Barcelona and Bayern both go home, Brexit marches on, and oh no, we’re getting another Madrid-Madrid final, aren’t we? Here are your winners and losers from the the Champions League quarterfinals.
The best left back in the world is also the best box-to-box midfielder:
Carlo Ancelotti spent his first year at Bayern Munich teaching his players how to walk on their own after three years of Pep Guardiola’s strict positional guidelines. At Real Madrid, Zinedine Zidane’s tactics consist of him breaking a chalkboard across his knee and then yelling, “That’s what the money is for.” In a matchup of two unstructured superteams, there are talented players at every position, and the vulnerable areas in each formation change throughout the game.
On a night that featured Thomas Muller, Robert Lewandowski, Arjen Robben, Cristiano Ronaldo, and Karim Benzema, a fullback was the attacking superstar. Soccer’s still waiting for its own version of baseball’s elegant slash line, but this is easy to understand: In addition to his assist, Marcelo led all players with eight key passes and nine dribbles, and he tied for the lead with four interceptions. He had an extra 30 minutes, but no qualified player in Europe averages more than four key passes or 5.5 dribbles a game, and only Bayern’s Thiago eclipses four interceptions.
At the beginning of the decade, it briefly seemed like fullback might be the most important position on a soccer field. With teams crowding the midfield and pinching in their wingers, outside backs were the only players who could consistently find attacking space. But as more and more teams have started to press their opponents as soon as they lose the ball, that space has tightened up. Against Bayern, though, Marcelo turned back the clock by creating his own.
Loser: The Concept of Offside
Exhibits A and B:
Add those botched calls to Arturo Vidal’s questionable red card and Casemiro’s questionable non-red card, and uh, here’s a soccer meme:
More than any refereeing conspiracy, those calls just show how tight the margins are in the highest tier of European soccer. There’s nothing more resonant than a power-shifting blowout, like Bayern Munich over Barcelona in 2013 or the reverse in 2015, but most of the time, these games get decided by some totally unpredictable events. To be considered an unadulterated managerial success at one of Europe’s top clubs is to conquer the concept of random variation.
Winner: The Fourth-Best Team in England
The fairy-tale version of Leicester survived the continued existence of Jamie Vardy, but if it didn’t die when N’Golo Kanté went to Chelsea, it used its last breath to tell Claudio Ranieri to pack up his office. Except then they replaced Ranieri with Craig Shakespeare, trounced Liverpool, knocked out Champions League dark horses Sevilla, and took a manageable one-goal deficit back to Fortress King Power against Atlético Madrid.
Leicester’s whole attacking calculus is based on the other team attacking them, and Atlético Madrid, who might be the best defensive team in the world, came into the second leg not needing to score. There was a nonzero chance that both teams would spend 90 minutes staring at the ball as it sat on the center circle, waiting for someone to do something. Instead, though, Leicester actually made Diego Simeone’s side sweat.
A 26th-minute goal from Saúl meant that Leicester’s one goal wasn’t enough, thus ending their bid to become the Leicester of the Champions League. The result also guarantees that the Premier League’s top four will all be in the Champions League next year. I know at least one Liverpool fan who’d convinced himself that his team would finish in fourth but lose out on the Champions League due to another inexplicable Leicester trophy run. Outlying events will rot your brain.
This should sum it up:
After getting Messi’d by the Next Messi in the first leg against Juventus, Barcelona went back to the Camp Nou and took 19 shots, and only one of them hit the target. If the opposition is taking shots from bad scoring positions, Juventus doesn’t care how often they shoot, and Leonardo Bonucci and Co. cut Barcelona’s chance quality almost in half over two legs. That’s like forcing the San Antonio Spurs to play hero ball. In case it wasn’t already clear, Juventus belongs in the conversation with Real, Barça, and Bayern as the best club in the world, and after icing Messi and Friends over 180 minutes, they are my pick to win it all.
Barcelona will be fine, and if they beat Real Madrid this weekend, they’ll be right back in the La Liga title race. But manager Luis Enrique is on his way out — history will look back kindly on his time with the club — and for a team that can buy pretty much anyone it wants, the cupboard behind its starting 11 is surprisingly bare. Messi fixes everything, but that can’t be the answer forever.
Winner: The Striker Market
Kylian Mbappe’s gonna cool off. In Ligue 1 and the Champions League, he’s taken 51 shots and notched 17 goals. He’s scoring a third of the shots he takes; conversion rates fluctuate for basically every player other than Messi, and he still converts only around 20 percent of his chances. The 18-year-old won’t keep scoring at this rate, but he’s still getting off a good number of shots and his shot quality puts him at about 0.5 expected goals per 90 minutes. That’s not an elite number, but it’s right around where Alexis Sánchez — one of the 15 or 20 best players in the world — is for the season.
Mbappe is doing something unsustainable and he’s awesome. Oh, and he’s 18. He’s not there yet, but this dude has all the makings of a superstar. Someone is going to pay a ton of money for him this summer — just how much will be a fascinating offseason story line. On the one hand, a team will be paying for less than a full season of performance, he’s a teenager, and weird things do happen when players switch leagues. But Mbappe is already producing at a level that’d be valuable to just about any club in the world, he’s probably going to get better, and since he’s so young, you could be paying for more than a decade of world-class production at the most important position in the sport.
Last year, Gonzalo Higuaín went from Napoli to Juventus for €90 million, and the going rate for a mid-tier striker, like Islam Slimani, who moved from Sporting Lisbon to Leicester on the last day of last year’s summer transfer window, was around €35 million. With Everton’s Romelu Lukaku rumored to hit the market this summer, along with Mbappe and possibly players like Manchester City’s Sergio Aguero and Dortmund’s Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang, too, striker prices are about to get wacky.
We’ll never know what kind of an effect the attack on Borussia Dortmund’s bus had on the team’s performance against Monaco, but here’s the thing: We shouldn’t even have to think about that. Just listen to Dortmund midfielder Nuri Shahin after last week’s 3–2 loss:
Dortmund having to play a match eight days after being targeted by the attack is irresponsible enough, and UEFA forced them to play twice in that span. According to manager Thomas Tuchel, the governing body informed the club of its decision to push back the first leg only a day via text message. And UEFA issued this statement: “We were in touch with all parties and never received any information which suggested that any of the teams did not want to play.” Except Tuchel and multiple players maintain they didn’t want to play, starting keeper Roman Burki still can’t sleep, and the whole team supposedly broke into tears after last week’s loss.
So if you ever find yourself in a generous mood toward our neoliberal world and think, “You know what, maybe the influx of corporate money has actually been a good thing for my favorite sport,” remember that one of Borussia Dortmund’s starting center backs got his wrist blown up by a bomb and then someone in a suit told his teammates they had to play a game the next day.