The other lesson is that the side with the next-largest budget after the top four should not lose hope. Arsenal just needed Liverpool to underplay their wage bill for a few years while Wenger steered his side to 70-point seasons, which was enough to maintain the Gunners’ position in the Champions League. Last year, Liverpool didn’t need the good fortune of Manchester United having perhaps the worst points-to-wage-bill season on record, but they could have made the Champions League with a merely good season as well.
For teams on the lower end, the lift is much more strenuous. The following graph of inflation-adjusted wage bills shows just how difficult it is to build a 70-point squad without elite resources.
To estimate how much losing Messi might hurt, I ran some simulations and compared the expected points for Real Madrid and Barcelona over their next seven matches. … At full strength, Real is favored to take about one more point than Barcelona in the next seven matches — Real has slightly better stats and a slightly easier schedule. If losing Messi makes Barcelona’s attack about 30 percent worse, then the gap jumps to about four points. If Messi makes them 20 percent worse, Real should take about three more points over the next two months, and at 10 percent the gap would be two points.
This helps explain why it is so hard to identify Messi’s value from the time he is off the pitch. Because La Liga is so unequal and Barcelona so good, Barca remains strongly favored in most of its matches even if the club is significantly weakened. The expected point gaps can be measured on the fingers of one hand, even in scenarios where Messi’s effect on his team’s quality is legitimately massive. Unless the loss of Messi causes an unexpected, utter disaster, Barcelona should be easily within striking distance of the title when its superstar returns.
I found 12 clubs who had similarly good underlying numbers but a gap between real and expected goals of at least five. Those teams historically bounced back strongly from their slow starts. Of the 12, 10 clubs finished in a higher league position than they were in at the six-week point; only one finished lower.
This group includes some of the great comeback stories of the last five years. Udinese marched from 20th at the end of Sept. 2010 to finish fourth in Serie A. Arsenal roared back to third place and another Champions League berth after a slow start to their 2011 Premier League campaign. Everton and Marseille both went from 20th to the top half of their leagues, while Paris Saint-Germain and AC Milan won their league titles going away after facing some early competition.
Instead of discarding what worked well, Tuchel has added improved possession attacking and positional play to the side’s arsenal without diminishing their strengths. (For more on Tuchel’s “positional play” style of attacking, see this analysis from Tom Payne.) While Dortmund only drew with Hoffenheim on Wednesday, the club’s one goal exemplifies what Tuchel has added. With Hoffenheim trying to sit back and defend a precious one-goal lead, Dortmund strung together multiple passes, switching the point of attack and then finding a way through Hoffenheim’s back line for a Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang big chance.
These sorts of attacks, where Dortmund create chances from established deep possession, are new. I created a stat for chances off established possession, tracking attacking moves to see if a club completed four passes within the final 40 yards without passing the ball out of the attacking zone. Under Jurgen Klopp, Dortmund tended to be in the upper-middle of the pack in shots from established final 40 possession. Suddenly this year Dortmund are elite.
In the weighted average, these 50 players scored about 52 goals above expectation for Real Madrid or Barcelona, and they scored about 41 goals above expectation for other clubs. This result suggests that most—perhaps 75 to 80 percent—of the “superteam” effect is a relatively simple equation. Real and Barca spend large amounts of money to buy players who are excellent finishers as well as being elite in other aspects of the game, and there is nothing surprising about guys who cost over $50 million clinically dispatching a few extra chances. They do the same playing for Udinese, Arsenal or Valencia.
While this is broadly true at the population level, there is one striking exception. Gonzalo Higuaín has simply been a different kind of player since leaving Real Madrid for Napoli two years ago. He had been one of the most deadly finishers in La Liga, scoring 75 non-penalty goals from 263 shots, beating his expected goals (58 xG) by nearly 20. For Napoli Higuaín has scored 27 of 191 shots, exactly matching his 21 expected goals. Indeed, Higuaín accounts for a significant amount of the variation between “superteam” finishing and “other club” finishing. While greats like Gareth Bale, Luis Suárez and Zlatan Ibrahimovic have maintained finishing rates around their career averages, this is not true for every player equally.
Now, there is nothing necessarily wrong with not being Bayer Leverkusen (he said, grudgingly). The counter-press need not be an attacking strategy. It can stop opposition attacks before they begin and enable a slower possession-based game. That is precisely how van Gaal’s press works. It is debatable whether this is the best way to use a press and whether Manchester United’s attack is working at full capacity. But the numbers and my observation both suggest the reason United are not replicating the exciting gegenpressing style is because they just don’t want to.
By contrast, Tottenham Hotspur look like a club that is trying but failing. Under Mauricio Pochettino, a manager who learned these tactics playing for Marcelo Bielsa in Argentina, Spurs have created a good number of attacks at speed (32) and stand third in the league with 89 shots attempted early in possession. These are not world-beating numbers, but they reflect a club trying to speed up the tempo of the match with their press.
Following their short decline and the advent of financial fair play regulations, Chelsea changed their transfer strategy drastically. A focus on younger players to both rebuild the squad and to sell to fund other purchases developed. So far, the strategy looks a strong one.
Manchester City’s graph bears some worrying similarities to what Chelsea looked like before the decline. The club is not buying the foundation of a new club in the age 20-22 subset, and their purchasing is focusing even more strongly on the late peak 26-28 age group. While City at first seemed to have learned some of the lessons of Chelsea’s poor spending strategy, their recent acquisitions reflect a new form of risk-taking.