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The European teams that have defied the odds since World Cup break

At first glance, things haven’t changed all that much since soccer’s post-World Cup restart a month or so ago.

Arsenal and Manchester City have averaged more than two points per game in Premier League play, just as they did before the break. Barcelona have dropped only two points and extended their LaLiga lead. Napoli have continued to roll in Italy, and Bayern Munich have yet to lose a match and remain a heavy Bundesliga favorite (82% chance, per FiveThirtyEight).

But Bayern also haven’t won a league match, and Barcelona’s xG numbers hint at serious problems. And Brentford have been Arsenal’s equal. And PSG have been mostly sleepwalking. And Monza and Clermont Foot have been among the best in Italy and France.

Compared to expectations, there have been plenty of strange shifts in recent weeks. It’s almost as if pausing the club season for a month-long international tournament in Qatar was disruptive or something!

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Small sample sizes apply, and regression to the mean will settle in for some teams soon enough, but a lot of odds and statuses have changed since play resumed. Within Europe’s big five leagues, let’s look at who’s overachieving, who’s underachieving, and who needs to really get their act together before continental play starts again.

English Premier League

* Pts vs. Proj.: A comparison of the points teams have earned vs. the average points they were expected to earn via FiveThirtyEight’s SPI projections. For instance, projections suggested Brentford should have earned an average of 6.2 points from their past five league matches against Tottenham Hotspur (28% of a win, 22% chance draw), West Ham (27% win, 25% draw), Liverpool (20% win, 19% draw), Bournemouth (58% win, 22% draw) and Leeds United (37% win, 23% draw). Instead, they took 11 points, an overachievement of 4.8 points, or 1.0 per match.

** xG vs. Proj.: Same as above, only comparing each team’s expected goals, or xG, differential vs. its projected goal differential. (Why xG instead of actual goals? Because with such a small sample size, that would be looking as much at who’s been fortunate/unfortunate instead of who’s been good/bad. Expected goals are a measure of how many likely scoring opportunities teams create, but finishing is more subject to luck.)

Steady as she goes for Arsenal

Arsenal held a five-point advantage over Manchester City before the World Cup, but FiveThirtyEight projections suggested that City still held a 53% chance of winning the Premier League to Arsenal’s 36%. But despite losing forward Gabriel Jesus to World Cup injury, the Gunners have dropped only two points (via 0-0 draw with Newcastle) since the break. They’ve scored 10 goals in four wins, and took down both Spurs and Manchester United in their past two league games. Current title odds? Arsenal 63%, City 34%.

There’s obviously plenty of work to be done, and Man City have shown signs of shifting into fourth or fifth gear after a slow restart — City beat Spurs and Wolves by a combined 7-2 in their past two league matches, and took down Arsenal 1-0 in the fourth round of the FA Cup. But Arsenal are up to third overall in the SPI ratings and the Gunners continue to overachieve projections on average. We might not have found their ceiling yet.

Bees a-stinging in Brentford

The winter transfer window in England was, in a word, dramatic.

Eight teams below Brentford in the table — a grouping of Chelsea, Nottingham Forest, Wolves, Southampton, Bournemouth, Aston Villa, Leeds and Leicester City, which current projections suggest will produce an average of 2.1 relegation spots and 0.1 spots in the Champions League at the end of the season — combined to sign 32 players for transfer fees worth €610.9 million in January. Meanwhile, fellow overachiever Brighton got picked at, losing Leandro Trossard to Arsenal (after losing manager Graham Potter to Chelsea), and turning down a huge Arsenal bid for Moises Caicedo that, since he seemed to be cheering on the move, could result in their star becoming unsettled.

Brentford, though? The Bees just kept their heads down, bringing in Freiburg winger Kevin Schade via loan, loaning some players out to lower leagues and focusing on actual results, like a 3-1 home win over Liverpool. They’re now eighth in the table, and their projected end-of-year point total, per FiveThirtyEight, has risen from 47 to 53.

Still waiting for signs of life from Liverpool

Just about any projections model is going to take a long-term view. Priors are predictive, and Liverpool’s 2021-22 success, combined with solid xG figures (they’re fourth in the league in xG differential), means that Jurgen Klopp’s side still ranks seventh in SPI, third in England. If they were to surge at some point, no one would be particularly surprised.

– Read on ESPN+: What’s fueling Everton’s decline?

We’re still waiting, though. Liverpool played six matches in January and won one of them. The Reds lost to Brentford and Brighton by a combined 6-1, then lost to Brighton again in the FA Cup. They drew 0-0 with an equally listless Chelsea, and their only win came against 17th-place Wolves in an FA Cup replay match, which was required because they had first drawn with Wolves at Anfield.

Liverpool’s only January move was to bring in attacker Cody Gakpo from PSV, which could work out great long-term despite doing nothing to address their gaping current midfield issues. This might still be the third-best team in England when all is said and done, but the Reds are leaking points profusely at the moment, and their odds of finishing in the top four are down to 29%.

Spanish LaLiga

Barcelona’s doing well… and also poorly?

Barcelona led Real Madrid by two points in the LaLiga race when play halted in November. That lead is eight points today. Real Madrid have played one fewer game, but per FiveThirtyEight, Barca’s title odds have improved from 67% to 74% since the restart.

After a draw with Espanyol, the Blaugrana took out Atletico Madrid, Getafe and Girona by matching 1-0 scores, then topped Real Betis 2-1 on Wednesday. They also won the Spanish Super Cup with a 3-1 win over Real Madrid, and advanced to the semifinals of the Copa del Rey (with help from another 1-0 win), where they’ll play the Blancos yet again. In all, they haven’t lost since Oct. 26’s 3-0 Champions League defeat against Bayern Munich.

With Real Madrid underachieving a bit, this was just about a perfect month for Barca in terms of results, buta glance at the xG numbers in the table above is a bit foreboding. In the trio of 1-0 league wins, only one of which was against a team in the top half of the LaLiga table, they generated a combined 2.5 xG from 26 total shots while allowing 4.0 xG from 35 shots. Barcelona’s attack has underwhelmed, and the defense has been a bit too reliant on errant shooting and strong play from goalkeeper Marc Andre ter Stegen.

The win over Betis was a sure step in the right direction — total xG: Barca 1.9, Betis 0.6 — but the schedule gets much tougher continuing into February with a trip to Villarreal and an improving Sevilla — and, of course, a Europa League home-and-home against Manchester United — meaning Barca must remain in a higher gear.

Real Sociedad’s probably going back to the Champions League

La Real have made a habit of starting well before succumbing to a midseason funk. They took 23 points from their first 10 matches in 2020-21 and 29 from 14 in 2021-22, but finished well outside the top four in both seasons.

That’s probably going to change. Coach Imanol Alguacil’s squad had lost to Real Valladolid and Real Betis before the break, but they’ve taken 13 of 15 possible points since the restart. All four of Real Sociedad‘s wins came by multiple goals, and their lone draw, 0-0 at Real Madrid, was perhaps more encouraging than the wins.

Their Champions League odds, per FiveThirtyEight, were at 36% at the break, but are at 76% now. A funk remains possible, but they’ve banked a healthy number of points. You could make a strong case that, despite Barca’s matching 1-0 wins over both, Real Sociedad and Atletico Madrid have been the best teams in Spain in recent weeks, and they could take a lot of the drama out of the top-four race if they keep playing like this.

Valencia are determined to get sucked into a relegation fight

In midfielders Yunus Musah and Andre Almeida, goalkeeper Giorgi Mamardashvili, winger Samuel Lino, full-back Thierry Correia and others, Valencia boast an intriguing collection of 23-and-under talent. A 3-0 win over Real Betis brought them into the top half of the table at the break, too. It seemed they could be an exciting team to follow over the second half of the season.

A month after the restart, they’re in 16th place, just one point above the relegation zone with a game in hand. They’ve lost three of four league matches and got thumped 3-1 at home by a similarly out-of-form Athletic Club in the Copa del Rey.

They’ve gone from “intriguing team?” to interim coach, having fired Gennaro Gattuso on Tuesday. They probably aren’t relegation-threatened just yet — FiveThirtyEight gives them just a 9% chance of going down — but just as Real Sociedad are banking points, Valencia are leaking them and creating a difficult situation for said young roster to handle.

German Bundesliga

Bayern have two weeks to turn it on

Barcelona aren’t the only team to have misplaced its attack over the extended holiday.

After a bumpy September run that saw them win just once in six league matches, it looked as if Bayern had once again established themselves as the Bundesliga’s ruler. The 10-time defending champs won 10 in a row in all competitions and took a six-point lead into the break. But after a trio of 1-1 draws, the champs now have to fend off a quintet of teams within five points, including RB Leipzig (two points back) and Borussia Dortmund (three).

While there’s been an element of poor fortune to the recent mediocrity — they’ve generated 3.7 xG to opponents’ 2.2 while generating an actual scoring margin of +0 — the attack has indeed suffered. Bayern averaged 2.4 xG and 3.3 actual goals per match before the break but were at 1.2 and 1.0, respectively, in January.

Will this continue? Of course not. Bayern have too much attacking talent, and Sadio Mane will return from injury soon. And they certainly looked Bayern-esque in 3-0 disposing of Mainz in the DFB Pokal on Wednesday. But the dropped points mean they will have to work harder and longer to win another league crown, and, more importantly, they’ve got only two weeks to fully establish their form before the first of two daunting legs against PSG in the Champions League round of 16. They’ll be fine in the long term, but the clock’s ticking.

It’s September again for Eisern Union

Back in September, as Union Berlin were putting off Leicester vibes during a long stay in first place, I wrote about the sustainability of their success. The general vibe of the piece: “This almost certainly won’t last, but it’s fun as hell.” It indeed didn’t last. In their last five league matches before the break, coach Urs Fischer’s squad took just four points, got outscored 14-6, and fell to fifth place.

With no one playing in the World Cup, however — sorry, Jordan Pefok — Union’s weary legs got some rest, and they have yet to lose since the Bundesliga’s late restart. They overcame early goals to beat Hoffenheim, Werder Bremen and, in the DFB Pokal, an otherwise hot Wolfsburg by a combined 7-3, and then they kept derby rival Hertha at arm’s reach in a 2-0 win.

Instead of sinking back to the pack, they’re back in second place, a point behind Bayern. It’s easy to make the case that either RB Leipzig or Borussia Dortmund are Bayern’s biggest title rival, but a rested Union are a relentless Union, and they’re stockpiling points once more.

Italian Serie A

Bad and worse in Milan

The biggest story in Italy in recent weeks has been the fallout from Juventus‘ latest scandal, which has resulted in what is currently a 15-point deduction and a plummet from second place to 13th. That has distracted a bit from the regression of two other heavyweights, both in Milan.

After beating Napoli to start the new year, Inter Milan lost to Empoli at home and drew with Monza. They’ve at least maintained a decent overall pace despite lackluster xG figures and those two results, and they have far less to be worried about than their derby rivals, who have completely fallen apart.

In the past three weeks, AC Milan have played five matches and secured one point, coming back from 2-0 down to draw with 16th-place Lecce. Otherwise they’ve lost at home to Torino (in the Coppa Italia) and Sassuolo, lost at Lecce and Lazio, gotten pummeled by Inter in the Supercoppa Italiana and been outscored by a combined 13-2.

Thanks to Juve’s penalty, AC Milan’s odds of reaching the Champions League have fallen only from 77% to 55% per 538. But the wheels have come off, and their Champions League round-of-16 tie against Tottenham Hotspur is 12 days away.

Napoli are going to do this

Inter’s form could rebound soon enough (and might have already begun to), but between Inter’s glitches and Juve’s penalty, Napoli now own a 13-point lead in the race for their first Scudetto since 1990. Their title odds were 68% at the break and are 92% today.

Napoli did what they were projected to do in January and responded to the Inter loss by winning their next four by a combined 11-2. They didn’t add any transfers — they didn’t need to — and they assured that any vultures stayed far away from Victor Osimhen and other desirable young stars. No matter what Inter and others do moving forward, Napoli’s form will have to suffer for this to actually become a race. If they continue to perform as projected, they will cruise. This is the best story in Europe this season.

French Ligue 1

PSG have two weeks to turn it on

It fits that Bayern and Paris Saint-Germain are playing in the Champions League round of 16, as they’ve been basically the same team thus far in 2023. While they hung seven goals on sixth-division Pays de Cassel last week in the Coupe de France, PSG had scored only six goals in five matches against actual top-division clubs before Wednesday’s 3-1 win over 14th-place Montpellier. They lost at both Lens and Rennes and drew at home against Reims and their Football Manager-playing football manager, Will Still.

At the break, they were leading Lens by five points and everyone else by double digits, and now Marseille within five. (Lens blew a chance to lead the table with their own series of scattershot results: frustrating draws to Strasbourg and Troyes, and a Wednesday home loss to Nice.)

With Leo Messi making a slow return to the club after winning the World Cup, and with PSG’s dominant recent history, they were always going to be in danger of succumbing to a short attention span. (And to be sure, this is a genuine run of poor play, not bad fortune — their xG differential since the restart was just +0.2 per match, 10th in the league, before Wednesday’s win.) But during Feb. 8-14, they will play ascendant Marseille and Monaco teams before hosting Bayern.

Wednesday’s win needs to end up the start of a surge. If it doesn’t, a tailspin could be just around the corner.

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