We begin our round-up of the mid-season state of play in the major European leagues with a look at Italy's Serie A, where a close title race, a plethora of goals and an unfortunate finishing run feature among the standout stories at this stage of the campaign.
The Tightest Title Race
Serie A could well be on course for one of the closest finishes of the modern era. Five or six teams have put together broadly similar results and underlying numbers to date, and it wouldn’t be at all surprising if three or four of them finished the campaign within a couple of wins or less of one another.
The two Milan sides have set the pace so far, but both Roma and nine-time defending champions Juventus are within reach, while Napoli, Atalanta and a Lazio side with less competitive metrics are only slightly further back. Inter look particularly strongly placed, with the second best metrics and a workable margin over both Juventus (with the best) and Roma (with the third best). Romelu Lukaku has been near unstoppable up front.
Milan have carried their excellent form down the final stretch of last season into this, but there are a couple of things that may count against them during the second half of the campaign. Firstly, while they are performing pretty much exactly in line with their metrics, they are not as strong of those of their primary competitors. Secondly, Stefano Pioli’s side have benefited from far more than their fair share of penalties. They’ve won nearly three times and scored exactly twice as many as any other team.
That is unlikely to hold. They’ve already been awarded six more penalties and scored two more than in the entirety of last season in a league that has actually seen slightly less penalties given this time around. The points are already on the board and this is still on course to be Milan’s best season since they finished third in 2012-13. Good recruitment work has created a squad capable of continuing this upward trend into the seasons to come. But they are arguably the most likely candidates to suffer a drop off in results from hereon out.
Lots of Goals
Serie A came flying out of the traps with an average of 3.75 goals, 3.44 non-penalty goals and 2.96 expected goals (xG) per match over the five first matchdays of the season. It was comfortably the highest-scoring of the big five leagues at that stage. That has inevitably settled down a little as the campaign has progressed and the sample size has increased. Both the underlying xG figures and the degree to which non-penalty goals are outrunning them have decreased...
...but Serie A remains almost neck and neck with the Bundesliga as the highest scoring league by all three measures. That despite the fact that it is seeing an average of almost four less shots per match compared to last season, down from 28.15 then to 24.45 this time around. The mild increase in xG per match season-on-season has been driven by a clear increase in average shot quality, from 0.090 xG/shot last season up to 0.106 in 2020-21. That is reflected in the decrease in the average shot distance -- down from 17.28 metres to 16.29. Every single one of the 17 teams who remained from last season are taking their shots closer to goal on average.
Udinese’s xG woes
No side have underperformed their metrics to a greater extent than Udinese. Luca Gotti’s side appear well-constructed, and in Rodrigo de Paul they have a player capable of running pretty much all aspects of their attack.
They are a top-eight side by xG difference but due to an underperformance of comfortably more than half a goal per match, they instead find themselves down in 13th, some 10 points off that mark.
That underperformance is evenly distributed between both ends of the pitch. They are just under six goals behind in attack.
And have conceded just over six goals more than expectation in defence.
A fair amount of that attacking underperformance would appear to fall on the shoulders of one man: Kevin Lasagna. He’s been layering on the xG, only for it all to fall apart in the oven. He’s getting on the end of plenty of throughballs -- more, per 90, in fact, than anyone else in Serie A -- and into other advantageous positions, but the finishing touch has too often eluded him. He has just two goals from 7.34 xG.
Lasagna is not a perennial underperformer. He scored pretty much exactly in line with his xG last season, and was even a couple of goals ahead in 2018-19. He is probably just going through a very unfortunate run of finishing on a side who appear to be suffering a similar fate. Udinese are more than good enough to avoid relegation troubles, and if they start performing more in line with their metrics, they might even be able to salvage a top-half finish.
- Genoa are the only side across the big five leagues to have used their entire complement of five substitutes in each and every match. That is even more remarkable given they’ve had two different coaches: Rolando Maran; then, from late December, Davide Ballardini.
- Piotr Zielinski is the nutmeg king of Serie A. The Napoli midfielder has not only completed more nutmegs in total than anyone else (8), but is also the only player among those to have played more than 900 minutes to have performed a nutmeg more than once every two matches. Achraf Hakimi of Inter Milan is next up.
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