The 2017-18 European club season ended as it began: With Real Madrid on top, as the best team in the world, the undisputed king of the sport. But now our attention turns. Now it is time to crown the king of a different domain.
When Saturday night gave way to Sunday morning, the soccer calendar flipped. Eyeballs drifted away from Kiev, and toward Russia. The World Cup is upon us.
So this isn’t just any old season takeaways column. This is World Cup Touchline. These are takeaways spun forward to the greatest sporting event in the world. These are the links from one soccer domain to the other.
That, after all, has been the goal of Touchline: to build bridges to June. To connect the relatively barren months in between the World Cup draw and the tournament itself to what we’ll see in Russia this summer.
That’s why we’ve told the story of qualification, and provided a rooting guide, and compared the World Cup to the Olympics, and analyzed March friendlies. Now we are nearing the end of the road. But we have time for at least one more deep dive, on the club season that was.
We start with the Champions League final – and with a set of statistics that may or may not mean anything.
World Cup Touchline: 2017-18 season takeaways
1. Four different clubs won the Champions League between 2011 and 2014. The 2014 World Cup, therefore, was littered with players who had lifted club soccer’s most prestigious trophy over the preceding four years. There were 47 of them in all. This time around, thanks to Real Madrid’s unprecedented dominance, there are only 29 players in preliminary World Cup squads who have been crowned champions of Europe at club level since 2015. Real is monopolizing success like nobody before it has in the modern era. As a result, other superclubs are drowning in disappointment. So are other super players.
English Premier League
2. Mohamed Salah shattered every last expectation en route to a Premier League goalscoring record. The questions that pertain to Russia: A) Will he be healthy? And B) How much of his success was facilitated by Liverpool’s system and personnel? That system is unique. So is the way Salah interacted with his fellow attackers. Three pieces of Salah’s success were the distance from goal that Liverpool often won the ball, the speed at which Liverpool, as a team, broke, and the regularity with which Salah interchanged with Sadio Mane and Roberto Firmino. Egypt has nobody like Firmino up top. Its system is the antithesis of Klopp’s. That’s why I’m pessimistic on Salah’s and Egypt’s chances at the World Cup.
3. Both Salah and Sadio Mane must transition from a multi-pronged attack to ones they spearhead. Both have the skill to make the transition seamlessly. But it still requires a difficult adjustment.
4. On to the Premier League champions … Manchester City was outstanding all season. We’ll begin at the back. Kyle Walker justified the $66 million City paid for him, and did so playing several different roles. He was a wingback, a fullback, and a right-sided center back. His newfound flexibility gives England manager Gareth Southgate options. And it appears Southgate is going to take advantage by playing Walker on the right of a back three.
5. Guardiola, in an indirect sense, will prove to be a major asset for this England team. So will Klopp and Mauricio Pochettino. Their clubs could account for nine of England’s 10 outfield starters. And their imprints will be all over the Three Lions. Southgate’s adopted style is a blend of theirs, and even a tad of Jose Mourinho’s as well. When you watch England, you’ll see a bit of City, a bit of United, a bit of Spurs and a bit of Liverpool.
6. You’ll also see Raheem Sterling, whose development might be Pep’s biggest World Cup influence. He, similar to Walker, has become a world-class attacker from multiple positions. He learned how to up his goal output not so much by improving his finishing, but by improving his movement. He should partner Harry Kane up top, and he’ll be a menace.
7. Opposite Sterling was Leroy Sane, who also morphed into a wing assassin. He gives Germany a new dimension, a pace and directness that it otherwise lacked. Question is, does Jogi Low want or require that? Or will he prefer a more methodical inverted winger coming inside off the left? Either way, Sane is an asset.
8. Kevin De Bruyne completed his midfield evolution, and proved he was good enough to almost occupy two roles: an 8 without the ball, a 10 with it. And while Pep was molding him into that “free 8,” Roberto Martinez took notice. The Belgium boss looks set to play De Bruyne as an 8 as well – as one of two proper central midfielders in between wing backs and behind a front three. It might be reckless. It’ll surely be a ton of fun.
9. Moving away from City … Tottenham, trophy drought be damned, was once again impressive given its budget relative to competitors. And a big reason for its success was Dele Alli. Look past his goalscoring stats and toward everything else. The 22-year-old more than doubled his chance creation output (Expected Assists per 90 minutes). He slid into a more supplementary role, and excelled, even if his individual success wasn’t always superficially apparent. And that’s an important development for England. Alli, if he starts, would likely play as one of two dual 8s, behind a front two. He’ll be better suited to that role after this past season at Tottenham.
10. Over at Manchester United, Jose Mourinho might have ruined Anthony Martial. Or at least he ruined the young Frenchman’s shot at a World Cup roster spot. And he might have sunk Marcus Rashford’s hopes of a place in England’s starting 11.
11. Whether he did or didn’t ruin Paul Pogba is up for debate. But Pogba’s strange season did reinforce a World Cup-related point: That he’s a square peg in a round hole when deployed in a midfield two. He’s far more effective in a three. Didier Deschamps appeared to have taken that to heart back in March. We’ll see if he’s tempted by one last ill-fated two-man midfield experiment, though.
12. Manchester United was – *whispers* – pretty bad. But it also had David De Gea, so it finished second. And now Spain has David De Gea, which is unfair.
Spain’s La Liga
13. Lionel Messi can still do it, man. He’s unbelievable. And this year more than ever before, he did it on his own. In a relatively underwhelming Barca side, at least from an attacking standpoint, Messi led La Liga in goals, Expected Goals, assists and Expected assists. He accounted for roughly half of Barca’s xG. He led multiple multi-goal comebacks, and almost singlehandedly won multiple games. He didn’t put up 2012-esque numbers, but he was arguably just as good. And Barca’s ever-increasing reliance on him should prepare him for the Messi Dependencia of Argentina.
14. The player most emblematic of Barcelona’s evolution into a relatively cautious, defensive-minded outfit, though? That would be Paulinho. Barca’s $47 million summer signing of the 29-year-old was ridiculed, but his two-way prowess was crucial over the first half of the campaign. And it will be crucial for Brazil in Russia as well.
15. Barcelona’s second-most important player, however? Probably Marc-Andre Ter Stegen, who’s suddenly in line to start for Germany at the World Cup.
16. And then there was Luis Suarez, who, especially in the fall, showed ominous signs of decline. Then he exploded for a five-goal December, a six-goal January and four more in February. He finished with numbers very similar to his 2016-17 ones. He definitely has lost a half-step. But he hasn’t lost his penalty-box savvy, nor – from a defender’s perspective – his traumatizing persistence. And thus he hasn’t lost the ability to fire Uruguay to a World Cup semifinal or beyond.
17. But Uruguay’s real backbone is its defense. Because it doubles as Atletico Madrid’s defense. Diego Godin and Jose Maria Gimenez anchored a back line that conceded just 22 league goals, and four over 810 minutes en route to a Europa League title. They’re the clean sheet kings, and they’re another reason Uruguay should be feared.
18. Messi, Cristiano Ronaldo and Suarez were La Liga’s top three goalscorers, as expected. Fourth on the list? Iago Aspas, the only Spaniard in the top seven. He should start up top for Spain. And if he does, he is the most unheralded World Cup golden boot favorite ever. Place a long-shot bet and thank me later.
19. Goncalo Guedes finally got regular first-team minutes, and fired Valencia into the 2018-19 Champions League. Now … will Fernando Santos give him regular minutes – or any minutes at all – in Russia? Portugal’s style isn’t exactly tailored to Guedes’ strengths.
20. Before we move on, one general point on Spain. One of the underrated aspects of La Furia Roja’s 2008-2012 mini-dynasty was the familiarity of players not just with one another, but with the team’s style. Some called it tiki-taka. It more or less was The Barca Way, and at major tournaments, it became The Spanish Way. And in many ways, it still is the Spanish way. But most of the players who will try to lead Spain to a second World Cup title no longer play it at club level. Manchester City’s David Silva might come closest. But Barca has strayed from its identity, and Real Madrid has become an indecipherable Ronaldo-centric side. There’s no telling how this will affect Spain in Russia, if at all. But it’s something to keep in mind.
21. Robert Lewandowski did exactly for Bayern Munich what he must do (and has done) for Poland. He scored 29 league goals in 2,163 minutes. No teammate scored more than 8, but Bayern rolled to a Bundesliga title.
22. Thomas Muller’s evolution from untraceable goalscorer to unorthodox playmaker is complete. For the second year in a row, he was more provider than creator. Two seasons ago, his per-90 xG and xA rates were 0.67 and 0.29, respectively. This past season, they were flipped: 0.27 xG per 90 and 0.47 xA. It will be fascinating, though, to see how this evolution carries over from club to country. Because Germany doesn’t have a Lewandowski to monopolize goals. Muller, to some extent, might have to transition back into right-sided, deep-lying poacher mode.
23. Borussia Dortmund gave 2,855 combined Bundesliga minutes to Mario Gotze and Andre Schurrle, hoping they’d recapture their magic of old. Neither did. They combined for three goals. Dortmund snuck into the top four, but neither Gotze nor Schurrle, the heroes of the 2014 World Cup final, made Germany’s preliminary squad.
24. RB Leipzig sunk out of the top four, and Emil Forsberg’s regression was in part responsible. His chance creation dipped from 0.46 xA per 90 to 0.15 per 90, a steep decline that really doesn’t bode well for Sweden – for whom Forsberg is the only player with significant imagination and technical ability.
25. Hoffenheim, remarkably, secured a second consecutive top-four finish under Julian Nagelsmann, and Andrej Kramaric, for a second consecutive season, was big reason why. He’s both prolific and versatile. Whether he plays up front or out wide – from the start or off the bench – he’s a major asset for Croatia.
26. Schalke’s Breel Embolo had enother meh season. Wolfburg’s Admir Mehmedi hasn’t played since a Lisfranc injury in March. Meanwhile, over in Portugal, their Swiss teammate, striker Haris Seferovic, hasn’t scored for Benfica since October. Not great!
Italy’s Serie A
27. Juventus won a seventh straight Scudetto because it scored 86 goals on 59.23 xG, an absurd overperformance that didn’t exactly validate Juve’s defensive approach, but did excuse it. And a decent chunck of that overperformance was Paulo Dybala’s 22 tallies on 13.17 xG. Dybala, by the way, might not even feature for Argentina in Russia.
28. Of the big five European leagues, Serie A offered the most drama. Its most dramatic moment was Kalidou Koulibaly’s stoppage-time header against Juventus, which pulled Napoli to within one point of the kings. It ultimately proved insufficient. But it was a special night. Koulibaly will play a similarly vital role for Senegal this summer.
29. And then there was the final day. Inter Milan, three points back of Lazio in fourth place, needed a win over the Biancocelesti to get back into the Champions League. And it trailed 2-1 with 15 minutes remaining. Then Stefan de Vrij – who is set to swap Lazio for Inter on a free transfer this summer – conceded a penalty. Mauro Icardi converted. A minute later, Lazio was down to 10 men. Two minutes after that, Matias Vecino – yet another piece of this intriguing Uruguay squad – won the game with a header to cap off a relatively bland domestic league season in wild fashion.
30. Those were the two most dramatic moments in the top four European leagues. The Champions League blew all of them away with Roma’s three-goal comeback against Barcelona. Somehow, only three Roma players – Brazil’s Alisson, Serbia’s Aleksandar Kolarov and Argentina’s Federico Fazio – are going to the World Cup. Radja Nainggolan and Diego Perotti were snubbed by Belgium and Argentina, respectively.
31. Elsewhere, Hector Herrera might have scored the single biggest goal in a top-flight title race. His 90th-minute stunner wrested Portuguese supremacy away from Benfica and into the hands of Porto for the first time since 2013. Herrera is one of Mexico’s most influential players.
32. And last, but definitely not least, so is Hirving Lozano – or “Chucky,” if you prefer. And his first season in Europe was tremendously successful. He led PSV back to the top of the Eredivisie with 17 goals from the wing, and positioned himself to be a breakout star in Russia.
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Previous World Cup Touchline columns:
• November: The story of qualification
• January: How to enjoy the 2018 World Cup as a grieving USMNT fan
• February: Goodbye, PyeongChang; Hello, Russia
• March: Pre-World Cup friendly takeaways