6 Things: Lewandowski’s Happiness, More Perplexing Barcelona Transfers, Spurs and Jose, The Rise of Valverde, Atleti’s Defense and Injury Beneficiaries

Lewandowski and Happiness

European football reporters don’t have the luxury of locker room access afforded to, say, their NBA counterparts. Occasionally, though, reporters come out with pieces that let us peek behind the curtain.

Raphael Honigstein’s piece for the Athletic on Robert Lewandowski was certainly illuminating.

The Polish striker is clearly among the most devastating players of the decade, with his peak as a striker only slightly edged by Luis Suarez in my books. For all that production Lewandowski did frustrate in the Champions League, proving a bit wasteful against the Madrid sides in the 2016 and 2018 CL semis. But his 2018-19 season was inexplicable: he only scored 19 non penalty goals in the Bundesliga despite taking 30 non-penalty expected goals worth of shots. That’s historically poor finishing.

Honigstein’s piece put everything into context. Back in 2014, despite Real Madrid’s overtures, Lewandowski decided to join Guardiola’s Bayern with hopes of winning the Champions League. Recently, club officials felt that he had regretted his decision as Madrid won the title he sought year after year. Up till his contract extension last summer, Lewandowski had began cutting an increasingly apathetic figure. He was a loner who was detrimental to team chemistry, and actively looking to leave the club.

Last summer he penned a contract extension keeping him at the club till 2023, and with no foreseeable landing spots available, decided to start giving it his all again. The striker, now a veteran, became a leader.

From Honigstein’s piece in October:

“A source close to the Bayern dressing room told The Athletic that the striker has undergone “a 180-degree turn” over the past few months, developing a novel sense of concern for the collective good.”

During matches, too, the player who was once described as “being even more selfish than Arjen Robben” by a fellow pro, has become far less egotistical. There are no more ostentatious shows of frustration when crosses don’t come his way, no more remonstrations with team-mates who shoot when they should have passed. He no longer plays his own game. Instead, there’s plenty of positivity and encouragement for his colleagues.

At the age of 31, Lewandowski’s 2019/20 season to date may have been his best ever:

From Understat: Lewandowski’s expected production is peaking.

(For more on Bayern’s resurgence read ‘How Hansi Flick Revived Bayern Munich’ by Manasvin Andra.)

Who Stands To Gain From Football’s Suspension?

With football suspended, both the Copa America and UEFA Euros have been postponed to summer 2021. Some players stand to benefit greatly.

First up are Marco Asensio, Leroy Sane and anybody else who suffered an ACL tear at the start of the season. Most complications from ACL tears nowadays are the result of rushing players back from injury. With this extra time off, the players are more likely to return to their pre-injury selves.

Harry Kane is someone else who could use this break. The once unstoppable striker has rushed himself back from injuries more than almost any other elite player in recent memory, and unlike the complications of Ousmane Dembele and James Rodriguez, Kane’s don’t explicitly seem to be the result of bad luck.

Lionel Messi also profits from this time off. After a grueling 2018/19 season followed by the Copa America last summer, Messi found himself injured upon returning to training in August. Without a proper preseason – which creates knock-on effects for the entire campaign – he has seen a small dip in his production:

From Understat: Messi’s shots and shot quality have declined.

While Messi is still superhuman, playing an international tournament for the 3rd consecutive summer would have accelerated his decline.

On a team level, Liverpool may benefit. Having been dumped out of the Champions League by Atletico Madrid, with an all but insurmountable lead in the Premier League, Klopp’s charges had nothing left to play for this season. Even if domestic football resumes, Liverpool have no need to exert themselves fully for too long. Excellence is hard to sustain by default, and every little bit of respite helps.

(I get the bulk of my injury information from Dr. Rajpal Brat, who covers a variety of sports, and highly recommend his Youtube channel.)

Barcelona’s Transfer Business Will Only Get Stranger

Football’s suspension has forced even the most financially stable of clubs to reassess their transfer activity this summer. That doesn’t bode too well for Barcelona, who’s finances are questionable to say the least. There have also been numerous reports that the club are looking to offload Arthur Melo.

Bartomeu and the board are in a tough spot. Their latest big money signing, Antoine Griezmann, has struggled for reasons that were clear even before he was signed. I personally felt that he was too talented to fail — but so far his perceived versatility has not resulted in synergy with Lionel Messi.

Spending as much as they did on Phillipe Coutinho was a bigger blunder, but at least that transfer was fueled by the Neymar money. According to the Athletic’s Dermot Corrigan, Barcelona had to borrow the entire £105 million to pay Antoine Griezmann’s release clause.

Corrigan’s piece ‘Barcelona: the richest club in the world struggling to make ends meet’ is a deep dive into the club’s troubled financial situation. Barcelona players command the highest average salary of any sports team in the world. From the piece:

“A rotating door of different sporting and technical directors, especially after Andoni Zubizarreta was fired in January 2015, also cleared a direct path from the dressing room to the president’s door.

Sergio Busquets spent much of 2016 hinting publicly that he might join Guardiola at City if Bartomeu broke a promise to significantly raise his salary. “I hope the president keeps his word,” Busquets said that February. Talks dragged on before the midfielder eventually signed a new deal that September, worth a reported £12.3 million a year.

Contract talks with Iniesta, now coming towards the end of his career, dragged through 2017. In June, the midfielder, usually exceedingly polite, emphatically denied a claim by Bartomeu that an agreement had already been reached. That October he did sign a new deal, but senior players had learned that publicly confronting Bartomeu could secure a salary “update”, and Gerard Pique and Jordi Alba were among others to follow suit.”

Lionel Messi is a genius. He is the main reason Barcelona are, at least currently, on top of La Liga for the 3rd straight season despite having serious sporting and administrative issues. His floor-raising capabilities are second to none.

Now Barcelona have to give Messi a team that can contend in the Champions League, all while managing the Griezmann debt, with few pieces that can net them significant value on the market.

In that context, the Arthur rumors make sense. The Brazilian has experienced some injury issues and hasn’t cemented his spot at Barcelona just yet. Some rumors suggest he will be sold, while others say he will be part of a swap deal to Juventus. The volume of reports suggests Barcelona are actually exploring deals involving him.

Letting go of Arthur probably won’t work out well for Barcelona. He oozes composure on the ball. The Brazilian’s limited impact – much like De Jong’s – is a symptom of Barcelona’s imbalanced squad. He is the natural successor of Xavi and Kroos as the next great controller of games. I can’t envision Barcelona getting a better player in return.

Still, stranger things have happened at the Nou Camp. Arthur or not, Barcelona will make unusual, and possibly perplexing deals in an attempt to go all-in on Messi’s final years.

Can Tottenham Succeed With Mourinho?

Nobody represents the polarized world of 21st century discourse better than Jose Mourinho. He’s either hated or beloved, with little in between. Somewhat fittingly, too — Jose has always been the type of coach who enjoys inducing this dualistic tension. When he’s happy with his personnel he extracts more than you thought capable out of his team. When he’s not, he starts running the club into the ground.

For Daniel Levy, appointing an adequate successor for Mauricio Pochettino was always going to be difficult. Going for another coach who emphasizes pressing would have been naive given that much of the squad was burned out already. A more aggressive squad overhaul would have been challenging as well; recouping fair value for players with so many miles on their legs isn’t feasible. Levy also had to replace Pochettino’s personality.

Considering the size of his deal, and the wide variety of outcomes they’ve just exposed themselves to, Spurs’ appointment of Mourinho was not the optimal choice. Now they have the task of giving him a first XI that he can fully trust, and a fairly limited budget to do so. Looking back at Mourinho’s last two jobs, however, the bar they they have to clear is not insurmountably high.

Chelsea barely cleared that bar, and got a league title off it. Not many coaches could have won a Premier League title with Gary Cahill and a 34 year old John Terry as the center back pairing. That team was devastating offensively for 6 months, with a defensive liability in Cesc Fabregas playing as part of the double pivot.

Manchester United never cleared that bar. Mourinho underperformed during his final 10 months in charge, and David De Gea deserves a significant amount of credit for the team finishing 2nd. But Pogba and Bailly’s frequent injuries, more than anything, were the reason they never had a chance of riding Mourinho’s wave of momentum in the first place. This is the closest United ever got:

Tottenham’s crucial task now is giving Mourinho an XI he believes can beat anyone. Out of the existing squad: Lo Celso, Sessegnon, Son, Alli, Alderweireld, Vertonghen, Moura, and Kane/Ndombele (when fully fit) are all undoubtedly great fits. The team is a holding midfielder and perhaps a full back short.

If the club play their cards right, with a few tactical adjustments from Mourinho to boot, this reconfigured group could experience a second wave of success. Though, given Jose’s style of management, small margins on the injury front may literally end up as the difference between remarkable success and another ‘scorched-earth’ failure.

(For an honest assessment of Mourinho’s tactical evolution over the years, check out this video by Nathan Clark.)

A Star Is Born: Federico Valverde

Real Madrid were always going to struggle to replace the skills of Luka Modric, Cristiano Ronaldo, and eventually Sergio Ramos on the way to building a new team. These are generational talents for a reason. Finding direct replacements for them is challenging. But talent comes in many forms, and building a new team with different, but equally dynamic players is the best course of action.

In Modric’s case, Federico Valverde is a supremely capable replacement. While he doesn’t possess the former Ballon d’Or winner’s technical ability, he is stronger, taller and faster.

Valverde has matched, and given his role, even improved on Modric’s ridiculous defensive presence on the right flank. He enables the team to thrive in chaos, winning 50-50 duels and recycling possession with ease.

His acceleration is among the best of any midfielder:

Shaking him in small spaces is really challenging:

My favorite comp for him is some combination of peak N’Golo Kante, Arturo Vidal, and Jordan Henderson — I’d imagine the latter inspired Zidane to try Fede in this role.

As a box to box midfielder, the Uruguayan’s skills largely transcend the system he is placed in. His defensive intelligence and tenacity have a place on any team in the modern game. Valverde’s work rate played a key role in shutting down Barcelona’s Messi-Alba axis on the way to clean sheets in this season’s clasicos.

His acceleration has also enabled him to function as a ‘battering ram’ adding offensive spacing, a bit like a rim-runner in basketball. Kiyan Sobhani articulated this well:

For example, this burst forward:

Left the team in a favorable position:

He also pushes forward on the wing:

Valverde’s primarily missing composure as a passer, especially in the final third. He hasn’t made the most of the transition opportunities he creates. Against Barcelona last December, this cost the team points.

Of course, this was only his first full season in Madrid. Valverde still has time to reach his ceiling as a player. A lot of his mistakes were the result of rushing and tunnel vision, as well as a desire to defer to his more experienced colleagues. He should improve with time.

(I wrote more about how Federico Valverde transformed Zidane’s Madrid here.)

Appreciating Simeone’s Atletico Madrid

By all measures Diego Simeone has been a successful coach at Atletico Madrid. The club has come a long way financially under him, and to an extent he’s converted La Liga’s duopoly into a ‘big 3.’

While his domestic performance has been impressive, especially during the 2013/14 and 2015/16 seasons, his knockout record, given the team’s resources, defies logic.

Simeone is responsible for some of the most stunning upsets in the modern game: eliminating Barcelona and Bayern Munich from the Champions League in 2015/16, and Liverpool this season. In the 8 years he’s been at Atletico Madrid, Ronaldo’s Real Madrid and Juventus were the only teams that managed to eliminate him from Europe. In the Champions League in that time span, Atletico have conceded 1 goal in 7 combined home legs against Barcelona, Real Madrid, Juventus, Bayern Munich, and Liverpool. By shutting out the opposition at home, Simeone has successfully exploited the away goals rule.

His defensive scheming in these ties is unparalleled in the modern game. Mourinho has struggled to lock down games in the same manner since he won the treble at Inter. This is what he pulled off in the second leg against Barcelona’s historic attack in 2015/16:

Of course, the defense hasn’t always been this successful, especially away from home. Bayern dominated the second leg of the 2015/16 semifinals:

Atleti’s win at Anfield may have been the most fortunate of the bunch. If Alisson was healthy the Rojiblancos probably don’t make it through. Nevertheless, they exceeded expectations with fresh faces in defense; none of the old guard in Godin, Luis, Juanfran and Gimenez played in this tie. The first leg stands out:

Liverpool had no answers at the Wanda Metropolitano

The key takeaway from Atleti’s second legs against Bayern and Liverpool is that having Jan Oblak in goal helps. The Slovenian is perfect for Simeone’s system. Much like Liverpool with Alisson, looking at expected goals alone probably doesn’t do Atletico’s defense justice here. An analysis of post-shot xG and Oblak’s positioning would probably reveal stauncher rearguard action. Luck definitely played a role — but perhaps not as large a role as conventional probabilistic simulations suggest.

Getting a clean shot off against Atleti, and beating Oblak, is a nightmare. Last season, when Simeone’s men were eliminated by Juventus, it was only after two perfect headers in open play from Cristiano Ronaldo. The second one was almost saved. Over the years, only the crème de la crème of finishes have beaten Oblak.

I’ve long felt that one of the issues with domestic football is that it rewards flat-track bullies. The pressure to score 3 points means goalscoring is incentivized a bit more than goal prevention, and this takes away from the organic balance of the sport. Fortunately, the Champions League still rewards defensive masterminds, and Simeone’s Atletico Madrid have mastered the art of defending.

(For more of these visuals check out Statified football).