We write to you with elbows tucked, stroopwafels out — and a new understanding of what’s possible in soccer. Just half of the second-leg games in the Champions League’s round of 16 are complete, and already two titans of the sport are gone thanks to a youthful rebellion and instant replay. The prediction models are as surprised as the rest of us.
First, to Real Madrid’s dismantling Tuesday. Coming into the second leg of its tie against Ajax, Madrid led 2-1 and had a 75 percent chance of moving on in a tournament the club has won four of the past five years. Ajax was technically better than Madrid in the first leg, and our model gave the Dutch team some respect as a result. But it’s one thing to be Madrid’s equal and another to beat it 4-1 at the Bernabeu, exposing seemingly each of Los Blancos’ flaws since they lost Cristiano Ronaldo to Juventus at the end of last season. Led by homegrown phenoms Frenkie de Jong and Matthijs de Ligt, Ajax played the platonic ideal of free-flowing soccer, pirouetting through the midfield and capitalizing on Madrid’s missing captain, Sergio Ramos, who purposely got himself booked at the end of the first leg so he could be fresh (and cardless) for the quarterfinals. Instead of living to fight another day, Ramos serves as a cautionary tale.
Ajax’s win was surprising; Manchester United’s was almost inconceivable. Heading into its second leg against Paris Saint-Germain, Man U had just a 3 percent chance of moving on — and its play on Wednesday showed why. United lost the possession game 72 percent to 28 percent and trailed substantially in shots. This did not appear to be a team that could overcome a 2-0 deficit from the first leg. Yet PSG gifted Man U two goals on defensive errors and could manage only one first-half goal of its own, putting United just one goal from winning on away goals. But Man U couldn’t gain much possession, let alone break through for a goal. But then the replay gods took pity. In the 90th minute, United’s Diogo Dalot fired the ball in the general direction of PSG’s goal, and PSG’s Presnel Kimpembe leapt to block it once it had crossed into the box. His elbow came with him, and as it separated from his chest, it knocked into the ball. The referees initially called a corner but then went to video review. The (controversial) judgment changed the call to a handball. A penalty shot was awarded, and Marcus Rashford converted it for a tie-breaking third road goal. The final whistle blew a few minutes later, and Manchester United had somehow pulled off a miracle.
Two other games happened, we’ve been told. Porto had its own late drama Wednesday against Roma, including another penalty awarded on video review; the Portuguese squad wasn’t favored to move on heading into the match. And on Tuesday, Tottenham finished off Borussia Dortmund as calmly as Harry Kane finishes his penalty kicks.
All of this leaves some havoc in our projections, and we still have four games to go in this round. Buckle up, and please keep your elbows inside the vehicle at all times.
The big leagues in continental Europe have been dominated by their superpowers for years. Bayern Munich won the German Bundesliga title each of the past six seasons. In 13 of the past 14 seasons in Spain’s La Liga, either Barcelona or Real Madrid has taken the crown. The trio has also combined to win the past six Champions League titles. But right now, you can say something about these teams that’s been largely unthinkable for nearly a decade: They look vulnerable.
Bayern is sixth in the Bundesliga, 4 points behind leaders Borussia Dortmund and trailing smaller clubs like Werder Bremen and Hertha BSC as well. Sevilla currently tops La Liga, with Barcelona and Madrid trailing close behind, but the two Spanish giants have each won just four of eight matches this season. Over the past decade, both teams have typically won at least 28 of their 38 matches per season, and the lowest win total either has posted was 22. These numbers are well off their pace.
How worried should the superpowers of soccer be? The Soccer Power Index suggests reason for both confidence and concern. At the start of the season, Bayern was projected as 82 percent favorites to win the title. That has fallen, but only to 70 percent. Real Madrid has seen its La Liga title chances drop from 41 percent to 37 percent, but Barcelona’s have actually increased to 47 percent from opening at 43. For now, it seems likely that these teams have enough of a head start in talent that they can still win their domestic leagues.
The Champions League may be another story. At the beginning of the year, the continental big three plus Manchester City were dead even with one another at the top of the projections. Now City leads, Juventus has caught up, and the gap to Liverpool and Paris Saint-Germain is narrowing. And this is particularly striking because all three clubs are still massive favorites to progress out of their groups. What’s changed is that the Soccer Power Index is starting to downgrade its projections.
The early season struggles of Barcelona, Bayern Munich and Real Madrid are not merely a matter of a few bad bounces. Expected goals, a measure of the quality of scoring chances created and conceded, shows that this is no fluke of hot or cold shooting — these sides’ underlying production numbers are off, too. The following chart shows the goal difference and expected goal difference for Barcelona, Bayern and Real Madrid in their first 10 matches of the season between domestic and Champions League play since 2010-2011, according to data analytics firm Opta Sports. For all three clubs, these are among their slowest starts to the season ever.12
Among all these starts to the season, the only one that was significantly worse than the three this year was Bayern Munich’s in 2010-11, when the club ended up in third place in the Bundesliga on 65 points.
These numbers suggest three things. First, Bayern has been better than its table position suggests. Its goal difference is the second-worst of any of these clubs since 2010, but its expected goal differential is merely eighth-worst. Barcelona’s good goal difference, by contrast, is covering up problems in the underlying numbers. And Real Madrid is simply in trouble.
In its last three league matches, Bayern has taken only 1 point — a draw against Augsburg — and scored just one goal while conceding six. However, its expected goals difference for those matches is roughly 4.8 to 2.5. These are performances typically good enough to win in the Bundesliga, and the points should come.
But even the expected goals numbers do not reflect outright dominance. Bayern has struggled to produce spectacular attacking numbers. In particular, 30-year-old striker Robert Lewandowski is having a surprisingly down season, which comes on the heels of a surprisingly down World Cup. After scoring 27, 29 and 37 nonpenalty goals in the past three seasons between domestic and Champions League competition, with underlying numbers to match, the Polish forward has scored just two nonpenalty goals this season. His expected goals per 90 minutes has been more than 0.8 each of the last three seasons, and it’s down to 0.28 now. Arjen Robben and James Rodriguez have carried the shooting load for Lewandowski so far, but that has meant a decline in their creative passing numbers, which has weakened the whole team. It is possible that this is just an early season slump or World Cup-related fatigue, and Lewandowski will snap out of it. If he doesn’t, Bayern could be in for a disappointing year.
Striker problems also have beset Real Madrid, but for them it’s even worse. Real sold Cristiano Ronaldo over the summer and shocked observers by simply not replacing him. The club eventually purchased Mariano from Lyon, but no one expected that to be a like-for-like replacement. In nearly the same number of minutes last season, against weaker competition, Mariano attempted 130 shots, exactly half of Ronaldo’s 260. Mariano has yet to start a match this season for Real; Gareth Bale and Karim Benzema have now been promoted to the point men in the attack after serving as Ronaldo’s support crew for years. The results have been as expected.
Losing Cristiano Ronaldo has zapped Real’s offense
Real Madrid’s expected goals through the first 10 matches of its season, 2010-19
Expected goals through first 10 matches
Real has consistently produced about 2.5 or more expected goals per match over its first 10 games of the season, and that number is under 2.0 per match this year. The attack is no longer elite, and it’s hard to see how Real can improve without an injection of talent. Real Madrid looks headed for year in the wilderness as merely one of Europe’s 10 to 15 best teams rather than a top Champions League contender.
For Barcelona, the problems are more complicated but perhaps no less severe. And unlike with Bayern and Real, they do not start at the top. Lionel Messi is still Lionel Messi, with 11 goals and four assists. Rather, Barcelona is struggling in the midfield, and that’s leading to defensive problems. Last season, Barcelona conceded just 29 goals, second-fewest in La Liga. It is hardly unusual for the Catalan side to put up dominant defensive numbers, but last year’s effort involved a change in tactics from manager Ernesto Valverde.
In 2017-18, Barcelona relaxed the high press that had been a feature of its play at least since Pep Guardiola’s reign ended in 2012. With midfielders content to allow opposition teams to hold possession in less dangerous areas, Barcelona broke up only about 48 percent of new open-play possessions for the other team before they completed three passes. This year, Valverde has brought the old press back, and Barca is breaking up 55 percent of new opposition possessions.
This has not worked to their advantage. The 2017-18 team conceded shots at a reasonably high rate — 444 shots, seventh fewest in La Liga. But it prevented quality chances by keeping numbers back and not allowing passes in behind the defense. Barcelona’s 0.087 expected goals per shot was second-best in La Liga after only Atletico Madrid. Valverde drilled his team to defend deeper rather than dominate midfield, and it worked. This year, the new style is having the opposite effect. Barca’s expected goals per shot conceded has exploded to 0.148, the worst in La Liga.
Barcelona’s midfield depends on two 30-year-olds, Sergio Busquets and Ivan Rakitic, and last year Valverde’s tactics already suggested he knew he needed to cover for their deficiencies in the press. The results of the new, more aggressive midfield tactics confirm he was right to pull back.
So Barcelona’s problems seem fixable, at least compared to those of Real Madrid and Bayern. If Valverde can accept once more the limitations of his midfield and play the more basic, defensive style he rolled out last season, there should be more than enough talent in the forward line to carry Barcelona deep in the Champions League. But if the team persists with this press, the Catalan side may end up in just as much trouble as Bayern and Real.