Soccer Crib Sheet, 1/25 Edition

Neymar is hurt, everyone is rich, and Frenkie de Jong is Barca-bound

Before we get into this week’s three things, let’s very quickly pour one out for Thierry Henry. The man who once did this …

… will soon be out of a job. The former Arsenal/Barcelona/New York Red Bull legend was hired to be the manager at Monaco a few months ago. It was his first head gig, and it has gone about as poorly as anyone could’ve imagined, barring him, I don’t know, taking a referee hostage mid-game? The team, which finished last season in second place, is currently in 19th. But that’s almost besides the point. First, this:

Then, this:

Now, this:

Jose Mourinho is gonna love it in Monte Carlo, you guys. (Supposedly they’re going to bring back Leonardo Jardim — the guy they fired and replaced with Henry! — but we can dream.)

All right! In case you’re new here, this is how the Friday newsletters work:

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.

Time for the triptych of things (plus a new bonus at the end) …

Is a super-team still a super-team if a single superstar sits on the sideline?

Back in 2011, Qatari Sports Investments purchased the French soccer club Paris Saint-Germain for around $131.15 million. QSI is a subsidiary of Qatar’s National Wealth Fund, which is worth about … [immediately gets lasik surgery to make sure he’s reading this right] … one trillion dollars. This, you should know, happened a year after Qatar won the rights to host the 2022 World Cup. There are no coincidences; PSG is essentially a grand-scale marketing campaign for the 2020 World Cup and therefore the nation of Qatar as a whole. (We’ll go through the implications of all that another time — Qatar’s human rights record: pretty bad — but just keep it in the back of your head for now.)

In the coming years, through sheer brute-force spending, QSI would easily turn PSG into the best soccer team in France — though I often lump the league in with England, Italy, Spain, and Germany as part of the “Big Five”, the top-to-bottom quality of Ligue 1 isn’t quite on par with the other four — and one of the better teams in Europe. Since 2012, they’ve comfortably won Ligue 1 every year, except 2016-17, when Monaco landed on a freakish collection of young talent that all seemed to break out at the exact same moment. However! Since, QSI took over, PSG have not yet made it past the quarterfinals of the Champions League. That is a problem.

"Our aim is to make the club an institution respected around the world," PSG chairman Nasser al-Khelaifi said in 2017. "If we are going to make that happen, we have to win the Champions League.”

He’s right. You won’t find many people who marvel at PSG’s success in Ligue 1. In the grand scheme of these things, no one really gives a shit. QSI has spent $1.17 billion on acquiring new players, while every other club in France is either A) bad, or B) built around a model of developing youth players and them selling off to richer clubs. Given PSG’s under-resourced competition, comfortably winning Ligue 1 is the bare minimum at the beginning each season.

So, to change that, QSI went out and bought the two best attacking players not named “Messi” or “Ronaldo” in the same summer. They hit Neymar’s €222 million release clause with Barcelona, which at the time was more than double the highest fee ever paid for a soccer player. And then a few weeks later, they grabbed Kylian Mbappe from their Monegasque title usurpers for €180 million, the second-highest fee ever paid for a soccer player.

The upside of doing that: you now have two of the, say, five best soccer players in the world on one team. The Golden State Warriors, and the Cleveland Cavaliers, and the Miami Heat all built their teams in a similar way, and they won a combined six NBA titles and counting. The downside of doing that, however: Basketball is not soccer, the field is huge, and each team has to use 11 players at once.

With the combined transfer fees of Neymar and Mbappe, PSG could’ve basically bought the 10th-, 11th-, 12th-, 13th-, and 14th-most expansive players of all time. Instead, PSG have had to fill out the back end of their roster with players last seen playing in Abu Dhabi or riding the bench for a relegated Premier League team. Some people believe that since there are so many players on a soccer field — the most dominant ones only possess the ball for a whopping three minutes out of 90 total — it is therefore a “weak-link” sport. In other words, you’re only as good as your worst player, as opposed to a “strong-link” sport like basketball, where LeBron James is 20-percent of the team. (When they added Kevin Durant a few summers ago, the Warriors made basketball into a weak link and a strong link sport.) For proof of weak-link concept, see: Messi and Ronaldo, early exits at 2018 World Cup.

Now, I’m not sure I’d be able to turn down the opportunity to sign Mbappe and Neymar were I a sporting director with unlimited funds, either, but we saw the folly of the formulation last year. PSG won a Champions League group that included Bayern Munich … and they were rewarded with a Round of 16 match-up with Real Madrid, who happened to finish runner-up in their group. (The draw for each round is essentially random.) Then, Neymar got hurt during the first of the two games against Real, and PSG were without their super-est superstar for, literally, the one game they bought him for. Madrid won, 5-2, and PSG’s season was officially a failure by early March.

Everything I think I know about soccer — that the ultimate way to build a team is for all 11 players to interact in a way that highlights their individual strengths and disguises their weakness, that former Liverpool manager Bill Shankly was right on when he said, “The socialism I believe in, is everybody working for the same goal and everybody having a share in the rewards. That’s how I see football, that’s how I see life” — sort of butts right up against the on-field PSG experiment. In a way, last year seemed to confirm my suspicions. And now Neymar is hurt again; it’s the same foot he injured last year, and he’s questionable for PSG’s Round of 16 match-up against Manchester United. They should still topple United rather easily without Neymar, but the hurdle just got a little higher. Even more reason to be skeptical of the top-heavy team-construction!

Except, I think I’m coming around on the way the nation of Qatar has built its flagship soccer club. The Champions League is the only thing that matters for PSG. The Champions League is also extremely volatile and almost always determined by things beyond a club’s control. Building a balanced, deep team is certainly the better way to go about it when you’re contesting a competitive 38-game league season every year. That approach promises more consistent performances and it makes you more robust against injuries. But barring another team in France unearthing the next Mbappe, PSG’s gonna win Ligue 1 every season.

When your only goal is to win a random-as-hell knockout tournament each year, then it makes some sense to build a team to match the competition’s volatility: If someone gets hurt or one of the stars gets marked out of the game by a defender, PSG are screwed, but if Mbappe and Neymar each make a handful of magic moments in a given game, they’re almost never going to lose because no other team has a top two as good at them.

“I suppose you could look at it from a pure risk perspective; at the top end of the game, you need a bit of extra variance to win trophies — your highs have to be higher than your opponents highs, and it doesn't really matter if your lows are lower,” Omar Chaudhuri, head of football intelligence at the consultancy 21st Club, told me. He went on: “Real Madrid have definitely been top-heavy (see chart), and it's resulted in some amazing seasons and UCL wins, but also a horrendous season this year after injuries. Does it really matter that they've had a woeful season? Probably not as much as it mattered that they've had trophy-winning seasons.”

So, how big of a loss is Neymar, really? Well, among all players with at least 1000 minutes in Europe’s top-five leagues, he’s third in goals+assists per 90 minutes. But, uh, check out the rest of the top five:

Per 21st Club’s player-rating system, Chaudhuri said, “The impact is likely to be around 2.5 points over the rest of the season — and a reasonable ~5 percentage point hit on their chances of beating Man United in a one-off match.”

As always, PSG will be sweating the second half of that sentence, but they won’t be too worried about the first part: They’re 13 points ahead of the team in second place … and they’ve played two fewer games.

Money, money, money: money.

There’s no salary cap in European soccer. UEFA’s Financial Fair Play regulations are misguided and opaquely enforced, but they’re here and they basically prohibit clubs from spending too much more than they make. Meanwhile, for a club, the biggest predictor of success remains how much you pay your players. (Yes! This newsletter is pointless!) And so, smash those things together and you get this: The most obvious way for a club to improve is for that club to make more money.

Each year, in what they call the Money League, the accounting firm Deloitte release a detailed report about which 20 clubs in the world are the best at making money. In my ideal world, this would not matter! But my ideal world also probably would require us to have never developed the concept of “agriculture”! So, let’s not get into that. Deloitte just released the latest list. It’s really worth reading if you want context for the business that’s producing the product you watch. Here’s this year’s top 20:

In the future, I’ll reference this list so often you’ll get physically sick of it, so some quick thoughts:

  • Real Madrid: rich AF. They’re the first club to break €700 million in revenue. They’re also the first club to break €750 million. The gap between them and second-richest Barcelona (€60.5 million) is the second-largest gap between nos. 1 and 2 in the history of the list. Per Deloitte: “Real Madrid’s outstanding financial performance in 2017-18 is built on their long history of success on the pitch, most recently three consecutive Champions League titles. This has enabled the club to continue to drive commercial revenue as the appetite to partner with Europe’s most successful clubs remains stronger than ever.”

  • Liverpool are consolidating their success. The Reds were the biggest risers on the list, with a £90.6 million (25 percent) increase in revenue. Thanks to their runs to the Champions League final, Liverpool and Madrid made more broadcast revenue than any other club (€251.3 million). Liverpool, of course, followed up that lucrative run by buying a world-class goalkeeper and plenty of other reinforcements over the summer and are now in first place in the Premier League. Win games, use the money you got for winning games to win more games, which will then make you more money, and on and on.

  • Tottenham are, uh, not doing that. Sure, they’re building that hypothetical stadium, but thanks to a run to the Champions League Round of 16 and a temporary move into Wembley (more seats, more ticket revenue!), Spurs broke into the Money League top 10 for just the second time ever. (Side note: Six of the top 10 are from the Premier League. Jesus, man.) Tottenham then followed up a year of record revenues by adding not one, not two, not three, not four, but … zero new players to their roster.

  • Winning actually matters. After topping the list last year, Manchester United dropped to third because their Round of 16 elimination in the Champions League wasn’t necessarily worth any more than their Europa League win the year before. Arsenal fell farther than any other team in the top 20 — revenue decreased by £29.9 million — during the club’s first season outside the Champions League in a long time. Meanwhile, Italy was the second-best represented country on the list (Juventus, Roma, Milans Inter and AC) after Roma’s run to the Champions League semis and AC Milan’s appearance in the Europa League Round of 16.

  • Well, kind of. Right now, Everton, Newcastle United, and West Ham United are, respectively, sitting in 11th, 10th, and 17th in the Premier League. They are also, respectively, the 17th, 19th, and 20th richest soccer teams on the planet. Per FiveThirtyEight’s underlying ratings, they are, respectively, the 51st-, 87th-, and 75th-best soccer teams on the planet. There’s gotta be a better way to do this, you guys.

Maybe there’s a better way to think about transfers.

Barcelona just signed 21-year-old multi-positional Dutch dynamo Frenkie de Jong for a €75 million fee. (Thankfully he’s not leaving until the summer, so we’ll still get to see him and his buddies try to take down Real Madrid in the Champions League before they all get pulled up the financial ladder.) It’s no secret: I love him and, I think he legitimately has a chance to change the way we think about positions on a soccer field. I don’t have much more to say about him beyond what I wrote here. But I suggest you watch this video:

Stare at this radar:

And gaze upon his glory in graph form:

The other thing I found interesting about this move is the transfer fee. Again, there are so many factors that go into these fees — I’d argue that the true on-field value of the player is only, like, 50 percent of it — so they’re often only really useful as factoids or for rough comparisons. But perhaps there’s a way to better contextualize these numbers. Here’s Chaudhuri again. (Yes, this is now a an Omar fan-blog.)

Pulisic cost around around 13 percent of Chelsea’s revenue, and Dominic Solanke cost around 14 percent of Bournemouth’s revenue. Now, that’s not how the finances work — the transfer fee gets amortized across the length of the contract a player signs, and each team has different amounts of money available for transfer fees for different reasons — but I like using the percentages as a rule-of-thumb to get a better sense of what the purchase of a player means to a team. Solanke’s future is as important to Bournemouth, as Pulisic’s is for Chelsea and Frenkie’s is for Barcelona. You wouldn’t see that just by comparing the raw numbers, but looking at the percentages makes it clear.

It’s also useful for comparing present, past, and future transfers. Look at Liverpool’s record percentage-of-revenue deals at the time of the move for Virgil van Dijk last December, and it’s a little easier to move beyond the sticker-shock of a £60 million fee.

Also, now you can go tell your friends that Virgil van Dijk cost less than Andy Carroll.

NEW FEATURE ***LUCKY YOU FOR READING THIS FAR DOWN*** IT’S GAME OF THE WEEK TIME BABY!!!!!!!!!! [AIRHORNNNNN] [YELPING GOAT SOUND}

At the end of every Friday newsletter, I’m gonna pick a game to watch for the upcoming weekend — whatever single match meets my completely subjective requirements for fun, drama, technical proficiency, and low-stakes self-destruction. This week: It’s … Roma at Atalanta on Sunday morning at 6 AM PST! Although Roma’s in fifth and Atalanta’s in seventh, they’re the two front-runners for the fourth and final Champions League spot in Italy, per FiveThirtyEight. Atalanta’s sixth (!) in The Ringer’s watchability rankings, while Roma is the best kind of team to watch without any kind of emotional attachment: great attack, could-barely-handle-straining-pasta-level defense. Also, check out this guy:

Sell all of your players. Renounce all of your previously held beliefs. Duvan is God.

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.