Who’s looking in better or worse shape than we thought to lift the trophy next May?
It’s very early. We’ve had two matchdays. It’s the group stages and one would expect all these teams to make it to the knockout rounds, where anything can happen if the draw goes your way.
Nonetheless, there is a sense of which sides are on the up or down, who looks stronger or weaker than one might have expected. Looking at the eight teams that bookmakers most favour to win the tournament (apologies to the likes of Borussia Dortmund and Ajax), let’s see who’s stock has risen or fallen since before a ball was kicked.
Champions League Risers
Manchester City (+333)
Crisis? What crisis?
There were real concerns about Pep Guardiola’s defence against Norwich. These concerns have not entirely been answered. There may still be another bad day in this squad. But damn. When they’re good, they’re unstoppable.
In all competitions, the last five fixtures have a combined scoreline of 19-1 to City. In that period, they have taken more than three shots for every one the opponent attempts. Centre-back remains a huge concern, with John Stones joining Aymeric Laporte on the injury list. But it’s a question as to whether teams can even get the ball into dangerous areas to test those defenders. Guardiola’s side are the team to beat in this season’s Champions League.
Bayern Munich (+900)
For all that we love to discuss managers, coaching methods, formations, pressing, possession football and the rest, sometimes the most important thing is just the talent of the players. Niko Kovač might not be the most exciting manager in the world, but the talent he has at his disposal is as deep as it gets.
Philippe Coutinho, for all his tactical issues at Barcelona, remains one of the best ball dominant playmakers around, while Lucas Hernandez and Benjamin Pavard have added more flexibility at the back. They probably don’t have the high end quality of Manchester City, or an individual star like Lionel Messi, but over a long season, no one has the depth of Bayern. That could be enough.
Paris Saint-Germain (+700)
The thing about PSG is that the big names haven’t even played that much this season. Neymar hasn’t kicked a ball in the Champions League yet. Kylian Mbappe played for half an hour against Galatasaray. And yet, Thomas Tuchel keeps winning.
Idrissa Gueye has arrived from Everton and seems to have become a world class midfielder overnight. This is not, as many might assume, a team of galacticos across the pitch. This is a team of a few incredible individuals and a manager getting the rest to play out of their minds. The arrival of Gueye and Ander Herrera should help them toughen up against top European sides. The blend could finally be right this year.
Atletico Madrid (+2100)
It doesn’t matter who is playing. It doesn’t matter who gets sold. Diego Simeone gets his team playing the same way regardless.
You could put Messi, Neymar, Mbappe and Eden Hazard in this team and Simeone would still have them forming a compact shape behind the ball. Atleti have kept four clean sheets in a row now. Playing against this side must be a deeply miserable experience.
It’s not always pretty, they probably won’t be your first choice if you’re looking for a group stage game to watch on a given Tuesday or Wednesday, but it just works. Diego Simeone may be a loose canon, but dammit, he gets results!
Champions League Fallers
Now, this might be a little harsh of me. After all, Liverpool sit five points clear atop the Premier League table, having won every game this season bar the poor defeat at Napoli. But it looks a little shaky.
Understat have Jurgen Klopp’s side conceding more than an expected goal a game in the league. The team have decided to play a higher line, in the hope of a more aggressive offside trap, but the main effect seems to be that Virgil van Dijk is getting exposed a little more easily.
Maybe this all just shakes itself out over the season. Liverpool will probably be fine. But questions exist that didn’t at the start of the season. The five point lead is hugely value domestically, but in terms of winning the Champions League, it hasn’t been a great start.
Perhaps the Turin side are starting to fix things? The move to a diamond formation, with Aaron Ramsey as a number ten behind Cristiano Ronaldo and Paulo Dybala, has loosened things up a bit in attack. It’s still a long way from what we think of as an ideal Maurizio Sarri side, but this was always going to be the case.
The project Juventus are embarking on is such a dramatic break from the eras of Max Allegri and Antonio Conte that it was always likely to take time. Right now, it’s a bit shaky. But there’s still every chance it all clicks once the knockout stages come around in 2020.
Oof, where do we start?
Barcelona snuck a win at home to Inter but you’ll be hard pressed to find anyone outside of Luis Suarez’ family who was impressed by it. Messi’s absence at the start of this season has shone a light on just how poor the side is. Ernesto Valverde has built a team with no clear tactical ideas, no cohesion, no plan to win games other than the simple “give it to Messi” approach. That he exists is the only reason they have any shot at winning this trophy.
It’s a mess from top to bottom. The rot goes deep. The main man won’t be around forever. When he is gone, we might see how bad things can really get.
Real Madrid (+2000)
Zinedine Zidane, why are you doing this? You have wealth that I could only imagine. You could be anywhere right now, doing anything with your life. What you choose to do is manage Real Madrid to a 2-2 draw at home to Club Brugge. You don’t seem to know your best team. You still don’t seem to have any idea how this group of players is supposed to play without Cristiano Ronaldo. You don’t seem to trust any of these players too much.
I get that you’re an obsessive, that your desire to win overrules all sense and logic. But come on, man. Just go home. Watch some Netflix. Enjoy life and let Real Madrid hire Jose Mourinho to coach this side for two good years before it all implodes.
Where to Bet the Champions League in the US
In the US, you can legally bet on soccer online in New Jersey and Pennsylvania.
Bit of an odd game here. Liverpool couldn’t really say they played at all to their best ability. Chelsea were the better side to be honest. But two moments of quality was enough, and the Reds did just enough to hold on. It wasn’t pretty, but it got the job done. Sometimes that’s all it takes.
Liverpool Player Ratings
Jurgen Klopp (6) – How bad can it be when you go to Chelsea and win? Chelsea did a good job of shutting down the options for Liverpool to switch it to Salah and Mane. Klopp didn’t have an answer to it. His side weren’t great today and he can’t honestly say he had the right ideas, but it was enough. We’ll forgive you, Jurgen.
Adrian (7) – Some nervy moments but he’s getting the saves. About par since he came into the team.
Trent Alexander-Arndold (7) – Hell of a strike there, Trent. That’ll do. Not great game management in getting himself booked.
TRENT! pic.twitter.com/DIsM6YRBjs— NBC Sports Soccer (@NBCSportsSoccer) September 22, 2019
Virgil van Dijk (7) – Better from him so far. More in line with last season’s form.
Joel Matip (5) – Needs to do better closing down N’Golo Kante for that goal. Otherwise uninvolved. Hard to find too many positive moments.
Andy Robertson (7) – Most of the game has been played down the opposite flank, so he’s been peripheral, but then delivers an excellent cross for the second goal. Last ditch defending at the end of the game proved decisive.
Jordan Henderson (5) – He’s involved, but a poor game in terms of quality. Sometimes his aggressive positioning leaves holes in Liverpool’s midfield.
Fabinho (7) – Hasn’t been involved that much defensively but, as usual, he’s an underrated passing option for Liverpool.
Georginio Wijnaldum (6) – Just not involved. One of those games from him.
Roberto Firmino (8) – You think he’s not in it, and then he’s in it. Liverpool’s outstanding player so far this season and he’s important again.
Roberto Firmino climbs the ladder! 🔥⚽️— NBC Sports Soccer (@NBCSportsSoccer) September 22, 2019
2-0 Liverpool! 🔴 pic.twitter.com/NE3zq4ZhtF
Sadio Mane (6) – Chelsea have done well in closing off options to switch the play to the wingers. It just wasn’t a game where Liverpool were able to use the quality of the attackers.
Mohamed Salah (6) – Much the same as Mane. Dribbling into spaces but not finding angles to take good shots.
James Milner (5) – Can someone explain what the point of this sub was to me? I’m mystified.
Adam Lallana () – Again, I’m not sure what he was brought on to do.
Joe Gomez () – Just seemed to be on the pitch to waste time, so nothing to really judge him on.
MAN OF THE MATCH
Roberto Firmino – It’s becoming a boring answer. He’s just Liverpool’s best player all the time right now. The only one of the front three to really involve himself in the game. He’s just consistently decisive. It’s very, very early, but are we looking at a Player of the Year candidate here?
Burnley tried to do their usual thing at Turf Moor. It was a physical, ugly game that few neutrals will have enjoyed. But ultimately Sean Dyche’s side weren’t at their in-your-faces best here, and Liverpool won the game by having more quality in decisive moments.
Liverpool Starting XI
It’s the second week in a row for this group. Klopp liked what he saw.
Liverpool Player Ratings
Jurgen Klopp (6) – Liverpool just turned up and played the usual game. They were better than Burnley. That’s all it took. There was nothing particularly fancy here but it was more than enough.
Adrian (5) – Burnley are targeting him at set pieces but without any luck. His kicking has been less than ideal.
Trent Alexander-Arnold (7) – Couldn’t get in the game until suddenly his cross went in the back of the net. It’s a funny sport.
Virgil van Dijk (4) – Not the most promising start, getting beaten fairly easily by Chris Wood. Uncharacteristic.
Joel Matip (6) – Doing his weird thing in position. Defensively, the threat has been more down Van Dijk’s side.
Andy Robertson (5) – Much like Alexander-Arnold, the ball hasn’t really got into the wide areas for full backs. Hasn’t really done anything wrong but not the game for him.
Jordan Henderson (6) – Not really a midfield game today, ball going straight over his head and thus he’s uninvolved. Did get into it a little more in the second half when more space became available. His substitution seemed to be more of a precaution than anything else.
Gini Wijnaldum (6) – See above. It’s one of those games for Gini where he feels anonymous.
Fabinho (5) – Been caught up the pitch a couple of times. Would be wise to hold his position better. He had been useful with his distribution but a shaky performance overall.
Roberto Firmino (8) – Seems to be deeper than usual, trying to slide Salah and Mane through. Ends up being vital for the second goal and does his thing for the third.
Sadio Mane (8) – Making some intelligent runs off the ball and gets his reward for it.
Mohamed Salah (6) – Looks like he’s at it today. Involved. Missed chances but it’s all positive as long as they’re coming his way.
Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain (5) – Still getting back to his old self. It’s good to see him playing again.
Divock Origi (n/a) – Not enough time on the pitch to be rated.
Xherdan Shaqiri (n/a) – See above.
MAN OF THE MATCH
Roberto Firmino – This wasn’t the highest quality game you’ll ever see. It was decided on moments of genuine quality, and no one offered that more than him. Liverpool’s playmaker and key defender, while playing as a striker.
Here is the starting XI and player ratings.
Liverpool Player Ratings
Jurgen Klopp (8) – The big decision was to press to the goalkeeper and he got that right. Arsenal struggled to get out of their own half, though the downside was that when they did, they were able to get real chances. The changes didn’t really help control the game, which was frustrating, but he made the tactical choice that won the game.
Adrian (6) – Some clear communication issues early on that suggest he doesn’t entirely know what he’s doing with his defenders yet. Needed to settle and rebounded with some good saves.
Trent Alexander-Arnold (8) – His crossing is always a threat. Set pieces have been really strong here.
Virgil van Dijk (6) – The dribbled past stat has ended. Someone has successfully dribbled past Virgil van Dijk. Let’s have a moment of silence to remember the dribbled past stat. To be honest this wasn’t his best work and Nicolas Pepe is the first player in ages and ages who looked to have his number.
Joel Matip (7) – Arsenal targeted Van Dijk’s side more frequently and thus Matip hasn’t been involved. Uneventful game for him for the most part. And then he scores a goal, so we’ll take that.
Andy Robertson (8) – Many of Liverpool’s best chances in the first half came from the left hand side. Robertson has been instrumental in this. The best player on the pitch in the early stages.
Jordan Henderson (6) – He has a tendency to make runs forward and destabilise Liverpool’s midfield a bit, and he hasn’t been offering enough quality in possession in return. You probably already have a fixed opinion on him.
Gini Wijnaldum (6) – We didn’t seen the good version of Gini early in this game. Been largely anonymous. Some brighter moments in the second half.
Fabinho (6) – He was in a somewhat difficult spot as Arsenal’s diamond system makes him easy for Ceballos to press. But he did relatively well in those circumstances.
Roberto Firmino (8) – He’s as mad as ever. Never change, Bobby.
Sadio Mane (7) – He’s been involved and looked like the most likely person to break the deadlock early on. Didn’t happen but kept going.
Mohamed Salah (8) – Wasn’t his game in the first half. Arsenal were getting pretty tight to him. Didn’t affect his focus when he put the penalty away. Then he found some more space against tired legs and there was only going to be one outcome.
James Milner (6) – Does what he does. You know you’re getting at this point.
Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain (6) – Still doesn’t look completely fit, but made a good effort and it’s positive to see him back.
Adam Lallana (n/a) — Not enough time on the pitch to give him a score.
MAN OF THE MATCH
Roberto Firmino — Not an obvious choice as he didn’t get on the scoresheet, but his contribution was huge. This was a game where Liverpool deliberately pressed to the opposition goalkeeper and attempted to stifle Arsenal’s buildup all the way. There is no one in this Liverpool team or maybe even in world football better at pressing from the front and linking it to wide forwards than Firmino. Liverpool don’t exist without him doing what he does.
It wasn’t that long ago that the English Premier League was an embarrassment in European competition.
Chelsea’s UEFA Champions League title in 2012 seemed to represent the last time an English club could seriously be counted as among Europe’s best. From 2013 until 2017, just 4 of the 40 quarter final places given out in the tournament were taken by Premier League clubs. Just 2 of those 4 then made it up to the semi finals, with neither making it to the final. English football just couldn’t compete at the highest level. It was no fluke.
Anyone who watched a lot of Premier League games in those years compared to La Liga, the Bundesliga and Serie A could see the problems. There were good players at the top English sides, yes, but the teams were almost purely reliant on individual attacking quality.
Manuel Pellegrini’s Manchester City had the wonderful talents of Yaya Toure, David Silva and Sergio Aguero in full flow, but left huge spaces in behind for teams to exploit on the counter. Liverpool’s sparkling 2013-14 side was really all about the star qualities of Raheem Sterling, Daniel Sturridge, Philippe Coutinho and, yes, most of all, Luis Suarez. When Suarez left and Sturridge got injured, it all fell apart because there was no real tactical idea to fall back on.
Leicester City’s miracle 2016 Premier League title win was an astounding, historic achievement. There can be no doubts of that. But it also spoke to how poor the bigger, richer English teams were at the time.
Meanwhile, sides in other European countries were doing it differently.
The 2013 Champions League final featured a Borussia Dortmund team managed by Jurgen Klopp that were nothing if not cohesive, putting together fluid attacking transitions plus a structured aggression without the ball that was tactically far ahead of anything happening in England.
Their opponents, Bayern Munich, had many of the same traits and were about to be transformed by Pep Guardiola’s possession football, while the principles of the Catalan’s philosophy remained intact back in Barcelona.
Atletico Madrid were learning the value of compact, difficult to break down, football under Diego Simeone.
The top European sides generally didn’t have better players than England’s elite, but they were better structured, better organized, and above all, better coached.
How England solved their problem
As always, the English teams looked at the problem and decided the solution was to throw money at it. Except this time, the cash was spent on the managers rather than just the players.
Tottenham made the bold call to bring in Mauricio Pochettino after his great work at Southampton. Liverpool went big in attracting Klopp, while Manchester City went for the most respected coach in the game with Pep Guardiola. Chelsea and Manchester United went for stricter defensive stalwarts in Antonio Conte and Jose Mourinho (which didn’t go quite so well, but the idea was solid).
No longer were the English clubs set to be the least cohesive sides in Europe. These were managers with clear ideas about what their teams were going to do, with visions, with philosophies.
The effect was huge.
After Leicester and Southampton broke the party in 2015/16, the big six clubs returned to the top six Premier League positions the following year. They’ve remained there ever since, with the gap to seventh hitting on average 9 points in the past three years.
Success in Europe came soon after.
Manchester United became the first English team to win a European trophy in four years when they lifted the Europa League trophy in 2017. In the big one, the Champions League, Liverpool were the first Premier League side to reach the final in 2017 since Chelsea won the thing in 2012. The English resurgence had begun. But no one could have expected what happened last season.
Two European finals. Four teams. All English. None of the four teams being the actual club that won the Premier League. Any doubts that England had the best football around were put to bed.
This has sparked a reaction on the continent. The four sides that dominated the later rounds of the Champions League for most of this decade, Real Madrid, Barcelona, Bayern Munich and Juventus, have spent big this summer. Really big. And if the various reports are believed about Neymar, the two Spanish clubs are both attempting to go even bigger. So how are they looking?
Madrid were certainly the team of this group most in need of a revamp. Last summer saw the club sell Cristiano Ronaldo and buy no major attackers. Their eventual third place La Liga finish had a strong “well what were you expecting?” vibe to it.
So they went hard on fixing that.
Eden Hazard was the biggest name arrival, with the €100 million ($111m) signing from Chelsea replacing Ronaldo as the biggest brand name at the club. Stylistically, he’s rather different. When you strip out penalties, his best ever goal scoring return in a league campaign was 14, so he’s not going to be an abnormal contributor there. What he does offer is the best ability at carrying the ball into dangerous areas of anyone not named Lionel Messi. His 4.2 dribbles per 90 are outstanding, and he’s not just taking the ball to the byline. If you need a guy to pick the ball up and just single-handedly generate attacking moves, Hazard’s your guy. Only thing is you’ll want someone else to get on the end of a few chances.
Thankfully, Real have that covered now, too. Luka Jovic has arrived from Eintracht Frankfurt for €60m ($67m) in what may be an excellent deal. The one thing Jovic does to a high level is get shots away, 3.9 per 90 and overwhelmingly from decent positions. With the Luka Modric/Toni Kross axis alongside Hazard working the ball into great positions, Jovic should be able to get on the end of plenty of chances. His link up play is probably still a touch rusty, but at 21 he has plenty of time to fix that.
There are some fairly astonishing rumours that Zinedine Zidane doesn’t want him at the club and is already looking to send him on loan, but for now let’s trust that this is the ever unreliable Madrid newspapers doing their thing.
Elsewhere, Real have Eder Militao and Ferland Mendy coming to give some much needed youth to the back four as Sergio Ramos and Marcelo age out of the side. This probably won’t have a huge immediate impact, but long term they look like two really good replacements.
Barcelona haven’t quite gone as big as Real, though they were starting from a stronger position. That could change if they manage to get the Neymar deal over the line.
As it stands, the club have already signed one of the biggest name attackers in the world with Antoine Griezmann. Personally, I’m slightly skeptical that the Frenchman will offer quite as much to Barca as he did for Atletico Madrid. Of his 15 goals last season, three were from penalties and another three were direct free kicks. At the Camp Nou, Messi will be on set piece duties. Still, though, he should offer a threat out wide in terms of running in behind, whereas Philippe Coutinho last season continually wanted to receive the ball and Barca thus had a hard time stretching the play.
Arguably more exciting is Frenkie de Jong. Most evident in the Pep Guardiola era but dating back long before then, Barcelona are a club so often defined by technical central midfielders. De Jong is both every bit the classic Barca midfielder and also an ideal fit for the modern game. His 91% passing accuracy comes not because he makes safe choices, he’s constantly moving the ball forward, but because he’s so intelligent about being difficult to win the ball off of. The modern midfielder needs to be ever more adept at resisting the opposition press. He should be able to find space when it seems like you’re surrounded. No one out there does this as well as De Jong. The Catalan side could have an absolute gem in their midfield for the next decade.
Heading across the Mediterranean into Italy, no top club has shaken things up this summer more than Juventus, though we don’t have any idea what the final team will look like.
Central to all of this is new manager Maurizio Sarri. Juventus as a club, not just under Max Allegri but really for their entire history, have been defined against the idea that anything but the result matters. Arrigo Sacchi’s Milan side brought an exciting, high pressing game to Italy but Juve stood firm, believing in the traditions of defending deep, putting bodies on the line, and scraping a 1-0 win. This will all change with Sarri. He is a true believer in the possession game he coached so successfully at Napoli and to mixed success at Chelsea. Sarri’s approach will be different from anything we’ve seen from this Juve squad, so an overhaul has been needed.
Defensively, the side need to be playing a much higher line with centre backs more comfortable on the ball, so it’s not a surprise to see Matthijs de Ligt make the move to Turin. De Ligt looked like one of the outstanding defenders in Europe last season and should be a good fit for Sarriball, with age still well on his side at 19. Merih Demiral is a little less of a sure thing in the same role, but still looks a smart pickup. Danilo at right back feels harder to parse, with the 28 year old never totally convincing at Manchester City, but he should still be able to do a job.
Higher up the pitch, the aim seems to be to blend technical quality with the more robust profile Juve need to transition to a high pressing style, or at least one that isn’t constantly getting exposed. Adrien Rabiot on a free from PSG looks ideal for this as a player who does just about everything in midfield, winning the ball aggressively but also offering excellent playmaking qualities. Aaron Ramsey has a bit of this as well, and can offer more in terms of goals and assists. However, his frequent injury problems could be a real concern here. The club have a huge volume of players now, but a manager who tends to barely rotate and frustrates players on the fringes of his plans. It feels like it’s a year of retooling for the Serie A champions.
Last but not least, Bayern seem stuck between relying on solid veteran players and trying to bring in a younger side.
They have really freshened things up in only one place: at the back. Lucas Hernandez is a left footed centre back comfortable on the ball who can shuffle along to the left back spot if David Alaba is unavailable. It’s hard to imagine he won’t be an important player for many years in Bavaria. Benjamin Pavard is broadly the same player, but right footed. This also looks a good piece of business. What they have failed to do, though, is reboot the attack. Ivan “we couldn’t get Leroy Sane in so here’s a short term fix” Perišić has arrived but he’s hardly a huge upgrade on what they have. James Rodriguez, frequently an important creative spark, has left without a replacement.
It doesn’t seem as though Bayern have any idea what they want to be, and as such, it’s hard to imagine them really challenging for the Champions League title this season. The problems that existed for Bayern last season just haven’t been really addressed.
Have they done enough?
While these teams have all added useful players, they have not learned the most important lesson from the English clubs’ return to the top. Your side needs to be cohesive. You will achieve more with a clear idea of how you want to play and a coach who can implement a specific philosophy. Juventus, in fairness, have hired someone to do this, but it will be a long adjustment process. Barcelona arguably get to cheat this with Messi still around, but the others certainly don’t. Maybe the Argentine’s individual quality delivers Barca the Champions League title once more, but in all probability, England still feels like the most likely home for major European trophies.
It’s the most wonderful time of the year (for huge overreactions).
Everyone knows that top European sides do not care an awful lot about the results of preseason friendlies. They exist for the sides to sharpen up before the domestic campaigns kick in. Nonetheless, everyone loves to freak out about the results anyway. We’re a strange species.
Now, in a literal sense, preseason results do not matter at all. Once the season proper starts, no one cares a jot who won the International Champions Cup or the Premier League Asia Trophy. None of these trophies combined are considered as important as three points in the Premier League or La Liga. But do they point toward success in the season? Is a strong preseason a building block for a good campaign? Let’s take a look.
Premier League Champions
Now, if preseason results matter, we’d expect sides that go on to win league titles to dominate in them.
But that’s not what we saw with Manchester City last summer.
Guardiola’s side traveled to the United States to take part in the 2018 International Champions Cup, and it didn’t entirely go to plan. City lost two of the three games, though did manage to win their last against Bayern Munich. It did not seem like this was the stuff of champions, but it did not end up mattering one bit.
City’s 2017/18 title winners got things going in a slightly better fashion, winning three out of five preseason games. The story was even better for the 2016/17 Chelsea side that lifted the Premier League trophy. In a mammouth preseason, Antonio Conte achieved five wins from seven, even if many of these were against lesser teams.
It was much the same for the miraculous Leicester City team that won the league in 2015/16. Summer 2015 saw Claudio Ranieri’s men face off against lower league English teams and the Foxes won four out of five games.
Across the previous ten years, when looking at the eventual title winners’ preseason preparations we see the teams winning 39 times, drawing 5 and losing 12. Adjusted to a 38 game league season, this rate of winning and drawing would see a team pick up 83 points, generally securing a comfortable place in the top four but not usually enough to win a title.
So what we have seen is that the teams can be a touch down from their usual levels, yes, but rarely do we see title winners look totally off the mark in preseason.
International Champions Cup
Consisting entirely of top European sides, the International Champions Cup in recent years should theoretically be a good test case for whether preseason results matter. All the participating teams are at close-ish levels and none are ready for the season yet.
Last summer, the victors of the tournament were Tottenham Hotspur. Spurs reached a Champions League final in 2019, yes, but in points they were a worse Premier League side than in past seasons. The preseason dominance did not necessarily bleed into the season.
In 2017, Barcelona won the competition despite all the Neymar drama happening around the club. It ended up being a good bellwether for what was to come, as Barca won La Liga that season pretty comfortably.
The 2016 edition, however, was not such a good guide. PSG won the tournament having been victorious in all three games, but went on to finish in a shocking second place in Ligue 1. Sharp as they were over the summer, it did not carry into the campaign.
The teams that do less well in the ICC also don’t have a clear pattern. 2018’s bottom ranked side was Barcelona. Ernesto Valverde’s players did get humiliated at Anfield last season in the Champions League, it’s true. But they also won La Liga without ever really looking tested, amassing 11 more points than second placed Atletico Madrid.
The 2017 contest did tell us some things on the negative end, with bottom placed Real Madrid bringing the bad form into La Liga, going into the winter break 14 points behind Barcelona.
As for 2016? Perhaps Celtic can be forgiven for struggling in a tournament of big sides from richer leagues, as the perennial Scottish champions were unable to win a single game. It didn’t hurt the Brendan Rodgers managed club in the slightest, going on to win 34 out of 38 games in a stunning season.
So Does it Matter?
Looking purely at the results, one would be inclined to say that preseason is a poor predictor of future form, especially outside England. The thing to stress, though, is that results are not the point of these games. The aim is to improve players’ fitness and work on tactical ideas. What the manager wants to see is an evolution of the team, evidence of solid work being done that can be taken into a campaign.
When evaluating how your team has done this summer, don’t worry too much about the results. What you should instead be looking for, then, is a sense that the players are improving tactically. Individual errors on occasion might be a given with the lack of match sharpness, but what you want to see is a feeling that your team is playing a cohesive style, that the manager is trying to teach the players to do certain things and they are learning from it.
With the number of games in a European club season, there is very little time for serious tactical coaching work. Preseason gives an opportunity to really train in terms of systems and ideas. Look for this sort of thing being implemented, rather than whether your team can win the tournaments.
Liverpool and transfers. It’s gone pretty well recently.
While this summer looks like a quieter one, since Jurgen Klopp arrived at Anfield, he and sporting director Michael Edwards haven’t been afraid to splash the cash.
Per Transfermarkt, Liverpool have spent £400.38 million ($501m USD today) and received £310.66m ($389m) since the German was appointed. Looking at the latter, Transfermarkt now estimates the total worth of players Liverpool sold at £289.90m ($362m), so the club generally seemed to get fair values for these players and then a touch extra.
As for those brought in, if we exclude the players who have already been sold on, this group cost £390.32m ($487m) and have an estimated value today of £695.0m, so it certainly seems like good business has been done. But while that’s the macro story, what about the micro? Let’s take a look.
If you want to talk successes, there’s nowhere to start other than Mohamed Salah.
The Egyptian was purchased for £37.8m ($47m) and now has a value of £135m ($168m). It’s not hard to see why. Salah has notched 71 goals and 29 assists in 104 games at Liverpool, along with a significant marketing punch. Liverpool found a superstar for a moderate fee.
Sadio Mane has had a similar, if not quite as drastic, increase, costing the club £37.08m ($46m) and now getting valued at £108m ($135m).
Winning the Champions League tends to look good on one’s resume. In terms of value buys, Andy Robertson currently looks like a miracle, being valued at £54m ($67m) when he cost just £8.1m ($10m) two summers ago. Michael Edwards’ recruitment team have often looked at undervalued players towards the bottom end of the Premier League table, and Robertson stands as the greatest achievement in that regard.
The club has also shown an admirable lack of fear when it comes to making big moves, and it has been paying off. Liverpool smashed the transfer record for a goalkeeper last summer, paying Roma £56.25m ($70m) for Alisson after the position had been a persistent problem. The results speak for themselves, with the Brazil number one winning the Golden Glove award for most Premier League clean sheets along with a number of important saves on the way to the Champions League trophy. That his value now sits at £72m ($90m) should not surprise anyone.
Virgil van Dijk was a similar huge outlay, breaking the record fee for a defender and paying Southampton £76.19m ($95m) for his services. Transfermarkt felt this was a significant overpay at the time, putting his worth at just £27m ($34m), but things have come around, and his value now stands at £81m ($101m). Van Dijk is the current bookmakers’ favourite to win the Ballon d’Or, and even just making the podium would likely see another uptick in his value, so value has certainly been found with this purchase.
Fabinho looks less spectacular, but still feels like a solid purchase. £40.5m ($51m) was paid for the midfielder, hitting his market value exactly. Things were rather slow to get going. It took until late October for him to start his first league game, but he then firmly established himself in the side, proving a useful cog across the season. His current market value is £45m ($56m), and another season as a regular for Liverpool could easily see this increase further.
As for less successful moves, Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain has seen a slight dip to £31.5m ($39m) when £34.2m ($43m) was paid, but its hard to ignore his injury in this. If he can maintain full fitness across the 2019/20 season, one would expect his value to shoot up.
While they didn’t prove quite as disruptive to the season, Naby Keita was also someone who suffered from several knocks over the year, and as such failed to increase his value from the £54m ($67m) paid. It’s obvious that Klopp really likes him, and if he can stay fit then he has every chance at becoming an integral part of the side, but these injury concerns pose a genuine risk of preventing this purchase from ever fully paying off.
It’s all but an inevitability that teams will make some costly errors, and it’s hard to describe the Emre Can saga as anything but.
After contract negotiations broke down, the German midfielder moved to Juventus on a free transfer, and Can currently has a value of £36m ($45m). Yikes.
Just as damning is the case of Luis Alberto. After failing to settle at Anfield, the Spanish attacking midfielder had a few mixed loan spells and then was sold to Lazio for £3.6m ($4.5m), an almost negligible figure for a club like Liverpool. Since then, however, Alberto has shone. The 2017/18 campaign, where he managed 11 goals and 14 assists in Serie A, but in every year he’s been a great creative force with solid defensive work, increasing his worth to £25.2m ($31m). Perhaps his supposedly difficult personality didn’t fit with Klopp, but one more year on loan and Liverpool could have flipped him for a much higher fee.
Otherwise, the outward business done has largely been good, with the highest priced sale, Philippe Coutinho for £130.5m ($163m), looking like great work as his value has fallen to £81m ($101m).
Mamadou Sakho looks like another shrewd move, with the defender now worth just £13.5m ($17m) after selling him for £25.38m ($32m), though his increasing age (now 29) plays a factor here.
Elsewhere, with a few exceptional circumstances such as Mario Balotelli’s free transfer, players have generally been sold for around their market value or slightly above it.
It’s somewhat unfortunate that both Alberto Moreno and Daniel Sturridge have left on free transfers, though not exactly a shock with their lack of action recently.
In an ideal world, Liverpool might have been able to recoup fees for one or both, with Moreno valued at £8.1m ($10m) and Sturridge at £13.5m ($17m). But the market did not work this way and, with other clubs unwilling to meet their wage demands in previous summers, the two sat out their contracts and left for nothing.
Sturridge in particular shows the perils of long term contracts, with the Englishman becoming one of the club’s highest earners at a time when he was a key part of the side, but found himself quickly declining after injuries bit.
There is always risk attached to the transfer market.
Factors such as future injuries and how a player will mentally adapt to a new environment are notoriously hard to predict. Furthermore, buying and selling players cannot simply be understood as a project in maximising value.
Someone like Balotelli, for example, certainly had a financial value, but the player was a poor fit for Liverpool and Klopp, so the club took a monetary hit on him.
It is therefore even more impressive that good business has been done in this difficult environment, and speaks highly of Liverpool and Fenway Sports Group in building a sustainably run, successful team.