Your European Soccer Crib Sheet, 2/1 Edition

Crossing is the new running, Newcastle make a new signing, and Atletico Madrid are the same as ever

It has been brought to my attention that “crib sheet” is the improper terminology for a document filled with as many words as this Friday missive typically contains. It has additionally been brought to my attention that a “crib sheet” should, hypothetically, fit inconspicuously into one’s hand were one taking an exam and were one to desire to, let’s say, “brush up on” certain facts before filling in an empty bubble or writing out a fully-formed response to an essay question.

Unless there are any other objections, the term will remain because 1) were this hypothetical student in need of Friday’s three bullet-points in order aid his or her test-taking — The Mad Ramblings of a Self-Publishing, Self-Styled Soccer Savant 101? — he or she could either read it on an Apple Watch (forgive me if I’m misunderstanding the technology; I wear a Timex that stopped ticking two years ago but without which I feel naked) or have a small touch-screen computer installed into the palm of his or her hand; and 2) if one were to knit all of these words onto a single piece of bedding, it would be large enough to fit into an infant’s cradle. It would be, and it is, a crib sheet.

All right, enough of that. I am insane! Here’s how Fridays work, if you’re new here:

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.

And starting two weeks ago, we added a fourth little feature — Game of the Weekend (TM) — to the end of the newsletter.

How the Super Bowl explains football.

The more cross-sport comparisons, the better, I say! Last week, for ESPN, I wrote about how soccer managers are wasting a ton of value by not subbing their players earlier in games. It’s kind of like not going for it on fourth-down in football — a sub-optimal decision driven specifically by fear of the downside risk and subsequent fallout.

For some our non-American readers: The Super Bowl is this Sunday, between the New England Patriots and the Los Angeles Rams. The pre-game story-line that’s been written in neon blinking lights is the battle between the two coaches: Bill Belichick, an oft-hooded curmudgeon who is also perhaps the greatest football coach of all time. He’s won sive Super Bowls with New England, and yet pretty much every team — and there have been plenty — that’s tried to hire a Belichickian coach has failed … terribly. Meanwhile, Los Angeles is coached by 33-year-old memory-genius Sean McVay, who took the Rams from 4-12 to 11-5 in his first year, to 13-3 and a shot at the title in his second. In Week 11, the Rams beat the Chiefs, 54-51, in a game that, for fans, was essentially offensive-football nirvana. For the rest of the NFL, it was aspirational; every bad team now wanted their own Sean McVay to transform their offense overnight. The Jets hired the guy who was Sean McVay before Sean McVay. The Packers and (presumably) the Bengals both hired assistants who briefly worked with McVay. And the Cardinals hired Kliff Kingsbury, a recently fired college-football coach who, as the press release announcing his hiring initially stated, “is friends with Rams coach Sean McVay”.

Those teams are all trying to respond to a sport that’s changing at an almost incomprehensible pace — they’re trying to catch the wave, lest they end up on Kook Slams. (Surfing is good. This joke is bad.) This season, NFL quarterbacks completed 64.9 percent of their passes — almost two points above the previous league-high. And at the same time, teams ran the ball 25.9 times per game — the lowest rate in league history. Basically, teams realized that passing is more efficient than running, so they started passing the ball and stopped running it. The math is pretty much impossible to argue with: Across the league, teams averaged 7.4 yards per pass attempt, but just 4.4 yards per carry. It’s coaching malpractice to not have the balance heavily shifted in one direction.

So, I’ve thought about what the comparison for this might be in soccer. There’s never going to be a straight correlation — one game’s dynamic, the other isn’t. Football coaches design and decide every play; soccer managers can scream all they want from the sideline, but they only have a tiny bit of control once the kickoff happens. (Wing players love it when they’re on the opposite side of the field from their coach.) However, the shift in football-strategy did remind me of this:

And then there’s this one, too, which I think is using data from Major League Soccer:

Basically, crossing is a hyper-inefficient way to play soccer! If you see a team constantly playing balls in the air into the opposing penalty area, then you’re watching the equivalent of an NFL team that’s obsessed with “establishing the run” or “playing smashmouth football”. Look at those numbers! One set says a cross leads to a goal 3 percent of the time; the other set puts it at less than one percent! Either one: not great! The average shot turns into a goal around 1 out of 10 times.

Most infamously, Manchester United once attempted 81 crosses in a single Premier League game … and ended up tying the match, 2-2.

I like the crossing-as-running-the-ball analogy because you can project the same kind of push-and-pull implications off into the future. In the NFL, teams are starting to employ smaller, much quicker defensive players that can chase receivers across the field. And it’s not hard to imagine one team suddenly devoting all of its resources to running the ball at some point down the road and briefly experiencing success; a bunch of hulking lineman over-powering puny pass-defenders as they make running as efficient as passing. (The Dallas Cowboys kind of did this a few years ago; same goes for the Baltimore Ravens this season.) Teams haven’t stopped crossing the ball yet — and I dont’t expect them to for a while — but if it eventually started happening, and soccer teams started playing smaller, more skilled defenders because they didn’t have to contest so many balls in the air, then maybe — I’m getting way ahead of myself here — there would be space for a team of tall goon-like leapers to dominate with balls in the air.

Now, there’s no real obvious correlation between “not crossing” and “winning” in the numbers yet, either. Barcelona might be the best team in the world, and they complete the fewest crosses per game of any team in Europe. But Juventus and Bayern Munich, who have won a respective seven and six domestic titles in a row, both rank in the top 10. So, crossing isn’t quite a useless tactic; it just needs to be used sparingly and strategically, an auxiliary tactic to keep the opposition honest, rather than a bedrock principle of play. You know, kind of like running the ball. Both of their quarterbacks threw for over 4000 yards this year, but the two teams leading the postseason in rushing yards per game, after all, are the Patriots and the Rams.

Newcastle made the most interesting signing of the January window—wait, what?

Mike Ashley might as well own a baseball team. He runs Newcastle like he runs his retail business, Sports Direct — by seeking out the answer to this question: What’s the absolute minimum I can invest in this thing, worker safety/satisfaction/wellbeing/etc. be damned, and still make a profit? His ideal outcome for a Newcastle season is something like a 15th-place finish: Not high enough for anyone to entertain any thoughts of this team ever becoming something more, but far enough away from the relegation zone that he can be sure the check for next season’s EPL TV deal will be arriving via direct deposit, Brinks truck, vacuum-air-tube thing, or whatever other method is used to transports millions of dollars.

Since manager Rafa Benitez arrived in 2016, the club has spent £124 million on transfers, but they’ve made £164 million in sales. In the most recent summer window, they were one of only three teams to not spend more than they made on transfer fees … because the Premier League is richer than everyone else, and the core purpose of a soccer club is to win soccer games, and the best way to win soccer games is to find good players—not to come out in the black! The average signing by Premier League clubs last summer was £16 million, which equaled Newcastle’s record signing of Michael Owen from Real Madrid … in 2005.

Well, that all changed this week:

From an MLS perspective, the deal is a ground-breaker. Sure, losing one of the best players from the best team in the league isn’t ideal, I guess, but the league is still a long way away from being — and perhaps will never be — in a position to turn down an offer like that. Almiron’s the most-expensive player in MLS history, and as a friend who will remain nameless because he’s a rude Liverpool-troll who I wish had never been given my phone number pointed out, Almiron’s transfer fee is nearly four times the league’s per-team salary budget.

From a Newcastle perspective, it’s 1) obviously surprising that they actually spent money on someone to improve the team, and 2) slightly less surprising, but not unsurprising, that they broke the club-record for a player from MLS. The league steadily gets better every year, and I’ve really enjoyed watching Almiron play for Atlanta; he’s got the lanky, efficiency of motion that you typically see in a no-nonsense holding midfielder, but he’s actually an attacking midfielder who ran the show for a team that played on hyper-speed field-turf and loved to get out and run. He’s a weird player — in the best possible way:

However, even the leap from the top team in MLS to one of the bottom-half sides in the Premier League is a massive one: Per FiveThirtyEight’s rating system, Newcastle are the 84th-ranked team in the world, while Atlanta are all the way down in 180th. Now, if you’re going to sign anyone from MLS, it’s the 24 year old who’s just entering his peak years and just finished a season where he functioned as the attacking hub for arguably the best team in league history:

But — again — it’s just really difficult to project player performance from two leagues of such vastly different quality. (It’s why Manchester United’s moves for Fred and and Viktor Lindelof were big (probably unnecessary) risks; even the eye-test can only tell you so much when you’re watching someone in Portugal or the Ukraine.) It’s not just that the players are more talented, either; it’s the the tactics and playing styles are different, too, so what works in MLS might not work in England. Of course, every transfer requires some form of projection, and projections contain varying degrees of uncertainty — this one, from the outside, just seems to have a lot of uncertainty for a club-record fee.

I’m fascinated by the transfer, though, and can’t wait to see Almiron suit up. I mean, Newcastle just beat Manchester City in what was a pretty even game! If this move hits and somehow Benitez convinces Ashley that occasionally spending money on talent actually works, then watch out.

Atletico Madrid are weird as hell — again.

Diego Simeone’s side does not appear to have the make up of what us students of the game refer to as “a good team”. Some examples:

  • They take 11.9 shots per game — the 67th-best number in Europe, sandwiched by the likes of Watford and Hannover.

  • Oh but you want some advanced data, huh? Well, Atletico’s per-game xG total is BELOW THE COLLECTIVE AVERAGE OF EVERY TEAM IN EUROPE’S TOP FIVE LEAGUES.

  • Antoine Grizemann, a tone-deaf Derrick Rose obsessive but also one of the better attacking players in the world, is as close to a one-man team as is strategically, physically, and legally possible at this point in the development of the modern game. He’s scored 10 goals; no one else on the team has more than two! He’s assisted six; no one else on the team has more than three!

  • But who cares about offense, you might ask. This is Simeone’s Atletico! And well, you’re close enough to right that I have to stop using bullet points.

Through 21 games, Atletico have conceded 13 goals — five fewer than the next-best team in Spain, and (on a per game basis, among all teams in Euorpe’s top five leagues) more than only Paris Saint-Germain, Juventus, and Liverpool. However, their underlying numbers aren’t quite as good: 21.31 xG conceded, which is still best in Spain, but a not-quite-as-indomitable ninth-best in Euorpe.

And so what we have here is what looks like a case of a very good defense that might be getting lucky and a, well, a bad attack that also might be getting lucky. Simeone’s side is currently in second in Spain with a five-point gap on both top and bottom, to Barcelona in first and Real Madrid in third. Atletico’s goal-differential is plus-19, but the xG differential is just 6.79. They’re getting on base with a high-percentage of balls in play, they’re making 70 percent of their midrange jumpers, they’re winning the turnover battle every week — everything about Atletico screams “You’re not this good! Do something different before you fall back to earth!”

Except, the warning signs are there for Atletico EVERY YEAR, and they keep chugging along to top-three finishes in Spain. The website Undertstat calculates “expected points”, i.e. the points a team would expect, on average, to get from the balance of chances they create and concede each game. Their points total has been above their expected-points total in every season since 2014-15. The differentials, in order: 4.86, 15.72 (!), 8.90, 17.20 (!!!!!!!!). This year, they’re already 9.62 points ahead of the pace.

Simeone’s pretty much a magician. How does he do it? His system doesn’t ask his forwards and wingers to press high up the field, but they’re instead required to drop deeper to defend as aggressively and systematically as an actual defender would. Rarely will an opponent take a shot without a handful of red-and-white shirts in the way. And if it happens to get past them, well, then it has to get past Jan Oblak, one of the best, I don’t know, five keepers in the world. Beating Atletico’s defense is like winning one of those adventure video games; you have to defeat boss after boss, and each successive one is stronger than whoever came before.

On the other side of the ball, Griezmann is one of the few players who beats xG every year — he’s a legitimately great finisher — and then they get marginal contributions from everyone else — 3 goals to 1.5 xG, stuff like that — year after year. Things might be looking up for the attack this season, too. Since the beginning of December, they’re second in La Liga in expected goals, and they just added Alvaro Morata from Chelsea. We’ve been over that situation multiple times, but this team just needs someone other than Griezmann to create shots, and Morata has done that everywhere he’s played. I wouldn’t be surprised if he scored a bunch of goals over the next few months … and then inevitably fell into Simeone’s dog house and transferred to another top Champions League club because that’s what happens everywhere Morata goes.

Did I sit down to write this section, thinking that Atletico Madrid might fall back to the pack in Spain and find themselves in a fight for a Champions League spot? And am I now more convinced that they might actually give Barcelona a run for their money at the top of La Liga? Expectations — they’ve never really mattered with this team.

GAME OF THE WEEK, “GAME OF THE WEEK” EDITION:

All I’m saying is the first “game of the week” was Hoffenheim-Bayern, which was 3-1 and only vaguely included either team attempting to employ what you would call “a midfield,” and then last week’s pick was Roma-Atalanta, where Roma went up 3-0 by half, and then game ended in a 3-3 draw despite Atalanta’s Duvan Zapata, who is apparently the best soccer player to ever live, missing a penalty. That’s five goals per game of the week; ‘sup.

OK! This week it’s PSG-Lyon, which Americans can watch on Sunday at 9 AM EST if they have the BeIN Sports app or FuboTV. Otherwise, find a stream! This game is not interesting because it means anything for the standings; PSG won the league before the season started. Lyon are currently in third and project to about a 3-in-4 chance of finishing in one of the three Champions League spots.

So, why should you watch? PSG are undefeated — 18 wins, two draws; 66 goals scored, 11 allowed; lmao — and away-to-Lyon is their toughest remaining match. Neymar was just ruled out for 10 weeks, so this’ll be the first time we get to see how Thomas “The Tool Man” Tuchel (no one calls him that) rearranges the lineup without him against a good team. Meanwhile, Lyon have one consistent outfield starter over the age of 25, and pretty much all of those younger millennials are good enough already or at least have the potential to soon be playing for one of the top 10 or 12 teams in Europe. Another important thing about Lyon: They have a player named Martin Terrier, which is also the name of the main character in Jean-Paul Manchette’s 1981 noir thriller The Prone Gunman. Are they the same person? Watch Sunday’s game to find out!

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.