Your European Soccer Crib Sheet, 4/12 Edition
Too much defense, just the right amount of midfield, and two exquisite feet
That was not that fun!
Four Champions League games played, and a whopping six goals scored. More on that in a minute -- or however long it takes you to read through the rest of this intro; if it takes more than a minute, I’ve either lost my mind moments after writing this em-dash clause or something else has gone horribly wrong on your end; here’s to neither! -- but here are the two bright sides to a disappointing week: 1) The redemption tour is coming fast, as there’s no break between the first and second legs this time around. And 2) Theoretically, every tie is still in the balance. Liverpool and Barcelona are both 90-percent favorites or higher, according to FiveThirtyEight, but that’s more due to the discrepancy in ratings between them and their opponents than it is because they secured overwhelming victories. Much crazier shit has already happened this year than Porto overcoming a two-goal deficit at home or Manchester United winning by a goal on the road. The other two matchups are pretty much coin flips after the first legs. I’m expecting excitement next week, and if we don’t get it, you can blame me. You will be wrong; I’m just a guy with a newsletter, a standing desk, and two air purifiers in his apartment. But you can still do it.
OK! Game of the Weekend comes at the end, preceded by this progression of nerdiness:
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.
Man, remember when Quaresma did this at the World Cup? I think about it every day.
Defense wins, draws, and loses and championships
Manchester City, Barcelona, and Juventus came into this week as the three betting favorites to win the Champions League. Well, you wouldn’t have known it if you watched any of their games! City, who are one of only three teams in Europe’s top five leagues to average at least 18 shots per game, sputtered their way to 10 shots against 13 conceded in a 1-0 loss to Tottenham. Juventus did even less -- seven shots, just one on target -- but managed to come out with a 1-1 draw against a high-flying Ajax side that peppered the Juve goal with 19 attempts. Somehow, Barcelona, whose six shots were three fewer than the lowest per-game average of any team in Europe’s top five leagues, were the only member of the trio who came out on top, edging a 1-0 win against Manchester United, thanks to a flicker of Messi magic and a deflection off Luke Shaw’s shoulder. Add it all up, and the three sides combined created just two expected goals worth of non-penalty shots.
It could just be a coincidence -- three off nights, stacked one on top of each other, and it’ll look like a silly anomaly at this time next week. Or rather, maybe it was all part of the plan. No, I don’t think Manchester City wanted to lose; I don’t think Juventus wanted to get buried under an avalanche of shots; I don’t think Barcelona were hoping for half as many chances as Huesca, the last place team in Spain, throws together on a given night. But they were all on the road, so I do think each team came into their respective matches with the goal of limiting the number of chances on both end and keeping the tie alive ahead of next week’s second leg back at home.
Do I agree with that? Not really!
Overall, City, despite the worst result, actually had the best attacking performance of this group. Sergio Aguero just, uh, missed his VAR-aided, undefended, point-blank, 75-percent chance:
That doesn’t change the fact that City’s lineup was the latest in a succession of bizarre-seeming team selections by manager Pep Guardiola in the Champions League. Consistent starters Leroy Sane, Kevin de Bruyne, and John Stones were all on the bench, while Riyad Mahrez and Fabian Delph, who have just 21 combined Premier League starts this season between them, were both out there from the jump. The loss now means that Guardiola, across tenures at Barcelona, Bayern Munich, and City, hasn’t won an away game in the Champions League quarter finals (or beyond) since 2011. Here’s Jonathan Wilson in the Guardian:
There is a danger of oversimplification. Of course a team will have a worse record in the latter stages of the Champions League than in other games because that’s when they face the toughest opposition. But there does seem to be a recurring, perhaps self-perpetuating, pattern of Guardiola overthinking these away games, selecting an unfamiliar team and reaping the consequences. One of his greatest strengths is the research he puts into all matches, the thoroughness of his preparation, and yet that, when allied to his desperation to win the Champions League, seems paradoxically to prepare the ground for his failure.
In 2015, he sent Bayern out to press Barça at the Camp Nou, a shock tactic that he was forced to abandon after 20 minutes. The score then was 0-0 but the fatigue of that opening firefight was a contributory factor in the three late goals Barça scored. Last season, at Anfield, it was the use of Ilkay Gündogan in a withdrawn role that seemed to sow confusion.
The over-tinkering is a pretty a satisfying explanation for something seemingly inexplicable -- why do Guardiola’s teams keep dominating domestic leagues and losing in Europe? -- but I think there are a couple other things going on.
Tottenham can play a thumping, overwhelming, vertical game when they’re at their best, much like Liverpool, and Guardiola’s possession-heavy teams have struggled with that at times in all three of his stops. In response to three consecutive losses to Liverpool last year, Guardiola opted for a much more conservative approach in their away game at Anfield this season -- lots of unthreatening possession, very little aggressive pressing to win the ball back -- and they would’ve won had Mahrez not missed a penalty in injury time. They’d, of course, be in great shape here had Aguero not also missed a penalty (and Guardiola’s teams would’ve also advanced to the Champions League final in both 2012 and 2016 if players didn’t miss penalties, but we’ll save that for another time!). In addition to that, City -- thanks to multiple all-the-way-to-the-end runs in the Carabao and FA Cups -- have played 53 games in all competitions this year. Liverpool, their title-rival in the Premier League, are at just 44. That’s 810 extra minutes! From here on out, compared to Liverpool, City have an extra Premier League game and an extra FA Cup game (the final), in addition to whatever happens in Europe. Whether or not he did this on purpose, Guardiola did get rest for a number of key players, and a two-goal win at home still puts his team through. The margin for error is much thinner now -- if Tottenham score next week, City will need at least three goals -- but it seems to me that, rather than just trying to maximize his chances in the game that’s in front of him, he’s got his eye on three competitions at once.
Barcelona’s approach was similar to City’s -- just with the opposite outcome: an own goal in their favor. Their D is the weakest link among any of the four favorites. (I’m including Liverpool, who are now -- [lowers voice to a frequency that is only audible to certain forms of plant life] -- favorites to win the whole thing, per FiveThirtyEight.) They’ve given up the fourth-fewest goals in La Liga but rank just eighth in expected goals. Teams with Champions League aspirations just rarely ever carry a millstone like that around their necks. And so, they scored in the 12th minute, and then just ... did almost nothing. Manager Ernesto Valverde’s lineup didn’t include a true winger, and all of his subs made the team more defensive. After the goal, Barcelona attempted 650 passes to United’s 372, but despite the disparity, Valverde’s side actually attempted fewer passes into the penalty area than their opponents. From the goal through Barca’s first sub in the 65th minute, United controlled the game and harassed Barca into deep possession in their own half and constant turnovers. United didn’t create much, partially because the players they had on the field aren't really capable of doing that -- there was Paul Pogba, Romelu Lukaku, Marcus Rashford, and no one else -- and partially because Barcelona’s defensive posture was effective. Last year, they blew a 4-1 lead away to Roma in the quarters. This time around they didn’t allow a shot on target and ground out a 1-0 win.
Meanwhile, Juventus doesn’t have the midfield talent to go on the road and control a game; they really don’t even have the midfield talent to be that effective on the counter on the road, either. Atletico Madrid hate attacking, and they beat Juventus 2-0 in the first leg last time out. At this point, I think it’s safe to say that Ajax are a better team than Atletico Madrid, and they were probably a little unlucky -- the xG for this one was 1.2 to 0.7 -- to not come away with a win. I’d expect Juve to be a little more active offensively at home, but Ajax is going to approach the next leg in the exact same way. That’s why we love ‘em.
Given the outsize value of an away goal, I’m not sure it actually makes sense to be this conservative on the road -- part of the modern rationale for why the “away goals” rule should exist, after all, is to encourage more adventurous road play. Perhaps there’s a world where Juventus tried to push more bodies forward and Ajax won, 3-0, but I’m not sure the absolute worst-case scenario from more offensive approaches by City and Barcelona would’ve been insurmountable deficits with a home game still to come. The upside is, of course, that the tie is effectively over with 90 minutes remaining.
Granted, now a home win (depending on the score) puts City, Bara, and Juve through. From a damage limitation standpoint, each plan worked. But I think it’s safe to assume that most managers, even the best ones, are more conservative than they should be -- just look at their substitution patterns, or, you know, the history of every major competitive sport. The variety of results that Juve, Barca, and City achieved despite similar inputs shows just how risky it is to play it safe.
Naby and Frenkie is my favorite show on Netflix
Every soccer game is made up of a thousand different choices -- and not just between things like shooting or dribbling, jumping or standing, tackling or containing. No, within every choice that a player makes between a bunch of relatively easily definable actions, there’s another sub-choice of how to execute that action. Want to move the ball 30 yards forward? You can dribble it! You can chip it to a teammate! You can play it backward to someone with a better angle than you! You can dribble past one defender and then pass it! You can bend it with your left instep! You can curl it with your right outstep! You can, literally, juggle the ball up to yourself and dribble it around the field like a goddamn seal!
To me, the unique picture that gets painted between what’s effectively a 90-minute chain of artistic choices -- listen, if people are seriously going to argue that a Marvel movie deserves to be nominated for “Best Picture”, then soccer sure as hell is high-end art -- is what makes this the best game anyone’s ever thought up. I’m thinking about this because I’m thinking about Naby Keita and Frenkie de Jong.
Keita was billed -- by me! -- as a fortune-shifting midfielder. Someone with the potential to totally transform a team and be one of the best players in the Premier League from Minute One. That hasn’t quite happened this season; he’s been a useful player, but hasn’t totally earned the trust of Jurgen Klopp quite yet. That miiiiiiiight be starting to change, though. He scored and played 89 minutes in the 3-1 win over Southampton last Friday, and against Porto, he scored and did just about everything else, too. Before coming to Liverpool, Keita had been the best holding midfielder, best box-to-box midfielder, and best attacking midfielder in the various leagues he’d played in. Pretty much all of that was on display on Tuesday. In addition to the goal, he created two chances, tried dribbling six defenders, and won more tackles than anyone else on the field. This dashboard is a little messy, but it does a good job of showing how he affected the game all across and up and down the field. The crosses are ball recoveries (loose balls won), the x’s are tackles (green are successful, orange failed), and the stars are dribbles (same colors).
I’m still not sure he’s healthy; he hurt his back early in the season, and his movement still seems a little tentative and labored, but that’s also kind of how he plays -- right on the brink of disaster. This is in contrast to De Jong, who might be the smoothest midfielder I’ve ever seen. Keita’s destroying the game at every turn, while FDJ just seems to get it wherever it needs to go. This is what Juventus manager Massimiliano Allegri said about the soon-to-be-Barca midfielder after the match:
I’ve written about how midfield statistics leave a lot to be desired -- they fail to account for all the things a midfielder decides not to do, and that’s a huge part of being a consistently effective midfielder -- but they work for Keita, who’s supposed to always be doing things, and they work for Frenkie’s match against Juve because, well, he completed 90 passes; no one else on Ajax broke 60, and no one on Juventus hit more than 41. On top of that, he had more ball recoveries (11) than anyone else on the field, and he led Ajax in tackles (6) and interceptions (3). He didn’t score or set up a goal, but it was his game. That match looked the way it did because he barely ever lost control; hell, there was barely a possession, in either direction, that didn’t involve his foot touching the ball.
Midfield is still a mystery in a lot of ways. It’s, as it were, more art than science. For the most part, attackers are supposed to score and create chances, defenders are supposed to prevent them, and so are goalkeepers, but how, exactly, should a midfielder be? (I played midfield in college and don’t know the answer! Also: shout out Sheila Heti.) And that’s what makes these two guys so compelling. Neither Keita nor De Jong is older than 24; they both promise to be around for a while, providing the right answer to that question in totally different ways.
Son Heung-min doesn’t have a weak foot
Forget the gameplans. Tottenham beat Manchester City because Son Heung-min has two feet. In the Premier League this season, Son’s one of only four players -- in addition to Eden Hazard, Sadio Mane, and Aguero -- to score at least five goals with each foot. This year, it’s seven with his right, five with his left. Since 2010, he’s scored 52 goals with his right and 40 on his left across 358 right-footed attempts and 270 from the other side. Per Understat’s data, which only goes back to 2014-15, the quality of shots he takes with each foot is exactly the same: 0.11 xG per shot. Son’s also one of the best finishers in the world -- think of how many times you’ve seen him smash one in from a tight angle -- and the foot doesn’t matter there, either. Since 2014-15, he’s got 21 non-penalty goals on just 14.07 xG with his left foot, and on his right, it’s 30 G to 20.76 xG. The guy has two incredibly dangerous feet, and each one likely amplifies the effectiveness of the other.
Despite the incessant yammerings-on of so many youth soccer coaches across the world, two-footedness (or at least the willingness to use both feet) is rare among top-level professionals. Of the top 20 goal-scorers in Europe’s top five leagues this season, only Aguero, Hazard, Mane, and Eintracht Frankfurt’s Luka Jovic have what you wouldn’t call a lopsided split between the footedness of their goals.
Laurie Shaw conducted a study on this back in December, looking at attacking players who were in the Premier League at the time. Here’s what he found:
On average, the players shown in Figure 1 hit 78% of their ground shots with their preferred foot; outside of the penalty area this increases to 86%. Left-footed players are more reliant on their left foot (85% of their shots) than right-footed players are on their right (76%). Indeed, [Romelu] Lukaku is the only left-footed player that has taken less than 80% of his shots with his stronger foot, whereas more than half of the right-footed players are below 80%. Perhaps managers tend to deploy their left-footed players in ways that amplify the impact of their left-footedness?
Troy Deeney is the most one-footed striker in the EPL: 126 of his 132 shots (95%) in the last four seasons were taken with his right foot. Manolo Gabbiadini (who is left footed) and Alexis Sanchez (right) are also extremely one-footed, both taking over 90% of their shots with their preferred foot. Sanchez has not taken a single shots with his left foot from outside the area in the last four years, which seems surprising for a player of his quality.
At the other end of the spectrum we have Heung-Min Son and Pedro, both of whom take (and score) more than 40% of shots with their so-called weaker feet. Indeed, transfermarkt list both players as having no preferred foot -- I assume that they are right-footed because they both take penalties with that foot. Son is the only player shown in Figure 1 that is equally comfortable shooting with either foot from range: 43 of his 92 shots (47%) from outside the penalty area since the 2014/15 season have been on his 'weaker' left foot. He is the most two-footed attacking player currently playing in the Premier League.
What’s interesting about Son, at least in re: the goal against City, is that there actually is a pattern to how he uses each foot:
So, perhaps his tendency to use his right foot in the box is what opened up the space for him to cut onto his left against City. Or maybe not. Since 2010, Arjen Robben’s taken 772 shots with his left foot ... and 79 with his right! He’s got 109 goals with his left, and please forgive this parallel elliptical structure but it is necessary ... seven with his right! Arjen Robben cutting onto his left foot and bending the ball into the far corner is a force that gives us meaning.
Presumably, the advantage of being two-footed is that defenders have to defend against any possibility; defending is an inherently reactive process but you can at least start to even the playing field when you have some sense of what might come next. Except, that never mattered against Robben, who’s maybe the most predictable player in any major sport in the past, I don’t know, 50 years? Rory Smith wrote about Le Robben last month; it’s a really fun piece, and this particular graf stands out:
In 2010, a cognitive scientist named Shanti Ganesh, based at Radboud University in the Netherlands, conducted a study into Robben’s movement. She determined that Robben moves “a little faster than conscious knowledge.” A defender’s brain, Ganesh said, unconsciously follows Robben’s feints, even if it knows, deep down, that they are only feints. In the time it takes to rectify the error, Robben — as he was always going to, as everyone involved knew he was going to — has cut inside and taken a shot. “The player can still correct himself,” Ganesh said. “But that will always be a fraction too late.”
Robben might be a bad example; he’s the extreme, and he’s honed that move to perfection:
However, it’s tough to really measure the effectiveness of two-footedness compared to one-footedness because, as Shaw writes, “how can we assess Alexis Sanchez's left foot if he never uses it?” What seems likely to me is that it is an advantage to be able to use both feet -- there’s no downside to an added skill -- but the upside might not be as high as your u-10 coach made you think. Proficiency matters more than predictability.
GAME OF THE WEEKEND, “OK FINE” EDITION
We need to talk about the Belgian league for a second. I’ve spoken to a couple people who’ve pointed to the Belgian structure as a way to spice up some of the championship monopolies that are starting to dominate the major domestic European leagues. Here’s how it works: There are 16 teams, who all play each other home and away. After 30 games, the top six get promoted into a playoff, the last place team gets relegated, and the other 15 get put into this byzantine system that consists of a long multi-league playoff for a single Europa League spot. We’ll ignore that for now and just focus on the top six.
The teams in the top six don’t keep their points totals from the regular season; no, they get to take half of their points into the playoff. And if your half ends up being a fraction, it gets rounded up, and then if you’re tied with someone at the end, it gets rounded back down. In the playoff, each teams plays each other home and away, and the points (three for a win, one for a draw, zero for a loss) get added onto your half-the-regular season total. At the end of 10 games, a winner is crowned, and I kind of love this!
Genk finished the regular season in first, but Club Brugge, who rate significantly higher on FiveThirtyEight’s model and who won last season, are 3-0 in the playoff. Genk are hanging on to a one-point lead with seven games to play, and they host Brugge on Sunday. I honestly don’t know any of the players on either team except for Brugge’s keeper, Ethan Horvath, who has a handful of caps for the USMNT. If you were ever going to watch a Belgian league game, this would be it!
You’re probably not going to do that, though! So, yes, watch Liverpool–Chelsea, which is also on Sunday. It’s Liverpool’s toughest remaining game: FiveThirtyEight gives them a 59-percent chance of winning, and the final four, in order, carry odds of 75, 91, 66, and 81 percent. Win this, and I think Jurgen Klopp and Co. will be the favorites to finish first, since City will still have matches against Tottenham and Manchester United. I have no idea what to make of Chelsea -- they were great for the first couple months of the season, and have been all over the place since. They’ve cruised to three Premier League wins in a row against bad teams, but got destroyed by Everton before that run. They seem like a significantly worse version of Bayern Munich -- a defensive and offensive game premised on lots of possession -- and Liverpool just dispatched Bayern pretty easily. They should win; I wouldn’t quite call it a must-win, but it’s close. If you subscribe, you probably already know this: be there Sunday at 11:30 AM EST.