Last week, we took a look at the stats behind the Premier League’s odd start. The other leagues among Europe’s Big Five haven’t been quite as strange by comparison: Bayern and PSG are still leading the Bundesliga and Ligue 1, respectively, the two Madrid clubs are near the top in La Liga and while Serie A is a bit of a chaotic mess, that wasn’t altogether unexpected.
Still, there are some early-season surprises and trends worth investigating. So let’s give the rest of Europe the predictive stats treatment!
(For background on some of the statistical categories used below, check out not only last week’s Premier League piece, but also this season preview piece from September.)
After winning the Champions League in August, Bayern began the Bundesliga season in odd form. They followed up an 8-0 win over poor Schalke with a 4-1 loss to Hoffenheim — their first in any competition since December — and a narrow 4-3 win over Hertha Berlin. But that was pretty much it for any struggles. They won their last four league matches by a combined 14-4, and they’re back to the top of the table. All is right and normal in Germany apparently. (As long as we’re not talking about the national team.)
Everything about Bayern is unfair, from their eight straight titles to the fact that they basically went out and acquired an entire B-team of sturdy veterans — forward Eric Choupo-Moting, midfielder Douglas Costa, etc. — to account for this season’s fixture congestion. But it bears mentioning that the other two primary German contenders have done their best to look the part.
Both RBL and BVB are averaging strong point totals with sturdy goal differentials. (RBL’s xGD is actually higher than Bayern’s.) Despite each suffering a glitchy loss in the Champions League — RBL to Manchester United, BVB to Lazio — both clubs are well-positioned to advance into the knockout stages of that tournament. FiveThirtyEight gives them a 72% and 96% chance, respectively. Germany’s hierarchy is in good shape overall, even if the title race might not be a title race for long.
Union Berlin survived its first year in the Bundesliga with a defense-centric 11th-place finish in 2019-20. They began season No. 2 with an inauspicious 3-1 loss to Augsburg, but they haven’t lost since. They drew at Borussia Mönchengladbach, and they beat Mainz, Hoffenheim and Arminia Bielefeld by a combined 12-1.
They’ve got the fourth-best goal differential and xGD in the league, and veteran Max Kruse is one of only four players in the league with at least three goals and 14 chances created. (The other three: Bayern’s Thomas Müller, RBL’s torrid Angelino and Hertha’s Matheus Cunha. Good company.) They take good, if infrequent, shots and play some of the most organized defense in the league. We’ll see if they have the depth to keep this pace up, but through about one-fifth of the season, they’ve played Champions League-level ball.
The possession game still plays in Germany
While possession rates haven’t really correlated with success in the Premier League so far this season, the top four teams in the Bundesliga from a possession standpoint are each averaging over two points per game thus far. One glance at the above table shows you a pretty strong correlation.
The two teams with decent numbers and less impressive point totals: Gladbach and Eintracht Frankfurt. The former has done incredible work in the Champions League; Marco Rose’s squad currently leads a group that includes both Real Madrid and Inter Milan and, per 538, has a 67% chance of advancing to the knockouts. In league play, they lost at BVB to start the season and dropped a 4-3 decision to Bayer Leverkusen in maybe the wildest, most exciting match in the league so far. But they’re still mostly fine.
Eintracht, meanwhile, have perhaps been a bit unlucky. They’ve got the sixth-best xGD in the league, and while they’ve suffered only one loss — a 5-0 humbling at Bayern — they’ve also been limited to four draws, including 1-1s against both Arminia Bielefeld and Köln. They’ve given up early goals that have left them scrambling for points late in matches. I deemed Eintracht a potential top-five team in the preseason, and I think that’s still possible, but they’ve leaked some points they shouldn’t.
Bayern: still Bayern
FiveThirtyEight gave Bayern an 81% chance of winning a ninth straight title at the beginning of the season, and despite challengers’ good form, it’s up to 83% now, with BVB at 8% and Leipzig at 6%. We probably know how this is going to end.
That said, the race for the No. 4 spot could again be fascinating. Leverkusen has mostly looked the part, but so have Union and Gladbach, and the table above suggests that teams like Stuttgart, Hertha and Hoffenheim are all candidates for improvement as well. Plus, Eintracht’s xGD(L) — expected goal differential in losses — is skewed by the fact that the blowout to Bayern is their only loss. They’re mostly fine, too.
Spanish La Liga
A quick glance at the La Liga table suggests chaos. Real Sociedad and Villarreal in the top two! Barcelona are 11th! But a lot of that comes from the fact that some teams have played two more than others; adjust for that, and things look at least a little bit more orderly. You’ve still got Barcelona laboring in sixth, and Real Sociedad is still ahead of both Barca and Real Madrid, but the league’s three biggest clubs are all at or pretty close to the top.
That’s not to say things haven’t been a little different
Since 2003, Real Sociedad have only once finished higher than sixth in the league, and not only are they first in points and second in points per game, they’re also second in goal differential and first in expected goal differential (xGD). Those are pretty sturdy, predictive measures, and the club from San Sebastian isn’t where it is because of a run of fluky finishing.
They have succeeded due to the fact that they might have the best and most creative midfield in the league. The insertion of Manchester City‘s David Silva alongside veteran Portu and youngsters Mikel Merino and Mikel Oyarzabal has created magic — the quartet has combined for 12 goals and 43 chances created in nine matches.
One glance at the table above, however, tells you who the biggest regression candidate is. Elche are back in the top flight for the first time since 2015, and they won three of their first five matches before managing just one point in their last two. While they’re averaging the same points per game as Barca at the moment, they not only have the worst xGD in the league, but it’s also the worst by a significant margin. That doesn’t bode well.
Sid Lowe is saddened by the news that Luis Suarez will miss Atletico Madrid’s game vs. Barcelona because of COVID-19.
While goals have risen throughout Europe’s other major leagues, Spain has followed a different trend. Scoring is down in La Liga for the fourth straight year, even though shot quality is actually up. As the possession game grows increasingly familiar throughout the sport, the league that all but patented it knows how to defend it, too. Possessions are a bit more languid and methodical.
That has helped to produce an odd twist: Diego Simeone’s notoriously defense-centric Atletico Madrid, which nearly won the league in 2015-16 while allowing just 18 goals, is on pace to score over 90. Mind you, they’re also allowing fewer than ever — they haven’t exactly gone full Atalanta or anything. But the combination of a slower scoring pace for everyone else and a torrid stretch for 21-year old Joao Felix (five goals, 12 chances created) means that Atleti are strangely, almost disturbingly, as prolific and entertaining a team as La Liga have to offer this season.
Cadiz hates the ball
Teams may be better equipped to defend against the possession game in Spain, but most of the top teams still possess quite a bit of the ball. In their first season back in La Liga since 2006, however, Cadiz has combined sturdy, organized defense with some of the most direct, and typically fruitless, possessions you’ll see. They have possessed the ball more than 34% of the time in only two of nine league matches, and they’ve been under 30% in all four of their wins. In their stunning 1-0 upset of Real Madrid, their possession rate was just 26%, and they attempted 199 passes to Los Blancos’ 631.
Anti-football at its finest.
Strange starts are not strange finishes
The period from mid-August to mid-October was among the worst two-month stretches in the modern history of FC Barcelona. They got humiliated by Bayern Munich in the quarterfinals of the Champions League, then Lionel Messi both publicly declared he wanted to leave and threw a fit after a technicality prevented him from it. They let veterans like Luis Suarez, Ivan Rakitic and Arturo Vidal go amid major financial problems. And after a successful initial surge under Ronald Koeman — wins over Villarreal and Celta Vigo by a combined 7-0 — they began October by nabbing just two points from four matches. Young star Ansu Fati got hurt, while Messi has seen his assist rates go down and is primarily only scoring on penalties.
Despite the drama, though, 538’s club ratings, which focus primarily on the long-term, I think Barca’s basically fine. It ranks them third in the world, ahead of Liverpool and PSG, and it continues to give them a 37% chance of winning the league, down only from 45% at the start of the season. (The Madrid clubs are both at 24%.) This is backed up at least a bit by the fact that their Champions League form has been fine, albeit in a particularly easy group.
The progression and regression factors above, however, note that they haven’t been unlucky so far in league play — they’ve been, like Manchester City in the Premier League, pretty mediocre.
When you see blue shades in the above table, it means the team is likely to regress a bit in the given category. Orange shades suggest improvement. No team is showing blue shades in four or more categories, while two show orange shades and are therefore solid progression candidates: Athletic Bilbao and Eibar.
Italian Serie A
While the Premier League’s congestion near the top — nine teams are within five points of first place at the moment — was unexpected, it was all I desired from the Serie A race this year. So far, so good. Thanks in part to Napoli‘s covid-related default loss to Juventus (which isn’t counted in the performance tables below), we’re looking at four teams within four points of the top, and 11 teams within seven points, seven matches in.
Contenders plus surprises
Most of the teams we expected to be successful, have been. Granted, only the default win has kept Juve near the top — we’ll need to take a big, deep dive into their issues soon — but both Milan squads have been solid, Atalanta remains prolific and exciting, and both Napoli and Roma have bounced back after frustrating 2019-20 campaigns. But a wonderfully prolific Sassuolo (basically Atalanta Jr.) have the second-best goal differential and a win over Napoli, and Hellas Verona are playing some of the best defense in the league. While Udinese is in the relegation zone at the moment, they’re only there because of a series of tight, unfortunate losses to good teams. Their xGD denotes how solid they’ve played.
There are a lot of tough outs in this league, in other words, and it could make for a topsy turvy title race.
Inter is doing everything right (except winning big)
I’ve found myself talking up Antonio Conte’s Inter a lot in recent months, even going so far as to call them a Champions League title sleeper. (Barring a rally, that proclamation isn’t looking so hot right now. Actually, do me a favor and don’t click on that link at all. I jinxed virtually everyone I mentioned.)
In both Serie A and Champions League play, Inter have done almost everything right on paper. They possess the ball. They press effectively and prevent you from doing the same. They put themselves in position to score frequently and deny you the same luxury.
They continue to leak points against high-level competition, however. They lost a key early league battle with AC Milan and managed only a draw with Atalanta despite total shots and xG advantages. It’s the same story in the Champions League: they lost to Real Madrid and drew with both Shakhtar Donetsk and Gladbach despite a combined 29-10 shots advantage and 5.1-1.6 xG advantage.
In the short-term, this seems dramatically unlucky. But it was the same story last season, when they lost twice to Juventus and came up two points short of the Scudetto because of it; they also lost three of four to Barcelona and BVB in the Champions League and got relegated to the Europa League. At some point, it’s not luck, it’s you, but it’s hard to know where that point is.
At the beginning of the season, FiveThirtyEight gave five different teams at least a 10% chance of winning the league. Now it’s six. Inter leads the way at 25% (it was 31% at the start), while AC Milan (19%), Napoli (17%), Juventus (15%), Roma (11%) and Atalanta (10%) are all within range. Both Napoli and AC Milan saw their respective form slide a bit toward this last international break, and regression factors above suggest there’s a reason for that. But those factors aren’t in love with Sassuolo or Roma either, and Inter and Atalanta are the only teams near the top with shades of orange in three categories.
It would be a shock, in other words, if anyone in this race pulled away anytime soon.
French Ligue 1
PSG has battled coronavirus issues and injuries and lost each of its first two league matches. But even though their Champions League form has been mostly dreadful, they’ve still carved out a lead in league play, and recent history suggests that lead won’t dissipate.
OM and OL, switching bodies again
The abbreviated 2019-20 Ligue 1 season saw Marseille finish second despite the fourth-best goal differential and sixth-best xGD, while Lyon, with its lovely possession play and Champions League form, finished seventh despite ranking second in GD and third in xGD.
About a quarter of the way through the 2020-21 campaign, we’re seeing exactly the same thing. OM once again have the second-best points-per-game average despite mediocre goal and xG numbers — like Arsenal, they forget to shoot the ball sometimes — while Lyon are clearly the second-best team on paper and have lost only once… but have suffered five draws, including two to relegation candidates Nimes and Lorient.
Lyon have talent and a distinct style, but they leak points left and right, and it might cost them a Champions League spot for a second straight year. Marseille are bombing in the Champions League (three matches, three losses, no goals scored yet) but positioning themselves to qualify for it again.
Lens planning on sticking around
At the turn of the century, Lens were one of France‘s most prominent clubs, winning Ligue 1 in 1998 and reaching the UEFA Cup semis in 2000. They spent eight of the last nine seasons in Ligue 2, however. Their early form suggests they don’t really want to go back anytime soon. They let their opponents possess the ball a good amount, but they are organized in defense and give you minimal scoring chances while creating solid chances of their own in counter-attacks. Their average xG per shot is tied with PSG for best in the league, though they don’t take as many shots as PSG.
A 4-0 loss to Lille has skewed the goal differential (and negated the effects of an early upset of PSG), and they’ve got quite a few top teams left to play. Depth and fatigue could turn into issues, but their success thus far hasn’t been particularly fluky.
We know who’s going to win this league
FiveThirtyEight gave PSG a 91% chance of winning the league in September, and despite the early losses and poor Champions League form, it’s still 88% now. Lille and Rennes both looked at one point like teams that could stick around in the race, but both have dropped too many points of late. The chart above suggests Lille was unlucky to do so, however, and while Les Dogues probably won’t challenge PSG, I’d consider them favorites for the No. 2 spot, at least if Andre Villas-Boas’ “dominate set pieces and have Steve Mandanda save every single shot” magic act at Marseille ever tapers off.
There aren’t any other obvious progression candidates, and it’s probably a bad sign that PSG has the most orange shades of any top teams above. This won’t be a race, though as with the Bundesliga, the battle for the other Champions League spots could be quite interesting.