How does Luis Diaz fit at Liverpool? Is Barcelona’s women’s team the most dominant ever? Mailbag time!

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As Pep Guardiola once said, « I’m so happy, believe me. I’m so happy. Happy new year. » I, too, am so happy. Happy new year. It’s time to roll out the second edition of our mailbag. You can send me questions on Twitter (@rwohan) or via email to We’ll do more of these throughout the year, and as long as the question is at least vaguely soccer-related, there is a chance I will answer it.

Let’s go!

While they’re not true reflections of player quality in any way, you can glean some expectations from the relative amount a team is willing to pay for a player.

Liverpool’s deal for Diaz, a 25-year-old attacker from FC Porto, is reported to cost around €40 million, with another potential €20 million in add-ons. According to the latest Deloitte report, Liverpool’s most recent annual revenues were €558.6 million. Pre-add-ons, that means Liverpool spent about 7% of their revenues on Diaz. If all the add-ons all come into play, that’s slightly more than 10%.

When a team is spending in that range on a player, he usually falls into the solid-starter-to-key-rotation player category of expectations, which is useful for this when thinking about Salah, Mane and Firmino.

Given that Diaz is right-footed, I don’t really think this means much for Salah’s future. It already seems like Diogo Jota is going to be the long-term Firmino replacement — not in style at all, but in that they both play centrally. So, perhaps the acquisition of Diaz means that the team is ready to move on from Mane this summer, as he, Firmino and Salah are set to go into the last year of their contracts at the start of the 2022-23 season. Mane is a better player than Firmino right now, so he probably would command a bigger transfer fee over the summer, too.

At the same time, the relative price of the Diaz deal suggests that there’s at least the possibility that Mane sticks around, for at least a little while longer. After all, Liverpool’s closest competitors — Man City, Chelsea, and Bayern Munich — all have world-class players two-deep (if not deeper) at all of the attacking positions. Given how reluctant owner John Henry has been to pay his superstars with the Boston Red Sox, I wouldn’t call it likely, but I wouldn’t rule it out, either.

Is FC Barcelona Femeni the most dominant team ever? — Philip R.

For the unfamiliar, in the Primera Division Femenina, they play 34 games: there are 18 teams in the league, with home and away games against everyone. Last season, Barcelona won 33 matches and lost one. That’s 2.91 points per game, a number that actually undersells how dominant they were. They scored — wait for it — 167 goals and conceded 15. That’s 5.0 goals scored per game and 0.44 goals allowed — or a per-game goal differential of plus-4.56. Oh, and they won the Champions League, too, in a 4-0 annihilation of Chelsea, who won the FA Women’s Super League and conceded only 10 goals in 22 domestic matches. It was the kind of epoch-shifting match where it looked like one team was playing a different sport.

It can’t really get any better than that — or can it?

This season, FCB had 18 wins through 18 domestic matches. They’ve scored — OK, deep breath — 102 goals and only allowed four. They have a plus-98 goal differential, which would be a mind-melting number across a full season. They have 17 games left! Why am I yelling? What else am I supposed to do? Normal case doesn’t do this team justice! They’re scoring 5.7 goals per game and allowing 0.22 goals. They went 6-0-0 in the Champions League group stage, with 24 goals for and 1 against. Yeah, but who did they play? They beat Arsenal twice, by a combined 8-1 scoreline. Arsenal are currently in first in the WSL; they conceded more goals in their two games against Barcelona than in the entire domestic season (seven in 12 matches) so far.

Prior to last season, Lyon had won 13 straight league titles and four Champions leagues in a row. The consultancy 21st Group rates the 2017-18 iteration of Lyon as the best team ever. They won 21 out of 22 league matches, and drew the other (2.91 points per game). They scored 104 (4.7 per game) and allowed five (0.23 per game), which adds up to a per-game goal differential of 4.47. They won the Champions League, 4-1, in extra time against Wolfsburg, after taking down Manchester City in the semis and Barca in the quarters.

Barcelona, unsurprisingly, are the highest rated team in the world right now by 21st Group, but they’re below the 17-18 iteration of Lyon, along with five other Lyon seasons. The gap between Barcelona and the second-strongest team (Lyon) is smaller than it was between Lyon and No. 2 in any of those seasons. Lyon were more dominant in that sense, but another way to look at it is that Barcelona didn’t exist in this current form while Lyon dominated. And Barca are now dominating while Lyon still exists with a superstar-filled roster. Given the recent investment by a handful of other big clubs into the women’s game, it’s safe to say that Barcelona’s dominating in a much more competitive era than Lyon did. Will they win 13 league titles in a row? It seems unlikely, but let’s just say they’re currently the best women’s team ever.

How do they compare to the best men’s teams? Given the growing inequality of the men’s game, most of the historically dominant teams come from the past two decades. Going back to the 2008-09 season, these are the best marks across the Big Five leagues:

  • Points per game: 2013-14 Juventus, 2.68

  • Goals per game: 2011-12 Real Madrid, 3.2 (important note: this team was coached by Jose Mourinho)

  • Goals allowed per game: 2015-16 Atletico Madrid, 0.47

  • Goal differential per game: 2012-13 Bayern Munich, plus-2.4

Even if you combined the attack and defense for those two Madrid teams, the goal differential (plus-2.73) would only be 60% of what Barcelona produced last season, and it wouldn’t even be half of what they’re doing this year. The landscape of the women’s game is still wildly imbalanced, both within leagues and from country to country. But unlike some other major clubs across Europe — looking at you, Liverpool! — Barcelona decided to treat their women’s team like true professionals, and the result is, yes, the most dominant soccer team I’ve ever seen.

Who currently reigns supreme as the space-eating, world-destroying defensive center-midfielder, à la N’Golo Kante circa 2015-17? — Devin S.

The easy answer: Wilfred Ndidi. Since the start of last season, he’s the only midfielder across Europe’s Big Five leagues who ranks in the 99th percentile or above across the following three categories: ball recoveries, adjusted tackles (per 1,000 opponent touches), and adjusted interceptions. When Leicester were at their best in recent seasons, it was with Ndidi playing behind two very attack-oriented midfielders in James Maddison and Youri Tielemans.

I like to think of the best defensive midfielders as skeleton keys: their true value comes from how they allow a manager to fit more attacking players into the starting lineup. It’s what Kante did when he was winning titles at Leicester and at Chelsea — as the famous line from Leicester’s former head of recruitment Steve Walsh goes, « People think we play with two in midfield, and I say ‘No. We play with Danny Drinkwater in the middle and with Kante either side.' »

However, the Ndidi answer doesn’t quite feel right.

At least recently, Ndidi has done a lot of his ball-winning in the defensive third. Winning the ball higher up the field is just more valuable because it’s closer to the opposition goal. If we limit the field location to the middle and attacking third, Ndidi still rates really highly among the ball-winning stats, but he’s 93rd percentile for ball recoveries and 96th percentile for the adjusted tackles and interceptions. No one ranks in the 99th percentile for all three, but two guys are in the 98th percentile or above: Lille‘s Benjamin Andre and Monaco’s Aurelien Tchouameini.

In a sense, the 31-year-old Andre was Lille’s Kante last season, the defensive-midfield linchpin of an unlikely team winning an unlikely league title. Tchouameini, meanwhile, was starting games for France in the Nations League, and the 22-year-old is one of the most sought-after players in the world right now.

Still, those don’t quite pass the smell test. Andre is in his 30s, and I don’t know: Monaco are currently in seventh place in Ligue 1. There’s also… Thiago, who’s 100th percentile for ball recoveries, 97th percentile for adjusted interceptions, and 99th for adjusted tackles. Liverpool are pretty much Manchester City’s equals whenever he plays, but, well… he doesn’t play that much and he also usually has Fabinho sitting behind him, which goes against the spirit of the idea.

Despite, you know, being 33 years old, Sergio Busquets is in the 96th percentile or above for all three indicators. He’s not getting much help, and his decline has been somewhat exaggerated, but if you’ve seen Barcelona defend at any point over the last two years, you know I can’t nominate him as the current Kante without passing out from laughter. Kante, himself, still ranks in the 90th percentile or above for all three stats; so does Brighton’s Yves Bissouma.

However, I’m gonna go in a different direction, and say Joshua Kimmich. He’s in the 99th percentile for ball recoveries and 97th percentile for interceptions, but the 67th percentile for tackles. Despite the limited tackle numbers, he really fits the spirit of the idea well.

At Bayern Munich, his only true midfield partner is Leon Goretzka, who is constantly bursting forward into the penalty area. The four players ahead of Kimmich are two wingers (Leroy Sane, Serge Gnabry), Thomas Muller and Robert Lewandowski — or, they’re all attackers. Kimmich is frequently the only Bayern player in the midfield, and he keeps things from totally falling apart. But the other thing that made — and still makes — Kante so valuable is not only his range and ball-winning, but his ability to then turn those moments into attack. He’s not just winning the ball and then passing it sideways to someone else to pass it forward, which is an uncharitable (but not totally inaccurate) way to describe what Ndidi does; he’s pushing it forward with his feet.

Kimmich, of course, is maybe the best on-ball midfielder in the world: per FBref, he ranks in the 99th percentile in progressive passes among midfielders over the past year and in the 92nd percentile in progressive carries. With his defensive range, Kimmich allows Bayern to play more attackers than the average team, and then he’s also better at getting them the ball in dangerous positions than just about everyone else at his position.



Herculez Gomez accuses Gregg Berhalter of allowing the USMNT to become soft after losing to Canada.

You’re asked to give a talk on « things data has taught us about how to play better soccer. » The catch is that for every item on the list that later turns out to be wrong, you have to rewatch the entire Couva game (no looking at your phone). How many items are you confident in? — John M

All right: So first we have to establish how many times I’m willing to watch the USMNT’s 2-1 loss to Trinidad and Tobago that prevented them from qualifying for the 2018 World Cup. The « no looking at your phone » part is actually appealing to me; I want more things that prevent me from looking at my phone. I don’t want to look at my phone. I look at my phone all of the time. I hate my phone. Cell phones are bad. Bring back rotary phones.

Anyway! Let’s say I’m willing to rewatch the entire game one time. It’s just kind of a sad, ugly match that might be kind of funny to watch in retrospect once, but I don’t need that in my life for more than 90 minutes. No offense to Bobby Wood, but c’mon. The meditative aspect of being phoneless would deteriorate after one viewing, too, so, I’m going to list off the things that I’m at least 90% confident in about playing better soccer, and then I’ll throw in one other item that I’m less confident in.

1. You can score more goals on set pieces without ruining the rest of your team.

The old adage used to be that coaches wouldn’t train set pieces because they worried that the time spent on them would lead to a deterioration in the other aspects of play they weren’t training. There was also a stigma around set pieces, as if set-piece goals weren’t real goals.

Leave the corners for the Tony Pulises of the world; we’re gonna score from open-play because that’s how the game was meant to be played. Turns out: this is completely untrue! In terms of value per time spent, set pieces are maybe the most lucrative thing in the game. A couple of years ago, everyone in the Danish league suddenly started scoring more set-piece goals while maintaining their scoring rates in other phases of the game. Liverpool have scored a ton of set-piece goals over the past five years, and they’re still playing some of the best possession and fast-break stuff in the world, too.

I’m not even sure this is a « data » thing as much as it is a better interpretation of data. Only about 1.8% of set pieces turn into goals. See that number and it’s pretty easy to take the next step to « set pieces are a waste of time, » but that’s the wrong jump for two reasons. First, that number is so low because it’s measuring a landscape of teams that don’t really care that much about scoring on set pieces. And despite that, we come to the second reason: Only 1.1% of open-play possessions turn into goals.

Turning fluid, on-the-fly possession into a goal is a small miracle every time it happens. With a set piece, you can actually break the game down and plan out each player’s motion. Any team who isn’t taking advantage of those moments is leaving a ton of points on the table.

2. Don’t change the way you play once you score.

A couple of years ago, I was talking to someone who works with a number of European clubs, and he told me that the key to soccer — the true « Moneyball » of it all — was to figure out a way to convince your players to play just as aggressively up 1-0 as they do when the match is scoreless. It’s a studied phenomenon: teams that are winning take fewer shots and put fewer of them on target than when the match is tied or when they’re losing. You know what’s better than winning 1-0? Winning 2-0!

Is this coaching? Is this player psychology? Probably a bit of both. If everyone on your team plays even just 1% less aggressively all of a sudden, it’s going to have an exponential effect throughout the team.

There’s also an inherent conservatism among decision-makers across all sports; it looks worse to fail on fourth down than it does to punt. The same is probably true with conceding a goal while up 1-0 because you’re still pushing numbers forward. In the long run, though, I’m confident that playing aggressively up 1-0 leads to more points than sitting back in a shell. It’s been true in every other sport — aggression pays off in the long run — and I don’t see why soccer should be any different.

3. Expected goals have won.

Every goal contains a ton of randomness. Great goal scorers score lots of goals because of their movement off and on the ball, not their ability to kick a ball. This is the underlying finding from xG. Even for the greatest kicker of a soccer ball ever, Lionel Messi, more than half of his goal-scoring can be explained just from how often and from where he kicked the ball, not how he kicked it.

The way this would help a team play better soccer is to keep coaches from falling prey to a hot or cold finishing streak and benching someone whose luck was about to turn. In predicting future goals, what matters most is if a player is getting a lot of high-quality chances, not how many chances he’s converted recently. It also, pretty clearly, has lots of implications for how to scout players — don’t sign the ones who greatly over-perform their xG… do the exact opposite — and how to make lineup decisions.

If coaches focus on the quality of the chances they’re creating rather than whether or not they’re turning into goals, they’ll have a much better understanding of the team’s performance, and will be less likely to overreact to a string of bad results by changing a lineup that was doing all the fundamental things right.

4. Press, if you can.

This sort of ties in with no. 2. Pressing looks stupid as hell when it breaks down and your opponent suddenly has a 3-on-1 against your center back, but it’s the best way I’ve seen to win points over the long run.

It’s premised on two pretty sound ideas: keeping the ball as far away from your goal as possible, and winning the ball back high up the field. As we’ve been over, scoring from open play is so freaking hard. It’s a little bit easier, though, when you start the possession in the other team’s final third while their defense is totally unorganized because everyone was just getting ready to attack.

Red Bull, an energy drink, essentially created an elite soccer team in more than one country (FC Salzburg in Austria, RB Leipzig in Germany to name just two) by systematically exploiting this idea. I don’t think we’ve appreciated how ridiculous it is that a beverage company fundamentally understands soccer better than most of the soccer-lifers all across Europe.

And… that’s it. I’m not above the 90% threshold on No. 4, but I’m willing to risk one Couva rewatch on it.

I think pressing is the best way to play, but Manchester City are flourishing without a ton of it right now, and who’s to say something better won’t emerge? Or that pressing won’t lose its effectiveness as the average team in Europe continues to evolve? I’m really confident in the first three, and everything else is just a giant shrug emoji. Now, I’m more confident in so many other data-derived ideas than the conventional wisdom on the same subjects, and I use data all the time. But that doesn’t mean I’m confident enough in any of these other potential insights to risk watching the T&T debacle twice.

Soccer is not even close to being a solved game in the way that it can sometimes feel like baseball and even basketball are. There’s still so much we don’t know about how soccer works; everyone, no matter their vantage point or background, would benefit from approaching the game with that in mind.

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