Your European Soccer Crib Sheet, 2/22 Edition

Scoreless wins, Juve needs a midfield, and Bosz is back

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So, in honor of the last Crib Sheet for All, here is Brian Clough hawking 100-percent effort and 100-percent Shredded Wheat:

And here is, explaining his management philosophy:

For those new around these parts, there’s a Game of the Weekend pick at the end — exactly what it sounds like — but the bulk of the newsletter fits into three sections structured 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.

OK, let’s do it!

When it’s a 0-0 draw, who wins?

My former colleague Zach Kram proposed this question to me, so shout out to him. (Go read Zach’s stuff; it’ll make you feel like you aren’t losing your mind.) Tuesday was supposed to be the marquee day of the first slate of Champions League matches: The first-place team in England (based on points-per-game) versus the favorite to win the Bundesliga! Plus: Messi versus a team of soon-to-be-superstars (and potential future teammates) who’d already beaten both PSG and Manchester City! Instead, you, me, and Bob Dole put as many balls into the back of the net as these four squads combined: that’d be zero.

Now, given the balance of chances, both Liverpool and Barcelona should have won. Here’s the data, from FiveThirtyEight. (The percentages represent the pre-game odds.)

And here’s the eye-test:

A frankly embarrassing performance from Lionel Messi only produced 56 percent of Barcelona’s 25 shots against Lyon:

In a vacuum, a scoreless draw won’t favor either team; in terms of re-balancing the odds, it’s as if the first game never happened. But, uh, the human body can only exist for about 15 seconds in vacuum, and that brings us to Zach’s question: “Which team has the advantage in the second leg of a CL tie whose first leg ends up 0-0? Is it the home team, that has home advantage, or is it the road team, that has the possibility of advancing with a tie (assuming at least one goal)? Does that change with high-scoring vs. low-scoring teams? Etc.”

Were there no goal-related modifiers in the Champions League, a scoreless first-leg draw would favor the road team because they’d then get to play a game at home, and home teams typically win much more often than road teams. Except, since the tiebreaker is “number of away goals”, the road team in the second leg of these specific scenarios actually has more paths to ultimate victory. If they win, they advance. If they score at least one goal and draw the match, they advance. And if they don’t score at least one goal but draw the match, they still get to go to penalties. Meanwhile, the home team has to either win outright or win on penalties; there’s no other way for them to advance.

So, who has the advantage?

“On the basis that in most leagues, the average home team wins ~45% of the time, and draws 0-0 ~5% of the time, it’s really a 50/50 flip after a 0-0 first leg if the teams are evenly matched,” Omar Chaudhuri, head of football intelligence at the consulting firm 21st Club, told me. “Obviously if it’s higher scoring teams, then the likelihood of an away goals rises and begins to favour the away team in the second leg.”

This decade, a lower percentage of first-leg Round of 16 matches have ended 0-0 than any 10-year stretch since the 1960s:

So, there aren’t a ton of examples here. In the previous four fixtures, the first-leg home team advanced once (last year, Sevilla beat Manchester United, 2-1, in Manchester), the first-leg road team won twice (Manchester United beat Marseille, 2-1, in 2011 and Bayern Munich beat Shakhtar Donetsk, 7-0, in 2015), and the fourth match saw Atletico Madrid defeat first-leg hosts PSV Eindhoven in 2016 on penalties after both games ended 0-0 — the only time that’s ever happened in the current iteration of the Champions League. Expand it out beyond the Round of 16, and there have been five other first-leg scoreless draws in the knockout round this decade, and the first-leg hosts advanced just once, when Atletico Madrid beat Chelsea, 3-1, in 2014. So, in total: the first-leg hosts have advanced twice in the previous nine instances of a 0-0 opener.

Recent history points toward Barca and Bayern, then, but it definitely didn’t feel like a good result for either side — especially considering a second 0-0 draw has only happened once, and that was in a match-up including Atletico Madrid, the defining defense-first team of the past decade. Now, both Barca and Bayern both probably have to score in the second legs, which gives Liverpool and Lyon a slight strategic advantage in that they generally know how their opponents are going to approach the games. So, to answer the question of “who was the stalemate better for?”, I think we should look at where expectations were before the first match and where they are now. Per FiveThirtyEight’s projections, which take into account things like team strength and where the second leg is being played, Liverpool’s odds of advancing increased from 48 percent to 50 percent, while Lyon’s are up from 18 to 23.

No one won, but congrats to Liverpool and Lyon on their tiny little victories.

Good riddance, Juventus. Go get a midfield.

I really can’t think of a purer distillation of Atletico Madrid than this specific result. They didn’t give up a goal, both of their gigantic Uruguayan center backs scored goals, and Diego Simeone got to touch himself again:

I know I talk a lot about the cruel randomness of knockout soccer — bad bounces, malfunctioning referees, misfiring strikers, hot keepers, all that stuff — but despite playing a style that leads to fewer chances for both sides and would therefore seemingly invite more randomness, Simeone’s Atletico have developed their own constant amidst the chaos: We never lose — as long as we’re playing someone from a different city.

Meanwhile, Juventus’s season is this close to being over before St. Patrick’s Day. They’ve won Serie A seven years in a row, and FiveThirtyEight gives them a 96-percent chance of making it eight. But their odds of advancing against Atletico have dropped down from 54 to just 14 percent, which has deflated their European title odds to 1 in 50. In short, this game was an absolute disaster. The club spent €100 million on a now-34-year-old Cristiano Ronaldo, who is currently being investigated after being credibly accused of rape, for the express purpose of winning this tournament. Barring something miraculous, they’re not going to win, and when they take another shot at it next year, Ronaldo will be 35 come the next knockout round, and he’ll probably be a worse player than he is now. I’ll be honest; I struggle with being objective here. The way Juventus stood blindly behind Ronaldo amidst the sexual-assault accusations was pathetic; I’d be happy to see them go.

However, focusing on what happened on the field on Wednesday, the glaring weakness for Juve was their midfield. It’s often hard to tell what kind of an effect a midfield is having on a game. With attackers, you know they’re trying to create chances and take shots, while defenders are doing the opposite. However, midfield performances are so context-dependent, and from the outside it’s pretty much impossible to tell whether a midfielder is playing conservatively by his own volition or if his teammates aren’t making the right runs, or if he’s just enacting a coach’s plan. But whatever the explanation for Wednesday, Juventus’s midfield performance is a textbook example of how to play poorly without standing out.

Take a look at the pass maps of Miralem Pjanic and Rodrigo Bentancur, and notice how many of the passes are sideways or backward.

It might not be the kind of thing you’d pick up on over the course of 90 minutes, unless you’d made a point of noting every pass these guys made, which you probably wouldn’t do unless you’re a professional scout or a member of one of their immediate families. Pjanic in particular is getting on the ball a lot, and he’s not giving it away, so it’s not like he’s stacking up error on top of error. Rather, it’s all the passes he didn’t try to make that constitute the lost value. Some credit belongs with Simeone’s midfield, which essentially includes four central midfielders and is therefore incredibly difficult to pass the ball through, but those are the kind of plays the Champions League-winning midfielders have to make. Since Juve couldn’t move the ball centrally, their attackers kept receiving the ball far away from goal, and the chances they were able to carve out didn’t amount to much at all: Juve out-shot Atletico, 14-13, but they mustered just 0.8 xG to their opponent’s 1.6.

Luke Bornn, who used to be with AS Roma but now works for the Sacramento Kings, and Javi Fernandez of FC Barcelona just published a paper that is essentially about what I’m now calling The Pjanic Problem. Here’s their summary:

In order to make an impact on key decision-makers within the sport, soccer analytics requires a comprehensive tool to facilitate a continuous cycle of questions and answers with coaches. Analytic methods must therefore encapsulate a wide set of actions of interest to coaches to provide a detailed and flexible interpretation of complex aspects of the game. In this paper we develop such a model, measuring and elucidating instantaneous value on the pitch. Specifically, we quantify the expected outcome at every moment in a possession, driven by a fine-grained evaluation of the full spatio-temporal characteristics of the 22 players as well as the potential value of ball drives, shots, or passes to any location.

Basically, every decision a player on the field makes has an effect on the likelihood of their team scoring a goal and conceding a goal. A pass through traffic into the feet of a striker at the top of the box: good! A sideways pass with no pressure on you: null! A pass back to your keeper when your team has possession in the opposition half: bad! Here’s a snapshot of the model in action, from a Real Madrid–Barcelona game last season. Were we able to hook this technology up to Wednesday’s match, I can’t imagine many of the moves made by Juventus midfielders would have resulted in an increased chance of their team winning. And after all, well, isn’t that the whole point?

Let us now praise Peter Bosz

Come with me on a theoretical journey: Let’s say that one lived in California. Let’s say that marijuana was not always legal while one lived there, but it was always legal were one to procure a rather easily procurable medical-marijuana card. Let’s say that once said card had been procured, one could then travel to a marijuana dispensary to exchange money for various marijuana-based products. Let’s say that at one of those dispensaries, they offered a bunch of free bonus services for first-timers in order to make those maiden customers feel comfortable in a new environment. Let’s say that one of those gratis amenities was a Wheel-of-Fortune-in-miniature wheel that these newbies would be asked to spin. Let’s say that the wheel contained 16 different sectors, all of which were labeled with a different marijuana-related commodity. And let’s say that the spinner was then given, on the house, whatever item his or her wheel-twirl eventually came to rest upon.

This wheel is, obviously, an imaginary construct, rendered specifically by me to be used as a metaphor for a soccer team coached by Peter Bosz: You start off with plenty of hope, you can’t really follow along once it starts, and however it ends — good, bad, or indifferent — will temporarily alter your brain chemistry.

I love Peter Bosz. The specter of relegation, the embarrassment of giving up silly-looking goals, the tenuousness of any employment agreement — it all discourages managers, on the whole, from doing two things: 1) installing an entertaining, high-variance attacking style, and 2) playing young players. And that’s the thing about Bosz: his WHOLE THING is installing a high-variance attacking style and playing young players.

While this blurb from the Bundesliga’s website is hilarious — my writing style is a combination of Zadie Smith and the gospel of John — it also tells you everything you need to know about what he wants his teams to do:

Bosz's style of play combines a mixture of those advocated by two of the Bundesliga's most successful coaches of recent times. On the one hand, the style of football once used by Jürgen Klopp at Borussia sits well with Bosz. He enjoys quick, attacking football and the use of the famous Gegenpressing. His style also resembles that of former Bayern coach Pep Guardiola. Bosz likes his teams to keep possession using a quick-passing style. At Barcelona, Pep had a rule that a player should not be in possession of the ball for longer than three seconds. At Ajax, Bosz stated, "Barcelona had the three-second rule. We're not Barcelona, so I've introduced the two-second rule."

Fast-passing possession, combined with quick attacks, combined with counter-pressing is practically an impossible ideal that seemingly ensures ultimate failure, but it makes Bosz teams incredibly compelling to watch from afar. He took an Ajax side with an average age of under 23 to the 2017 Europa League final. That earned him the Borussia Dortmund gig before last season, and, uh, ha … ha … Bosz was fired by Dortmund in December; his last win with Dortmund happened in September 2017. Dortmund were so desperate to see Bosz go that they replaced him with Peter Stoger, the guy who got fired by the worst team in the league the week before.

Dortmund were in eighth-place when they ditched Bosz, but at the time they had the second-best expected-goal differential and expected-point total in the league. With Bosz gone, the club climbed back into the Champions League places by the end of the season, which seems like an indictment of the Dutchman but really probably has more to do with a talented team regressing to their mean.

Well, now he’s with Bayer Leverkusen, and Boszmania is back, baby! Over the last month, the following things have happened:

Since Bosz got hired, Leverkusen have the best goal differential in the Bundesliga and are tied with Bayern Munich for the most points in the league. But the results are almost irrelevant, in a way. Leverkusen have one of the largest stocks of exciting young attacking talent in the world, and Bosz is getting them all on the field while he tries to thread the Guardiola-Klopp needle. All of these guys started against Krasnodar:

According to Football Whispers, since Bosz came in, Leverkusen’s xG per game has increased from 1.64 to 2.4, their number of passes per possession has increased from 3.83 to 5.52, and the average length of their possessions has increased from 10.32 seconds to 14.53. Just five games in, the Boszification already seems complete.

Next up for Leverkusen is Bosz’s former employer, the reeling first-place Dortmund, who haven’t won since January and are now only three points clear of Bayern Munich. The game is on Sunday. Let’s all spin the wheel.


Listen, I could’ve just said “Watch Leverkusen-Dortmund”, and I am saying that. See: WATCH LEVERKUSEN-DORTMUND. But here’s the beautiful thing about how our minds conceive of time: It’s linear, man. So, you can watch Leverkusen-Dortmund, which is on at noon EST, after you watch Liverpool-Manchester United, which is on at 9 AM EST.

I kind of think this is the hardest game left on Liverpool’s schedule because their other especially difficult match (against Tottenham) is at home. A draw here will feel like dropped points, as it would shrink Liverpool’s lead on City to just one point, but it certainly wouldn’t be a bad result.

I don’t think there are any real tactical quirks to tease out here: Liverpool are one of the best teams in the world, while United have racked up points but still haven’t put in an impressive performance against a good team since Ole Gunnar Solskjaer took over in December. (No, I’m not counting Chelsea as a “good” team right now.) Anthony Martial and Jesse Lingard are both out for United, and that seems like it should slow down their occasionally devastating transitions from defense to attack, but Liverpool have a day less of rest. Betting markets have Liverpool as rare road favorites (+142, or 41 percent to win), and FiveThirtyEight is even more bullish (54 percent) on the Reds.

The case for watching this one is pretty simple: It’s the best rivalry in English soccer. The clubs hate each other. Liverpool began the 90’s with the most English titles of any club with 18, but 13 titles under Sir Alex Ferguson from 1993 to 2013 have pushed United into the lead with 20. Right now, though, the trajectories might finally be starting to change again. Liverpool’s trying to hold onto its first Premier League title since 1990; United’s trying to knock them into a ravine. Dortmund-Leverkusen will be fun. Liverpool-United might have the dramatic texture of a Paul Schrader movie. Also: First Reformed gets my Oscar.

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