Japan are struggling, Australia might be fine and other early World Cup statistical nuggets

As far as sample sizes go, two games is minuscule. There is nothing to be found in two games worth of data that a third can’t immediately nullify. The challenge of international soccer is that while two games don’t tell us much, a full third of the 2019 World Cup field will be back on their couches after game number three. So, let’s stretch those numbers to the breaking point and see if they can tell us anything useful.

Here are all 24 teams ranked by their expected goals scored per match.



One thing this list makes crystal clear is that with only two games played, the most determinative factor is the level of opponent faced. It’s not surprising for example that the United States tops the list, but Sweden at the second spot, that’s explained more by having the good fortune of a group with Chile and Thailand in it, than any distinguishing factor the Swedes might bring to the table.

Similarly, Canada and the Netherlands in third and fifth respectively have had Cameroon and New Zealand to hammer away at. And while each of those less heralded sides have had their moments, those matches have largely consisted of the favorite throwing punches and the underdog flirting with being able to absorb them before ultimately succumbing. The same is true of England, sitting in pretty in fourth place on this list.

Which brings us to Japan. Despite, like England, having a relatively easy opening couple of matches against Scotland and Argentina, they are nowhere to be seen at the top of this list. They’re actually below average. Only nine teams have less xG per match than Japan’s 0.60. Given who they’ve played, that’s a really bad sign.

A major part of the problem is that they can’t generate good shots. They’ve taken 12.50 shots per match. That’s a more respectable ninth in the tournament. But they just can’t create good chances.



Mana Iwabuchi scored a banger from outside the box but other than one (soft) penalty, only Hina Sugita’s clang off the post in first half stoppage time against Scotland really moved the xG needle.



If Japan had put in these attacking performances against strong sides, it wouldn’t merit concern. But they didn’t, they put them in against two of the weaker teams in the tournament, the same two teams that England did this to.



Japan’s four points will see them through to the knockouts, but they certainly seem to be limping there. Tournaments are short and all it takes is a game or two to shift things dramatically, but right now 2015’s finalists are heading into the latter stages looking much more like an easy out for a strong side to put out of their misery rather than a contender looking to make a real run at winning the thing.

Australia, on the other hand might be better than their numbers indicate, and their numbers are quite respectable. Down 2-0 to Brazil after an opening match loss to Italy, they were staring down their World Cup mortality before scoring three to complete a stunning comeback victory. Australia’s numbers this tournament are mediocre. They’re eighth in non-penalty xG which is respectable. On the defensive side of the ball, long thought to be their weakness (and where they’ve conceded five goals) they are also eighth.

But, unlike Japan, Australia haven’t had the benefit of playing the cupcakier end of the field. Italy have been the tournaments biggest surprise, following up their surprise opening match win against Australia with a dominating 5-0 performance against Jamaica, one of the tournaments weaker teams. Italy wasn’t tested in that match, but 5-0 is the kind of summary execution of subpar opponent that meets expectations for a top international team. We don’t yet know how good Italy is, but they might be a legitimate unexpected force.

Then there’s Brazil. Brazil aren’t at their best. Marta is coming off injury. Formiga is 41. Their “young” dynamic stars, Debinha and Andressa are 28 and 27. But, they’re still Brazil. They’ve still been above average both in attack and defense. With their own win over Jamaica under their belt they will likely make it to the knockout rounds. Australia’s win against them doesn’t say as much about them as it might once have, but it’s more impressive than some of the wins that the tournament favorites have put up.

And Argentina still have Jamaica left to play in the group. If they put up the same kind of giant numbers against one of the worst teams in the tournament that Italy and Brazil did, Jamaica’s negative eight goal difference is the second worst in the tournament, then their numbers will put them near the top of the pack, despite their shaky start.

The reason these comparisons are useful is that by comparing teams within groups it’s possible to grasp towards some understanding of how the numbers might be misreading their accomplishments. This stands in opposition to groups that have clear divides between the two haves and the two have nots. Group E and Group F have very little for analysts to sink their teeth into. Canada and the Netherlands are obviously better than Cameroon and New Zealand and the United States and Sweden are obviously better than Chile and Thailand.

The order of events has served to further obscure meaningful differences. The top teams have each gotten to beat up on both minnows first. That means that all four teams have already clearly punched their ticket to the knockouts. Their third group stage match, where, for the first time in the tournament, they square off against capable competition is now as much about managing minutes, squad rotation and preparation as it is about getting three points. Happenstance means that we won’t learn much about these four sides until the knockouts start and the margin for error decreases dramatically.

Finding interesting nuggets in the statistics early in a tournament is more of an art than a science. Sometimes the numbers point to something obvious, like Japan not being very good this time around. Sometimes, they point to something contingent, suggesting that given a certain set of assumptions, Italy are good, and Brazil are fine, then the conclusion that Australia is good is justified. And sometimes, like with Canada, the Netherlands, the United States and Sweden, all you an do is shrug and wait for more information.


Header image courtesy of the Press Association

Argentina, Canada and the art of playing ugly at the World Cup

Underwhelming matchups are a staple of international play. A favorite doesn’t quite dominate, an underdog hangs tough, and the result is a scrappy, disjointed affair. Sometimes the bigger team sneaks by, sometimes the smaller one holds on, but either way they can be difficult to love (unless you happen to be invested in said underdog).

Not all annoying defensive matches are created equal. Sometimes a defensive underdog plays out of their minds, other times a favorite coasts, and most of the time the balance is somewhere in the middle. On Monday, as the World Cup entered its first full week, Argentina squared off against Japan and Cameroon faced Canada. Both games were difficult, defensive affairs. In the first, however, it was Argentina’s committed defensive performance that drove the match, in the second it was the favorite Canada’s conservative focus on doing just enough to win.

Argentina did a masterful job of foiling Japan’s approach. The unheralded, underfunded, South American side committed to clogging up the midfield, and when they succeeded, Japan had no fallback plan. Japan played a traditional 4-4-2 and were simply never able to work the ball through the midfield to the strikers supported by wingers. Over and over again Argentina waited for Japan to try and move the ball through midfield and then blew up the play. Japan’s passing network is just a mess of sideways and backwards connections around the periphery. And when the ball went into the middle, Hina Sugita and Narumi Miura, if they kept it, were reliably forced to play backwards and sideways.


In large part because Japan only had two midfielders, and they never committed to having anybody else help in the center of the park, they weren’t able to use possession to force Argentina to defend deeper in their own half. Argentina, for their part, were more than willing to commit their attackers to help blow up midfield. Striker Soledad Jaimes often times was drawn into her own defensive half, leaving winger Estefanía Banini as the only attacking option when Argentina regained control. It was conservative but effective, as Argentina’s defensive pressure map shows, they managed to defend well above their own box, and were not regularly forced into the kind of defensive shell that more talented teams can tee off against.

There are ways Japan could have chosen to combat Argentina’s approach. Instead of trying to go through midfield, the team could have simply played around it. They could have attempted to punish Argentina for contesting the middle so heavily by playing over the top, or tried to push their fullbacks high up the pitch early in possession to stretch the game laterally, making it harder for the Argentinian swarm to do its thing. But they didn’t. It wasn’t until Jun Endo came on in the 73 minute that the pattern of the game changed. Japan got the ball forward more quickly more effectively in the game's last quarter but by then it was too late.

That’s how surprising results happen. The underdog has a plan, the favorite fails to react until it’s too late and before you know it Argentina walks out of the match only conceding eight shots and 0.24 expected goals while getting five of their own for 0.11 total. Argentina didn’t attack, but their defense, with a little help from Japan’s stubbornness, kept the thing close enough to fully warrant the side’s historic first World Cup point.

That’s a far cry from what happened when Canada defeated Cameroon 1-0. In that match, Canada controlled the game from whistle to whistle, and the favorite, as opposed to the underdog, was directly responsible for the conservative nature of the match. Canada played fairly conservatively throughout the first half, took the lead right before the whistle, and then they really decided to play unambitious keepball for the final 45 minutes.

As you can see from the difference in pass maps, the fullbacks stopped getting forward at all, the midfielders dropped deeper, and Jessie Flemming dropped into midfield from her striker position to collect the ball and knit things together. In the first half it was Sophie Schmidt stepping forward from midfield to do that. Canada had the lead, so what was the point in keeping their foot even moderately grazing the gas pedal.


That’s reflected in the shots they created as well. While they took eight shots in both halves, all shots are not created equal. In the first half, seven of Canada’s eight shots were from within the penalty area. They averaged a relatively unimpressive 0.060 xG per shot (0.058 from open play). That’s not exactly cutting a side open, but it’s still well ahead of their second half numbers.

The team’s eight shots after the break averaged an anemic 0.031 xG per shot (0.019 from open play). And that includes an 87th minute 0.11 xG chance from legend Christine Sinclair which made up the bulk of the scoring that half. For most of the time Canada was content to move the ball, and make sure Cameroon had no space to counterattack into, confident that the African side could not build their own attacks from the back. Given that Cameroon managed only four shots and 0.09 xG it seems like a reasonable plan, even if it was a boring one to watch in action.

The moral of the story is that not all testy defensive matches are created equal. Some are driven by a successful underdog like Argentina stymieing a stronger attacking team that can’t figure out how to turn on overdrive and get the game out of the mud. It’s impossible to fault the underdog for doing everything in their power to claw their way to a point. Others dour matches, though, are brought to you by a favorite that’s decided to do just enough to win. Canada got their goal and then didn’t take a single risk while strangling the life out of Cameroon. The plan worked, and Canada, one of the stronger teams in the tournament, are quite good at executing it. Still, it’s hard not to wonder what the team might be with a bit more ambition. When underdogs win ugly it’s because they have to, when the favorites do, they're making a choice.

Header image courtesy of the Press Association

Manchester City Season Review: Chasing Perfection

What is success for Manchester City? By any measure, a domestic treble, combined with the second most points in Premier League history, has to qualify. That leaves only the Champions League, where they bowed out in the quarterfinals again to chase, and a question. Going forward, is anything, up to and including a season like the one just completed, that doesn’t include European hardware, enough?

At first glance it seems unfair to group City in a category with the handful of continental teams that dominate their competitions year in and year out. Afterall, this is only their second victory in a row. It only came by a single point, and they had to win 14 matches straight at the tail end of the season to pull it off. It seems categorically wrong to assume that City’s league dominance should be guaranteed as a starting point.

But the underlying numbers are kinder to City than the table was, an extraordinary feat given that City ran up 98 freaking points. City’s expected goals per game total was 2.00, best in the league. Liverpool were second at 1.70. Their xG conceded per match was also tops in the league with 0.56, Liverpool were again second with 0.76. That means that City had an xG difference of 1.44, a full half a goal a game ahead of Liverpool’s 0.94, the second best differential in the league.

To put it another way, expected goals accurately reflects the top three teams in the table, with City first, Liverpool, second and Chelsea third but their relative expected goal differences of 1.44, 0.94 and 0.54 suggest that Liverpool were a side positioned roughly between the two. Instead they pushed City to the wire finishing with 97 points, while Chelsea finished a distant third with 72. If Liverpool had had an average season instead of a great one, City might have wrapped up the league with weeks to go, walking to the finishing line for the second season in a row. In that context, it’s fair to at least consider examining City in the same light as Juventus, PSG or Bayern Munich. Those are teams that can be pushed, or even caught, if everything goes right for a challenger, but start the season as presumed champions until a plucky underdog can convince the world otherwise.

It’s hard to overstate just how dominant City were in the league. The difference between their xG and Liverpool’s was the same as the difference between Chelsea, the third best attack, and Crystal Palace, the 13th. Defensively, their heatmap looks like this. I mean come on. Give somebody else a chance.



This Manchester City team is so scary precisely because their season was dominant without seeming in anyway to be above average for their talent. It’s true that their fire breathing attack outperformed our xG model, thanks in no small part to Raheem Sterling not missing a single chance valued at 0.40 xG or above.



But, despite that, over the course of not just this season, but last season as well, City goal difference hewed fairly close to their xG difference. Most of their overperforming came early, and down the stretch, when they needed to be perfect, they were, without very much in the way of undue help from the soccer gods.



All of this doesn’t matter all that much when looking backwards. The 2018-19 season is going to go down as one of the best title races in history, a three month long staring contest where nobody blinked. But, when looking forward it’s quite clear that City are more likely to win the league comfortable next season than they are to get run down by Liverpool, excellent though Jurgen Klopp’s team may be.

That’s before we even begin to look at what City might do to strengthen the side this summer. How exactly do you improve on a team that flirted with perfection? There are two obvious places to start. Fernandinho, as has been pointed out numerous times over the last two years is both the linchpin of this midfield, and old. If anything his production actually ticked upwards this season as he was asked to do more of the work of moving the ball up the field thanks to the uneven, injury riddled season that Kevin De Bruyne experienced. His production remains astounding, but he’s 34.



İlkay Gündoğan filled in for stretches this season, and did an admirable job, but he’s not really a defensive midfielder. Atletico Madrid’s Rodri seems to be the name their linked to now, a promising midfielder to be sure, but one who is never played in a system that will demand near the on-ball acuity that Guardiola. If Fernandhino has another season in him, which allows his backups to get minutes and experience where appropriate and get worked into the system that might work fine, but if Rodri, if he ends up being the guy, needs to step into those enormous shoes immediately, expect some growing pains.

Elsewhere, Vincent Kompany is going home to become player manager at Anderlecht, ending an era in Manchester. But, given the presence of Aymeric Laporte, John Stones, and Nicolas Otamendi, City again have room to ease in whatever younger prospect they might acquire to fill his shoes (to say nothing of Guardiola’s flirtations with deploying Fernandinho as a hybrid center back and defensive midfielder this season). The one possible weak spot that City really could upgrade is the left side of defense. Over the course of the season all of Benjamin Mendy, Fabian Delph, Danilo, Laporte and Oleksandr Zinchenko have seen minutes there. Given the team’s success, it’s the smallest of nits to pick, but the lack of one to two reliable options in that position has at times given the teams tactical hurdles to overcome.

It would be surprising to not see City address these potential weaknesses this summer. Their endlessly deep pockets mean they can go grab players who are stars elsewhere, and deploy them as rotation options for Pep Guardiola. That is, in effect, what they did with Riyad Mahrez this year, who went from being the creative engine for Leicester City, to a regular contributor, but not automatic starter for this City side. Mahrez was on the field for 1435 minutes, the 12th most on the team.

There are some possible bigger picture questions that loom on the horizon. David Silva is 33 and his ability to both be a creative maestro in the midfield and around the penalty area at the same time started to fade this season. He’s still a wizard in the box, but before too long, like Fernandinho somebody else will need to begin accepting the responsibilities he’s shouldered. Similarly, Sergio Aguero is 30, and while Gabriel Jesus is perhaps positioned to inherit the striker role eventually, despite immense numbers in a largely substitute role, he’s still relatively untested as the man at tip of the spear.

Despite those looming eventual issues, the best course of action for City seems to be to continue tinkering around the edges. Spend 70 million on an extra defensive midfielder to fold into the system here, 40 for a leftback to be first among equals. Use superstar money on players who will slot in the system, and keep the juggernaut running smoothly. The only question is will that be enough to win the Champions League, and if not does it matter.

Fairly or unfairly, teams who break the leagues they’re in get judged on the European competition. PSG are largely considered underwhelming, Bayern Munich hired Guardiola specifically to get over the Champions League hump (and then in one of the more ironic moments of European football over the last decade won the thing before he got there), Juventus have gone chasing stars, first Gonzalo Higuain, then Cristiano Ronaldo to give them the little bit of impetus to get over the top. It’s not clear that any of those teams became better chasing the Champions League, but at the same time their dominance domestically hasn’t waned.

The question going forward for Manchester City is have they transformed the big six to a big one, and if so, what comes next?

Header image courtesy of the Press Association

Under the Radar xG Stories: Gabriel Jesus Struggles, Eintracht Frankfurt's Three Stars, and Kevin Gameiro's Quietly Strong Season

While you were paying attention to things that mattered like who won matches and who lost, some under the radar storylines are bubbling along that might eventually impact teams in important ways.

Can Gabriel Jesus Score?

This seems like the most absurd question in the world. He’s averaging 0.49 non-penalty goals per 90 minutes, so clear he can score. That’s a pretty good, if not absolutely spectacular number. For player that have played over 1000 minutes in Europe’s big five leagues this season, he’s narrowly in the top 50. That’s…fine. It’s probably even good enough to be the back up on perhaps the best team in Europe. It’s also significantly behind the man he backs up, Sergio Aguero who clocks in at 0.71 non-penalty goals per 90.

Expected goals, on the other hand, tells a much much rosier story. Jesus’s xG per 90 is at a whopping 0.70, that’s the fourth best total across Europe’s big five leagues, and a whisker ahead of Aguero’s 0.69. Jesus is also just 22 years old. Aguero is, of course, now on the wrong side of the 30. So, if the only thing that matters is xG then expect Jesus to be inheriting the reins of the attack any year now.

There are of course, mitigating factors here. Jesus is generally a substitute and generally plays against weaker opposition than the first choice forward, so his numbers probably get a bit of a boost. Everybody on that City machine reinforces everybody else, a training dummy parked at the penalty spot could probably put up a positive xG total. It’s nice to be the tip of a spear wielded by the likes of David Silva and Raheem Sterling. But still, there’s no denying that Jesus’s underlying numbers are excellent.

But, boy does that kid miss a lot.

Does it matter? From an analytics perspective it does not, the best bet is to play the kid, let him shoot through the yips and expect, as the numbers suggest, that he’s about to be a superstar. But, part of the reality of leading the line at the very top of the game is that if you haven’t proven you can do it, you don’t get a lot of time to prove you can do it. People (and coaches) remember the misses, the pressure mounts, fans get restless and eventually you become Alvaro Morata (who to be fair has never had xG like Jesus’s, but who has also, to be fair, never gotten to play striker on a team quite like City), and everybody just kind of agrees that while the numbers are fine, maybe it’s time for a change of scenery.

For now, Jesus has the luxury of being a backup, but if he does eventually get the job then he’s not going to have the luxury of all these whiffs going basically unnoticed.

Eintracht Frankfurt’s Other Star Forwards

Luka Jovic gets the most attention, and well he should. He’s averaging 0.56 xG per 90, the 11th best total across Europe’s top five leagues, and it doesn’t hurt the old hype-o-meter that his actual goal scoring rate of 0.73 non-penalty goals per 90 is ahead of that pace. But, it’s not happening in a vacuum and the team’s other two main attackers, Sébastien Haller and Ante Rebić are right there with him with 0.40 and 0.42 xG per 90 and 0.48 and 0.52 non-penalty goals respectively.

While Jovic does a little bit of everything his teammates have slightly more defined roles. Haller as the more traditional forward gets the bulk of his shots from point blank range. He’s ruthlessly disciplined and almost always fires from 12 yards or closer.

Rebić on the other hand is as often a playmaker behind the striker partnership ahead of him as he is a striker himself. Consequently his output is less about efficiency, he averages 0.14 xG per shot as opposed to Haller’s excellent 0.21, and more about volume, he takes 2.93 shots per game as opposed to Haller’s 1.93.

Jovic, given his age and production, has garnered much of the hype, but the story of Eintracht Frankfurt’s season is that they have three attackers all of whom are 25 or younger, all of whom are putting up strong numbers and all of whom are outperforming those numbers. Either by strong planning or dumb luck, the team has put together the perfect attacking unit, one that is young, dynamic, and perfectly complementary. It’s no wonder that in addition to currently being the only German team alive in European competitions (even if only barely) they’re also holding onto fourth place in the Bundesliga and on track to qualify for next season’s Champions League.

The Old Man of Valencia

Valencia have had a fascinating season. It’s not just that they started so slowly and are now coming on so strong, it’s that the team as currently constructed is an interesting hodgepodge of young and old.

The kids, players like Carlos Soler,  Gonçalo Guedes, Ferrán Torres (as well as Mouctar Diakhaby further back on the field) provide skill and hope for the future, but it’s some of the old hands who have done much to steady the uncertain ship. Specifically, Kevin Gameiro, less than a month from his 32 birthday continues to put up important numbers leading the line for Valencia.

Despite his age, he’s an active defender. He’s happy to drop into Valencia's shape and harass the opposition as they attempt to enter the ball into midfield.

He pairs that defensive willingness with a lethal nose for goal. He only has four goals this season, though his expected goal total is somewhat higher at 5.41. But, he’s also only taken 27 total shots. He’s one of only six players across Europe’s top five leagues this season who have managed at least 0.33 xG per 90 and over 0.20 xG per shot.

Gameiro has shown to have a perfect set of skills for this Valencia side. He doesn’t need the ball a lot, which allows their younger, more exciting players to feature but he’s happy to do all sorts of dirty work from the striker position that lets them shine. Then, on the rare occasions when he does shoot, he does it from absolutely lethal positions. His game is perfectly suited to letting the kids have the spotlight, because he has enough edge to pounce when the opposition fails to take him into account. If Valencia manage to finish their remarkable second half of the season comeback, and nip fourth place at the wire, it will provide them a Champions League platform to feature their exciting prospects next season, but it will be thanks in no small part to the veterans that they got there.

Bayern Munich Begin Reloading

This summer’s transfer season is already off and running. Bayern Munich dropped a cool 80 million euros to bring in Lucas Hernandez from Atlético Madrid. The left footed French center (and left) back is the second young defender Bayern have acquired, joining with Stuttgart’s Benjamin Pavard as a pair of young talented defensive reinforcements for Germany’s top team.

This is likely just the beginning for Bayern. Their squad is old. Up and down the pitch this is a team in need of good young players to take the reins from the next generation. There is, in fact, such need at other areas of the pitch that it raises the question of whether acquiring Hernandez is the best use of resources given that in addition to Pavard, Bayern also have Niklas Süle. Arguably the one place on the field Bayern were set was at center back, now they have a true embarrassment of riches.

But, given that Bayern have approximately infinity money, let’s assume that acquiring Hernandez won’t get in the way of doing a whole lot more work. Because this squad is going to need a lot of work.


This is the constant challenge for the best teams in the world. Competing at the highest levels means constantly finding the best players in the world at the height of their powers and then moving on from them quickly as they begin to decline. That means a constant churn as yesterday’s fresh faced 23-year-old babies become tomorrow’s 28-year-old grizzled veterans. Or, in the case of Bayern’s wingers, Arjen Robben is 35 and Franck Ribery is 36. The fact that those two stars are, at least in sporting terms, not just old, but rotting corpse old, has overshadowed that the rest of the first choice attacking unit is also past it’s prime. Robert Lewandowski is 30, Thomas Müller is 29, both of those guys are at the point where most players start getting worse, sometimes fast.

Bayern need to freshen up that unit in exactly the same way that acquiring Pavard and Hernandez freshened up the defence. Currently the heirs apparent are Kingsley Coman and Serge Gnabry. Coman is only 22 and has shown flashes of brilliance but optimism around him has to be tempered by a serious injury history and a consistent inability to make it to the field. Even if he has the ability to perform at an elite level on the field, relying on him week in and week out is a recipe for injury filled disaster.

Gnabry is a more difficult call. He’s 24 and just entering his prime. He does a lot of things well in and around the penalty area. He creates a respectable amount of average shots for himself, and does a wonderful job of creating great shots for his teammates. He’s also an able and willing defender. What he isn’t particularly proficient at is doing the work of moving the ball up the field. He wants to get the ball in advanced positions, not move it there himself. This has been challenging at times for Bayern who often look to suck teams into the middle before spraying it wide to advance the ball up the field and unsettle defences.


If Bayern believe in Gnabry, and expect him to start for them on a regular basis over the next three years they’ll need to make sure that he is part of a team that has lots of other players tasked with moving the ball forward and allowing Gnabry to create magic in the box. That player is unlikely to be a forward. As Lewandowski hits the wrong side of 30 his most likely replacement is rumoured to be Timo Werner. Werner is a lot of things. He’s great in space on the counterattack and perfectly proficient, although not as good as Lewandowski, at finding space in the penalty area (then again who is) but what he isn’t is a facilitator.



Bottom line for the attack is that it will require at minimum not just the purchase of Werner (or a similarly high profile, young, prolific striker) but additionally one very high quality winger to play the majority of minutes across from Gnabry.

One possible solution for a team looking to rely on its attackers to stay high and around the penalty area is to get a bunch of creativity from midfield. And Bayern is, of course, stacked with midfielders. But there too, they aren’t exactly young. James Rodriguez is in his prime at 27, and Thiago at 28 isn’t old, but won’t be around forever and is often hurt. While neither of them are immediate concerns this offseason (especially given the pressing need on the wings), they are both nearing the point where a succession plan needs to be considered.

And Bayern do have a lot of young midfielders floating around. The best of the bunch is Leon Goretzka who looks well up to the task of stepping into this midfield and starring for years to come combining unspectacular but necessary passing in possession with an ability to get forward into the box. Past him, Corentin Tolisso is entering his prime but also lost this entire season to injury. And in the defensive midfield spot, Javi Martinez might be a rock, but he’s a 30 year old rock.

This midfield unit wouldn’t be a concern if everything else on the team was settled. An attack brimming with creativity would balance out a midfield focused on getting and retaining the ball. A young and vibrant midfield could carry an attack focused on poaching in the box. The concern for Bayern is that both things could collapse at once. Fail to find a star on the left wing, and a creator in midfield to lighten the load on Thiago and the team could end up with a strike force that needs the ball delivered to them and a midfield incapable of providing it.

None of this is to say that Bayern doesn't have a lot of young prospects. They do. From Renato Sanches to Alphonso Davies to their rumoured interest in Chelsea's Callum Hudson-Odoi, Bayern are clearly interested in young talent. The challenge though is that when you're Bayern Munich prospects don't cut it. They need players who are young and great at the same time. Davies is only 18 and maybe by the time he's 22 he'll be good enough to be a regular, but Bayern can't afford to twiddle their thumbs while they wait. Talent development is important but it has to come along side fielding a team that's one of the best in the world right now.

These are all champagne problems of course. Wondering whether the clearly excellent Gnabry is good enough to shoulder a large load for Bayern, or wondering whether they have enough creativity should Thiago get hurt and Tolisso not recover is basically wondering whether Bayern is a top tier Champions League contender or a fringe Champions League contender. And they’re going to be favorites to win the Bundesliga either way. But that’s the challenge of being Bayern. When you have the gigantic resource advantage they do, you don’t get to rebuild, you have to reload, and you have to do it fast.

Bayern have a lot of work to do. In Hernandez they added further strength to the strongest part of their squad. It’s how they strengthen the weaker parts that will determine whether they’ll merely be great, or continue to contend at the very top of the European pyramid.


Header image courtesy of the Press Association

Let the Wild Champions League Race Rumpus Roar

With ten games to go in the Premier League, the race for the Champions League is well and truly on. Three teams, Arsenal, Chelsea and Manchester United are in a virtual dead heat for the fourth spot, with a fourth, Tottenham Hotspur lurking slightly above the fray. Let’s set the stage for the run in.


Technically in sixth place, Chelsea are three points behind Arsenal and two behind Manchester United, but also have a game in hand. They also, despite their well publicized struggles, have the best numbers of the bunch. Their expected goal difference of 0.51 per match remains third best in the league. They still just take so many shots, 15.22 per match, second in the league, and concede so few, 9.15 the third fewest.

It’s easy to focus on their faults. The shots they create aren’t great ones, and they leave themselves vulnerable to create them. Jorginho has been shorter on incisiveness and longer and defensive vulnerability than expected. Teams really can carve Chelsea open.



But, it’s important not to overlook that on balance, over the course of the season, Chelsea simply keep the dang ball so much that it tilts most matches in their favor. Despite being behind in the standings that still leaves them as favorites, albeit small ones, to nab that fourth Champions League spot. The season hasn’t been pretty, and the last month has been brutal, but with a strong Cup final performance against Manchester City, and a surprisingly robust 2-0 against Tottenham immediately in their wake, Chelsea remain the likeliest of the bunch to qualify for the Champions League.


After struggling to find equilibrium over Unai Emery’s first couple of months in charge, Arsenal have finally accepted the destiny this awkward set of players have thrust upon them. They’re a wide open swashbuckling attack at any cost kind of a team. And it’s working. They average 1.45 xG per match, that’s the third best total in the Premier League. The problem is that they just can’t keep teams away from their goal. Defensively they’re very very average. Their 1.26 xG allowed is 12th best in the league. Not great.



There’s no real mystery surrounding why Arsenal’s defense is mired in mediocrity, it’s because their defenders aren’t very good, and the ones who are the most capable are hurt. So, on the whole there’s plenty of reason for optimism. Despite having terrible defenders they’re in the thick of the top four race. The team is getting younger, and seems to have hit on a real star in Matteo Guendouzi. He’s 19 and he’s doing this.



Further up the field Emery continues to get production out of all the really good players he has. Things haven’t been frictionless and there have been plenty of struggles off the field as Mesut Ozil continues to both make a lot of money, contribute when he’s playing, and only play from time to time. Similarly, though less controversially Alexandre Lacazette is now not an automatic starter, despite putting up great numbers when he’s out there. There are only so many minutes on the pitch for a lot of really skilled players, and every time out somebody who’s deserving gets the short straw. That may chafe some egos, but even so that chaffing isn’t showing up on the pitch.

The Gunners are also going to know a heck of a lot more about their future in the next two weeks. With the North London Derby this weekend they could do their chances a lot of good by pulling Spurs firmly back into the top four race. Four teams for two slots is a lot better than three teams for one and Manchester United come to town the following weekend. Right now Arsenal are slightly less likely to finish fourth than Chelsea, but their chances are going to shift a lot before we get to mid March.

Manchester United

The Manchester United revival continues apace. By the overall numbers their stats are more mediocre than the other teams in the top four race. Of course, most of those stats were accumulated under Jose Mourinho and now Ole Gunnar Solskjaer is in charge.

United’s new lease on life has seen them play an open, attacking style which frees Pogba to do Pogba things in support of an attacking three who are largely freed from defensive responsibilities. This has made them potent against mediocre teams, but still leaves unanswered questions when it comes to facing the game’s elite. So far, the results have been mixed at best. The steely draw at home against Liverpool had a lot to recommend it, less so getting trounced by PSG, and a win against Tottenham that required David De Gea to stand on his head.

With ten games left to play, that’s the test that will make or break United’s season. With an away match to Arsenal and home matches against Manchester City and Chelsea still left to come, the real question for this new look United is can they do it against other good teams. If they find that gear they could squeak into that fourth spot and complete a pretty miraculous comeback for a team that looked dead in the water before the managerial switch.

The fact that it’s safe to say United are better now than they were. We just don’t yet know how much better.

Tottenham Hotspur

They aren’t quite in the top four race yet. If they weren’t about to face Arsenal they probably wouldn’t even make the list. But the team has hit the skids at just the wrong time. Two losses in a row, even if one of them, an away defeat to Chelsea, is quite understandable, while everybody else is picking up steam has closed the gap quickly. A third would move the team which had seemed entirely safe and above the top four race to merely being favorites in a four team rumble. Oh, and they also have their two hardest matches of the season left on the schedule. Going to the Etihad and Anfield is a lot less scary when you do it with room to spare.

Do Statistics Explain Kevin-Prince Boateng's Barcelona Transfer?

Kevin-Prince Boateng? That Kevin-Prince Boateng? Are you sure? For real? Why?

It’s been a long and winding road for Boateng. While his younger brother settled down in Bayern Munich’s defense, Kevin-Prince has spent the better part of his career bouncing around Europe. The former Hertha, Tottenham Hotspur, Borussia Dortmund, Portsmouth, Milan, Schalke, Milan again, Las Palmas, Eintracht Frankfurt, and now Sassuolo player has finally made it though. At almost 32 years old he’s been loaned to the big time. He’s going (somehow) to Barcelona.

This isn’t Boateng’s first time playing for an elite team. He was, if not integral, at least involved with Milan the last time they were a true world power. He started 18 matches during the team’s 2010-11 Serie A title winning season, and then 15 matches over each of the next two years as they finished second and third. But that was a soccer playing lifetime ago. Since then he’s remade himself, shifting from an all action midfielder to an unconventional striker. He has played the bulk of his minutes for Sassuoulo in that role.

His baseline stats don’t really suggest there’s much to write home about though.



He doesn’t take very many shots, 2.64 per game is extremely mediocre for a forward. And the shots that he does take are terrible. His 0.07 xG per shot is literally off the charts bad for our radars. There’s no worse combination of outcomes for a striker than only being able to manage taking a small number of really unlikely shots.



Perhaps there’s something else to his contributions though? Given that he is a former midfielder and an unconventional striker at best, maybe there are some distributional aspects to his play that the numbers fail to account for. Perhaps he’s dropping deeper and creating chances for runners in behind him, or he’s an integral part of an aggressive pressing team, where he defends from the front? If that’s the case it also doesn’t show up in the numbers. Here’s how he appears on the attacking midfield radar.



It’s a slightly larger blob, but it’s not actually more impressive. His average number of touches in the box for a striker shows up impressively on the attacking midfielder template, and his pass completion percentage is pretty high. But that’s about it. There’s nothing here that suggests he’s creating a lot of opportunity for others. His expected goals assisted from open play per 90 is an exceedingly low 0.09. If he’s doing something creative with the ball, it’s not showing up in the shots he’s creating for his teammates.

In Boateng’s defense, Sassuolo play the game at a very slow pace. They’re actually slightly more invested in possession that you might expect from Serie A’s 12th place club. They play 533 passes a game, tied with Roma for the sixth most in the league and allow only 442, the sixth fewest. They’re happy to have the ball and not do a ton with it, as long as their opponent doesn’t have a chance to get the ball and attack them. It’s a necessary strategy because when they do give up the ball, they’re completely unable to stop opponents from attacking them.

Despite giving up only 13.30 shots per match, the ninth most in the league, a respectable total, the expected goals they’ve allowed from those shots is a mind blowing, 1.43, tied for the fourth worst in the league. A brief look at their defensive activity map might serve to explain why.



Against that backdrop, Boateng’s defensive contributions from the top look pretty decent. He’s committed to harrying the ball around the halfway line even if the team behind him consists entirely of, well, not much of anything.



Squint and you can almost see the stylistic appeal for Barcelona. Boateng plays up front for a midtable team that plays slowly and methodically. They insist on working the ball out of the back and are extremely patient in possession. That’s sort of Barcelona-ish. And while they turn all that possession into a mediocre number of terrible shots (a process which Boateng is an integral and negative part of) presumably when surrounded by superstar teammates that won’t be nearly as large a problem.

And defensively you can definitely see a role for Boateng as a closer. If Barcelona have a lead, bringing in Boateng for somebody like Ousmane Dembele or even Luis Suarez  to shift that emphasis from attacking to defending makes some sense. Boateng can do that, the trade off will be that he’ll add much much (much much much) less on the attacking end, so much less that the trade off may not be worth it.

The question remains though. Why? It’s true that if you torture the numbers, and the scouting just right you can gin up a narrowly define role that Boateng makes sense in for Barcelona, but he’s not the only player that would make sense in that role. It’s not hard to find players that will willingly defend from the front in a substitute role. It’s especially not hard to find ones that are under 30. And while getting Boateng assures that you’re finding an unconventional attacker who is used to playing in a possession oriented system, it also assures that you’re getting an attacker who doesn’t give you much output in that system.

The benefit of being Barcelona is that there’s a lot of wiggle room to make mistakes at the margins. Going and getting Boateng on loan, whatever the reason, won’t hurt this squad overall. They’ve acquired better players for more money than Boateng who have flopped at providing frontline depth while not slowing the super team down (whither art thou Arda Turan). The main cost though is the opportunity cost. Bringing in Boateng to fill this role means not bringing in somebody younger and potentially better to fill that role.

Slice the numbers just right and it’s possible to make an argument that explains what role Boateng will fill at Barcelona. That’s fine, as far as it goes. But no matter how long you look you’ll never find a good reason for Barcelona going and getting a mediocre 32 year old to be the one to fill that role. That decision will remain a mystery

Header image courtesy of the Press Association

How Long Can Lionel Messi Avoid Father Time?

Is Lionel Messi slowing down?

This is a sacrilegious thing to suggest. Messi is a god. Crucially though, unlike the whatever higher power you choose to worship, Lionel Messi is also aging. He’s 31 years old. That’s a good three years past when most players, even the best ones, begin to lose their fastball. There’d been precious little evidence of that with Messi though. He’d evolved his game, morphed from the greatest creative goal scorer on the planet to the greatest creator on the plant….who also happened to be a thirty goal scorer. What Messi was doing on the pitch changed, but his production was as otherworldly as ever.

Before we take this dive, the first thing to make clear is that Messi is still unreal. Compared to people not named Lionel Messi he’s still just better than them. The question is not, how does Lionel Messi compare against the other mere mortals he deigns to take the pitch beside? Rather, the question is, how does Messi compare against past versions of himself. And, there’s reason to believe that from last season to this there’s been a slight decline.

The first, and most obvious place to look is the scoring numbers. Last year he was a major goal scoring force. He scored 34 goals, 32 of them from open play. That was way beyond his 21.97 open play expected goals. But even his expected goals were impressive. His 0.63 expected goals per 90 were the third highest in the league, behind only Cristiano Ronaldo and teammate Luis Suarez, an especially impressive total since they were accompanied by 0.38 expected assists per 90 minutes by far the most of any player with over 1000 minutes played.

This season, so far, his goal scoring has taken a noticeable hit. His 0.48 xG per 90 is still very good but it’s a decidedly new occurrence to refer to Messi’s output as merely very good. He’s the sixth best scorer by xG per 90 in Spain and taking a step back and looking across Europe’s big five leagues. He’s not in the top 10, or even the top 20. He’s 30th in Europe by xG per90 (among players with over 500 minutes played). That’s…well, it’s certainly different for Messi. And it’s easy to see from his shot chart that he’s simply not getting great shots this season. Most of his shooting is coming from outside the box, and even those shots which are from closer to pointblank range still aren’t the kind of clean red hot looks Messi typically ends up getting on the end of.



None of this would be at all concerning if Messi’s slowly declining scoring rate was being offset by a rise in his creative numbers. That’s what’s happened over the last couple of seasons. Messi has become the best attacking creator in the world. Except that hasn’t really happened.

Messi’s expected assists numbers have nudged up slightly from 0.38 to 0.40. That’s an astounding number and the most in La Liga by a comfortable margin. But it doesn’t offset the drop in scoring. And it’s compounded by the fact that Messi is doing less buildup work than he used to. His xGBuildup (a measure of how much he is contributing in moves that lead to the eventual xG accumulated by shots) has dropped from 1.03 last season to 0.88 this season.

This all paints the picture of a player who is beginning to focus in on the things that he’s best at while the other parts of his game start, ever so slightly, to decline. It’s always hard to define Messi’s position. But, however you look at him, either as a striker or as a midfielder/winger, the picture is the same, a player whose game hasn’t changed over the past two years, but whose production is eroding just a bit.



There are also sorts of potential reasons for that decline of course. Even the great Messi doesn’t exist in a vacuum. Grace Robertson has written about how Ernesto Valverde made stylistic changes to the squad in his second season. It’s certainly possible that it’s those changes that are slightly hampering Messi. The rest of Barcelona are also aging, and quickly. Pique, Sergio Busquets, Ivan Rakitic, and Luis Suarez are all the wrong side of 30. New young blood like Ousmane Dembele still hasn't fully settled in the side, and Philippe Coutinho has those huge theoretical, though actually probably fairly small actual, Andres Iniesta shoes to fill. It’s possible that the physical limitations holding Messi back aren’t his, but are, in fact, everybody else’s.

Even if that’s the case though, that would be a new development. One of the things that has defined Messi’s prime years, and contributed to his greatness, is his ability to but up god like numbers no matter what’s going on around him. Play him on the wing or in the center. Play him as part of a front three or a front two. Play highly possession oriented football or a swashbuckling counterattack. Prioritize defensive stability or attacking flexibility. Historically none of it matters to Messi, he’s going to do what he’s going to do and what he’s going to do is put up gigantic numbers and lead his team to titles. This year, he’s probably going to do that again, but the numbers, at least so far, are slightly less gigantic.

It’s also important to emphasize that he hasn’t even played 1000 league minutes yet this season. The blip could be just that. Maybe Messi goes off for a month, lights the league on fire, and this is just a little bit of noise that he once again successfully puts behind him. But, once players turn 30 these small downturns become more alarming than they’d otherwise be. The chance that small declines are permanent increases. Slight nagging injuries start to linger for longer. Legs that used to be fresh end up just a little bit heavier. Dips in from that a decade ago might have naturally ended quickly now stubbornly hang around. It’s too early to say that’s definitely what Messi is going through, but it’s not too early to worry that he might be.

Barcelona are still the best team in Spain. Compared to anybody else Lionel Messi is still the best player on the planet. But, compared only to himself, there’s just enough decline to start to wonder. Is this the beginning of the tail end of Messi’s career? Has he finally reached the point where instead of doing everything well, he’ll have to make choices and sacrifice some parts of his game in the service of others? Even if that’s not, in fact, what’s happening, it’s bound to happen before too long. Messi is the best, but not even the best outrun father time.

Despite Manchester United's Collapse, David De Gea Remains Strong in Goal

Statistics have told a clear story about Manchester United over the last couple of seasons. Their second-place finish last season was largely a mirage, a function of David De Gea playing an astounding season of football. They might have finished with 81 points and only conceded 28 goals, but it was simply unlikely to continue. That seems to have come to pass. Jose Mourinho’s team is currently sitting in eight place and they’ve already conceded 21 goals through just 12 games. The exact reversal that analytics predicted would come to pass. And yet, the story is more complicated.

Three things are all true at the same time. First, Manchester United’s numbers are significantly worse this year than they were last season. Second, Manchester United are no longer posting better results than their numbers indicate they should. Third, David De Gea is, despite that, still playing out of his gosh darn mind. Let’s take them one at a time.

United’s baseline defensive performance is deteriorating. Last season, United’s opponents notched 1.01 expected goals per match. That wasn’t very good by the usual standards of a team near the top of the table, but it wasn’t bad per se. It was fifth in the Premier League behind Manchester City, Liverpool, Tottenham and Chelsea, in that order. The problem was that United needed to be great defensively because their attack was also only fifth best in the league at 1.49 expected goals per match. They were solidly a fifth place team, but because they conceded so many fewer goals than expected, they finished second.

This season, they’re worse on both sides of the ball. Their attack has dropped down to 1.18 expected goals per match, tenth in the league, and their defense has dropped to allowing a scary 1.34 expected goals per match. There are twelve teams who have better defensive underlying numbers than United. Twelve! Last year United played like a fifth place team and finished second. This season, with their negative 0.17 expected goal differential per match they’re playing more like a 12th place team.

United’s numbers have gotten worse, but they’ve also stopped being able to outrun them. Last season United blew their expected goals numbers out of the water on both sides of the ball. They scored 67 non-penalty goals from 56.78 expected goals and conceded only 27 from 38.24. This year the, team is more or less in line with their numbers. They’ve conceded one more goal than they’ve scored, and their expected goal difference is a little over negative two.

How they’ve done it is interesting though. On the attacking side of the ball United, just like last season are on pace to better their numbers. They’ve scored more than their expected goals.

They’ve also conceded more than expected goals thinks they “should” have.

This looks straightforwardly like a team playing an open brand of football, and executing it at a not particularly effective level. That’s startling for Mourinho the dull, but it’s less surprising given the talent he has at his disposal. United have crummy defenders and good attackers, so a team basically playing at the level expected goals expects, while also being skewed towards attack and away from defense makes sense.

This also looks like a team without any noticeable standout goalkeeping. And that’s where things get weird. Because the numbers also show David De Gea once again having an amazing season. Last year it was easy to see De Gea’s contributions. The team faced 38.24 expected goals, and the shots that made it on target to De Gea’s net had a roughly similar value. Their post-shot expected goal value was 38.76. In other words, De Gea’s dominance last year was easily recognizable. The 12.76 goals above average he saved were directly reflected in United’s defensive performance against expected goals.

This year it’s way trickier. While United's opponents have 14.10 expected goals overall, the set of shots that have reached De Gea have been considerably tougher. Post-shot expected goals shows De Gea as having faced shots worth 24.09 expected goals.

Ok, so what exactly is going on here? In effect what this shot chart is saying is that the while on average the shots United are conceding will lead to a little over 16 goals, in practice opponents have caught the ball quite a bit better than average, leaving De Gea to deal with shots on target that will be scored a little over 24 times. Opponents are hitting the ball way above average, and De Gea is standing on his head just to keep United close to where expected goals thinks they should be.

If we look at this in terms of expected save percentage and actual save percentage it becomes clear that De Gea is basically maintaining last year's level. Last season, our post-shot expected goal model gave De Gea an expected save percentage 73.2% and he clocked in at 82.4% giving him a goals saved above average percentage (GSAA%) of 9.2%. This season, post-shot xG has him with an expected save percentage of only 64.5% and an actual save percentage of 71.4% for a GSAA% of 6.9%. Despite a severe drop in save percentage De Gea iss still having an excellent, if slightly less superb season than last year. It’s just masked by the fact he’s facing shots that are a lot more difficult to save than a regular xG model predicts they would be on average.

It’s important to be cautious when drawing conclusions about exactly why the xG discrepancy exists. It’s possible that it’s just noise, and that through 12 games United’s opponents have been catching the ball extra pure. Maybe United have been getting really unlucky, and De Gea’s magic has stemmed the bleeding so that it seems like they’re only getting a little unlucky. Football has a lot of moving parts, and the reason expected goals works so well is that even one part being very out of whack tends to be mitigated by everything else. So, De Gea playing great while United get unlucky so that from a distance things look mostly normal, is a reasonable possibility.

It’s also possible this is a further reflection of United’s poor defense. Maybe teams are teeing off on De Gea because United’s shoddy backline, and complete lack of a midfield, is letting them. That too makes some degree of sense. Expected goals against is a fairly accurate predictor of a team’s defensive performance so it wouldn’t be unreasonable to think that what it’s reflecting right now is a unit that consists of poor defenders and a great keeper awkwardly averaging each other out.

It’s also possible that this is a tactical effect. If United are playing more openly this season, and it seems like they are, then maybe that openness is giving opponents a chance to get better than average shots off. It would make sense that above average sets of shots, offsetting each other on the attacking and defending end would lead to a team ending up where they should be according to expected goals while also having exaggerated post-shot expected goals.

The reality is that we simply don’t know enough yet to advance any of these theories with any degree of certitude. What we do know is that our post-shot expected goal numbers show a goalkeeper in De Gea who is still playing his tail off, even as his team underperforms opponent’s expected goals. That in turn allows us to say pretty concretely that United’s disastrous plummet back to earth from their surprisingly lofty finish last year isn’t driven by De Gea’s return to earth. It’s everything else that’s collapsing.

Header image courtesy of the Press Association

Guardiola's Manchester City are Breaking the Premier League

We need to talk about just how good Manchester City are. For years, the selling point of the Premier League has been its relative unpredictability. It was hard to know what was going to happen. Each individual season might not have been competitive, but year to year there were always changes. Over the past decade the league has had four different winners. That might not seem diverse, but it’s more varied than most of Europe’s top leagues. That dynamic is gone.

Manchester City won the league last year with 100 points, 19 points clear of the field. This season they’re even better. It’s hard to make clear through numbers exactly how much better they are than everybody else. But let’s start here. Everything they did last year, they’re better at this year. Their expected goals are up from 2.13 to 2.97. Their expected goals conceded are down from 0.66 to 0.51. They’ve gone from taking 17.92 shots per game to taking 22.56. If you were to insist on finding a fly in the ointment it would be that they now allow 6.44 shots per game, up from 6.37. That’s a very small fly.

Their defensive activity has become even more concentrated on pinning opponents not just in their own third, but in their own 18-yard box. They’ve gone from this seemingly perfect defensive pressure map.



To this seemingly impossible one.



On an individual player level the numbers are similarly hard to believe. Pep Guardiola has turned City into an unstoppable fire breathing juggernaut which generates great chances at a rate that’s simply impossible to understand. Players feed off each other and build statistical profiles that you can’t find in the rest of the soccer world.

In the Premier League this season, among players who have logged at least 500 minutes, there are a grand total of seven players who have an expected goals per 90 rate higher than 0.30 and an expected goals assisted rate of over 0.20. Three of those players play for Manchester City. Of the other four two play for Liverpool, Mohammed Salah and Roberto Firmino, Eden Hazard appears unsurprisingly for Chelsea, and the only true surprise on the list is Callum Wilson of Bournemouth. But it’s Raheem Sterling, Sergio Aguero, and the ageless David Silva that really stand out. It’s boring to talk about Silva, I guess. He’s old, he’s been doing this forever. But, I mean, come on.



Sergio Aguero is here to score goals, assist goals, and chew bubble gum. And he’s all out of bubble gum.



Also, Raheem Sterling. It may not be clear that he’s the best attacking player in the Premier League, but it’s definitely not clear that he isn’t.



And these are just the more pure attackers. A quarter of the league’s 20 leading deep progressors of the ball play for City. Fernandinho and Kyle Walker are fourth and fifth in the league with 10.74 and 10.61 deep progressions per 90. Aymeric Laporte, Benjamin Mendy and, remarkably, David Silva, who seems to do everything, are also in the top 20 in the league.

Scarier still City have done all this while missing maybe their best creative midfielder in Kevin de Bruyne. No outfield player played more minutes than Kevin De Bruyne last season. He led the team in expected assists per 90, open play key passes, open plays passes into the penalty box and was second behind Vincent Kompany in unpressured long balls and trailed only Fernandinho in deep progressions. He was the engine that made City tick last year, both bringing the ball into the final third and creating for his teammates once the ball was there. He’s barely contributed so far this season.

This team is also more versatile than its ever been. As Guardiola continues to customize his squad and mold players into what he wants them to be we’ve seen players develop into more customized roles. Both John Stones and Laporte are now not only deployed as center backs but also as the kind of hybrid half center back, half fullback that Guardiola likes to use to blur the lines between a back three and back four. Stones is additionally slowly but surely being worked into shape as a possible defensive midfield option.

The emergence of Bernardo Silva in year two gives Guardiola yet more options across the front five. Silva can play both on the wing and internally, and combines an ability to score goals with an endless defensive motor. The addition of Riyad Mahrez means that at the very least Sterling can move around the front of the formation and Guardiola has plenty of options on the right wing. With so much depth in attack Leroy Sane and Gabriel Jesus have ended up being incredibly productive substitutes with game changing ability, rather than regular starters. It’s an unfair amount of depth.

There’s no clever analysis here to bring it home with. There’s no counter-intuitive take to suggest things might change. Manchester City are an unbelievably strong team. They’re the best side the Premier League has seen, possibly ever. They’re currently the best team in Europe. It’s hard to see any way that changes. Guardiola is currently flirting with completely breaking the game of football. The Premier League has a new best team. And for as long as Guardiola stays there, and he has endless resources behind him, it will remain that way. The unpredictability of the Premier League is gone. It’s Guardiola’s league now, everybody else is just hanging on.

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.