Welcome back to the Süper Lig, the Wild East where Loïc Rémy is topping the scoring charts. And don't even ask why there are 21 teams in the league and no relegation last season! Nine matches in, the holders are struggling, we have a surprise leader, and the traditional powers have had varied starts. Let’s take a look at what’s going on with help from the underlying numbers.
Alanyaspor: the new surprise package
When I last wrote about the Süper Lig here last season, Sivasspor were top of the league, but it always seemed unlikely they'd win the title, mainly because they were heavily overperforming their underlying numbers. And so it was, because they ended up finishing fourth. This time around, surprise leaders Alanyaspor’s place at the top of the table looks completely warranted. Their underlying numbers do suggest overperformance in relation to their goal difference (they scored 3.5 more and conceded 4.5 less, probably skewed by the 6-0 against Hatay), but they really have been the best team in the league so far.
What makes them special? They are actually very good at pressing, which is rarer than you would think in the Süper Lig. It helped them to a statement win away at Galatasaray, forcing Oghenekaro Etebo into an early red card. But the really special thing is a different story -- perhaps the best actual footballing story in Turkey for a good while.
Alongside their debutant new manager Çağdaş Atan, who has spent the last five years as the assistant manager of Beşiktaş coach Sergen Yalçın, Alanyaspor hired Sassuolo’s 31-year-old goalkeeping coach Francesco Farioli as assistant manager. The Italian, who arrived from one of the most tactically astute teams in Europe, has absolutely transformed Alanyaspor’s Portuguese goalkeeper Marafona and the team’s buildup play along with it. Let’s take a look at Marafona’s open play passes this season.
Marafona’s open play passing statistics, at 25 passes per 90 with 90.5% accuracy (versus 16 per 90 with 74% accuracy last season), are comparable to those of some of the top ball-playing goalkeepers in the world. Ederson posts 21 passes per 90 with 87%; Alisson, 23 passes per 90 with 84%. The Süper Lig's most renowned ball-playing goalkeeper, and Turkey’s number one, Mert Günok makes 17 passes with 76% accuracy.
Fenerbahçe: the set-piece kings
Fenerbahçe look on par with Alanyaspor in terms of their xG difference and seem to warrant their place alongside them at the top, albeit with one more game played. That is, though, in part due to an extraordinary performance on set-pieces, and they have serious problems in open play which results haven't yet fully reflected.
To be fair, Fenerbahçe’s new coach Erol Bulut was dealt a luxurious but tough hand. Freshly arrived from Alanyaspor late summer to his first job at a big club, the 45-year-old was handed 16 new players to integrate in a season in which Fenerbahçe president Ali Koç is going all-in for the title. There is absolutely zero tolerance for any other outcome. Bulut is playing it safe and doing what he does best. His career to date has taken in successful spells at Yeni Malatyaspor and Alanyaspor, with both sides set up on strong defensive fundamentals and largely hitting opponents in transition rather than dominating games with intricate possession play.
So far, Fenerbahçe boast the best defensive numbers in the league, at only 0.63 xG conceded per game. That is down from 1.14 last season, which clearly shows the huge progress he has made on the defensive side of things. They are showing good signs on the pressing front. However, although there has been gradual improvement, Fenerbahçe will have to produce more open play xG if they are to sustainably break down defences in this 40-game season. So far they are looking short of ideas other than crosses.
How are Fenerbahçe at the top of the table with that attacking radar? Well, because at their current pace of 0.60 set-piece xG per game, they are on a 24-goal pace for the season. They have already scored five. Out of the 17 goals they notched in total, a further four have come from penalties (which is probably not sustainable), and only eight have been from open play (three of them via crosses). None of that is to undermine how important set-pieces are.
It is an aspect of the game that is getting more and more attention, and Erol Bulut seems to be the top coach for it in Turkey. His Alanyaspor also had the best set-piece xG in the league last year with 0.44 per 90, level with Beşiktas, and he brought Beşiktaş’s set-piece taker Caner Erkin with him to Fenerbahçe. They are so far proving to be a power couple, but Fenerbahçe eventually have to improve their possession play and add other weapons to their arsenal if they want to win the league.
Galatasaray: buildup issues appear resolved; they look like a contender
In terms of underlying numbers, Galatasaray were by far the best team in the league in the second half of 2019-20, with 0.72 xG difference per game, far ahead of Beşiktaş in second with 0.39. Fatih Terim’s tactical changes played a key role in that. However, post-COVID-break injuries and results going against them meant that their season pretty much came apart by the end of June. Changes in the squad called for altered tactics going into 2020-21. Galatasaray came into the season with very low expectations after key loanee players Jean Michaël Seri, Mario Lemina and Henry Onyekuru departed, playmaking full-back Mariano left, and star goalkeeper Fernando Muslera went down injured. In fact, they were touted as a crisis club before a ball was even kicked.
The only notable first team additions they were able to make were dynamic right-back Omar Elabdellaoui on a free from Olympiakos and midfielder Oghenekaro Etebo on loan from Stoke. Centre-back Christian Luyindama's return from a long-term injury felt like a new signing, too. However, at least on the pitch, things are looking up for Galatasaray. Their xG difference of 0.75 per game is on par with their successful second half of last season, and not far behind Fenerbahçe and Alanyaspor.
They began the season with two impressive wins against Gaziantep and holders Başakşehir, then went into a slump after Fenerbahçe coach Erol Bulut laid down a template for other coaches on how to press and stifle their buildup play in the 0-0 draw between the sides. Galatasaray went on to lose two in a row against two of the best pressing sides in the league in Kasımpaşa and Alanyaspor, before recording two unimpressive victories against Erzurumspor and Ankaragücü. Terim then made a slight tactical tweak for the Sivasspor and Kayserispor games that not many people in Turkey picked up, despite Arda Turan explaining it in his post-game interview after the away win at Sivas.
He said that he was now being asked to roam between the lines rather than position himself wide, which contributed to him grabbing the winner and to the team functioning better in possession. From the more rigid 4-1-4-1 with which they started the season, with a 2-1 buildup, wingers positioned wide and number eights pushing high, Galatasaray’s 4-1-4-1 now looks very fluid in possession with plenty of options between the lines and in the halfspaces, another midfielder dropping to help buildup, and fullbacks pushing into much higher areas. Galatasaray played a hugely impressive 60 minutes against Sivasspor before dropping off late but edging it. They then produced a staggering 3.8 xG against Kayserispor despite the absence of five regular starters and were extremely unlucky to draw the game. Considering Galatasaray have got through three fixtures against their potential title rivals and that their the open play performance is trending up, there’s reason for optimism for Terim’s side.
First half passing network is used
Beşiktaş: a long season ahead for Sergen Yalçın
Beşiktaş has the worst outlook among the big three of Istanbul. Like Galatasaray, they couldn't stretch beyond loan signings and free transfers in the off-season, and it looks like their steady decline since the glorious 2017-18 season in which they reached in the last 16 of the Champions League will continue. Not much is going on tactically either, and it seems like some nous there was lost after former assistant manager Çağdaş Atan left for Alanyaspor, considering what a special job he’s doing there.
One bright spot looks to be their Canadian forward Cyle Larin, who is consistently getting great chances and has five goals to his name so far, four of them while playing off the left. If he can improve his off-ball contribution, it looks like Beşiktaş have found themselves a functional wide forward with significant box presence. That’s potentially a good balance with new signing Rachid Ghezzal on the right, who is looking like the main creative outlet of the team.
Başakşehir: title defense proving tricky, but underperforming their numbers
Finally, Başakşehir. The holders took just a single point from their first four games, then notched up four straight wins before losing away to Beşiktaş this past weekend. What’s interesting is that their xG difference of 0.57 per game is better than last season’s title-winning 0.46. They combine a mid-table xG conceded sum of 1.10 with an attacking output of 1.68 xG per game that is better than last season and second only to Alanyaspor this time around.
They have scored two less and conceded two more than their underlying numbers so far. It is hard to talk about Başakşehir without talking about Edin Višća. The epitome of consistency, he's missed just two games in the league since the beginning of 2013-14. He contributed to last season's title with 13 goals and 13 assists, overperforming both his xG and xG assisted metrics by about 2.5 each. He has started the new season with three goals and two assists, which is good, but his underlying performance suggests he is tailing off a bit, which would definitely be a worry for Başakşehir.
It’s too early to draw conclusions, but so far Alanyaspor have been the best team in the league, followed closely by the Istanbul giants Galatasaray and Fenerbahçe, who are both out of Europe and fully focused on winning the league. Başakşehir have the oldest squad, a Champions League campaign to contend with, and have already bled some points, but they are also strong enough to put together a title challenge considering there are still 31 games left to play. A four-horse race looks to be shaping up.