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Liverpool’s Loss, Atalanta’s Domination And Other Wild Champions League Action

Editor’s note: This chat was held before news that the Champions League might be suspended, with two teams entering quarantine.

cwick (Chadwick Matlin, deputy editor): All, we’ve gathered again to fete the first four teams to make it into the quarterfinals of the Champions League: Atalanta, RB Leipzig, Paris Saint-Germain and … [checks notes] Atlético Madrid?

Let’s start there, with Atlético Madrid’s rather sudden dismantling of Liverpool’s defense and Adrian’s sense of self, winning the game 3-2 and the tie 4-2. Marcos Llorente scored both of the goals that mattered in extra time for Atleti. It’s tempting to chalk this up to Liverpool’s poor play in the last few weeks, but as someone who watches too much Liverpool, that seems off — they were quite good tonight. Adrian and five seconds of Jordan Henderson’s defense just weren’t. Am I wrong?

ryan (Ryan O’Hanlon, FiveThirtyEight contributor): Nope. Outside of the finishing, this was one of Liverpool’s best performances of the season.

grace (Grace Robertson, FiveThirtyEight contributor): Atlético’s amazing goalkeeper makes a string of excellent saves, while Liverpool’s amazing goalkeeper was out injured. That’s just the way the ball bounced.

ryan: Atlético’s defense was brilliant … in the first leg. It hung on for dear life in this one.

tchow (Tony Chow, video producer): Watching as a neutral, this game was SO fun.

cwick: Andy Robertson’s birthday curse is real. He missed a couple that he converts on other days.

grace: And the day before my birthday, as well. It’s just rude of them, frankly.

tchow: Oh yeah … I’m sorry everyone. But you Liverpool fans didn’t even want the Champions League this season, right? It was all about the domestic league?

grace: FiveThirtyEight’s model has Liverpool generating 3.6 shot-based expected goals and 4.0 non-shot expected goals. Realistically, you can’t do much more than that.

ryan: And we should note that they did it against one of the two or three best defensive teams on the planet.

cwick: I am on record as saying that championships don’t matter (a chat for another day), so it’s always all gravy, from where I sit.

tchow: That’s the spirit, Chad.

grace: The “narrative” also doesn’t matter, but Liverpool had already won the Champions League last year, so the “narrative” didn’t demand another win.

cwick: They’re still the reigning champions!

May we all always be defending one — and only one — championship in our lives. Defending on two fronts is too much work.

What stage of grief am I at? Bargaining?

tchow: Still kudos to Atlético Madrid though. Taking down the champions of Europe is no small feat. And this isn’t even Diego Simeone’s best Atlético team.

grace: Competing on multiple fronts in England is hard.

ryan: Simeone still hasn’t lost a knockout tie to a team that didn’t employ Cristiano Ronaldo.

tchow: From where I stand, you all seem to be taking this loss pretty well. My guess is you’re all still basking in the joy of last season’s win and this season’s soon-to-be league title. Winning must feel so good.

grace: The only question for Liverpool is whether sporting events in England get canceled before the title is mathematically confirmed.

I remember Ryan tweeted ages ago about which manager the human race would want if we had to win a game against aliens. If a 0-0 draw is enough to keep humanity alive, we’re hiring Simeone.

cwick: After the game, the B/R Live (still can’t believe that’s a phrase we say now) announcers were saying that Atlético won because of Simeone, and the grit and determination and the blah blah he gives the team. But did you see evidence of Simeone’s legend today?

tchow: He made some really good subs.

grace: Yes and no. I think they had stretches where they really were compact and disciplined, but they still needed to lean on Jan Oblak a lot.

ryan: We saw Simeone’s legend in the first leg. They kept Liverpool from getting an away goal with some incredible deep defending that really limited Liverpool’s chances. Liverpool steamrolled them on Wednesday, though. The chances just didn’t go in. Shit happens, sometimes.

grace: In some reality where Oblak gets injured in training and Antonio Adan starts in goal, I’m very confident that Liverpool would go through.

cwick: Eleven shots on target from Liverpool. Nine saves from Oblak.

tchow: Before this game, he had to make only 11 saves total in the Champions League this season. This was a very uncharacteristic Atlético Madrid defensive performance. That happens when you play Liverpool.

cwick: All right, so if this game didn’t confirm the narrative about Simeone, did it change the narrative about Liverpool at all?

ryan: Not to keep going back to the first leg — or, well, to exactly do that — but Atleti didn’t concede a single shot on target at home.

grace: This is the kind of game where I would like to see the data from xG models that include player positions. It feels like Liverpool’s xG would drop at least a little bit.

tchow: What is the current narrative about Liverpool though? Do people really believe they’re struggling?

grace: I think Liverpool struggled to control counters in extra time. The consensus in recent weeks has been that Henderson’s absence was costing a lot in midfield control, but he played his match and Liverpool still gave up late chances.

tchow: It feels like its a case of recency bias. That Watford loss JUST happened, and now this, but I don’t think anyone thinks they’re not still one of the best teams in Europe.

ryan: Yeah, if anything, I think it should’ve reasserted the narrative about Liverpool … being great. They’d lost three of four, including a truly awful performance against Watford and a kind of “meh” showing against Bournemouth. This was total dominance against a very good team.

grace: But overall, no, this shouldn’t change the perception about Liverpool.

ryan: It did make me reappreciate Henderson. The team really does seem better with him as the defensive midfielder instead of Fabinho, which is not something I would’ve expected to be saying this time last year!

tchow: With its FA Cup exit, you could say that Liverpool is no longer competing in ANY competitions, no? (They still have a greater than 99 percent chance of winning the EPL, according to FiveThirtyEight.)

grace: There was a tweet a few months ago calling Henderson the English Schweinsteiger, and I haven’t been able to unsee it.

tchow: I can’t wait to see Henderson in the MLS!

cwick: Let’s also talk about home-field advantage. Given the away goal rule, it seems like it’s unfair that Atlético got extra time to accumulate away goals. Who is brave enough to defend the away-goal rule??

ryan: It’s great! Soccer is the only major sport where a team can’t go from losing to winning with a single score. The away-goal rule gives us that — even though it can also be intolerably cruel.

grace: Let’s say the away-goal rule doesn’t exist and a game goes to extra time. One side gets to play 120 minutes at home, while the other only has 90. Without away goals, we’d have more penalty shootouts, which are fun but random. So it depends what you value.

tchow: The away-goal rule is awesome but not perfect. I’m just spitballing here, but what if during the knockouts, if the first leg ends in a draw in regular time, they also get the extra 30 minutes?

cwick: But should one side’s goals count more when they get the extra 30 minutes? I feel like playing at home but having the goals count equal is far less of an advantage.

ryan: Omar Chaudhuri, who works for the consultancy 21st Club, did some research into this many years ago. Back in 2013, he looked at what happened when knockout ties went to extra time. It’s a small sample, but basically, the results were pretty evenly divided between penalties, home-team victories and away-team victories. Based on that, it seems like away goals actually even out the advantage of the extra minutes at home.

cwick: You people and your data.

ryan: Listen, I hate that I can’t use it to make excuses for my favorite team.

grace: Breaking: Editor at FiveThirtyEight hates data.

cwick: My colleagues have lost count of the number of times I have screamed just that in the newsroom.

ryan: Chad is actually David Fizdale.

cwick: Do I have some James Dolan stories for you.

grace: Chad is a Proper Football Man.

cwick: It took a few chats, but we’re all revealing our true selves at last.

tchow: Analytics already ruined baseball and basketball. Let’s hope it doesn’t destroy football.

grace: The article a few years ago scolding Liverpool’s Michael Edwards for using stats in recruitment was actually ghostwritten by Chad.

ryan: Atlético’s win today proved that analytics don’t work, imo.

tchow: Like VAR, like financial fair play, the away-goal rule is one of those things where you love it as a fan when it helps your team and wish it to hell when it doesn’t. Too far?

cwick: Let’s move on to PSG, which came back from a 2-1 hole to deconstruct Borussia Dortmund and move on to the quarterfinals. Neymar spent a lot of time on the ground, sniffing grass, and Emre Can was handed a red card for shoving him down. He also scored and was very involved in the buildup.

It’s our first time really discussing Neymar’s play (as opposed to his second-fiddleness), so did you see a guy who could lead a team to the title, or a guy who can’t put it all together when surrounded by teammates? (Kylian Mbappé was on the bench for more than half the game.)

ryan: Mbappé Ewing Theory?

grace: Neymar had one open-play shot in that game and scored it. But that’s the kind of big moment people have been asking of him for a while.

ryan: PSG’s strength is that they don’t need a single player to lead them to a title, though. This is gonna sound silly, but when you have Mbappé and Neymar, and then Mbappé gets sick/hurt … you still have Neymar.

tchow: I wonder if Thomas Tuchel’s system is the best fit for Neymar’s style. Based on talent alone, I think Neymar is someone who can lead a team to a title. (Ligue 1 titles count!)

grace: And on his infamous sister’s birthday as well! What a gift.

ryan: I don’t think it’s a tactics issue or anything with Neymar. The guy is an absolutely incredible soccer player — as long as he’s on the field. Outside of Messi, there’s really no one else who combines the same level of scoring, creation, dribbling, passing and ball progression.

grace: I never expected Tuchel to be the guy to do this, but with Idrissa Gueye, they’ve become significantly more resilient in games like this.

ryan: Remember the joke about Leicester’s midfield three about Leicester’s midfield three of Drinkwater and Kante on both sides? Gueye is that for PSG.

grace: They had less possession, fewer shots but the better chances (1.2 xG to Dortmund’s 0.4). This is just a legit grind-it-out performance they weren’t supposed to be capable of.

cwick: Meanwhile, Ryan, I assume you and your Norwegian demigod, Erling Haaland, are still on good terms?

ryan: He … didn’t take a single shot. Might be time for him to retire.

tchow: Overrated.

ryan: Would not start for the USMNT.

tchow: I, for one, never rated him, to be clear.

grace: He’s a 19-year-old trying to play a 17-year-old’s game.

ryan: Dortmund completed 144 passes in the attacking third to PSG’s 55, and yet PSG created the better chances. PSG’s defense deserves some credit for that. Literally no one had been able to slow down Haaland until today.

tchow: In all seriousness, though, we had them favored against PSG before the Round of 16 started. With that attack, Dortmund should still be competing in the Champions League AND the Bundesliga, and yet…

cwick: We haven’t talked at all about the team with the most goals scored this round: Atalanta! The Italian minnows are the most unheralded team left in the tournament. What should our readers know about them?

ryan: That Josip Iličić is now the best player in the world.

grace: They play very pretty football. If you like aesthetically pleasing teams, you should like them.

ryan: They’re also, uh, analytically pleasing, too. They have a massive lead in the Serie A xG table.

tchow: They did get the easiest draw for the first round of knockouts though.

Hi, wet blanket here.

cwick: In case readers aren’t also keeping track at home, Ryan has now called Adama Traore, Erling Haaland and Josip Iličić the greatest player in the world. Household names, all.

ryan: Spot the lies, people!

tchow: Iličić though is for real. He averages the second most shots per 90 in the Serie A (behind some Portugese player).

And he’s 32!

grace: The only good players are under 20 or over 30.

ryan: They were great last year, too, and I think that’s part of the reason the team didn’t get picked apart like Ajax last year: Their players are too old!

tchow: You know which team could use a player like Iličić right now? Tottenham.

grace: And about seven other players.

ryan: [whispers] And a new coach.

tchow: I’m learning from this chat that I should be watching a lot more Atalanta football, but going into the next round, they’re going to be one of the weaker teams, if not the weakest, according to SPI (unless Lyon find a way to beat Juventus next week). I don’t know how much of a challenge they would pose against some of these powerhouses. But I would LOVE to be proven wrong.

ryan: Allow me to pull a Chad here and say that I think the FiveThirtyEight model might be missing something on Atalanta. It takes into account player values on Transfermarkt, and since all of Atalanta’s players are old, they have lower market values. Their underlying performance has been elite since the start of last season.

cwick: So I’m hearing that some among us think Atalanta should put up a real challenge to whoever they draw next, and this wasn’t all Valencia’s defensive holes. Can the same be said about RB Leipzig?

grace: I think both Leipzig are legit and Tottenham is a big mess.

tchow: This is going to be my favorite part of the chat. I can tell already.

grace: For all the talk of Spurs’ missing attackers, that doesn’t appear the actual issue. They just have no midfield control.

tchow: And no defense. And a declining keeper.

ryan: Tottenham is awful. It was almost like they didn’t realize that they had to win the game on Tuesday. They have injuries, but c’mon! They took six shots in a must-win elimination game.

grace: They conceded 3.3 shot-based xG against Burnley. Burnley!

No offence to any Burnley fans reading.

grace: Their various passing midfielders — Giovani Lo Celso, Tanguy Ndombele and Harry Winks — look like they need a dominating defensive midfielder alongside them. And those players don’t grow on trees.

tchow: I think in today’s football, a solid dominant defensive midfielder is being asked to do way too many different things. Maybe that is what makes them so rare?

grace: José Mourinho had this issue at Man United where Nemanja Matic just didn’t have the mobility he offered at Chelsea, and the side couldn’t gain midfield control. Unless they can pull a rabbit out of a hat in the transfer market, the problem will persist.

It’s getting to a point I think where teams are trying to cram more creative players into the midfield, that the DM is being asked to clean up everything and very few humans have the ability to do it. While also not being a black hole in possession.

tchow: It feels like every transfer season, there’s one or two DMs that get bandied around as the must-have player, and I can’t remember that last one to really pan out and live up to expectations. Where does William Carvalho even play now?

grace: The alternate approach is Liverpool, where the midfield is almost entirely industrious and less creative.

Carvalho is at Betis.

tchow: Wait. N’Golo Kante panned out. But how many Kantes are out there?

grace: I say he’s “at Betis,” but he’s not playing much.

ryan: Well, Leicester replaced Kante with Wilifried Ndidi, who is absolutely one of the few guys who can do the job on his own.

tchow: Maybe the trick is to poach Leicester’s scout.

grace: PSG went all in on Gueye because they correctly recognized how rare these guys are.

cwick: This is an incredible discussion of RB Leipzig.

tchow: Here’s what I’ll say for Leipzig. Timo Werner had an incredible audition for Liverpool. Eric Dier could not keep track of him. Maybe that says more about Dier, but Werner looked goooood.

ryan: I think you can tie Leipzig in here. They’re sort of been a breeding ground for the modern style midfielder — pressing, vertical passing — but the midfield this season is a little less spectacular than usual. It’s Liverpool-esque in a very different way.

grace: And secret stats superstar Christopher Nkunku did not.

tchow: I was really surprised when PSG let Nkunku go, but maybe they were onto something.

grace: Nkunku is near a full goal+assist per 90 minutes this season in the Bundesliga. I’m pretty sold on him.

tchow: But he’s 22, Grace. Past his prime.

cwick: AND before it.

cwick: Now that we are talking about players I’ve never heard of, I think we can call it a day? We’ll be back in two weeks to talk about how all of global soccer has been canceled.

grace: Maybe they can start airing repeats from the early 2000s while the sport is canceled and we can all see how much things have changed since then.

cwick: Tony, care to defend 2000s Arsenal?

ryan: We were so close to not mentioning Arsenal. So close.

tchow: Invincibles don’t need defending. Something you all probably wouldn’t understand.

Check out our latest soccer predictions.

Chadwick Matlin was a deputy managing editor at FiveThirtyEight.

Tony Chow is a video producer for FiveThirtyEight.

Grace Robertson is a soccer writer based in the United Kingdom. She writes for a number of sites including StatsBomb.

Ryan O’Hanlon is a writer and editor living in Los Angeles. He publishes a twice-a-week newsletter about soccer called No Grass in the Clouds.