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.
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.
Again, this improvement in attack looks less like a fluke and more like something the manager helped to engineer. Pardew is far from a radical or innovative tactician, but he has shown the key managerial ability to tailor relatively simple systems that get the most out of his best players.
At both clubs, Pardew recognized that his strongest attacking players, midfielders Moussa Sissoko at Newcastle and Yannick Bolasie at Palace, were most effective with the ball at their feet in the open field. He therefore constructed counterattacking setups aimed at striking quickly, tactics that played easily to his players’ strengths.
The statistics bear this out. Not only did Pardew’s sides create more shots from dangerous positions, but they created more shots off fast-moving, direct attacks.
For now, talk of a crisis looks overblown. Manchester City may be on a 4-3-5 run, but the club’s goal difference over that span is plus-six (21-15). The bad stretch has been marked by an inability to pull out close wins while running roughshod over weaker teams in victories. The other issue has been losses in which Manchester City had the better of the balance of chances. By expected goals, an estimate of chance quality based on shot location and several other factors, City has created more than its opponents in nine of these twelve matches despite claiming points from only seven of them. Some of these differences are very small, and so nine victories would be unlikely, but this shows that Manchester City’s primary problem has not been the creation of good scoring chances.