The European Theatre
In PART 3 of our season preview, we look beyond the shores of the United Kingdom and talk La Liga, Champions League, Messi, and the impact of the Premier League’s absurd amount of television money on the footballing landscape. Click here for PART 1 and PART 2.
Matt: Now for the elephant in the room… what do you make of Messi’s hair?
Jesse: You know, for the past few years, we’ve all been asking why Messi can’t be more like Aaron Ramsey. This summer Messi responded emphatically. First, by skying a penalty in the Copa Final (i can’t remember Ramsey missing a key penalty, but it definitely seems like something he would do). And then Messi threw down the gauntlet with a bleach job that would have made the Biebster proud. Messi’s critics have been answered.
Matt: Biebster? Has anyone ever called him the Biebster? That’s not a thing.
I’ll try again… what impact does this summer have on Messi? Is his haircut a sign of a crisis (no)? Will he return to the Argentine national team (yes)? Has his decline, Ronaldo’s decline, and Pep’s departure from Bayern set the stage for a continental power shift toward England, where all the money and all the best managers seem to be? Will the best players follow?
Jesse: Messi will be just fine. Obviously, the way Argentina lost the Copa final was devastating. He was clearly reeling after he skied the pk and the Argentina loss knocked him down for a bit. At least he had Kun. I can’t believe you don’t see his value. But I think Messi’s retirement announcement ultimately had more to do with the Argentina FA than the loss. By all accounts the Argentina FA is a total mess. My favorite story is that a vote to select a president among 75 directors ended in a 38-38 tie. Their coach, Martino, hadn’t been paid for months and Messi’s telling tweet blaming a flight delay on the Argentina FA was confirmation that he had basically had it with the organization.
I can’t see the summer having any impact on Messi the player. He’s the best in the world, and that’s not going to change because of one loss, even a devastating one. I think he’ll be back on the national team at some point before the 2018 World Cup. [Editor’s Note: he’s already reversed his decision and will represent the Albiceliste in the upcoming World Cup Qualifiers in September.]
As far as a continental power shift towards the Premier League, I think in a lot of ways, it has already happened over the last decade. But I don’t think it’s going to affect the top few teams in Spain/Germany/Italy. Barcelona and Real Madrid generate more money than Man U and can pay as much or more for players than any team in England. They’re also more attractive destinations for most players outside the British Isles. Bayern generates more money than any team in England besides Man U, and Juventus and PSG (so long as they are artificially propped up by Qatar), and maybe Dortmund and Atlético, generate enough money where they can financially compete with the top 4 or 5 teams in England. For lots of players, Paris, Munich, Madrid, and Turin are simply more attractive destinations than Manchester, Liverpool, or London. So I don’t think there’s going to be a huge power shift at the very, very, very top.
Bayern, Real, and Barca, in particular, seem to have a stranglehold on the top 50 players in the world. I don’t see why Ronaldo’s decline and Messi’s eventual decline would change that. I think the financial power of the Premier League will be reflected in how deep the talent in the Premier League will extend. I think rosters on perennial mid-table teams will be stocked with international stars. We’re already seeing that with players like Shaqiri at Stoke, Payet at West Ham, Ayew at Swansea last season (now also at West Ham), and so on. And I think the trend is going to accelerate. The only potential hiccup could be Brexit and the UK’s departure from the EUs common market.
As it stands, the Premier League is already a much, much stronger and tougher league than Germany or Spain. Klopp, for instance, was taken aback in the beginning by just how good, top to bottom, the league is. There are very few easy games. Players will go where the money is, and right now, the money is in England. Last year may have been an aberration with Leicester actually winning the league, but I think that the overall competitiveness of the league is going to be the norm for the next few years.
Matt: If England are so strong, then why have English teams performed so poorly in Europe? It’s not because they don’t care, that’s a poor excuse borne out of a lack of success. And the schedule is not as difficult as the English (and therefore American) press makes it out to be. It’s tough in the Fall (where English teams should make it out of their group anyway if the league is so strong) and Winter (when there is no European competition), but is often easier through the Spring with fewer league and cup games during the knockout phases of European competition. The 20th team in the Premier League is better than the 20th team in Spain. But the 7th team is probably worse than the 7th team in Spain. One of the main reasons people attribute that to is that the league is less tactical, and that’s why it’ll be fascinating to see how the recent influx of tactical masterminds (Pep, Conte, Klopp, to go along with Poccetino and Mourinho) along with all that money changes the league.
Jesse: Don’t have a great explanation for the prem’s lack of success in Europe, though I think you’re far too quick to gloss over the lack of emphasis on the competition, at least when it comes to the Europa league. Most Premier League teams in the Europa league don’t have a roster capable of competing on two fronts (Liverpool and Spurs were exceptions last year and they each did quite well). The Premier League is simply too important and too competitive for mid-table teams to throw away a few games by playing their entire first team on Thursday. Two or three days rest just isn’t quite enough to compete in the physical Prem. I think the 7th best team in England (West Ham) is better than the 7th best team in Spain (Sevilla). Chelsea finished 10th last year. I can’t see that happening right now to Real Madrid, Atlético, or Barcelona, even in an off year.
As for the Champions league. Barca, Real, Bayern, and Atlético have been better than the top 4 or 5 teams in England over the last few years, so no surprise that the Prem’s best struggled against that quartet. The record really isn’t so bad against the other top teams in Europe.
Matt: One more point on Spain/England–I think only Spanish teams knocked other Spanish teams out of Europe last year until Liverpool defeated Villarreal in the Europa semifinals. It’s pretty stunning. If England is better than Spain, shouldn’t those teams have deeper squads? And Sevilla have won 3 straight Europa Leagues, including last year’s final over 8th-place finishing Liverpool, who definitely did care about Europe; I wouldn’t say West Ham is clearly superior. Although Sevilla didn’t win a single La Liga game on the road…
Jesse: Turning to La Liga, I presume we’re once again going to end up in a three-way race for league honors with fourth place miles behind.
Can we pause for a moment to talk about how incredible Simeone has been at Atlético. Atlético has about 1/3 the resources of Real and Barcelona. He has maybe one or two players that could at least compete for a spot in the first-11 at Barcelona or Real Madrid. Unless i’m missing something, the only shoe-in would be Godin. What Simoene is doing at Atlético really shouldn’t be possible. Might he just be the best coach in the world?
Other burning questions. Can we expect a 50-goal season from Messi with Neymar and Suarez hitting 40 each? Is Ronaldo’s falling productivity and influence going to be a problem for Real? Bale has been pretty good, despite the criticism, but do you think this year is going to be his breakout season? Can Atlético somehow keep up again?
I say yes (maybe Neymar will only get to 30), possibly yes, and yes, for what it’s worth.
Matt: What Simeone, soccer’s Dark Knight, has done has been incredibly impressive. He seems like a more positive Mourinho. His teams excel at dark arts, are unbelievably organized, and strike swiftly on the counter. Except he seems to manage the same results without turning his players against each other and against him. His locker room seems incredibly united. Some of that is certainly because he bleeds Atlético red–it would be fascinating to see him at another team and if he’s able to create and, importantly, maintain the same environment and level.
But I think you’re really underselling Atlético’s talent. They have four or five players that could waltz onto pretty much any side of the world, and it’s not like the rest of the guys are schlubs. What they’ve done with their talent on the field is less impressive than the quality of the team they’ve been able to construct with limited resources off it. And Simeone plays a big role in that. It’s incredible they’ve been able to hold onto Griezmann after these Euros, that Koke, Godin, and Juanfran are still playing for them, Felipe Luiz is back with them, that Madrid or Barca or some other club with more resources hasn’t snapped up Saul. Oblak is another stellar young keeper it what has become a veritable assembly line. Four or even five of those players start for Madrid or Barca, more for any other club. If Atlético come back intact, they have a very good chance to not only compete in Europe, but win the league.
That’s because Barca and Madrid don’t look too strong and are getting old. Messi, 29, peaked 4 years ago, and had a renaissance in the Spring of 2015. He’s probably still the best player in the world, and given his predilection for playing every minute possible in the league, he’ll benefit from international breaks if he actually takes time off from Argentina, but he’s not what he was. Suarez, who was incredible last year, is 29 as well, and I don’t think he’ll be able to reach the same heights again. If Barca is going to maintain the same level, Neymar is going to have to make Barcelona his team. If not, there will be a dip in Barcelona’s form, because the rest of the squad is aging; this iteration of Barcelona peaked in the Spring of 2015. While Andres Iniesta is still very effective, they are relying too much on him as a creative force at 32, and he’s certainly not what he was. Mascherano is 32 and Dani Alves is gone without a clear strong replacement. There will probably be a drop at Real too, where 2/3 of the BBC is aging and Modric will be 31. Sergio Ramos and Pepe are also on the wrong side of 30. Really, this version of Madrid peaked in the Fall of 2014. The cores of the two teams that have dominated Europe for nearly the last eight years are growing stale, the teams haven’t restocked as we’re used to, and their pipelines aren’t as strong as they have been.
Jesse: I think you might be slightly overselling the quality of Atlético’s roster, at least compared to Real and Barcelona. I presume they are the two dots sitting about 250,000,000 Euros above Atlético on your sweet chart. Atlético has top, top, quality, but I really think Godin is the only shoe-in starter at Barcelona or Real. Sure, Griezmann is an amazing player, but does he start over Messi, Neymar, or Suarez? No. Would he start over Bale, Ronaldo, or Benzema? James struggled to get on the field last year. I think Griezmann would too.
That being said, I do think Atlético is a viable pick to win the league. It’s a team that plays at a level that’s greater than the sum of its parts, and its parts are really, really, really good to begin with. Barcelona and Real could very well slip a bit this year, as you predict. Atlético probably won’t.
Fewer questions in the rest of Europe. Do you think any team is going to be able to mount a challenge to Bayern, PSG, and Juventus, in Germany, France, and Italy? I just don’t see it. The talent gap is too large. Higuain’s transfer from Napoli and Pjanic’s transfer from Roma certainly won’t help matters in Italy. France just isn’t close And Dortmund were once again raided over the summer by teams in England and Bayern.
Matt: Bayern should run away with the league and challenge for the Champions League again–Ancelotti is the perfect parachute manager to maintain the Guardiola era. While his teams typically struggle in the league, the annual pilfering of Dortmund should help secure Bayern the title. Will be interesting to see PSG without Zlatan, maybe they’ll only win the league by 20 points. Juventus, even without Pogba, should run away with Serie A. Their purchases should more than make up for his absence, and last year while adjusting to the departures of Vidal, Pirlo, and Tevez they had 12 points through 10 games. They dropped 4 points in the remaining 28.
Jesse: And the Champions League? I still rate Bayern, Barcelona, and Real as the front-runners. I wouldn’t count Atlético out either. As for the chasing pack, I would pick Juventus, PSG, Arsenal, Man City, and Spurs as the five teams most likely to break into last four. What say you?
Matt: Going through Europe’s best teams, barring the emergence of an otherworldly talent I think the only two with a chance to be even as good as last year are Atlético and Juventus. I guess you’d still say the four best teams are Atlético, Barca, Bayern, and Madrid, as has been the case the last 3 years. But the door is wide open for the English squads (who, as already covered, also don’t seem particularly strong other than United, who didn’t qualify), and everyone else. This is as level a field as we’ve had for a long time.
Jesse: There you have it. Should be fun to watch.