way-too-early analysis from Europe’s big leagues
The early part of a new season is always one of conflict: A) we know we shouldn't overreact to what we see in the first few matches of the year, but B) overreacting is really, really fun. We just waited an entire offseason — granted, this offseason was shorter than most — to find out how good our teams like Chelsea or Bayern Munich would or wouldn't be this season, so we're going to react to a tiny sample size.
So what if we compromised and overreacted only to a little? We can give it a tamer name, such as “partial answers,” and not commit to any long-term conclusions. We'll try to make smart use of stats for our discussion, too. Sound good? Great!
Let's talk about some of European football's offseason questions and the partial answers we can glean from the season's early going.
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How are Chelsea doing with all those fancy, new signings?
While much of the soccer world has been cautious with finances in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic, Chelsea spent like no one else this offseason, parting with some £200 million to bring in attackers Timo Werner, Hakim Ziyech and Kai Havertz, along with a new left-back, Ben Chilwell. They brought in veteran defender and former Paris Saint-Germain captain Thiago Silva on a free transfer as well.
That's half a starting lineup right there, and it's crammed into a lineup good enough to have finished fourth in the Premier League last season, never mind the arrival of goalkeeper Edouard Mendy from Stade Rennes.
How are things going so far? It's hard to say, obviously, considering that only two of the new signings have played — Werner has played all 180 league minutes and Havertz 124 — and last year's top three returning scorers (Tammy Abraham, Christian Pulisic and Olivier Giroud) have logged a combined 12 minutes of action. Ziyech, Chilwell, Silva and Pulisic have all been unavailable due to various maladies, and we can't really know how the pieces fit together until they're all available. (Silva did start Wednesday against Barnsley in the EFL Cup, with Chilwell making a 24-minute cameo off the bench.)
Their first two league matches weren't particularly impressive. They worked their way past Brighton 3-1 despite an expected goals disadvantage (they generated 1.3 xG from 10 shots, while Brighton generated 1.6 from 13), with a 35-yard bomb from Reece James giving the Blues a second-half lead. Then they got run over by two Sadio Mane goals in a 2-0 loss to Liverpool. The latter match was defined somewhat by a first-half red card for Andreas Christensen, but Liverpool were the far more assertive team before that, too.
In two matches, Chelsea have started only seven possessions in the attacking third, while their opponents have started 30. (Twenty-four of those came in the Liverpool match; it's clear the defending champions have started the season in hyper-speed.) That's unsustainably bad, but nothing has been particularly good for Frank Lampard's squad so far. We'll see what happens when he has his first-choice team at his disposal.
Have Man City fixed their defensive issues?
Pep Guardiola's fourth Manchester City team had a fascinating 2019-20 season. (Here we should note that “fascinating” is not always a positive adjective.) They led the Premier League in goals scored and goal differential, and they were second in goals allowed. When they got their teeth into you, they didn't let up.
From a macro perspective, there wasn't much difference between that squad and its two title-winning predecessors. But about once a month, they fell asleep, giving up a goal on a counter and failing to crack open packed-in defenses. They fell to Norwich City and Southampton, got swept by Wolverhampton Wanderers and Manchester United and ended the campaign 18 points short of champions Liverpool. Worse, they were knocked out of the Champions League quarterfinals again, this time by Lyon.
Almost the only statistical weakness City had was the most damning: They allowed 0.144 xG per shot, most in the league. Granted, they didn't allow many shots, but when they did, they were as point-blank as you're going to find. When these breakdowns occurred, they almost always seemed to lead to dropped points.
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Considering that it was such a random problem, it's going to take us a while to determine whether this issue has been fixed, but pummeling Wolves 3-1 was a good way to start the season. City held a +1.3 xG advantage, possessed the ball 66% of the time and started seven more possessions than Wolves in the attacking third. Better yet, they held the hosts to 0.08 xG per shot, lowest in the league. The defense featured new addition Nathan Ake at centre-back and sturdy old Fernandinho back in defensive midfield (he played centre-back last year, with mixed results), and it held up against a Wolves roster that's still in transition.
It was a good start. Now they have to do it over and over and over again.
Arsenal are Arteta's team now. What does that mean?
When Mikel Arteta took over the Gunners midway through last season, he didn't change all that much. Arsenal backed off the defensive pressure a bit, slowed things down and allowed fewer good looks, but they didn't assert any sort of possession advantage or do many of the things you'd expect a former Arsene Wenger player and Guardiola assistant to do.
Now, after an ever-so-brief offseason and a full transfer window for some roster adjustments — bringing in Chelsea winger Willian and Lille defender Gabriel, for instance — what has changed early on?
— The possession game has been installed. Arsenal have enjoyed 58% possession so far (it was 52% after Arteta took over last season), and their possessions average 2.6 more passes than their opponents' (+0.6 with Arteta last year).
— They … take … their … sweet … time. Through two matches, Arsenal are averaging 74.5 possessions per match. How slow is that? The past 10 years, the lowest full-season average was Manchester City's 84.8 in 2019-20 (Guardiola!). Arsenal's average possession time is 33.1 seconds; the highest in the past decade was Manchester City's 32.4 in 2018-19 (Guardiola again!). They're not pressuring all that much, which means opponents also enjoy decent time on the ball, and that's slowing the tempo to a crawl. For reference, Leeds United are averaging 120 possessions per match thus far. It's like those two teams are playing different sports.
— The pragmatism is producing great shots. Arsenal are averaging 0.20 xG per shot, thousandths of a point behind Tottenham Hotspur for top in the league. Of course, this style isn't producing many shots — their 0.13 shots per possession rank just 11th and combined with their opponents' 0.13 shots per possession, it means they're winning matches with shot quality more than overall quality.
They're winning matches, though: 3-0 over Fulham and a rickety 2-1 over West Ham United. The Hammers generated a 2.4-to-1.3 xG advantage, but could place only three of 14 shots on goal, and a lack of open, easy looks nearly doomed Arsenal. It's hard to confidently call them Champions League contenders yet, but Arteta's identity shift is clearly underway.
James and Ancelotti reunited: what does it mean for Everton?
James Rodriguez, World Cup wizard and general Real Madrid disappointment, signed to reunite with his favorite club coach, Carlo Ancelotti, at Everton this offseason. Although he averaged more than 1.0 combined goals and assists per 90 minutes in three of the past six seasons (twice for Real and once during a two-year loan spell at Bayern Munich), a combination of injuries and managerial preference — among others, Madrid's Zinedine Zidane never seemed like much of a fan — tamped his minutes down, and he needed a rehabilitation stint.
ESPN FC's Steve Nicol says it hasn't been since the 1980's when he was last excited to watch Everton play.
So far, so good. Through two league matches and 167 minutes (already almost 40% of what Zidane gave him last year), James has a goal and an assist and has created seven chances. Those are impressive stats, but they don't do justice to just how much of Everton's attack has run through him, even when he isn't in the attacking third.
Better yet, Everton have won their first two matches of the season for the first time since 2012. They took down Tottenham 1-0 in the opener, then pulled away for a 5-2 win over newly promoted West Bromwich Albion. Striker Dominic Calvert-Lewin already has four goals.
Thanks primarily to the West Brom match, their xG differential (+1.83) is second in the league behind only Liverpool's, and though there are plenty of “This isn't particularly sustainable!” warning signs — they aren't much for pressuring their opponent, their save percentage differential is unsustainably large (five of their seven shots on goal against West Brom hit the net, which won't usually happen), and it helped that West Brom were a man down the entire second half — the attack is genuinely dangerous and exciting for the first time in a while.
For a club that hasn't finished higher than seventh since 2013-14, that's a start. We'll see where it goes from here.
Are Bayern going to go 34-0-0 and score 200 goals?
Do Bayern's primary challengers look ready for a fight, at least?
Bayern just won the Champions League a few weeks ago and went on holiday for a bit. Thiago left, and David Alaba's contract talks have seemingly reached a stalemate. The German and European champions could maybe begin the season a bit hungover, yeah? No. Bayern's downright cruel 8-0 win over Schalke 044 on Friday was a mission statement of sorts and until they lose this otherworldly form a bit, there's little hope for a tight Bundesliga title race.
That said, two well-assembled challengers sit in waiting, just in case. RB Leipzig were the best team in the league over the first half of last season, and Borussia Dortmund were easily the second-best behind Bayern after adding Erling Haaland in January. Despite losing Timo Werner to Chelsea, Leipzig are still fast, talented and well-coached, and Dortmund appear to have kept star winger Jadon Sancho away from transfer poachers for another season.
Both teams began the season well. Leipzig simply refused to give Mainz the ball during a 3-1 win — they had 72% possession and averaged 7.6 passes per possession — and BVB absorbed some early shots from a good Borussia Monchengladbach before flipping the match with a Giovanni Reyna goal and easing to a 3-0 win. Dortmund played at a languid pace and ended up generating most of their danger on counterattacks, but when you've got Sancho, Haaland & Co. up front, you've got the makings of a perfect countering squad.
Gab Marcotti explains why Bayern Munich are attempting to add depth at right back and on the wings.
Madrid didn't really spend any money this offseason. How does continuity look for Los Blancos?
Barring any last-second moves, a club known for filling potential holes with the most expensive possible options sat back and watched during this transfer window, handcuffed a bit by financial restraints. Instead, the club added to the roster by not subtracting from it.
A series of youngsters who spent 2019-20 on loan, led by midfielder Martin Ødegaard, might now get a run at the Santiago Bernabeu. Ødegaard was in the starting lineup for the team's season opener against Real Sociedad (Ødegaard's former team), and three other recent loanees were on the bench.
The match went basically according to plan everywhere but the scoreboard. Real Madrid possessed the ball 68% of the time, enjoyed far longer possessions and produced a solid +0.4 xG differential against what should be a solid opponent. But the overall shot quality was pretty low, and no attempts found the net in a scoreless draw. That allows us to point out that “Real Madrid are five points back of Granada and Real Betis in the table!” (both of those teams started with back-to-back wins), but it probably won't mean much down the line. Madrid's fundamentals were fine.
Milan looked great at the end of last season. Will that continue?
AC Milan's next loss will be their first since play resumed after the coronavirus stoppage. The Rossoneri took 30 of 36 points following the stoppage and jumped Napoli into sixth place in the league, and despite tons of rumours of his ouster, manager Stefano Pioli remained in place to start 2020-21.
Although their biggest matches this season have taken place outside the league — they beat Shamrock Rovers to advance to the third qualifying round for the Europa League, and they host Norway's Bodø/Glimt on Thursday, with the winner one more round from the group stage — domestic play began just fine on Monday. The ageless Zlatan Ibrahimovic scored twice in a 2-0 win over Bologna, and Milan racked up a huge +2.1 xG differential. (Zlatan has since tested positive for COVID-19.) Their defensive pressure wasn't all that high, but Bologna generated almost no good looks on goal.
It's difficult to avoid over-hyping this year's Serie A race. Yes, Juventus have won nine titles in a row and looked great against Sampdoria in Andrea Pirlo's debut as manager, but the list of potentially legit challengers has never been so long during Juve's run. Internazionale finished just one point back of Juve and nearly won the Europa League. Atalanta remain prolific and dangerous. Napoli have everything they need for a bounce-back campaign. Lazio still have Ciro Immobile & Co. If AC Milan retain their summer form for a while longer, the seven-time European Cup winners could play a major role in the race as well.
Can anyone hang with PSG?
Paris Saint-Germain lost only three of 27 league matches last season, so it was noteworthy when, following a run of positive coronavirus tests, a limited PSG lineup lost its first two matches of 2020-21 — 1-0 defeats to Lens and Marseille. A last-second Julian Draxler goal saved them from a scoreless draw against Metz, and against Nice, with the band mostly back together, they cruised 3-0.
It wouldn't surprise anyone if PSG proceeded to win each of their remaining 34 league matches and cruise to yet another title. But which teams might have the best shot of hanging with the champs over the long term?
Julien Laurens says Kylian Mbappe's return was the driving force behind PSG's 3-0 win over Nice.
From the perspective of xG differential, freshly promoted Lens (+2.1 per match) lead the way so far. The fourth-place Sang et Or are 22 years removed from their only league title, but they've won three of four, and their win over PSG means they have to play the champs only one more time. Their defense is physical and foul-prone, and they've limited opponents to mostly low-percentage shots. The attack will likely hold them back, though.
Last year's runners-up, Marseille, also scored a win over PSG, despite their own issues with positive tests. OM's lone loss, to Saint-Etienne, was a bit fluky from an xG perspective, but their attack has been limited by personnel issues, and they've already dropped five points.
Lyon look like maybe the best non-PSG team on paper — their xG differential is +1.8 per match, and they're finishing 59% of their possessions in the attacking third, compared to 31% for opponents — but just as they did last season, they've leaked points, losing to Montpellier and suffering scoreless draws against both Bordeaux and Nimes. With Bertrand Traore already gone to Aston Villa and “Memphis Depay to Barcelona” rumours flying, the attack might not get more consistent anytime soon.
First-place Saint-Etienne have played stellar defense but don't generate many good shots, despite playing a heavy counterattacking style, and second-place Rennes play a lovely possession game but don't advance into the attacking third all that much.
So … the answer to “Who will hang with PSG?” is probably “nobody.” Again.
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