Your European Soccer Crib Sheet, 2/15 Edition

The call-up finally came!

Before we get started, another announcement: No Grass in the Clouds has been called up from the youth team and is officially going pro. Starting on March 1 — so, two weeks from today — I’ll start publishing subscriber-only content and will hopefully turn this newsletter into a successful little business.

When I started this thing back in December, I wrote the first piece without too many expectations. Maybe it’d be a place for my occasional, idle soccer thoughts. Maybe I’d get sick of it. Maybe I’d end up just posting pictures of my favorite sideline sweaters with little to no commentary. Maybe I’d write one short column per week, and leave it at that. Instead, it wildly exceeded anything I had in mind, and it did so right from the jump: The feedback has been heart-warming, energetic, and thoughtful; there really seems to be an audience for my zany, conversational, analytics-adjacent analysis; and just two months in, it honestly feels like we’ve already built a little community around trying to find fun, new ways to think about a game that billions of people love.

So, this is how it’s going to work: Subscriptions will cost $7/month, or you can pay an up-front annual fee of $70, and that’ll save you on two months worth of content. The shorter Tuesday newsletter will remain available to everyone, while the Friday crib sheet will only be available to subscribers. I’m also planning a bunch of other subscriber-only features — mailbags, immediate reactions to games, player profiles, interviews, archival cardigan research, possibly some audio content! — but that’ll be determined by whatever my beloved paying customers tell me they want more of. I will, in other words, give the people what they want.

If you want to make sure that you don’t miss anything, you can subscribe now, and you’ll automatically get the March 1 newsletter in your inbox. You won’t get charged (and won’t get a receipt) until then. Here’s the button again:

If you’d prefer to wait, that’s fine, too. And if you’d prefer to only receive the Tuesday newsletters, then you don’t have to do anything at all.

To everyone who’s read, shared, wrote in, complained about my anti-Tottenham bias, and put up with inconsistent obsession with sideline street-wear: Thank you so much. These two months have been a blast, and I’m psyched to try to turn this into a sustainable, ever-growing project. You’ve read this far, and stuck with me for this long, so here’s a weird documentary about George Best:

OK! Onto the ‘letter. For the unfamiliar, there’s a “Game of the Weekend” section at the very bottom — i.e. one game worth watching — but the bulk of the newsletter works like this:

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.

Let’s go!

Defenders are the only players that matter now

At the top level of European soccer, the positional trend over the past five years or so has been similar — if not as pronounced — to what’s happened in the NBA. In order to force more shooting onto the court and allow for more fluidity among roles, basketball teams have basically bumped players a notch down on the spectrum: shooting guards are playing small forward, small forwards are playing power forward, and power forwards are playing center. If you assume the shooting ability of a player tends to decrease as you move down the spectrum, then this is a way to increase a player’s value: an OK-shooting small forward becomes a good-shooting power forward just by virtue of playing a different position. The most notable example: the Golden State Warriors’ Death Lineup and/or Hamptons Five, which has its own Wikipedia page!

Soccer lags behind everyone else in its responses to modern trends, but some coaches have started to shove attacking players into the midfield. The role has been called a “free 8”, popularized by Manchester City manager Pep Guardiola with his use off Kevin de Bruyne and David Silva, two players who functioned higher up the field in the past, during City’s record-setting 100-point season. On top of that, wingers have become goal-scorers; Mohamed Salah scored a Premier League-record 32 goals last season playing from out wide. Fullbacks are often converted wingers or midfielders. And central defenders now have to pass like midfielders. Hell, even keepers are getting in on the attacking action. The title of this video seems to suggest that Manchester City’s Ederson is currently living in some kind of foam-glove soccer prison of his own making:

So! Given that the Champions League just kicked off again, and given that it features the best players and best teams and best coaches on the planet, it follows that we spent this week basking in the futuristic glow of soccer’s cutting edge. Not quite! On Tuesday, Paris Saint-Germain beat Manchester United by … playing six defenders at the same time. And then Tottenham beat Borussia Dortmund by … playing five defenders at the same time, including a 6-foot-2, 31-year-old center back out on the wing.

Since both teams are working through similar injury crises to their midfield and their attack — superstars Neymar or Edinson Cavani were out for PSG, while superstars Dele Alli and Harry Kane were out for Tottenham — the surprising thing isn’t that PSG and Tottenham opted for so many nominal defenders. No, it’s that even with all those defenders out there, they put together incredibly proficient attacking performances — a 2-0 win for the Parisians, and a 3-0 victory for Spurs … both with hefty expected-goals totals backing them up. On the other end, neither side gave up more than 0.4 xG because, again, 11 OF THEIR 20 COMBINED FIELD PLAYERS WERE DEFENDERS.

I imagine that beefing up the backline without hamstringing the attack is the platonic ideal for most managers — “giving up few chances while creating a ton” is really the whole game here — but it just doesn’t typically work that way. Otherwise, everyone would do it. How’d PSG and Tottenham pull it off? With a pair of unicorns.

In the NBA, a small group of giants have survived the small-ball revolution because, despite being 7-plus-feet tall, they’re able to move and shoot and passlike someone six inches shorter. This week, PSG’s Marquinhos and Tottenham’s Jan Vertonghen turned into Nikola Jokic and Joel Embiid.

Against United, Marquinhos, who’s typically a center back, split the center-midfield duties with the tiny Italian wizard, Marco Verratti. As Marquinhos said after the game, his manager Thomas Tuchel gave him the task of stopping perhaps the most unstoppable attacking midfielder in the world right now, and well, here’s a meme:

But it wasn’t just the defensive side of things. Marquinhos continually wriggled out of pressure from the United attackers to allow PSG’s possessions to move up field, and when he found space for himself on the ball, his passing was ambitious as hell! Check out these highlights, and look at all of these diagonal balls; that’s not the kind of conservative ball movement you might expect from a defender playing out of position.

However, at least Marquinhos has made a bunch of appearances in the midfield for PSG this year. At Tottenham, Vertonghen has made 140 of his 143 starts in the past five seasons as a centerback. As far as I can tell, he’s never played wing back at the club. The move from central defense to central midfield changes some things — mainly, there are now always players in front of and behind you — but there’s at least a clear progression between the two spots. Going from center back, where everything’s in front of you, to wing back, where there’s a sideline right up against you and no one directly in front of you (wing backs essentially function as fullbacks and wingers at the same time), is like, I don’t know, asking Peyton Manning to play as a slot receiver? And yet, Vertonghen quite literally won the game against the first-place team in Germany. He played a gorgeous, orbit-of-the-Earth-harnessing ball for Tottenham’s opener, and then … combined a perfect back-post run with a sliding one-time volley to seal the freaking game:

Should we expect PSG and Tottenham to keep running out these heavy formations even once their other star attackers return to full health? Absolutely not, but for a night, they both bucked a trend and all but guaranteed a spot in the quarterfinals because of it.

We have to talk about Mauro Icardi

I’m just gonna try to stay out of the way here.

As a much sought-after young striker prospect, Mauro Icardi joined Barcelona in 2008, right around the age of 15. Except, this was pretty much exactly when the next Golden Era at the club was beginning, so playing time, particularly up top, was at a premium. Icardi went on loan to Sampdoria in 2011, and since he wasn’t needed in Catalonia, and since he’d played well enough with the youth team in Italy, Samp decided to make the deal permanent for a small, sub-million-dollar fee. While at Sampdoria he struck up a friendship with Maxi Lopez, an older Argentine striker who’d also spent time at Barcelona. Lopez had, according to some, become something of a mentor for his younger countryman.

Then, in December 2013, Lopez divorced his wife, Wanda Nara. In May of 2014, she remarried. Her new husband: Mauro Icardi.

Icardi had left Sampdoria for Inter Milan in the summer of 2013, but when the two clubs played each other in April 2014, the match was dubbed “the Wanda Derby.” Lopez refused to shake Icardi’s hand during the traditional pre-match ritual, and Inter won the game … after Lopez missed a penalty. This is what Paolo Bandini wrote for the Guardian after the game:

On the surface this looked like a grand betrayal. The two players were understood to have been good friends at Sampdoria, sharing a natural bond as Argentinian strikers playing abroad. López, nine years Icardi's senior, had supposedly taken his young colleague under his wing – only to have his wife stolen away in return.

Nara tells the story rather differently, informing the gossip magazine Chi that she had walked out on López only after he cheated on her first. "I persevered out of love for our children," she said. "I forgave him so many times that I don't even know how I did it … When I started my relationship with Mauro, I had already divorced Maxi López."

Whatever the truth of that situation, Nara has certainly thrown herself into her relationship with Icardi. Already she has his name tattooed on her wrist, just as he has hers on his forearm. Relentless Twitter users, they caused a stir in November by exchanging a series of tweets using the hashtag #Quindicina – reportedly a reference to the fact they had made love 15 times during a frantic 28-hour stay together in Argentina.

Two years later, Icardi and Lopez met again, with the latter now playing for Torino. Take a look at this Daily Mail headline:

Wanda is now … also Icardi’s agent. He’s been at Inter for six years, but he’s still only 25, and he’s scored 91 goals and assisted 19 more in Serie A over the past four seasons. He’s the youngest player in Serie A history to reach 100 goals. He was named Inter captain back in 2015 after scoring a joint-league-best 22 goals. At a time when prime-age strikers are a rare commodity across the world, Icardi has become the club’s crown jewel — but it wasn’t always that way, and it probably won’t be for long!

Back in 2016, Icardi released an autobiography — “autobiographies from people under the age of 25” is my favorite form of nonfiction — that recounted a confrontation with Inter’s ultras, the club’s most boisterous, vociferous, and often openly political fans. “I am ready to face them one by one,” Icardi wrote. “How many are there? 50, 100, 200? OK, record my message and let him listen: I'll bring 100 criminals from Argentina who'll kill them where they stand, then we'll see.” The ultras responded to the book by releasing a message that said: “You're not a man... You're not a Captain... You are just a vile piece of shit.” Icardi was fined and forced to remove the comments from his book!

Somehow, he hung onto the captaincy after that — until this week. From the Associated Press:

Icardi’s contract expires in 2021, and his agent-wife Wanda Nara has been particularly outspoken over the past month in defense of her husband. On Wednesday, amid a seven-match goal drought for Argentina forward, Inter announced that it was stripping the captain’s armband from Icardi and giving it to goalkeeper Samir Handanovic.

In response, Icardi decided he would not be traveling to Austria for Inter’s Europa League match against Rapid Vienna and pulled himself from the squad. Inter won 1-0, with a goal from their new, young Argentine striker, Lautaro Martinez, and soon after the game, Icardi posted this on Instagram:

I have no idea how this is going to end. (The guy is legitimately one of the best goal-scorers in the world!) I also have no idea how Icardi ever became Inter captain in the first place or didn’t lose the captaincy … after threatening to kill their fans? All I really know is that I can’t stop picturing him saying “Mark Twain”.

Actually, Tyler Adams is better than N’Golo Kante

Here’s a mailbag question I didn’t get to on Tuesday, partially because the mailbag was already thousands of words long and partially because RB Leipzig is not in the Champions League:

I wanted to get an update on how you think [Tyler] Adams is doing so far at RBL and other young USMNT players. No doubt that Adams is the next N'Golo Kante, right?
-Sam

Is it cheating for me to answer a mailbag question in a newsletter that is not expressly a mailbag? It’s only cheating if you break the rules, I make the rules here, and it turns out that one of those rules is “Nothing Ryan — who is infallible, timelessly handsome, and generous to the point of potentially deserving sainthood consideration at some point way down the line — ever does will constitute cheating”. Good rule, imo. OK, now that we got the question literally no one other than me is asking out of the way, we can get to Sam’s inquiry.

One of the big reasons that soccer doesn’t have anything resembling a good plus-minus statistic is that it’s really hard to apportion credit when each team only gets three subs and so many players are spending so much time on the field together. This is the kind of thing that someone way smarter than me will eventually solve — maybe that person is reading these words right now! if so: hi! — but so far, most of the efforts toward a plus-minus stat haven’t been totally convincing. (The best one, to my mind, uses FIFA ratings — yes, from the video game — to split the difference over who deserves the credit.) However, a couple years ago, we got a nice little semi-controlled plus-minus experiment in the Premier League.

In 2015-16, Leicester City won 81 points. The following season, they dropped down to 44. Meanwhile, Chelsea went in the opposite direction: 50 in 15-16, and 93 in 16-17. What links them together? N’Golo Kante played for Leicester in 15-16 and Chelsea in 16-17. Both clubs won the Premier League title, and Kante won the league’s Player of the Year award in his first year with Chelsea. Kante is the first non-goal-scoring midfielder to ever win the award — just one goal and one assist for him in 16-17 — but no one argued with it because the proof was in the points. It’d be naive to say that he was worth somewhere between 37 and 43 points, but it was clear that he was worth a hell of a lot.

In 2017, a group of academics in England created a bunch of their own different plus-minus formulas. What is particularly interesting about their efforts is that they looked at a team’s expected performance (using expected goals), in addition to just looking at the actual goals scored. There are still a bunch of holes in this approach — as the presence of 2016-17 Claudio Bravo in the list I’m about to show you suggests — but the results are interesting nonetheless, and to my mind, using xG instead of G is a better way to attempt to figure out how a player affects his team’s performance. These are the researchers’ revised Ballon d'Or standings based on the expected-points plus-minus leaders in six separate seasons:

Anyway, so Kante’s teams were great when they had him, trash when they didn’t. And well, guess who’s giving off similar vibes after just a month in Germany?

Extrapolate those numbers out, and well, Tyler Adams’s plus-minus for a full 36-game Bundesliga season is on pace to be exactly plus-96. The team record for goal differential in a Bundesliga season is plus-80 by Bayern Munich the year they won the Champions League. In other words, Tyler Adams is God.

But seriously, since arriving from the New York Red Bulls in January, he’s off to about as good of a start as you could expect! For those unfamiliar with him, Adams is basically the prototype Red Bull midfielder: makes plays all across the field on defense, pushes the ball vertically with passes and dribbles on offense.

I don’t love looking at single-game stats for midfielders because so much of it is situational and comes down to tactical choices by the manager, but the potpourri of numbers from Adams’s debut really do a nice job of showing what you’re getting from him:

And there’s this:

The dude only arrived a month ago, he just turned 20 yesterday, and he immediately slotted in at one of the best teams in the Bundesliga. Leipzig have the second-best expected-goal differential in Germany (behind Bayern and actually ahead of Dortmund), and FiveThirtyEight rates them as the 19th-best team in the world.

So, to answer the initial question of how he is doing so far: He’s getting a ton of playing time for a very good team, and when he’s played, the team has been flawless. At this point, you can’t really ask for much more than that.

GAME OF THE WEEK, “LOW STAKES SELF-RECRIMINATION” EDITION

I want to apologize to Ante Rebic, who almost definitely doesn’t know who I am and who definitely-definitely does not know that I’ve wronged him. Listen, I thought he was terrible for Croatia at the World Cup — the prototypical “all-action, no end product” player. He always seemed like he was doing something, but in reality he was an attacker who created almost nothing for his teammates and consistently settled for terrible shots that wasted all of Luka Modric and Ivan Rakitic’s brilliant build-up play. What a difference half-a-year makes …

That’s the top 10 in Germany among players who’ve featured for at least 1000 minutes. Two big takeaways: 1) Holy shit Robert Lewandowski is having himself a year, 2) Eintracht Frankfurt have THREE PLAYERS in the TOP SIX, and none of them are older than 25. That’s Rebic, while Haller is 24, and Jovic is only 21. They could all be off to bigger clubs in the near-future, but maybe not if they beat Borussia Monchengladbach this weekend and pull Champions League qualification (and the riches it brings) a little closer to reality.

Gladbach’s currently in third in Germany, thanks to the results they’ve stacked up, but not necessarily due to an impressive run of performances: Their xG differential is just sixth in Germany, one spot behind Frankfurt. Right now, FiveThirtyEight gives Rebic and Co. a 20-percent chance of finishing top four, and that’ll shoot up if they can take three points off of one of the teams they’re trying to chase down. The Haller-Rebic-Jovic trio is super-fun and kinda weird — Haller’s absolutely an absolute unit, Rebic is the rolled-shoulder guy who always looks like he’s trying extra-hard, and Jovic is the effortless prodigy who floats through space — so I recommend trying to catch them whenever you get a chance. This one’s on at 9:30 A.M. EST on Sunday.

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.