The Era of the Big Three in European Soccer is Over
For almost a decade the top of the soccer pyramid was clear. The world order was Barcelona, Bayern Munich, Real Madrid and then everybody else. Those three teams combined have won the last six Champions Leagues (though to be fair, Madrid won four of the last five on their own) and seven of the last eight. But, the times they are a changing.
The big three are, for various reasons, all struggling this year. At Real Madrid the drop off is easy to understand. After years of doubling down on featuring Cristiano Ronaldo’s talents at the expense of everybody else, Ronaldo left last summer. The man who got the most out of latter day Ronaldo, manager Zinedine Zidane also left. It was the end of an era. They didn’t prepare for a new era. You can never replace a player like Ronaldo, but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t try. Madrid didn’t bother to try, and it has resulted in a predictable struggle to score goals.
At Barcelona and Bayern the causes are more difficult to tease out. But, to some degree there are explanations to be found in the fact that both teams rely on players that are the wrong side of 30. At Bayern it’s Arjen Robben and Franck Ribery who are not only in their mid-30s but are also, still, the creative engine that Bayern rely on to make their entire side tick. In Barcelona the list of aging players is even long. The (now injured) GOAT Lionel Messi might show no signs of slowing down but the same isn’t true for Sergio Busquets, Luis Suarez, Ivan Rakitic, and Gerard Pique. There are a lot of miles in those legs.
The reasons might be complex, but the result is simple, the big three is no more. A new group of teams are storming the top of Europe’s elite. Two teams from outside the big three have clearly distinguished themselves as the best in Europe this season, another three or four might consider themselves, at least on par with the big three. The question is no longer will the big three maintain their dominance, but rather will another, different group of teams form a similar elite club in the wake of the big three era.
Right now, the two best teams in the world are Manchester City and Juventus, and it’s not particularly close. Both have statistical profiles that absolutely blow away their domestic league. City have an expected goal difference of just under 2.5 expected goals per match. Nobody else in the Premier League has an expected goal difference over 1.00. They allow 6.44 shots per match, two fewer than any other Premier League team. They take 22.56 shots per match, 4.5 shots more than any other team. They’re simply blowing everybody else out of the water. They’ve also done much of it without injured star Kevin De Bruyne who is just now coming back.
Juventus’s domination in Serie A is similar, if not quite as extreme. Their expected goal difference of 1.37 is half an expected goal better than anybody else’s. They take 21.78 shots per match which is 3.5 shots more than anybody else. Juventus are also the only team that concedes fewer than 10 shots per match, giving up 9.22. Also, while Manchester City are still climbing the European competition mountain, the modern-day version still has only progressed past the quarter finals once, a relatively tame semifinals appearance in Manuel Pellegrini’s last season, Juventus have been hovering just off the summit for the entire big three era. During the big three era, Juventus have twice come up one game short of Champions League glory, losing to both Barcelona and Real Madrid.
As this year’s version of the Champions League progresses, the question isn’t whether City and Juventus can catch the big three, it’s whether the big three have enough juice left in the tank to put together once more run to catch City and Juventus. And whether Barcelona, Bayern and Madrid are even the most likely teams to do so. Paris Saint-Germain remain a great team still waiting for European campaign that sees them perform to a level equal to the sum of their parts. Their level of domestic dominance this season isn’t quite as extreme as the big two but they’re still far and away the best team in France. And Kylian Mbappe is doing this.
Which, remarkably, is overshadowing that Neymar is doing this.
PSG have been great, and remain great. Their place in Europe’s pyramid remains fairly stable, just outside the very top and in with a Champions League shot if everything goes right. It’s just that while they’ve remained the same the teams ahead of them on the list are changing.
Liverpool also deserve prime contender status. They made the finals last year, and through a quarter of the season this year, are clearly England’s second best side. While City are hitting new heights and pulling away at the top, Liverpool have, at least in results matched them step for step. There’s no reason to think that they’re less of a contender for the Champions League than a side like Madrid. The equation is fairly simple, look at last year’s final, subtract Ronaldo from Madrid and add Salah (and a non-concussed goalkeeper) to Liverpool.
Atletico Madrid deserve honorable mention as a member of the chasing pack. They, like Juventus have twice been one match away from hoisting the Champions League trophy. They haven’t been able to capitalize on the erosion of the big three, however. While their grind it out style is always difficult to capture numerically, they have seemed to take small steps backwards so far this season. In attack their expected goals per game dropped from 1.16 last year to an even 1.00 this year. And in defense they’ve gone from 0.90 to 1.09.
Diego Simeone’s hard-nosed style will always give the team a fighting chance in a knockout competition but similarly to PSG, they’ve retained the status they’ve always had, rather than taking advantage of the chaos at the top of the pyramid to take a major step forward. Nowhere is that more evident than in the La Liga table where despite Barcelona and Madrid struggling, Atleti only sit fifth in the table with a disappointing 16 points from their first nine games.
The age of the big three is over. For almost a decade the super clubs of Barcelona, Real Madrid and Bayern Munich dominated the world stage. Now, those three are no longer the prohibitive favorites to win Europe’s biggest competition. That doesn’t mean they can’t ultimately hoist the trophy, of course, only that others have surpassed them as being the most likely candidates. Manchester City and Juventus are dominant teams this year. The big three, they’re just contenders like a handful of others. The shape of the challenge is clear. City and Juventus rule the roost, it’s Barcelona, Bayern, Madrid, PSG, Liverpool, and possibly Atleti who are the chasing pack.
Europe’s different this season. It’s about dang time.