The Amazon All or Nothing series on Arsenal’s 2021-22 season began this month, and it’s helping to emphasize a couple of key points that we sometimes convince ourselves to forget: (a) How you play in the early stages of the season isn’t guaranteed to continue, good or bad, but (b) it can still play a massive role in where your season ends up.
A recap for anyone who needs it: Arsenal began last season in the poorest imaginable form, dropping matches to Brentford, Chelsea and Manchester City by a combined 9-0, and finding themselves at the bottom of the Premier League table heading into the first international break. From there they rebounded, recording the third-highest point total in the league over the final 35 matchdays, but the damage from those three matches was costly: the Gunners fell two points short of a top-four league finish and therefore missed the Champions League for the fifth straight year.
No matter how a team has looked thus far, then, there’s no guarantee this form will remain. That’s good news for the likes of Bayer Leverkusen and perhaps less-than-good news for a club like Leeds United. But the early points still count, and quite a few teams have already created a different outlook for themselves in 2022-23.
Using FiveThirtyEight’s Soccer Power Index as our guide, here are the teams from Europe’s Big Five leagues that have seen their projected point totals change the most in the season’s first 2-3 matchdays.
And yes, this list once again includes Arsenal.
Stock rising quickly
Arsenal: up 7 points (from 61 projected points to 68)
As it turns out, easily winning your first three matches of the season is a much better idea than losing them.
Mikel Arteta’s Gunners are atop the Premier League table thus far, having manhandled Crystal Palace, Leicester City and Bournemouth by a combined 9-2. None of these opponents are likely contenders for Champions League spots, obviously, but Arsenal has done exactly what was asked of them thus far, generating the second-best xG differential in the league (+1.1 per 90, behind only Manchester City’s +1.2). They’re nearly doubling up opponents in terms of shot attempts, and they’re averaging 0.12 xG per shot (fourth in the league) while allowing 0.09 (seventh). It seems like a pretty sustainable recipe.
Last season’s rebound and this season’s early rise have given proof to the idea that it takes a long time to put together the pieces you need and an even longer time for those pieces to gel.
Arteta has thus far leaned on a concrete starting XI featuring two players acquired this past summer (forward Gabriel Jesus and left back Oleksandr Zinchenko), three acquired in 2021 (attacking midfielder Martin Odegaard, right back Ben White and goalkeeper Aaron Ramsdale), two acquired in 2020 (midfielder Thomas Partey and center back Gabriel Magalhaes), two acquired in 2019 (left winger Gabriel Martinelli and center back William Saliba) and two longtime Gunners (right winger Bukayo Saka, signed at 17 in 2018, and midfielder and captain Granit Xhaka, signed in 2016).
Arteta has plenty of other exciting younger players on the bench — 22-year olds Emile Smith Rowe, Albert Sambi Lokonga and Fabio Vieira (this summer’s most expensive transfer signing, who has yet to make his Premier League debut), 23-year olds Takehiro Tomiyasu and Eddie Nketiah, 25-year old Kieran Tierney — and they will eventually have to figure into his plans if this team is going to have the depth it will need over 38 matches. But after years of bouncing between a long-term approach and short-term misfires, and with a fun combination of vital new blood and holdovers from previous underachieving squads, Arsenal is playing optimistic and openly confident ball.
If the Gunners can avoid injury and maintain form, the schedule offers an opportunity to keep gobbling up points. Between now and Oct. 1, they play only one team currently projected to finish in the top seven (at Manchester United on Sept. 4). There are loads of challenges from there, namely home matches against Tottenham Hotspur on Oct. 1, Liverpool on Oct. 9, Manchester City on Oct. 20 and Chelsea on Nov. 5.
But their odds of grabbing a Champions League spot for next season have already increased from 22% to 50% in three matches, and those odds could rise a lot further by the time the challenges come. What a start.
PSG: up 6 points (from 88 to 94)
Never mind the cheekiness, never mind the technique, and never mind the scouting required to set up Kylian Mbappe‘s goal just eight seconds into their win over Lille last weekend. The absolute joy served the most notice.
One play seemingly generated more joy than we saw from PSG for basically all of last season. And then they scored six more times, winning 7-1. Against the 2021 league champs.
— Paris Saint-Germain (@PSG_inside) August 22, 2022
Despite the fact that they were blessed with three of the most creative and exciting players in the history of the game — Mbappe, Leo Messi and Neymar — it just wasn’t very fun watching this team last season. PSG slogged away to an easy league title, but bowed out to Real Madrid in the Champions League round of 16, and it looked like they would lose Mbappe to Real Madrid as well.
But then Mbappe stayed, Christophe Galtier took over as manager for the miserable-looking Mauricio Pochettino, Neymar re-discovered his form (he’s already produced five goals and six assists), Gianluigi Donnarumma officially took over as No. 1 goalkeeper after splitting duties with veteran Keylor Navas last season, and midfielders Nuno Mendes, Vitinha and Renato Sanches have brought truckloads of young energy to town from Sporting CP, Porto and Lille, respectively.
The vibes have flipped 180 degrees. PSG has outscored opponents 17-3. They are attempting both the most, and the best, shots in the league — 0.23 shots per possession (first) and 0.19 xG per shot (first), with 22% of their shots generating at least 0.3 xG (first by far). And while their defense has been merely good and not great, opponents’ three goals came with the score 3-0 (vs. Montpellier), 5-1 (vs. Montpellier) and 5-0 (vs. Lille). And in two of those three instances, PSG responded by scoring more.
FiveThirtyEight gave Les Parisiens a 73% title chance, with an average point total of 88, when the season began. Those numbers have already risen to 89% and 94, respectively. It’s never fun to watch a title race basically end in August, but it’s absurdly fun to watch PSG at the moment. And they’ll send major “This is our year” warnings to the rest of Europe if they can keep it up.
Lens: up 6 points (from 55 to 61)
Lyon and Marseille have combined for four wins and a draw in five matches. Monaco has careened all over the road, but has obvious potential. Lille has been fine when not playing PSG. Most of the primary competitors for second-place in Ligue 1 have done alright out of the gate, but a new challenger has quickly emerged as well.
Since earning promotion in 2019-20, Lens has twice finished seventh under Franck Haise, and they have begun 2022-23 in rousing form. They beat Brest, 3-2, thanks to a hat trick from Florian Sotoca, and after a draw at AC Ajaccio, they dominated at Monaco, 4-1. (Yes, Monaco dealt with a red card for the second straight match, but Lens was already up 3-1.)
Lens’ main strength thus far has been control. Their 59% possession rate is second to only Lyon’s 66%, and they are averaging an almost impossibly slow 78 possessions per match, fewer than even PSG. They are generating only 117 touches per game in the attacking third (14th in the league) but are allowing opponents only 99 such touches (third), and when they show up in the penalty area, it’s with intent.
Their 2.1 xG per match is second to only PSG. Sotoca and new signing Lois Openda (from Club Brugge) are thriving up front — another new signing, former New England Revolution star Adam Buksa, has yet to play — and former Nottingham Forest goalkeeper Brice Samba has done his job well in the back.
Lens’ has gone from 55 projected points and a 13% chance of Champions League qualification to 61 and 24%, respectively. There’s plenty of work to be done, but it’s hard to ask for too much more than that from three matches.
Villarreal: up 6 points (from 63 to 69)
There are few things in soccer more jarring than watching a team out-s***house Atletico Madrid in Madrid, but damned if Unai Emery’s squad didn’t pull off exactly that on Sunday.
Yeremi Pino scooped up a misplayed pass in the penalty area and scored in the 73rd minute, and the Yellow Submarine spent most of the next 25 minutes fouling, drawing fouls, stalling, drawing a red card from Nahuel Molina and nabbing a second goal, via Gerard Moreno, in the seventh minute of stoppage time.
It was a dark arts masterclass; it was also exactly the type of match Villarreal tended to lose last season. Despite upsetting Bayern Munich on the way to the Champions League semifinals, they finished seventh in LaLiga, 11 points back of the top four, because in 22 league matches decided by 0-1 goals last season, they won just three, lost eight and tied 11. They averaged 0.9 points in such matches, and everyone above them in the table averaged at least 1.5. They were third in the league in goal differential and fourth in xG differential but finished far out of a spot in the Champions League.
This season, however, they’ve won a blowout (3-0 over Real Valladolid) and they turned a nip-and-tuck match with Atlei into a comfortable 2-0 win. And in just two matches they’ve gone from having a 41% chance of Champions League qualification and an 8% chance of winning the league to 56% and 12%, respectively. Keep closing matches well, and they’re a serious threat in Spain.
Leeds United: up 6 points (from 41 to 47)
The United States of Leeds is 10 bad minutes from a perfect record. Jesse Marsch‘s squad needed stoppage-time goals in each of its last two matches to ever-so-narrowly avoid relegation last season and lost stars Raphinha and Kalvin Phillips to Barcelona and Manchester City, respectively, this summer.
No worries! They transformed their midfield with the additions of Tyler Adams (from RB Leipzig) and Marc Roca (Bayern), and they transformed their attack by adding Brenden Aaronson (Salzburg) and getting Patrick Bamford back from a long-term injury. (Bamford missed their last match with a minor issue, but he’s expected to return soon.)
Jesse Marsch and Tyler Adams explain the conversation they had before the USMNT midfielder signed for Leeds.
They have still been on the bad side of the god of injuries — center-back Liam Cooper and fullbacks Junior Firpo and Luke Ayling all have yet to play, and Stuart Dallas isn’t expected back until 2023 — but it hasn’t mattered yet.
They took down Wolves in the season opener and played maybe their best match of the last 12 months in walloping Chelsea, 3-0, on Sunday. They did allow Southampton to come back from 2-0 down and draw late in Matchday 2, but even without so many defenders, they have brought infinitely more stability to the table than they did last season. Their reward is a third-place standing.
Are they burning a little too hot? Probably. They have turned shots worth 5.0 xG into six actual goals — scoring leader Rodrigo has scored four goals from shots worth 2.0 xG — and their overall goal differential (+4) is more than double their xG differential (+1.5). That will regress, though it bears mentioning that their xG differential is the fourth-best in the league.
Still, their depth will improve as players return from injury, and their early play has reduced their odds of relegation from 27% a month ago to 13% today. Great early work.
Stock falling quickly
Bayer Leverkusen: down 8 points (from 56 projected points to 48)
It’s pretty well-established at this point that part of the reason for Bayern Munich’s 10-year Bundesliga title streak is that some of the clubs that could most reliably become challengers end up selling the rights to their best players and always falling into at least a partial rebuild mode. It’s also been a problem, of late, that German clubs recycle managers to and from each other; they seem to have fallen behind a bit when it comes to original ideas.
Bayer Leverkusen has neither problem at the moment. It kept its trio of star scorers — Patrik Schick, Moussa Diaby and the currently injured Florian Wirtz — this past offseason and added another exciting attacker in Czech winger Adam Hlozek. Better yet, they are led by manager Gerardo Seoane, whose ideas for a combination of possession play and counter-attacking opportunities made the club one of the most interesting and exciting in the league last season.
Wirtz is still out, but the team looked good enough down the stretch without him last season that it was easy to see Leverkusen at least laying a good challenge into Bayern for a while and putting together an even more successful run than last year’s third-place finish.
Instead, three matches into the Bundesliga season, they are already nine points behind Bayern. Throw in a shocking 4-3 loss to third-division SC Elversberg in the first round of the DFB Pokal, and the club has begun the season with four straight losses. Augsburg and TSG 1899 Hoffenheim finished 14th and ninth, respectively, in the Bundesliga last season; they’ve both already won in the BayArena this season.
What the hell is going on in Leverkusen? Two things, mainly: They’ve been dreadfully unlucky, and their transition game has collapsed.
First, the luck: They’ve attempted 46 shots worth 5.1 xG, fourth-most in the league, but they’ve scored just once in three matches. They’re allowing shots worth 1.2 xG per 90, but they’re allowing two goals per match. Their xG differential is +0.5 per match (fifth in the league), and their goal differential is minus-5 (16th). They are tilting the field dramatically and have nothing to show for it.
Meanwhile, their opponents are scoring goals like this.
He hit the backheel 😲😲 pic.twitter.com/cirFujs84G
— ESPN FC (@ESPNFC) August 20, 2022
This obviously isn’t going to last. Schick (1.8 xG, zero goals) and Diaby (2.5 combined xG and xA, zero actual goals and assists) are going to progress to the mean, and that alone will cure a lot of what is currently ailing Die Werkself. (The rumored loan addition of Callum Hudson-Odoi certainly wouldn’t hurt.) But their jobs are also made a lot more difficult at the moment by the complete lack of transition opportunities.
In what I call transition possessions — possessions that start outside of the attacking third and last 20 or fewer seconds — Leverkusen dominated the Bundesliga last season. They averaged 0.9 goals per match from these possessions (first) and allowed just 0.3 (also first). The shots they generated from these possessions were of particularly high quality (0.19 xG per shot).
This season, they have yet to score from a transition possession, and opponents have already scored four times. They are averaging just 0.13 xG per shot in these possessions and allowing 0.17. The most interesting thing about Leverkusen’s approach last season was that they would lure opponents into their half of the field, foregoing a lot of initial pressing but opening up potential counterattacking lanes.
This season, they’re trying much harder on defense (they’re allowing 8.3 passes per defensive action, the lowest in the league), in part because of how frequently they’ve been behind on the scoreboard, but they are creating very little from it.
The balance is all off. It probably won’t remain that way, but the damage from this awful early run could last all season. FiveThirtyEight projected them fourth in the league at the start and gave them a 44% chance of qualifying for the Champions League; just three matches in, they’re now projected to finish eighth and have just a 22% chance. Everything is still up for grabs (aside from any darkhorse title shot they hoped to have), but they now have a lot of work to do.
Troyes: down 7 points (from 44 to 37)
One of the more recent additions to the City Football Group family is still looking for traction in France’s top division. Troyes earned promotion in 2020-21 but played mostly unwatchable ball in finishing 15th last season; they were given a 31% chance of relegation to start the year, but they followed up a 3-2 loss to Montpellier with losses by a combined 7-1 to Lyon (semi-forgivable) and Toulouse (not so much). Now their relegation odds are at 51%, a scary projection this early in the season.
The attack has shown slight promise — Troyes are averaging a solid 0.13 xG per shot, and midfielder Florian Tardieu has combined two goals with five chances created — but opponents are averaging even higher per-shot quality while taking a higher quantity of shots. Despite the City affiliation, Troyes generate no pressure in defense, and they average just 4.0 passes per possession (17th in Ligue 1) with a 37% possession rate (20th). And they’ve only played one reasonably top-tier team thus far.
Troyes spent its money this offseason like a team unafraid of going down. Their five primary acquisitions average an age of 20.4, and half of the transfer budget went to acquiring Brazilian teenager Savio, whom they loaned out to PSV Eindhoven. American defender Erik Palmer-Brown is finding plenty of playing time here, but he’s part of an absolutely overwhelmed defense. This team doesn’t have the raw talent to dig its way out of a huge hole, so the rally needs to begin quickly.
Leicester City: down 7 points (from 51 to 44)
Things have grown stale at the King Power Stadium. After back-to-back fifth-place finishes in 2019-20 and 2020-21, Leicester had to rally to finish eighth in the Premier League during an injury-plagued 2021-22 campaign, one in which they produced just the 14th-best xG differential.
Manager Brendan Rodgers returned for a fourth full season in charge, but the roster remains in flux. Longtime goalkeeper Kasper Schmeichel is gone. Defender Wesley Fofana, whose importance was proven when he missed months of last season with a broken leg, wants to go to Chelsea. Midfielder Youri Tielemans is almost unexpectedly still in town, though Tielemans-related transfer rumors never stop.
Meanwhile, though Premier League rivals — not just the league’s Big Six, but the Wolves- and Nottingham Forest-level teams as well — have whipped out the checkbook to an unprecedented degree … Leicester hasn’t signed anyone besides a backup goalkeeper?
Thus far, standing pat has not paid off. Forward James Maddison has started the season beautifully (two goals and one assist from seven chances created), and Leicester has scored five goals despite getting nothing yet from Jamie Vardy.
But new starting keeper Danny Ward has been utterly dreadful, saving just 47% of shots on target, and last year’s woes in both set-piece defense and preserving leads have continued. The Foxes have already allowed a pair of set-piece goals, and they’ve blown leads of 2-0 (in a 2-2 draw with Brentford) and 1-0 (2-1 loss to Southampton).
The woeful defensive stats will likely stabilize a bit, but Leicester has been overachieving on offense, too — that also might regress to the mean. They began the season with a 10% chance at a Champions League bid and an 8% threat of relegation; after snaring one point in three matches, those numbers have flipped to 3% and 20%, respectively. They have played like a relegation-level team thus far, and now they’ve got three road trips (including trips to Chelsea and Tottenham) in their next four league matches. Steering out of this skid might be difficult.
West Ham United: down 6 points (from 50 to 44)
New upstarts are treating old upstarts rather unsentimentally early this season. The Hammers have finished sixth and seventh over the last two seasons under David Moyes, but they have yet to score in three league matches. After an understandable 2-0 loss to Manchester City in the opener, they were beaten by a combined 3-0 by Nottingham Forest and Brighton. Whenever they secure their first point or score their first goal of the season, they will be the last team in the league to do so.
As strange as it sounds, the defense might be more problematic than the attack early on. West Ham’s 3-1 win over Viborg in the opening leg of Conference League qualification was a reminder of the upside of players like Michail Antonio and new acquisition Gianluca Scamacca, and the Hammers are generating 1.2 xG per 90 and attempting 0.15 shots per possession (ninth in the league). But they’re allowing 1.8 xG per 90 (19th) and 0.14 xG per shot (19th).
They have started matches poorly, allowing a first-half goal in each match, and they have therefore trailed for 66% of their total possessions. Even with some poor finishing luck, they are 17th in xG differential thus far.
Like Leicester, West Ham’s relegation odds have risen to 20% (from 9% at the start). They will play in a European competition again this season if they close out Viborg, and they laid out over $150 million in transfer fees for Scamacca, winger Maxwel Cornet, center back Nayef Aguerd and others.
But there’s a lot of money flying around in the Premier League, and some big-spending club is probably going down. West Ham’s not in serious danger yet, but after a trip to Aston Villa on August 28 come matches against Spurs and Chelsea. If they don’t beat Villa, the hole might get pretty big.
Liverpool: down 6 points (from 80 to 74)
If you had asked a Liverpool fan what a worst-case scenario start would be for their team this year (barring something extreme like “every center back on the roster suffers a long-term injury,” as what happened in 2020-21), they would have probably given an answer like “The midfield suffers a couple of early injuries, the attack stutters in trading Sadio Mane for Darwin Nunez, and we drop some early points that we shouldn’t.” As far as worst-case scenarios go, it’s not awful, but still … check, check and check.
Thiago Alcantara has already suffered his annual early-season injury (a hamstring issue this time), Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain has been out for weeks, Naby Keita could be out a while, and Curtis Jones is nursing a calf injury. Harvey Elliott and 36-year-old James Milner have already combined for 375 minutes in three matches, which certainly wasn’t the plan before the season. Meanwhile, the attack is indeed a bit scattershot — Liverpool is 10th in goals scored, seventh in xG created and 15th in xG per shot — and Nunez, the newly-acquired golden-boy forward, missed the first match of the season against a fellow Big Six opponent (Manchester United) when he got baited into a red card against Crystal Palace.
The Reds fell behind in each of their first three matches and managed to rally only for draws against Fulham and Palace and a 2-1 loss to United. They’re currently in 16th place, and while they’re still the most likely team to finish second in the Premier League, per both FiveThirtyEight’s projections and obvious logic, they’ve already handed City a five-point advantage. The eventual Premier League champion has dropped an average of 19.2 points over the last six seasons; Liverpool has already dropped seven.
We know they can rally because they did it just last season — they were 14 points behind City and charged back to within one (while winning two domestic cups and reaching the Champions League final). But their title odds, per FiveThirtyEight, have already been cut in half (from 30% to 16%), and their odds of finishing in the top four have fallen from 83% to 71%.
They are still among the Champions League favorites, and this is still likely to be a very successful season overall. But the midfield is indeed an aging mess, and their +0.2 xG differential per match ranks eighth in the league; they haven’t simply been victimized by poor bounces. How much more ground will they give up before they find their groove?
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European soccer stock watch: Arsenal, PSG and Leeds United up, Liverpool down
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