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Who’s hot, who’s not in European soccer


Nottingham Forest’s 4-1 home victory over Leicester City in the FA Cup last weekend wasn’t exactly “Boreham Wood over Bournemouth” levels of shocking, but it was still pretty jarring. A second-division team that hasn’t been in the Premier League since 1999 putting an outright pummeling on the defending Cup champions? That will always be surprising, especially considering the stats bore it out to a certain degree — Forest generated 1.9 expected goals (xG) to Leicester’s 0.6 and attempted four shots from within 10 meters. Leicester managed only one.

City Ground was rocking. It was great to see. But if you’ve been following the Championship race this season, the result couldn’t have been a total surprise, as Forest have basically played like a Premier League team since mid-September.

After finishing 17th in the Championship last season, the Reds took just one point from their first seven league matches and fired manager Chris Hughton in favour of former Swansea top man Steve Cooper. Teams will often enjoy a new-manager bump after making a change, but said bump has lasted nearly five months now.

Championship table since Sept. 17:
1. Fulham (45 points, +39 goal differential)
2. Nottingham Forest (45, +7)
3. Blackburn Rovers (41, +11)
4. Bournemouth (40, +15)
5. Queens Park Rangers (40, +8)

Forest’s dismal start means they’ve only now reached sixth place — which would get them into the promotion playoff — and they’re nine points outside of one of the automatic promotion spots, but their form is undeniably awesome at the moment.

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Which other teams have seen serious changes in fortune since the beginning of the 2021-22 season? Let’s take a look.

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Fortunes rising quickly

Juventus | 4th in Serie A

Juve had a busy January transfer window, sending Rodrigo Bentancur and Dejan Kulusevski to Tottenham Hotspur and dumping Aaron Ramsey’s salary by sending him to Rangers on loan while bringing in Fiorentina forward Dusan Vlahovic for nearly $90 million and plucking midfielder Denis Zakaria away from floundering Borussia Monchengladbach as well. Both new signings scored in a 2-0 win over Hellas Verona on Sunday and could provide a sustained boost overall, but Juve had already shifted into a high gear before their arrival.

Since an Oct. 30 loss to Verona, the Bianconeri have lost just once in Serie A. Tied for eighth in the league when the calendar flipped to November, they’ve been the best team in Italy since, generating 30 points to Internazionale’s 29. (No one else has more than 24.) They’re still eight points back of Inter in the title race, which might be too big of a gap to overcome, but they’re now fourth overall, two points up on Atalanta, who have a game in hand. At the least, they’re back in the battle for a Champions League spot, which seemed tenuous not too long ago. FiveThirtyEight’s Soccer Power Index gave them a 36% chance of finishing in the top four in early November; their odds are now 52%.

Tottenham Hotspur | 7th in Premier League

November was also a turning point in north London, though for different reasons. When Spurs fired Nuno Espirito Santo on Nov. 1, they were ninth in the Premier League behind, among others, Brighton & Hove Albion and Santo’s former team, Wolverhampton Wanderers. Odds of a top-four finish, per FiveThirtyEight: 8%. Until Wednesday’s maddening loss to Southampton — they led 2-1 through 79 minutes but trailed 3-2 three minutes later — their odds were up to 39%, highest of any team outside the power trio of Manchester City, Liverpool and Chelsea. They have averaged 1.9 points per game in league play, behind only City (2.9) and Liverpool (2.2).

It’s amazing what happens when you sign one of the best managers in Europe, huh? Antonio Conte came aboard on Nov. 2; the club went after him over the summer before landing on Santo, and it appears they got their man the second time around. He has righted an ailing Spurs defense — even accounting for the loss to Saints, they’ve allowed only one goal per match — and their plus-8 goal differential has actually been on the unfortunate side: their xG differential since he took over is +12.2. If or when forward Harry Kane fully rediscovers his finishing touch (he’s scored just four goals from 7.2 xG under Conte and eight from 10.3 overall), Spurs could be well built to snare the No. 4 spot in the table. You couldn’t say that on Nov. 1.

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Wolverhampton Wanderers | 8th in Premier League

Bruno Lage took over in Wolverhampton when Santo left for Tottenham, and after a poor start — three points and two goals scored in five matches — he’s molded Wolves into, well, a more extreme version of Wolves. They are even less transition based and more defensively sound than they were under Santo, and since Sept. 26, they’ve generated more points in the Premier League than anyone outside of the big three. (And hell, they’re only three points behind Liverpool and Chelsea.)

Left-back Rayan Ait-Nouri, signed from Angers in July, has been a revelation, and while sending winger Adama Traore to Barcelona (on loan with the option to become permanent) could hurt … they’re not scoring goals anyway! Defensive structure is what matters to this team, and they have it in droves. Still, a lack of offensive upside likely caps what Wolves are capable of this year — FiveThirtyEight gives them only a 4% chance of finishing in the top four despite the fact that they’re only two points behind Spurs (39%) and Arsenal (35%). But no metrics predicted what they’ve been able to do for the past five months either.

RB Leipzig | 7th in Bundesliga

It’s been an odd season in the Bundesliga. Borussia Dortmund have battled massive injury issues and bombed out of the Champions League, and RB Leipzig lost key defensive personnel and replaced new Bayern Munich manager Julian Nagelsmann with the ultra-aggressive Jesse Marsch and spent most of the season getting ripped apart in transition defence. (Marsch was replaced by Domenico Tedesco in early December.)

Their form had rebounded a bit following a three-match league losing streak in late-November, but they’re still seventh in the league and enmeshed in a crowded race for a spot in Europe next year. Of course, then you look at FiveThirtyEight’s Bundesliga odds, and everything looks downright orderly.

Odds of a top four finish, per SPI:
1. Bayern Munich >99%
2. Borussia Dortmund 97%
3. Bayer Leverkusen 77%
4. RB Leipzig 52%
5-18. All 18% or lower

It takes faith to assume things are mostly fine in Leipzig — they still rank last in the Bundesliga in xG allowed per shot and eighth in overall xG allowed per match — but over the past two months, their xGD is a massive +1.3 per match, nearly double that of any team not named Bayern. This hasn’t translated into a massive run of results, but it probably will.

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Strasbourg | 4th in Ligue 1

For the most part, the usual suspects make up the top half of the Ligue 1 table. Paris Saint-Germain running away with the title, and teams like Marseille, Stade Rennais and AS Monaco are positioning themselves for spots in Europe. Nice have been in great form all year, but another upstart has crept its way into the race. Strasbourg haven’t finished higher than eighth in Ligue 1 since 1981 and found themselves demoted to the fifth division after going through liquidation a decade ago. Les Bleu et Blanc began the season anonymously, with four points in five matches, and stood in 12th after 11 matches. But since Oct. 31, almost no one in France has been more impressive. They’ve generated 24 points in their past 12 matches, second most behind PSG (25), a level of performance backed up by the advanced stats (they’re second in xGD as well).

What are they doing so well? Scoring! They’re second in Ligue 1 with 2.0 goals per match and second in averaging 0.15 xG per shot. Veteran forwards Ludovic Ajorque, Kevin Gameiro and Habib Diallo have combined for 26 goals and nine assists, and while their odds of reaching the Champions League are only 26%, per FiveThirtyEight, they were 4% at the beginning of the season.

Werder Bremen, Hamburg and Schalke | 3rd, 4th, 5th, respectively, in 2. Bundesliga

The fact that the Bundesliga’s title races tend to lack competitiveness — Bayern Munich are well on their way to their 10th straight title — is a two-pronged issue. On one hand, Bayern are simply a machine, the most efficient and consistent the country’s most efficient and consistent club has ever been. But on the other, it’s painfully noticeable how many of Germany’s other potential heavyweights have just become outright messes. VfL Wolfsburg and Borussia Monchengladbach have been painfully inconsistent, Hertha Berlin have ceded “best Berlin club” status to Union, one-time European powers like FC Cologne have been stagnant for a while, and Schalke, Hamburg and Werder Bremen have all completely collapsed and gotten relegated in recent years.

This is a pretty low bar to clear, but all three have positioned themselves well to get re-promoted this season. They are all in the top five in the 2. Bundesliga and all within two points of the top of the table. And over the past two months, they have been the three best teams, led by a Bremen team that has won six in a row. Bremen now have a 54% chance of promotion, per FiveThirtyEight, while Schalke’s at 52% and Hamburg’s at 43%. Things could still go painfully awry, but the arrows are pointed up anyway.

It’s been a rough few weeks (or months)

Everton | 16th in Premier League

Even knowing that Everton have battled injury issues and fired the ever-polarising Rafael Benitez in January (after allowing him to make some pretty important personnel moves, no less), it’s still jarring to realise just how far the Toffees have fallen, and in such a short amount of time.

On Oct. 2, a 1-1 draw with Manchester United kept the team in fourth place in the Premier League, just two points out of first. They had started quickly before, and I doubt any fans were making 2022-23 Champions League plans just yet, but what followed is still shocking.

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Bottom of the Premier League since Oct. 3:
16. Norwich City, 15 points
17. Brentford, 14 points
18. Burnley, 11 points
19. Watford, 8 points
20. Everton, 5 points

Five points! One win in 14 matches! The club brought in Frank Lampard on Jan. 31, and his first match was a rousing 4-1 win over Brentford in the FA Cup. In his first league match, though, they fell to a sloppy 3-1 defeat against relegation rival Newcastle United, and a team that had a 13% chance of reaching the Champions League in early October now has a 24% chance of relegation. (They haven’t played in the second division since 1954.)

Atletico Madrid | 5th in LaLiga

On Nov. 28, following a 4-1 win over Cadiz, Diego Simeone’s defending LaLiga champs were holding onto hopes of a successful title defence. Real Madrid were rounding into form, but Atleti were still just four points back of los Blancos and had only lost once in league play. Better yet, perma-contender Barcelona were a mess, grounded in seventh place and breaking in new manager Xavi.

Then Atleti lost four league matches in a row to end the calendar year. And after a brief rally, a 4-2 loss to Barcelona on Sunday not only left them 17 points back of Real Madrid, title defence long dead, but also dropped them out of the top four, two points behind an increasingly Barca-like Barca. They’ve pulled just seven points from their past eight matches, their stalwart defence is 13th in LaLiga in goals allowed per match, forward Antoine Griezmann and midfielders Marcos Llorente and Geoffrey Kondogbia have all been out since mid-January, and while FiveThirtyEight still gives them a 61% chance of finishing in the top four — Real Betis, four points ahead of Atleti, appear most likely to fade, per the advanced stats — that’s down from 79% just two months ago. It may not quite be panic time yet, but it feels like it.

VfL Wolfsburg and Borussia Monchengladbach | 12th and 13th, respectively, in Bundesliga

This season, Borussia Monchengladbach have averaged 2.0 points per game against Bayern Munich — a 1-1 draw in August, a 2-1 win in January — and 1.0 against the rest of the Bundesliga. That a team with the upside to do the former might lead you to believe the latter is bad luck or randomness, but of late, it’s just been bad play. Over the past two months, both their points per game average (0.7) and xG differential (-1.0 per match) have been third-worst in the league, longtime sporting director Max Eberl just resigned and Zakaria was transferred to Juventus after announcing he wouldn’t be re-signing with the Foals. It’s been an inexplicably disastrous time for a club that not only reached the Champions League knockouts last year but still has most of the players responsible for that run.

One of the teams that has been even worse over the past two months: Wolfsburg. Until Sunday’s win over last-place Greuther Furth, the team that finished fourth in the league last year had pulled just one point from its previous eight league matches. They earned 13 points in their first five league matches and have managed just 11 since. They lost star striker Wout Weghorst to the Premier League’s relegation-threatened Burnley (which led to them bringing back forward Max Kruse from Union Berlin), and even with the weekend win they’re just two points above the drop zone. (Gladbach’s one point clear.) FiveThirtyEight suggests both teams should rally — Wolfsburg have an 8% chance of relegation, Gladbach 4% — but they’ll have to. Things have gone very poorly of late.

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Benfica | 3rd in Primeira Liga

Granted, it’s all relative. Benfica are still third in Portugal’s Primeira Liga and advanced into the Champions League knockout rounds over Barcelona. (Ajax Amsterdam await them later this month.) But while FC Porto have been nearly flawless in league play and defending champions Sporting CP have done their best to keep up — the clubs have 59 and 53 points, respectively — Benfica dropped 10 points in an eight-match span and have fallen 12 points back of Porto. And in a week’s span, in league and cup matches, they lost 3-0 and 3-1 to the league leaders.

What’s going wrong? Nothing, really. They’re still first in the league in goals scored and third in goals allowed. They could still give Ajax fits in the Champions League. But when you’ve won 37 league titles since the 1930s — nearly half of them! — any slip in form is noteworthy, and three losses in two months was all it took to basically eliminate Benfica from the league title race.

St. Pauli | 2nd in 2. Bundesliga

If Schalke, Bremen and rival Hamburg are all rising in Germany’s second division, someone has to be falling. On Dec. 4, following a win over Schalke, St. Pauli were six points clear in first place in the 2. Bundeslisga. They’re still clinging to second, but they’ve completely lost their form since, winning just one of their past six matches and allowing others to gain serious ground. They’re now tied with Werder Bremen at 38 points, and Schalke and Hamburg are among three teams one point behind them.

It’s not just poor fortune or something either: over the last two months, their xG differential (-0.8 per match) has been the fourth worst in the league. Their promotion odds have tanked from 61% in early-December to 21% now. Star creator Daniel-Kofi Kyereh (five goals, nine assists) has been absent, first for the Africa Cup of Nations, then with a muscle injury, but the attack remains dangerous. The biggest issue is that they’ve allowed nine goals in their past four matches and haven’t managed a clean sheet since Oct. 24. Other injuries and poor continuity have begun to add up.

Barnsley | 24th in English Championship

It’s devastating in a couple of different ways when you narrowly miss out on the Premier League. Obviously you lose a chance at the riches that come with participating in England’s top flight, but it also hurts because you never know when you might get another shot. Talent levels are too even at the second level, and it doesn’t take many bad breaks to fall a long way.

Case in point: Barnsley. After losing in the promotion playoff last year, it seemed like they were off to a slow start when they began the year with eight points in their first eight matches. Turns out, those were heady times. Barnsley have managed only six points in the 21 matches since. They aren’t getting destroyed — 11 of their 19 losses have been by one goal — but they’ve managed to fall behind Derby and into last place in the second division, a mighty accomplishment considering the financially disastrous Derby were handed a 21-point penalty by the Football League. After nearly reaching the first division for the second time ever nine months ago, they’re now looking at a likely return to the third.

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