Last week we looked at the stats behind the Premier League’s strange start. The other leagues among the Big Five in Europe weren’t that strange by comparison: Bayern and PSG are still leading the Bundesliga and Ligue 1, the two Madrid clubs are almost at the top in La Liga, and during Serie A. is a bit of a chaotic mess, that wasn’t entirely unexpected.
Still, there are some preseason surprises and trends that are worth exploring. So let’s give the rest of Europe the predictive statistical treatment!
– Stream ESPN FC Daily on ESPN + (US only)
– – Predict the results in ESPN’s English Soccer Pick ‘Em!
– ESPN + Viewers Guide: Bundesliga, Serie A, MLS, FA Cup and more
(Background information on some of the statistical categories used below can be found not only in last week’s Premier League, but also in this season’s preview starting in September.)
Jump to: Bundesliga | La Liga | Serie A | Ligue 1
After winning the Champions League in August, Bayern started the Bundesliga season in an odd shape. They followed an 8-0 win against poor Schalke with a 4-1 defeat against Hoffenheim – the first in a competition since December – and a narrow 4-3 win against Hertha Berlin. But that was pretty much all for any fights. They have won their last four league games with a combined 14: 4 and are back at the top of the table. In Germany everything is apparently fine and normal. (As long as we’re not talking about the national team.)
RB Leipzig and Borussia Dortmund are trying their best to keep up
Everything about Bayern is unfair, from their eight straight titles to the fact that they basically won an entire B-Team of strong veterans – striker Eric Choupo-Moting, midfielder Douglas Costaetc. – to account for the congestion of games this season. It’s worth noting, however, that the other two main German competitors did their best to see the part.
– A child’s mission: Make every Bundesliga stadium with Lego!
– Derek Rae: thoughts of the Bundesliga during the international break
Both RBL and BVB achieve, on average, strong scores with large goal differences. (RBL’s xGD is actually higher than Bayern’s.) Despite every loss in the Champions League – RBL against Manchester United, BVB against Lazio – both clubs are well positioned to advance into the knockout phase of this tournament. FiveThirtyEight gives them a 72% and 96% chance, respectively. Overall, the German hierarchy is in good shape, even if the title race may not be a title race for long.
Union Berlin survived its first year in the Bundesliga with a defense-oriented 11th place in 2019-20. They started the second season with an unfavorable 1: 3 defeat against Augsburg, but have not lost since then. They drew at Borussia Mönchengladbach and defeated Mainz, Hoffenheim and Arminia Bielefeld 12-1.
They have the fourth best goal differential and xGD in the league and veterans Max Kruse is one of only four players in the league with at least three goals and 14 chances. (The other three: Bayern’s Thomas Müller, RBLs hotter Angelino and Hertha Matheus Cunha. Good company.) They shoot well, albeit rarely, and play one of the most well-organized defenses in the league. We’ll see if they have the depth to keep this pace up, but in about a fifth of the season they have played a ball in the Champions League.
The ball possession game still plays in Germany
While the ball possession rates this season have not really correlated with success in the Premier League, the four best teams in the Bundesliga have so far averaged over two points per game from a ball possession perspective. A look at the table above shows a pretty strong correlation.
The two teams with decent numbers and less impressive scores: Gladbach and Eintracht Frankfurt. The former did an incredible job in the Champions League; Marco Rose’s squad currently leads a group that includes both Real Madrid and Inter Milan and has a 67% chance of advancing to the knockout stage, according to 538. They lost in the league game at BVB at the beginning of the season and dropped a 4-3 decision against Bayer Leverkusen in what was perhaps the wildest and most exciting game in the league. But they are mostly still fine.
Eintracht might have had a bit of bad luck by now. They have the sixth best xGD in the league and although they suffered only one loss – a 5-0 loss to Bayern – they were also limited to four draws, including 1-1 against both Arminia Bielefeld and Cologne. They gave up early goals so they had to fight for points late in the games. I ranked Eintracht as a potential top 5 team last season and I think it’s still possible, but they lost some points that they shouldn’t.
Bavaria: still Bavaria
FiveThirtyEight gave Bayern an 81% chance at the start of the season to win a ninth title in a row, and despite the good form of the challengers, it’s now up to 83%, BVB 8% and Leipzig 6%. We probably know how this will end.
Nevertheless, the race for fourth place could be fascinating again. Leverkusen mostly took care of the role, but also Union and Gladbach. The table above shows that teams like Stuttgart, Hertha and Hoffenheim are also candidates for improvement. Eintracht’s xGD (L) – expected goal difference in losses – is skewed by the fact that the outbreak against Bayern is their only loss. Most of the time they are fine too.
Spanish La Liga
A quick look at the La Liga table suggests chaos. Real Sociedad and Villarreal in the top two! Barcelona is 11th! But a lot of that is because some teams have played two times more than others. Prepare for it and things will look at least a little neater. Barcelona are still in sixth place and Real Sociedad are still ahead of Barca and Real Madrid, but the three biggest clubs in the league are all at the top or pretty close to the top.
That doesn’t mean that things weren’t a little different
Since 2003, Real Sociedad have only once more than finished sixth in the league. Not only are you the first in points and the second in points per game, but also the second in goal difference and first in expected goal difference (xGD). These are pretty robust, forward-looking measures, and the San Sebastian club is not where they are due to a series of fluky finishes.
They did it because they could have the best and most creative midfield in the league. The insertion of Manchester City David Silva next to veteran Portu and young people Mikel Merino and Mikel Oyarzabal created magic – the quartet has scored 12 goals and 43 chances in nine games.
However, a look at the table above shows who is the largest candidate for regression. Elche is back in the top division for the first time since 2015 and has won three of their first five games before scooping just one point in their last two games. While they are scoring the same points per game as Barca at the moment, not only do they have the worst xGD in the league, they also have the worst by far. That’s not a good sign.
Sid Lowe is saddened by the news that Luis Suarez Atletico will miss Madrid’s game against Barcelona due to COVID-19.
While the goals in the other major European leagues have risen, Spain has followed a different trend. The La Liga has seen fewer points for the fourth year in a row, although the quality of the shot has actually increased. As the game of possession becomes more popular as the sport progresses, the league that almost patented it also knows how to defend it. Possessions are a little more sluggish and methodical.
That contributed to an odd turnaround: Diego Simeone’s notoriously defensive Atletico Madrid, who almost won the league with just 18 goals in 2015/16, is well on the way to scoring over 90 goals. Mind you, they also allow less than ever – they’re not exactly full Atalanta or anything. But the combination of a slower goal for everyone else and a hot stretch for 21-year-old Joao Felix (five goals, 12 chances) means Atleti is, oddly, almost unsettlingly, as productive and fun as the league’s offering this season.
Cadiz hates the ball
The teams may be better equipped to defend themselves against the possession game in Spain, but most of the top teams still have a lot on the ball. However, in their first season in the league since 2006, Cadiz has had a robust, organized defense with some of the most direct and typically most fruitless possessions combined that you will see. They owned the ball more than 34% of the time in just two out of nine league games, and they were under 30% in all four of their wins. In their impressive 1-0 loss to Real Madrid, their possession rate was just 26% and they attempted 199 passes for Los Blancos’ 631.
Anti-soccer at its finest.
Strange starts aren’t strange endings
The period from mid-August to mid-October was one of the worst two-month periods in the modern history of FC Barcelona. They were then humiliated by Bayern Munich in the quarter-finals of the Champions League Lionel Messi both publicly stated that he wanted to go and had a seizure after a technique stopped him. They make veterans like it Luis Suarez, Ivan Rakitic and Arturo Vidal walk in the midst of major financial problems. And after a successful first upswing under Ronald Koeman, who beat Villarreal and Celta Vigo with a combined 7-0, they started October with just two points from four games. Young star Ansu Fati has been injured while Messi has seen his assistance rates decline and only scores primarily on penalties.
Despite the drama 538 club reviewsI think Barca are basically okay. That puts them in third place in the world ahead of Liverpool and PSG and still has a 37% chance of winning the league, up from just 45% at the start of the season. (The Madrid clubs both have a share of 24%.) This is at least somewhat underpinned by the fact that their Champions League form was okay, albeit in a particularly easy group.
However, the progress and regression factors mentioned above show that they have not been unlucky in league play so far – they have been pretty mediocre in the Premier League like Manchester City.
If you see shades of blue in the table above, it means that the team in the given category is likely to regress a bit. Orange tones indicate an improvement. Neither team shows shades of blue in four or more categories, while two show shades of orange and are therefore solid candidates for further development: Athletic Bilbao and Eibar.
Italian series A.
Although the Premier League overload near the top – nine teams are currently within five points of first place – was unexpected, it was everything I wanted from this year’s Serie A race. So far, so good. Thanks in part to Napoli’s covid loss to Juventus (not listed in the performance tables below), we’re looking at four teams four points ahead and eleven teams seven points and seven games.
Competitors plus surprises
Most of the teams that we expected to be successful were successful. Granted, only the standard win kept Juve at the top – we will have to look into their problems in depth soon – but both Milan squads have been solid, Atalanta remains productive and exciting, and both Napoli and Roma have fallen out after frustrating 2019-20 campaigns recovered. But a wonderfully productive Sassuolo (basically Atalanta Jr.) has the second best goal differential and a win over Napoli, and Hellas Verona plays one of the best defenses in the league. While Udinese are in the relegation zone at the moment, they are only here because of a series of close, unfortunate losses to good teams. Your xGD shows how solid you played.
In other words, there are a lot of tough outs in this league and it could turn into an upside-down title race.
Inter do everything right (except win big)
I’ve talked a lot about Antonio Contes Inter over the past few months and even called them the Champions League title sleeper. (Barring a rally, this proclamation doesn’t look that hot right now. Do me a favor and don’t click this link at all. I’ve bewitched virtually everyone I mentioned.)
In both Serie A and the Champions League, Inter did almost everything right on paper. You own the ball. You are effectively pushing and preventing you from doing the same. They put themselves in a position to score often and deny you the same luxuries.
However, you will continue to lose points against high-level competition. They lost an important fight in the early league against AC Milan and only managed one draw against Atalanta despite total shots and xG advantages. It’s the same in the Champions League: They lost to Real Madrid and drew despite a combined 29-10 shot advantage and a 5.1-1.6 xG advantage against Shakhtar Donetsk and Gladbach.
In the short term, this seems dramatically unfortunate. But it was the same story last season when they lost twice to Juventus and were two points ahead of the goal Scudetto therefore; They also lost three out of four to Barcelona and BVB in the Champions League and were relegated to the Europa League. At some point it’s out of luck, you are, but it’s hard to know where that point is.
At the start of the season, FiveThirtyEight gave five different teams a 10% or more chance of winning the league. It’s six now. Inter is at the top with 25% (at the beginning it was 31%), while AC Milan (19%), Napoli (17%), Juventus (15%), Roma (11%) and Atalanta (10%) all leaders are within reach. Both Napoli and AC Milan saw their respective forms slide a bit towards this final international break and the regression factors above suggest that there is a reason for this. But those factors aren’t in love with Sassuolo or Roma either, and Inter and Atalanta are the only teams near the top with tones of orange in three categories.
In other words, it would be a shock if anyone in this race were to pull out soon.
French Ligue 1
PSG have battled coronavirus issues and injuries, losing each of their first two league games. But while their form in the Champions League was mostly terrible, they nonetheless worked out a lead in league play and recent history suggests the lead is not going to dissipate.
OM and OL change bodies again
In the shortened Ligue 1 2019-20 season, Marseille finished second despite having fourth-best goal differential and sixth-best xGD, while Lyon, with their beautiful possession play and Champions League form, finished seventh despite second place in GD and third place in xGD .
About a quarter of the way through the 2020-21 campaign, we’re seeing exactly the same thing. OM, despite mediocre goals and xG numbers, again has the second best point average per game – like Arsenal they sometimes forget to shoot the ball – while Lyon are clearly the second best team on paper and have only lost once … but five draws have suffered, including two against relegation candidates Nimes and Lorient.
Lyon have talent and style but they are losing points left and right and it could cost them a place in the Champions League for a second straight year. Marseille bombs in the Champions League (three games, three defeats, no goals yet) but is positioning itself to qualify for it again.
Lens plans to stay around
At the turn of the century, Lens was one of the most famous clubs in France. He won Ligue 1 in 1998 and reached the semi-finals of the UEFA Cup in 2000. However, they have spent eight of the last nine seasons in Ligue 2. Their early form suggests they don’t really want to return anytime soon. They let their opponents own the ball well, but they are organized in defense and give you minimal scoring opportunities while creating solid chances of themselves when counter-attacking. Their average xG per shot is linked to PSG for the best in the league, although they don’t take as many shots as PSG.
A 4-0 loss to Lille distorted the goal differential (and undermined the effects of an early disruption to PSG) and there are still some top teams to play. Depth and fatigue could become problems, but their success has not been particularly difficult so far.
We know who will win this league
FiveThirtyEight gave PSG a 91% chance of winning the league in September and it’s still 88% despite the early losses and poor Champions League form. Lille and Rennes both viewed a point as teams that could stay in the race, but both have lost too many points lately. However, the graph above suggests that Lille was unlucky to do so while it was doing it Les Dogues PSG are unlikely to be challenged, I would consider them favorites for second place at least if Andre Villas-Boas’ “set pieces dominate and have” Steve Mandanda Save every single shot “Magic Act in Marseilles ever rejuvenates.
There aren’t any other obvious candidates for progress, and it’s probably a bad sign that PSG have the most oranges of any of the top teams above. This won’t be a race, although the fight for the other Champions League places like in the Bundesliga could be very interesting.