cwick (Chadwick Matlin, deputy editor): Soccer wunderkinds, we’re back with a whole lot to discuss. Let’s focus on the Champions League today and discuss the scramble for fourth place in the English Premier League another day. This week the eight remaining Champions League teams faced each other in the first leg of their quarterfinal ties, and there are somehow more storylines than there were goals.
PSG vs. BAYERN MUNICH
Let’s start with the buzziest of the matches, Paris Saint-Germain’s 3-2 victory over Bayern Munich (in Munich), in a rematch of last year’s final. PSG now has a 69 percent chance of moving on to the semifinals, according to our Champions League forecast. This match was wild and felt like it could have ended 6-5. How much did this first leg teach us about the next?
grace (Grace Robertson, FiveThirtyEight contributor and author of the Grace on Football newsletter): PSG is clearly a strong favorite to go through now, but I really wasn’t impressed by the team at all. After Kylian Mbappé scored early, PSG tried to shut the game down and totally failed, having only that individual quality in attack to fall back on. The main thing I learned was that I’m not sold on either of these sides at all.
tchow (Tony Chow, video producer): Bayern star Robert Lewandowski was out for the first leg. Lewandowski is out for the second leg. Yeah, I could see the second game looking pretty much like the first. That’s not to say the result will look the same, though!
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grace: PSG has had issues domestically, and this really didn’t convince me we should discount those games as players just coasting until the real action in the Champions League. Coach Mauricio Pochettino doesn’t seem to have the squad anywhere near how he wants it.
cwick: Grace, what are you seeing, specifically, that makes you say that?
grace: How disjointed it was from back to front. Idrissa Gueye and Danilo Pereira in front of the back four should shut down a lot, but they seemed totally disconnected from the attacking guys, and it made for a wildly open game. Then when PSG had possession, it’s hard to see anything other than just Mbappé and Neymar doing their things. Which, you know, they’re extremely good, so that’s not always the worst thing. But man, I just think this team could be so much more than it is.
Bayern outshot PSG 31-6, in part because PSG led for so long, but that’s just … well it’s not great.
ryan: I mean, what did PSG do well against Bayern? It countered well, like, three times. Otherwise PSG was awful. It didn’t press but also didn’t limit Bayern at all. It gave up 3.1 expected goals, according to FBref. That’s terrible!
tchow: I get both your points. Yes, PSG has had trouble domestically this year. Normally by this time, it would have Ligue 1 all but wrapped up and be focusing on Europe. But the team is currently in second and just lost to league leaders Lille before this Bayern game. Not to mention it has had some pretty bad losses against bottom-of-the-table teams in France. But at some point, don’t we have to give credit where credit’s due?
grace: I sometimes wonder what language they speak in the PSG locker room with so many different nationalities. Watching this game, my conclusion is they don’t speak to each other at all.
cwick: So I am hearing you say that nothing has really changed since last year’s final. Bayern is still better, it’s just that it was missing its best player and PSG took better advantage of its opportunities?
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ryan: A bound-to-be-unpopular take: PSG played way better in the Champions League final than it did in this first leg.
tchow: I think in an alternate world in which Lewandowksi starts instead of Eric Maxim Choupo-Moting, regardless of Mbappé, Bayern scores five or six times this game.
grace: Yeah, I agree. In an alternate world in which Mbappé misses this game and Lewandowski starts, Bayern could’ve steamrolled PSG.
tchow: To argue for PSG for a moment, it’s had the toughest road so far in this Champions League, no? Beating Barcelona last round and now favored to advance against Bayern Munich. In a way, it seems like the team is on some type of tour to vanquish past bad Champions League memories. That has to be impressive on some level, even if you’re unconvinced by its performances.
grace: Obviously beating Barcelona and Bayern is good, but both times I think the main takeaway is just “that Kylian Mbappé kid really is something” rather than anything PSG did as a collective.
cwick: Tony bravely taking the stance that “teams that win games are good.”
ryan: Wins are the only analytic I care about.
grace: Ryan Mourinho over here.
ryan: It was actually a very José Mourinho-like performance from PSG. Concede the ball, get pummeled, hope your two superstars and your keeper bail you out.
cwick: Keylor Navas was so good!
ryan: Per FBref, he saved 1.6 goals worth of shots.
tchow: Yeah, Navas was incredible this game. It’s the only time all season he’s had double-digit saves.
ryan: When your keeper is making double-digit saves, it’s usually not a good sign!
tchow: True. But it helps when the opposing keeper only makes one save and lets in three.
grace: That Bayern didn’t have Serge Gnabry also felt like a big loss. I don’t know what’s happening with Leroy Sané, but he just can’t seem to consistently impact games for Bayern the way he did at his best for City. Swapping him out for Gnabry would’ve helped, I think.
REAL MADRID vs. LIVERPOOL
cwick: I am sure we will return to the is-PSG-elite question in a future chat, so let’s move on to Real Madrid’s victory over Liverpool, a match far more lopsided than its 3-1 scoreline. Real now has an 80 percent chance of moving on to the next round. Grace, you’re on record saying Real bores you because it’s been playing the same way for too many years. Was this performance more exciting?
ryan: This feels rude.
grace: Well, the honest answer is no because I support Liverpool. But yes, this was good from Real, though Liverpool coach Jürgen Klopp really just let Toni Kroos have all the space he wants, which feels like not a great idea.
ryan: This is one of the first high-profile matches in which I really felt like Zinedine Zidane straight-up outcoached the guy on the other side.
grace: Just give one of the best passing central midfielders of his generation all the time he wants to pick out Vinícius Jr., and it works every time.
cwick: We have devoted a whole chat to Liverpool’s struggles — or, I did, but you guys assured me the team was fine. But Liverpool’s two CBs were absolutely devastated by long balls. Is that something that tactics can paper over? Or is it a personnel issue?
ryan: Liverpool played a high line with slow center backs and didn’t put any pressure on the ball. You’ll never win like that.
grace: The fix is to stop doing all the things that made Liverpool good in the first place.
cwick: I return to that past chat:
I know Klopp has been a great coach. But what’s the proof that he has changed tactics and not just personnel? Like, maybe Liverpool needs to play more like — gasp — Tottenham or something.
My question stands.
grace: Ryan wrote recently about how Man City has done so well in the pandemic era by slowing way down. Liverpool hasn’t been able to adapt to the new slow game at all.
ryan: Yeah, if anything, the team has sped up. It really hasn’t been able to generate shots from more measured possession. But it also hasn’t really tried.
grace: I don’t think I really know what a slower version of Liverpool that protects the center backs better would even look like.
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ryan: This game was especially weird, though. In the first half, Liverpool couldn’t even get the ball into Madrid’s defensive third. That hasn’t been an issue at all this year; it’s been more a problem of creating shots when the team gets there. Not that Liverpool did that against Madrid, either. It went into half down 2-0 without taking a single shot.
cwick: It seems like Liverpool doesn’t have the fullback personnel to really pull that off, right? Its investment is so geared toward high backs and strong central defense that it doesn’t have the people — or potentially the coach — to execute an alternative plan. Trent Alexander-Arnold, for example, was exposed in this game.
grace: This was a great game for the Roberto Firmino fan club. Liverpool really lacked fluency in the final third without him dropping in and offering a passing option.
ryan: The issue against Madrid had less to do with the defenders themselves, in my opinion. Like Grace said, Liverpool gave Kroos all the time in the world to put those defenders in positions they’re not supposed to be in.
tchow: In his postgame comments, Klopp said, “Football is a game where mistakes are completely normal, but you have to make the mistakes in the right spaces.” Liverpool pretty much made mistakes in all the wrong places.
grace: The other side in which Firmino helps. If he had been leading the press, Liverpool might have been tighter in midfield. The Sadio Mané-Diogo Jota-Mohamed Salah attack just totally failed in every sense.
ryan: Klopp took a huge L in this one. Starting Naby Keïta was a nightmarish decision we’d be talking about for weeks if Manchester City coach Pep Guardiola did it.
tchow: Yeah, I’m pretty sure Klopp isn’t gonna try that again. Thiago will start next match.
cwick: What does Real Madrid have to do to seal this off, assuming Liverpool adjusts? Does Real have the defensive fortitude to withstand a full 2018-era Klopp gegenpress?
grace: I imagine Zidane will just go for a “same again” approach. Real has enough breathing room that I think it should be fine just targeting the Liverpool fullbacks on the counter and sitting back.
ryan: Madrid defended pretty well in the second half, too, when Liverpool had more control of the field. The only good chance it gave up was kind of flukey. This could’ve easily been a shutout.
tchow: I don’t think Zidane has a choice but to roll out the same. Raphaël Varane won’t be back because of his COVID-19 results, and Sergio Ramos still won’t be back from injury next week.
MANCHESTER CITY vs. BORUSSIA DORTMUND
cwick: All right, let’s move on to Man City vs. Dortmund, which was extremely tight throughout. But City eked out a 2-1 win in the final moments. Ryan and Grace, you’ve both done some writing on Pep in Europe recently — did you see anything different in his approach to this match?
grace: I was surprised by how much it felt the same. City has done a really good job this year shutting off counterattacks and not giving up anything. But here, it gave up chances in transition.
ryan: The way City is playing in England — more control, fewer bodies forward — seems like something of a response to its European failures of previous seasons. I think it tried to play the same way against Dortmund, but I also think it’s a lot harder to port that control onto a team with Erling Haaland and Marco Reus than it is with, say, Crystal Palace.
cwick: Our model has City with an 83 percent chance of moving on. Is there any reason to think otherwise?
ryan: Seems a tad high? I don’t know. This game was pretty much even — and that’s ignoring the fact that Jude Bellingham had a tap-in that should’ve counted.
tchow: It’s surprising and maybe just a sign of how much the model loves City that Dortmund’s away goal here counts for so little, especially considering what chances the model gives Bayern or Liverpool of advancing.
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grace: I think Dortmund showed that it can cause City problems. The 1.1 xG (per FiveThirtyEight) that City gave up would clearly have been quite a bit more if Bellingham’s chance had counted.
ryan: It’s a bummer that Dortmund’s Jadon Sancho won’t be back for the second leg.
grace: Dortmund has not been good at all in the Bundesliga recently, but this matchup seemed to suit it. If Dortmund can create those kinds of chances again, then the second leg could absolutely break its way.
ryan: Leg 1 raised more questions about City than it answered, I think.
grace: Guardiola clearly wanted total control in this one. The guys who run in behind — Raheem Sterling, Gabriel Jesus, Sergio Agüero — were all on the bench for players who want it on their feet. He wanted to slow this game right down and didn’t pull it off.
cwick: Is it just me or has Phil Foden — who scored a goal in this game — really come into his own in the past few months? Seems like he can be a lodestar for City for years.
ryan: Seems good:
grace: Yeah, in a few years when Kevin De Bruyne slows down, Foden can pick up the slack and no one should notice. I sometimes think the stats undersell him even. He could be doing more progressive passing, but City doesn’t need it from him.
ryan: I love him. From afar, he seems like he could fall into the “tweener” realm — not productive enough to be a winger, not stable enough in possession to be a midfielder — but I think he’s fantastic in both roles.
tchow: If you look at the FBRef scouting report by season, though, Foden’s 2019-20 season looks equally as impressive if not more than his 2020-21 season. I’m unsure if it’s a “past few months” thing versus more and more people are finally noticing thing.
cwick: I’m a big fan of recency bias.
grace: It’s the best bias I’ve seen in years.
CHELSEA vs. PORTO
cwick: All right, let’s get to the runt of the litter, Chelsea vs. Porto. Chelsea ran away with the match, 2-0, and now has a 98 percent chance to advance. I don’t have much to say about Porto, so I want to leave room at the top in case you guys do, then we can get to Chelsea coach Thomas Tuchel’s disciples.
tchow: Chelsea should get deducted goals just for playing in those kits. That’s my only thought on this game.
ryan: Porto … kinda good? It deserved at least a draw from this one, if not better.
grace: I said Porto wasn’t very good a few chats ago, but it was pretty decent here, I thought, and the scoreline didn’t reflect the performance.
tchow: Porto looked decent, but it’s really hard to win a game when your 38-year-old center back registers the most shots on the team.
grace: In terms of Chelsea, this still feels like a really disjointed side. The front three of Kai Havertz-Timo Werner-Mason Mount had some individual moments, but the link-up play was hardly visible. I know it’s very early, but it’s hard to see clear attacking patterns from Tuchel yet.
ryan: Chelsea didn’t really create much at all until Ben Chilwell dribbled into the goal at the end of the game.
I feel similarly about Chelsea as I do with City. Since Tuchel took over, Chelsea has attempted a similar type of extreme control that City does, but in this one, it didn’t create much, and it gave up some good chances to Porto. Winning is the only analytic that doesn’t matter, I guess.
grace: I didn’t like Tuchel’s setup at all here. The space was always wide, but the wing backs hardly exploited that space until right at the end. It all felt very static.
tchow: Tuchel’s Chelsea or Zidane’s Madrid, who is more boring?
ryan: Tuchel’s Chelsea. Zidane’s Madrid has Vini Jr.
cwick: This boring team is almost certain to become a Champions League semifinalist, though. Does Chelsea have the talent to pull off a real run, regardless of the tactical confusion?
grace: Chelsea should go through, and yeah, it could beat Real Madrid.
ryan: If Chelsea gets to the semis, it’s easily good enough to win. If anything, this week just showed us that everyone is flawed.
tchow: I discounted Chelsea against Atlético. I’m afraid to discount Chelsea again. It definitely has the talent, but all the remaining teams have talent too, once you get to the semifinals.
grace: My confidence in all of these teams is low, which means I’m going to be wrong about one of them.
cwick: A banner year for soccer!
tchow: When no one is great, everyone can be good.
cwick: Except for Arsenal:
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