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Real Madrid Is Sorta Screwed

cwick (Chadwick Matlin, deputy editor): After a scintillating two weeks of Champions League soccer, FiveThirtyEight’s soccer chat braintrust is back to discuss the new GOAT in international soccer, Liverpool’s 1-0 deficit and the over/under on the number of red cards Sergio Ramos will receive before he retires.

Guys! What a wild set of matches. Where to begin?? Probably with that Manchester City vs. Real Madrid match we just watched. The announcer said City’s comeback was “one of the most famous results in Manchester City history.” That seemed just a tad bit much to me, but what are we to make of City’s two away goals and general second half dominance?

ryan (Ryan O’Hanlon, FiveThirtyEight contributor): It’s confirmation that they’re still one of the best two or three teams in the world, no? They have the best expected numbers in the Premier League, the FiveThirtyEight model has ‘em as the best, and they just deservedly beat arguably the no. 1 team in Spain … IN Spain.

tchow (Tony Chow, video producer): Our model had Manchester City favored to move onto the quarterfinals before the Round of 16 even started. Based on SPI, they are a better team than Real Madrid this season. So while the result might be surprising at first, I don’t think we should be TOO surprised. Real Madrid are in real trouble though. Only a 10 percent chance to move on now, according to our model.

grace (Grace Robertson, FiveThirtyEight contributor): The obvious take is that it’s a vindication of Pep Guardiola’s supposed overthinking of these games, but I still kind of think he got it wrong initially here. Gabriel Jesus was only in the box for that equalizer because Pep switched him to striker in the second half.

ryan: They also scored both goals after Raheem Sterling came on.

grace: Raheem Sterling: good.

tchow: Yeah, I think there is gonna be a lot of lineup/formation talk in the post-game analysis of this game. Sterling and Aguero both starting on the bench. Jesus pushed out wide. It was a strange starting XI for City.

cwick: What went wrong for Real? In watching that game it didn’t seem like they were far from City’s quality; they were in control for big stretches of the match. Was it just that City’s skill players delivered more often than Real’s?

grace: The thing is Real just did what Zidane always does for big Champions League games, but their players aren’t as good as two years ago.

tchow: You could also look at questionable lineup choices for Zidane too. Does anyone know why Kroos was on the bench?

grace: I was waiting to see how this new Madrid would fair against a top non-Spanish side, and the answer is they’re kind of ok?

Tony, I don’t know if Kroos and Modric together still have enough energy at this point in such a high intensity game like this. I get it to an extent.

ryan: City weren’t dominant in terms of possession or space control. Their non-penalty xG was almost even with Madrid’s. But they out xG’d them, 3.2 to 1.4. In other words: you’re right, Chad. They were better at turning final-third possession into quality shots. City, after all, are better than everyone at turning final-third possession into quality shots.

tchow: Real Madrid also started the game pressing really high and offering Ederson almost no space to play out from the back. That makes for tired legs in the second half against a fresh Raheem Sterling. You’re asking for trouble.

grace: They were trying to use the counter a lot, but the only really fast guy in that attack is Vinicius, who is still a kid in terms of some of his decision making.

cwick: And now Ramos will miss the second leg thanks to his 26th career red card. This comes, of course, after he (intentionally?) missed the second leg against Ajax last year, a match Madrid lost 4-1. (God, I miss 2019 Ajax.)

tchow: The answer to “what went wrong for Real?” is often “Sergio Ramos”.

ryan: I’m trying to think of what the equivalent of a red card is in other sports: A 100-yard holding penalty? Sergio Ramos is like if the best offensive lineman in the NFL just also got a 100-yard holding penalty a couple times a season.

cwick: He’s the Rasheed Wallace of international soccer.

ryan: Evil Rasheed Wallace.

cwick: Cards Don’t Lie

grace: Ramos has an absolute philosophy that it’s only a crime if you get caught. And he got caught.

Zidane doesn’t seem to think much of him, but I do kind of wonder if this would’ve been a good game for Luka Jovic.

tchow: Grace, Zidane seems way too reliant on Benzema but I agree, why sign a player like Jovic if you don’t want to play him?

ryan: There were even rumors that Zidane wanted to get rid of him before the season began!

grace: In a game where they needed pace to expose City’s back line, Benzema just looked old.

tchow: It’s also worth pointing out that Madrid were without Hazard due to injury.

cwick: Readers, we should note that Tony named his son after Hazard.

grace: There’s Eden, Thorgan, Kylian … and Tony’s son.

tchow: If I have two more sons, I already have names picked out.

ryan: The story with Madrid this season, though, has been their defense. It’s one of the two or three best in the world re: goal prevention. That … was not the case today.

grace: To be fair, it tends not to be the case when teams play Man City.

cwick: Ok, let’s move on from the soap opera of City and Madrid, and to perhaps the other most impressive performance — Bayern’s demolition of Chelsea. But now Robert Lewandowski is injured and will miss the second leg. They have a 99 percent chance to move on, though our model doesn’t know about Lewandowski. Bayern seems ready to compete deep into this tournament — anyone want to tell me otherwise?

grace: SPI rates Bayern in the City/Liverpool tier and I basically agree.

ryan: The only reservation I have with Bayern is that they haven’t been great when they’ve played against top teams. They played roughly even with Leipzig in both matches this season. And last year, Liverpool whooped them in the Round of 16. Small sample, but that’s what this tournament is.

tchow: Lewandowski is only going to be out four weeks. I have more concerns about their Bundesliga campaign than I do their Champions Leagues hopes. They’ll be fine against Chelsea next month without him (famous last words).

grace: The next round starts in April, so he should be fine by then assuming he recovers properly.

tchow: Bayern also have the GOAT, Serge Gnabry. They’ll be FINE!

grace: They have low-key super-hot Coutinho just sitting on the bench. They’re deep.

tchow: But to answer Chad’s question seriously, I would bet on Bayern making a very deep run in the Champions League this season. A Robben-less Bayern team got younger, faster, but maybe not better looking. And yea, like Grace said, they are DEEEEEEEP.

cwick: Ok, rather than dwell on Bayern let’s then shift to the other team in that top tier: Liverpool. We are biased when it comes to Liverpool — Tony irrationally hates them. Otherwise, the rest of us Reds are very sober-minded when discussing their prospects. They went down 1-0 to Atletico Madrid after Atletico scored an early goal and parked the bus. And now the ostensible best team in England have “only” a 54 percent chance of making it to the next round. Anyone care to venture that they’re in real trouble?

ryan: It kind of reminds me of last year, when Atletico beat Juventus in the first leg … and then got crushed in Italy.

grace: I think the case against Liverpool is that Atleti are the best team in the world at playing with a 1-0 lead.

tchow: The best, least-fun to watch team in the world when playing with a 1-0 lead.

grace: But ultimately, Liverpool are reasonably well suited to the task. Liverpool play against a lot of low blocks in England — though none of them are as good as Atletico — and have figured out a solution with Trent Alexander-Arnold becoming a wide playmaker. Expect a lot of the full backs having the ball in wide areas. And Liverpool’s fullbacks are pretty good!

ryan: I do think that Atletico are uniquely well equipped to deal with the fullbacks. They love defending crosses!

grace: I think the crossfield switches will be a more important feature than the crosses here.

ryan: They crossed the ball a ton in the first leg, and it did not work.

cwick: I’ve been trying to figure out what’s going on with all these close matches Liverpool has been playing, and it does seem as though they’ve gotten unlucky. At least judging by xG, that is. Their eeked-out wins over West Ham and Norwich were blowouts in expected goals. But the Jordan Henderson injury really hurts if Liverpool is going to throw as many people forward as possible to get through Atleti’s defensive formation. As does a still-mystifying Naby Keita, who just cannot put it all the way together.

grace: The two weeks of the year when Naby Keita is 100 percent fit are pure joy.

tchow: I’m always nervous for teams that go home in the 2nd leg being down 1-0 (compared to going away). That away goal rule makes Atletico’s job seem so much easier. Not sure that checks out, but it’s often how I feel.

cwick: Barcelona thought the same thing before arriving at Anfield last year, Tony. But then…

grace: They don’t have the individual quality, but it’s hard for me to imagine Atletico having the mental fatigue Barcelona had in the second half at Anfield.

ryan: The 1-0 puts this in the “shit happens” range where Liverpool get eliminated. But they really should be able to put in the kind of performance that typically overturns the 1-0. Plus, Liverpool have been secretly terrible on the road in Europe under Jurgen Klopp.

cwick: Especially if Klopp takes his foot off the gas in the EPL and rests some players (though that doesn’t seem likely).

cwick: OK, I have asked Ryan to be patient for long enough, it’s time to talk about Dortmund vs. PSG, which Dortmund won 2-1. Which is to say, it’s time for Ryan to talk about Erling Haaland.

grace: Kicking the ball is important in this sport and Haaland is good at it.

tchow: #Analysis

cwick: Grace gets it.

ryan: We MIGHT — MIGHT — be seeing the beginnings of the best soccer player of all time. Probably not! But the fact that it cannot be ruled out tells you everything you need to know about this guy.

grace: I keep looking for something he isn’t good at, and I keep not finding it. And he was born about 20 miles away from where I grew up, which is the important thing obviously.

tchow: I know Grace was joking but Haaland’s rise and the conversation around it was comically simple. I think pundits and commentators sometimes twist and turn to try to explain to casual fans why someone is good or does something different. When you hear people talk about Haaland, it’s just simply “he’s good” and that’s all you need to know really.

“What’s his xG?” Good. “How’s his weak foot?” Good. “How’s his finishing?” Good — but when we say good, you know we mean UNFUCKINGBELIEVABLE.

grace: He’s got years to figure out what he is, right now we can just see that basically all the raw tools he could ever hope for are there.

tchow: Poor PSG.

grace: PSG are many things but “poor” is not one, I don’t think.

tchow: Just kidding. No one should be feeling sorry for PSG.

cwick: Another team for which you own a kit, we should note.

tchow: The first PSG-Jordan collab is a top-5 kit, Chad. I HAD to.

grace: Those PSG kits are some of the nicer ones out there.

ryan: Haaland > PSG kits. Head in the game, you guys!

tchow: Can the next chat just be about kits? I could go for hours.

cwick: What are the early signs of Haaland’s greatness, Ryan?

ryan: He has 15 non-penalty goals in just eight combined starts in the Champions League and Bundesliga. He’s scoring at rate that is like 150 percent of what Messi does. And he doesn’t turn 20 until July. He’s way ahead of his expected goals, but even his xG is better than all of the top strikers in the world. Again, he is 19.

cwick: PSG has a 45 percent chance of advancing, and I do wonder whether this is a passing of the guard moment. If Haaland’s band of misfits topple PSG, will Dortmund finally be known as a top-flight club to more than just the hipster soccer types?

grace: Well they’re almost certainly selling Jadon Sancho this summer, and probably selling Haaland in 2021. I don’t think their business model is that of a superclub.

ryan: Yeah, I think they’re what they’ve always been: base-line of like the 10th- or 12th-best club in the world that can shoot above or slightly below that in a given year, depending on what prospects they have.

tchow: Exactly. They have never held onto a superstar or a superstar-to-be.

Cwick: That was a very gentle “no,” everyone, thank you.

ryan: If Haaland keeps this up, they absolutely can win the Champions League though.

tchow: Funny you should say, Ryan, our Global Soccer Rankings rank them…..8th. So they’re arguably better on paper than on general consensus this season at least.

ryan: In a knockout tournament, tactics and underlying numbers don’t matter as much when you have someone who can score goals like him.

grace: Thing is they’re smashing xG on the attacking side, 65 goals in Bundesliga from 42.5 xG according to FBRef, but that’s kind of what coach Lucien Favre does. I still think Dortmund have a tendency to be a little too open in games that will eventually cost them.

tchow: I was trying to go on Football-Reference just now to see Haaland’s page and Chrome just crashed, so that tells you something.

ryan: That’s because I have it open in 500 separate windows, Tony.

cwick: What still isn’t clicking for PSG?

ryan: I thought PSG were fine against Dortmund. They just got smashed by Thor’s younger brother. They nabbed an away goal, and presumably Thomas Tuchel will play more of his good attackers at home. I wouldn’t write them off yet.

tchow: My hot take on PSG is always that they’re in too easy a league to make them competitive in Europe.

ryan: Maybe that’s why Liverpool lost, too.

tchow: Ouch. Whoa. OUCH!

grace: They can certainly go through, but they never look like a hugely cohesive side. Maybe that’s the individuals or Tuchel or not having a harder league, but the team never seems like a unit.

ryan: Real Madrid won three Champions Leagues in a row with a team of individuals, though. In the Champions League, it works!

tchow: Ryan, you’re saying if Kylian Mbappé really wants to win Champs League, he should go to Real Madrid? I’m glad we’re on the same page.

grace: I think Tuchel is also a little too keen on constantly switching formations. You’re going to win Ligue 1 anyway, so spend the first half of the year building a coherent approach for the CL knockouts. Tuchel might actually be the guy people accuse Guardiola of being.

ryan: Should we start a list of the teams Tony DOESN’T root for? Might be easier.

grace: We all know Mbappe is heading to Anfield.

tchow: Liverpool can’t sign Mbappé AND Sancho. ………can they?

grace: Smash cut to Liverpool signing no one again.

ryan: They’re young. They’d be OK with being second-choice for a couple years.

cwick: Timo Werner is the new hot rumor!

tchow: Timo should play in the EPL. I have always believed this.

grace: Werner is past it at the ripe old age of 23. It’s a 19-year-old’s sport now.

ryan: What about Messi at Anfield? He can opt out at the end of the season …

cwick: We were so good in the first chat about avoiding Liverpool talk…

tchow: Ok stop it. Just stop now. Can I leave this chat? Is that allowed? How do I leave?

cwick: Your contract says you can’t opt out until june, Tony.

grace: Sorry, this chat is the Hotel California.

cwick: Let’s move on to the last remaining titan in the tournament: Barcelona (sorry Atalanta). They drew 1-1 at Napoli, and things seem fine for them going forward? They have a 77 percent chance to win the second leg and an 86 percent chance to move on. Did you guys see anything meaningfully concerning with Barcelona?

grace: I was surprised how flummoxed they seemed by Napoli just playing a compact shape without the ball and letting them have possession. It’s early days for coach Quique Setien, but they still don’t have much of a plan with the ball beyond giving it to Messi.

ryan: They completed 724 passes and took eight shots. They already complete way more passes per shot than any team in Europe. But this was a new extreme.

tchow: My main concern if I’m Barcelona is how soon can we get Luis Suarez back.

grace: Yeah, I don’t think Suarez has been great the last two years or so but whatever they’re doing with Messi and Griezmann right now isn’t working.

ryan: It feels like the sport has moved beyond brute-force possession play, but it’s almost like Barca watched Spain at the 2018 World Cup and said, “Yeah, that — but more of it!”

tchow: I agree Suarez shouldn’t be the answer at No. 9 for much longer, but he at least still scores goals. Setien has been playing some combo of Messi and Griezmann, either both up top or one at the 9 and the other on the wing with someone like Vidal supporting, and I don’t think that’s sustainable.

ryan: Then again, “always have the ball and hope Messi does something incredible” is not the worst strategy.

grace: When you have Messi, I’d say “just hope for Messi to do something amazing” basically is the worst strategy with the resources.

ryan: Well, it’s the worst strategy for a team with Barcelona’s resources. They’re the richest team in the history of the sport.

grace: I do think they have been unfortunate with Ousmane Dembele’s injury problems. If he’s there to run into wide areas and stretch the play, I don’t think they have the same issues.

ryan: Their recent transfer record is pretty rough. Three 100-million-plus signings — Griezmann, Dembele, and Coutinho — and not one of them has come close to working out.

tchow: 100 percent agree Grace. He hasn’t been the amazing signing I thought he would be coming over from … you guessed it, Dortmund. But he still offered Barcelona a much better shape and ability to play through the wings.

cwick: Yeah, I wonder if the success of the young kids around Europe — Haaland, Sancho, Alexander-Arnold — will push Barcelona to shake up their model. They sign players like the Mets, and it’s not that they need to become the Rays or anything, but there’s got to be a way for them to find a happy medium. Like the Astros did. Bang! Barcelona should become the Astros.

tchow: What is a Mets and what is a Rays? Is Astros the people they call cheaters now I see on Twitter?

ryan: City wouldn’t be a bad model for Barca — outside of, you know, the uh, systemic book-cooking. They’ve spent a ton of money, but none of it on record-breaking guys. They spread it across a bunch of players.

tchow: If every club could buy a couple 50 million pound fullbacks, I’m sure they would.

grace: I think there is likely to be the big shift in the market in the next few years. Young players’ values going through the roof and guys over the age of 26 or so becoming much cheaper.

cwick: And in soccer you don’t have pressure from a collective bargaining agreement that artificially imbalances the market so older players get paid more.

grace: The problem Barca have is they did sign an exciting young kid in Dembele, who has just bombed. But I don’t think there was a hotter ticket than him in 2017.

tchow: I still think it’s too early to write off Dembele. Yes he’s missed a lot of games this season because of injury but he was SO good at Dortmund and I would hope Barca have an idea for how to bring him back.

ryan: I’ll admit that I thought Coutinho and Dembele were both good moves, all things considered. But you’d think for those massive fees, the downside should be a lot smaller. They really didn’t get much at all from either guy.

cwick: Messi, clearly, is the real problem.

grace: It’s time for that guy to finally produce.

ryan: Well, I DO think it’s hard to play with him … in the same way people said it was hard to play with LeBron James.

grace: Can’t play with him, can’t play without him.

cwick: Who has a unibrow in UEFA?

ryan: Neymar was kind of Messi’s Anthony Davis. Team was just fine with him in there when Messi was hurt.

grace: They had their succession plan all set with Neymar gradually taking Messi’s workload, and then the Qatari government blew it up.

tchow: Wait this got me thinking. Is Neymar the Neymar or the Messi in the Neymar/Mbappé relationship?

grace: No one wants to tell Neymar he’s the Neymar.

ryan: Neymar is the Neymar to Mbappe, but Mbappe is the Neymar to Haaland’s Messi.

cwick: 🤯

Tony Chow is a video producer for FiveThirtyEight.

Chadwick Matlin was a deputy managing editor at FiveThirtyEight.

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.

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