Where else can you find the likes of Demba Ba and Robinho sitting on one team’s bench? Welcome to the Turkish Süper Lig — the land where old players on crazy salaries parachute in as one of their final stops on the way to retirement and mingle with domestic up and coming stars. It may not be your first destination to watch high-quality football, but if you’re looking for some world-class derby atmospheres, genuine excitement and a 7-way title race, you’re at the right place.
Sivasspor — the surprise package
Global citizens of football who regularly check what’s going on in leagues around the world likely have been wondering what magic touch suddenly turned Sivasspor into a title contender after years of mediocrity. Sivasspor has owned the top spot for a while now, 2 points clear of second-place Başakşehir and 5 points clear of holders Galatasaray. Journeyman manager Rıza Çalımbay is in his 16th (!) spell coaching a side in Süper Lig since starting his career in 2001. Did he finally develop into a top-level coach able to mount a successful title challenge with underdogs? Well, with all due respect, no. Sivasspor is massively overperforming their underlying numbers, scoring 8 goals more than their expected goals and conceding 3.5 less for a staggering 11.5 goals overperformance. Take out half those goals and they're a mid-table side, which is probably where they belong. The gods of mean reversion are already meddling, as Gaziantep ran riot over the weekend, trouncing Sivasspor 5–1 with a handful of low xG shots while Sivasspor missed some sitters. This is not to say they don’t deserve credit. Çalımbay is an above-average reactive coach for Turkey standards, capable of putting together disciplined, gritty sides that love to cause trouble for bigger teams. He masterminded two impressive victories of late against Fenerbahçe and Beşiktaş, fielding his left back Ziya Erdal as a left central midfielder in both, successfully disrupting opposition buildup play with intense pressure. However, Çalımbay deserves the most credit for summer signings Mamadou Samassa, Aaron Appindangoyé, Caner Osmanpaşa, Marcelo Goiano, Fernando Andrade (loan) and Mustapha Yatabaré, all impressively joining on a free transfer and becoming first-team regulars (and yes, that is the Süper Lig understanding of "team building"). Add previously underrated legacy players Mert Hakan Yandaş, Emre Kılınç and Hakan Arslan to that mix and Sivasspor have themselves a proper team with impressive physicality and firepower. Let’s start with the goalkeeper. Overperforming non-penalty xG can mean good fortune or bad finishing from opponents, but more often than not it also means a spectacular goalkeeping performance. Those performances, however, can be fickle. Signed from Ligue 2 side Troyes, Mamadou Samassa had the 3rd best shot-stopping performance in the league, conceding 5 goals less than the post-shot xG total of the shots he faced — until the Gaziantep match, where he suddenly and painfully returned to earth. Combine that match with the howler Samassa conceded last week against Rizespor as Sivasspor barely saved a point at the last minute, and what you’re left with is a barely above-average keeper. Stats have a bad habit of catching up with you. From their attacking radar, Sivasspor looks like one of the better attacking teams in the division. Their traditional, direct style is evident in their league-average GK pass length and high ratio of crosses versus passes into the box. They create many chances as a result of pressure regains, which is one of the key differentiators that helped them reach the top. The defensive radar, on the other hand, is one of a mid-table side — Sivasspor should really pray that Samassa keeps it up. Sivasspor’s attackers are overperforming heavily with 8 goals more than their expected goals, but at least their goals are distributed nicely — Yatabaré has 8, Kılınç has 6, Fernando and Arslan have 5, and three others have 4 each. We don’t have Süper Lig data before this season, but this is Yatabaré’s fifth in Turkey and the 34-year-old striker never scored more than 6 goals in a season. That source might dry up soon for Sivasspor. Mert Hakan Yandaş is the one grabbing most of the headlines lately with a place in Turkey’s EURO 2020 squad becoming a real possibility — he’s an all-round, hard-working offensive midfielder who does a bit of everything and is slightly above average at it all, as seen in his radar. He pretty much enjoys a free role as the main creative outlet of the side. His starting position varies between a #8 and a #10. From there, he often ends up where the ball is and dictates play in the offensive areas. He should be regarded as an offensive midfielder, but his deep progressions also look impressive at 7 per game (79th percentile among midfielders), considering his starting position is often higher up the pitch. Perhaps a little early to jump on the hype train, but the potential is there to flourish in a better team. All in all, a total xG overperformance of 11.5 goals is way too much, even after the weekend’s match, and Sivasspor fans should enjoy the top while it lasts, as they most likely won’t win the league. As is the issue with many reactive overachieving underdogs, more and more teams are sitting deeper and playing cautious against Sivasspor, and the side looks short of ideas when they have possession that, in essence, they don’t want. Who’ll win it then? Let’s take a look at the underlying numbers of the league. Well, if any underdog is going to win Süper Lig this year, that is more likely to be the Papiss Cissé-led Alanyaspor. Coached by 44-year-old Germany born Erol Bulut who grabbed attention in his previous spell at Yeni Malatyaspor as well, Alanyaspor has excellent underlying numbers and look a viable dark horse trailing just three points behind the Sivasspor hype. And Newcastle fans — Papiss Cissé is still quite good. Then we have Fenerbahçe, who have the best underlying numbers after Alanyaspor and looked the favorites after beating Başakşehir 2-0 last week, but an unlucky loss this weekend at Trabzonspor sent them back to 5th. Still, they should be regarded as one of the main candidates to win the title. Fenerbahçe is the most dominant side in the league, suffocating opponents in their own half with a lot of possession and counter pressure, but often suffer from poor execution in the final third. Except Vedat Muriqi, of course. The gigantesque figure of the Kosovan striker has been a nightmare to deal with for Süper Lig defenders all season. Muriqi’s all-round game has been excellent — he barely loses an aerial duel, links up play very well, moves intelligently and finishes chances. Contrary to what Galatasaray fans initially thought, losing the Muriqi bidding war really did move the needle towards Fenerbahçe this season, despite their club signing Falcao. It's not quite correct to say there's nothing tactically interesting going on in this league, it’s just that Turkish media haven't really figured it out yet. Fatih Terim is on course to launch yet another Galatasaray comeback following a dreadful first half of the season with a significant tactical shift not often seen at Süper Lig level. Nicknamed “the Emperor,” Terim is by far the highest-profile coach in Turkey, having won the UEFA Cup with Galatasaray in 2000, followed by brief stints at Milan and Fiorentina. He’s responsible for 8 out of Galatasaray's 22 league titles, which is pretty crazy if you think about it. After a dismal first half of the season plagued by injuries, late returns from the Africa Cup of Nations and last-minute loan signings who spent their entire summers on holiday, Terim has been reshuffling his cards since the impressive 5–0 home win against Antalyaspor — by far the best game of the season for the Red and Yellows. Terim came up with a hybrid system, 4-2-3-1 on paper and a 3-5-1-1 in possession, with Mario Lemina strictly positioning himself next to the center backs to form a back three and Jean-Michael Seri acting as a regista in front of the trio. Fullbacks pushed high, wide players Ömer Bayram and Sofiane Feghouli tucked in and all of a sudden Galatasaray ended up with a setup looking dangerously good on a late December night, demolishing Antalyaspor by the largest xG margin recorded in the league in any game this season. The 4-2-3-1 out of possession allows Terim to impose his desired high pressure, while the 3-1 compared to the previous 2-1 structure allows his team to build up much more effectively and contain counter-attacks better. This formation was particularly clear in the side's 2-1 victory of Denizlispor. With this formation, Galatasaray have notched three wins on the bounce since, although they played slightly differently against Kayserispor in Lemina’s absence. Whether that will be enough for a comeback remains to be seen, but if any coach in Turkey can pull off a double-digit point comeback two seasons in a row, it’s Fatih Terim. What about Trabzonspor and Beşiktaş? Trabzonspor is carried on the shoulders of Alexander Sørloth, who has a strong shout for Player of the Season in Süper Lig, much to the frustration for the fans of offensively troubled Crystal Palace. Trabzonspor’s firing of Ünal Karaman baffled many in Turkey since they looked like title contenders, but their defensive underlying numbers wouldn’t prove strong enough over the course of an entire season anyway. It would be wishful thinking to think the inexperienced former player Hüseyin Çimşir could pull a rabbit out of this hat, despite beating Fenerbahçe and moving only 3 points behind Sivasspor with a game in hand. Beşiktaş also parted ways with their coach Abdullah Avcı just last week after a cup defeat to Erzurumspor. Avcı has been regarded as one of the best coaches in Turkey the past few years, transforming Başakşehir into serious title contenders from scratch. However, he found his Guardiola-inspired possession style largely impossible to impose on the Beşiktaş squad he was handed, and stayed barely alive with a series of unconvincing wins before the season collapsed on him. It would be unrealistic to expect anything from Beşiktaş, and their newly hired former player Sergen Yalçın, to pull off anything of substance. Yet Beşiktaş surprisingly boasts the second-best underlying defensive performance in the league. You know who didn’t help Avcı at all with all this? Yes — Loris Karius it is. Finally, Başakşehir. The team are also looking like strong title contenders for the fourth year in a row. Former Inter player Okan Buruk has the luxury of having Robinho and Demba Ba as impact subs at Başakşehir, the “noisy neighbors” of the Istanbul giants — they had backing from government but also grew organically by trusting the process under Abdullah Avcı, transforming from an underdog playing transition football into a side that completely dominates games with 60% or more possession. Okan Buruk took them back into a side that’s largely threatening through transitions and particularly impressed by beating Gladbach away to progress from their Europa League group. Their brand of football isn’t anything special, but their right winger is. Edin Visca is tearing apart the Süper Lig yet again, and he’s probably one of the most consistent performers in all of Europe. The Süper Lig is brewing up a title showdown with multiple contenders. Current leaders Sivasspor are very unlikely to win it. Instead, in the end the race looks likely to involve bitter rivals Galatasaray and Fenerbahçe, an exciting showdown that hasn't been seen often lately. Fenerbahçe – Galatasaray on February 23 could be a proper momentum decider. Fenerbahçe’s loss to Trabzonspor moved Galatasaray within a point, and they host Alanyaspor in the next matchday, while Galatasaray have relatively easy fixtures ahead before traveling to the Asian side of Istanbul for the Intercontinental Derby, an absolute much watch. For now, in terms of underlying performances, Fenerbahçe, Başakşehir and Alanyaspor look strong enough to fight for the top spot, but don’t rule out holders Galatasaray — Terim’s formation change might have a “Conte effect” on Süper Lig teams.