The final international break of the season is drawing to a close and the European club season is coming to a close. It’s time for all those title races (or, more likely, battles for Champions League places) we’ve been talking about for months. We have a lot of games ahead of us with a high degree of consistency.
But outside of the big games or the ones that arouse great personal interest, we are approaching our last chances to see entertaining club football in the coming months. With that in mind, let’s talk about control. What are the top five European teams – the English Premier League, Spanish Primera Division, German Bundesliga, Italian Serie A and French Ligue 1 – that you can currently watch?
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To answer this question, I combined statistics and my own aesthetic preferences. Let’s review the criteria for observability:
- Quality (6%): That’s got to be kind of important, right? If you try to do them well but you’re not very good, it won’t be noticed. (Relevant category: points per game in championship).
- Shots and targets (36%): Traditionalists in any sport will always point out how good defense can be, how fun it can be, and how disruptive it can be when it’s overrated. While I’ve seen 0-0 games that I really liked ….. Come on. Shots and goals (and the things they create) are definitely fun, especially if you take them and allow them. (Relevant categories: goals scored, goals allowed, overall shot average, xG per shot and xG per shot allowed, percentage of assists from the offensive third)
- Pressure and intensity (25%): A big part of watching is knowing that the team you are watching is trying very hard. In football, this is often reflected in the intensity of the defense. There aren’t many effective and direct ways to measure, but there are many indirect ones, so I use several. (Relevant categories: Passes allowed per defensive action, opponent’s average pass per possession, possession starting in the offensive third, and, because the observation goes both ways, opponent’s possession starting in the offensive third).
- Slightly vertical (9%): In modern football, quality kicking is often the result of patience, slow build-up of play from behind, lots of horizontal passes, etc. But verticality – the ability to move forward and create the occasional fast break opportunity – is exciting. Add to that the team rewards, which create all of the aforementioned shooting abilities with a little more oomph. (Relevant category: Straight line speed, Stats Measurement of the number of yards of the team’s average forward motion sequence with the ball).
- Switches and feed-through couplings (2%): I’m just enjoying it! (Relevant categories: game changes and ball loss attempts per game).
- Voltage (7%): When you’re a few goals ahead or behind and the game is over, things quickly become unnoticeable, right? (Relevant category: percentage of games played by the team with a score of less than one goal).
- Big game entertainment (15%): Chelsea have scored twice each and conceded two goals in six games against Liverpool, Manchester United and Tottenham Hotspur. So far United have played a goalless draw against Chelsea (twice), Liverpool and Manchester City. Bayern Munich and RB Leipzig also played a goalless draw in February. Big games with intense, heavy teams often lead to tentative stalemates, especially in the Premier League. So let’s reward the teams that find ways to avoid that. (Appropriate benchmarks: goals scored and total goals scored against teams with an average of at least 1.5 points per game in the league – the best teams in the league).
Based on all of the above categories, weighted by my whimsy, I ranked each team in the Big Five Europe League on a scale of 0-10 in Viewability. Here are the irrefutable scientific results.
Do not look if you are not interested in the carrot (value: 0-1)
98. Cadiz (0.4)
97. Newcastle United (0.6)
I’m not going to say I calibrated this to make sure Newcastle are the least watched team in the Premier League….. But I’m not going to say I didn’t do it too.
96. Burnley (0.6)
95. Moose (0.6)
94. Genoa (0.7)
93. FC Augsburg (0.7)
Augsburg can sometimes set up nice counter-attacks, but they are not very effective against an intense defense, and those counter-attacks go a long time without shots.
92. Arminia Bielefeld (0.7)
91. Bordeaux (0.7)
90. Dijon (0.7)
89. Sheffield United (0.8)
88. Wolverhampton Wanderers (0.9)
Wolves sometimes make nice passes in attack and are regularly involved in evenly matched games, but this is balanced by a total lack of defensive pressure, verticality or, in many cases, scoring.
At least there’s football on TV, right? (Grade: 1-3)
87. Fulham (1.0)
86. Huesca (1,0)
85. West Bromwich Albion (1.0)
84. Udinese (1.1)
83. Parma (1.1)
82. FC Cologne (1.2)
81. Benevento (1.2)
80. Stade de Reims (1.4)
79. Osasuna (1.4)
Jagoba Arrasat’s team are to be congratulated: He knows what he’s talking about. Los Rojillos are arguably the most direct team in Europe, with a 2.2 average that, along with Cadiz, is the highest of the Big Five. They get points for that and for scoring on 90% of their ball possession with one goal lead. You lose points for, well, everything else. They don’t score many goals and don’t give up many, and that’s doubly true when they’re playing against a big opponent.
78. Real Valladolid (1.4)
77. Nantes (1.5)
76. Werder Bremen (1,5)
75. Crystal Palace (1.5)
74. Metz (2.0)
73. Arsenal (2.1)
Arsenal are generally a bit better this season, I’ve watched Wolves a bit more.
72. Corner (2.2)
71. Numbers (2.3)
70. Alaves (2.3)
69. FC Union Berlin (2,5)
68. Schalke 04 (2.7)
Can Schalke become the worst team in the big five? Yes. But, for better or worse, Schalke’s game will start with shots, goals and ball possession in dangerous areas. Maybe it’s because their opponents do most of it.
67. Strasbourg (2.8)
Can be fun, can be awful (Score: 3-6)
66. Everton (3.0)
65. Getafe (3.0)
64. Villarreal (3.2)
63. SC Freiburg (3.3)
62. Marseille (3.3)
61. Tottenham Hotspur (3.3)
60. Cagliari (3,4)
59. Hertha Berlin (3,7)
58. Lille (3.9)
The first real championship contender to appear on the list. Lille are averaging more than two goals per game thanks to an excellent attacking line with Burak Yilmaz, Canadian Jonathan David and American Timothy Ware (on the bench). But the defence is strong enough to limit the number of goals against, neither they nor their opponents produce regular strikers or breakthroughs, and in the big games they are more than happy to remain unproductive – they played 0-0 with Paris Saint-Germain in December, and did the same against a team from AC Monaco in mid-March.
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57. Sampdoria (4,2)
56. West Ham United (4.3)
55. Grenada (4.6)
54. Chelsea (4.8)
The Blues have clearly improved since the arrival of Thomas Tuchel at the end of January, but they are becoming less and less remarkable. They’ve only scored 10 goals in their last 10 league games… and only two allowed. Are you okay? Absolutely. Is it fun to watch? Not at all.
53. Brest (4.8)
52. Stade de Rennes (4.9)
51. Brighton & Hove Albion (4.9)
50. Croton (5.1)
49. Nice (5.2)
48. Saint-Etienne (5.5)
47. Bayer Leverkusen (5,6)
46. Fiorentina (5,6)
45. Atletico Madrid (5,6)
Atletico Diego Simeone has made the Atletico brand incredibly popular over the years. They scurry to protect you from the dust and eventually tackle you on the counter. Still, they’ve had their moments this season, averaging 1.8 goals per game and some really nice offensive moments (but not many). This extra attacking impetus helped them lead La Liga until the end.
44. VfL Wolfsburg (5.9)
Potential to enjoy is quite good (score: 6-8)
43. Mainz (6.0)
42. Eibar (6.0)
41. Valencia (6.2)
40. Spice (6.2)
39. FC Sevilla (6.2)
38. Ella Verona (6,2)
37. Lorient (6.3)
36. Southampton (6.3)
35. Naples (6,8)
34. Internazionale (6.9)
Inter are on their way to their first Scudetto in 11 years. They take a lot of good shots, play the ball well and provide solid defensive pressure, at least at times. The biggest factor is only on 34th. The space? They are one of the lowest integrity teams in Europe and when it comes to a big game, they like to play against the lowest common denominator, like Lille. They average 3.4 goals per season, but in games against good teams that average drops to 2.4. It worked well for them, but like I said, this list is about entertainment.
33. Athletic Bilbao (7.1)
32. Levante (7.2)
31. AS Roma (7.4)
30. Torino (7.5)
29. Real Betis (7,8)
28. Aston Villa (7.9)
Dean Smith’s side have dropped off a little after their fast start, but they are still just six points off the top six and have a lot to play for, especially with star defender Jack Grealish injured. They also play some of the freest games in Europe. Villa averages 27 shots, the eighth highest in the Big Five leagues, and while not all of those shots are of particularly high quality, there is a lot of aggression and verticality in Vlila’s game.
27. Real company (7,9)
26. Real Madrid (7.9)
25. Juventus (7.9)
Juventus failed to qualify for the last 16 of the Champions League and their chances of continuing their near-decade-long run in Serie A are slim, but Andrea Pirlo’s first year as coach has shown glimpses of genuinely fun and beautiful football, while the youth movement has slowly progressed. There were also enough defensive mistakes to make the games particularly enjoyable.
You’ll have a good time (Score : 8-9)
24. Leicester City (8.0)
23. Lazio (8.0)
22. Manchester City (8.1)
City score more goals than anyone else, they have a nice run of assists, and when they play against good teams, the goals go down – their games have an overall average of 2.8 goals in the Premier League, but games against particularly good teams average 3.1. These are all good things, but you can probably figure out what’s holding them back from an observational standpoint: Their games are not particularly close, and there is, by design, almost no verticality in their offense.
21. Bologna (8.2)
20. TSG Hoffenheim (8.2)
19. Celta Vigo (8.3)
Of the Big Five, there is no team that better combines high viewership with aggressive mediocrity (they are 11th in La Liga, averaging 1.2 points per game) than Eduardo Cude’s Celeste. They allow just 4.2 passes per opponent’s possession, and their 8.7 PPDA (passes allowed per defensive action) is also the lowest in this league. They try to make a healthy amount of walk-throughs, and when they play good teams, they don’t change anything. Sure, it’s not going great: in nine games against La Liga teams averaging 1.5 points per game or more, they’ve picked up just one point and gone 26-7, but that’s great for observers!
18. RB Leipzig (8.4)
17. Borussia Mönchengladbach (8,5)
16. Montpellier (8.7)
Schoten ? Montpellier is hitting an average of nearly 27. Verticality? Its straight-line speed is by far the highest in France. Open games against good teams? An average of 3.8 goals was scored in these games. La Paillade brushed aside Lyon, who are now just four points away from a European place in Ligue 1, thanks to an entertaining and entertaining match. They would be even higher if they tried some defensive aggression from time to time.
15. Objective (8.7)
14. Paris Saint-Germain (8.7)
13. Manchester United (8,9)
United are two very different teams this year. The former is an extremely healthy and productive team that can pass the ball around, score a lot, play a lot of turnovers, and apply a decent amount of defensive pressure. The other is a team that draws 0-0 against every good team. Of course, the latter team has had its moments of expansion too – a 2-1 win over PSG and a 5-0 win over RB Leipzig in the Champions League, 3-2 against Liverpool in the FA Cup, 2-0 against Man City. They are a very respectable team, leave aside future games against Chelsea.
Clean space on your plan that you always look at (Score: 9-10)
12. AS Monaco (9.0)
The loss of Niko Kovac was our gain: After being sacked by Bayern Munich in November 2019, he ended up at Monaco and turned the team into something incredibly fun. They have gone from 1.6 to 2.0 goals per game and have already scored 30 goals in 11 games this calendar year. They are fourth in Ligue 1, but only one point behind third place and a place in the Champions League.
11. Eintracht Frankfurt (9.0)
I picked Eintracht as a contender for the preseason in Europe, and that pick is looking solid right now thanks to an attack with some of the best players in Europe – and with former Eintracht star Luka Jovic returning on loan from Real Madrid in January – and a solid defense. We also have the occasional defensive breakdown.
10. VfB Stuttgart (9.1)
Newly promoted Swabia are perhaps the quintessential German team this year, with plenty of shots, occasional pressure and a sometimes mesmerising counter-attacking game. They record big totals against bad teams (5 against Schalke, 4 against Augsburg) and are sometimes outplayed against good teams (0-4 against Bayern, 2-5 against Leverkusen). You get goals one way or another.
9. Sassuolo (9.2)
They lost in the race for one of the European places in Serie A, but Neroverdi Roberto De Zerbi takes and runs the ball and they press the ball like everyone else in the league not called Juve. They are also an ideal average team: good enough to compete in close games against top and bottom teams. You can’t beat the excitement and the big goals.
8. Liverpool (9.3)
Bad news for Liverpool and their fans when all of the team’s central defenders were injured (Virgil van Dijk, Joe Gomes, Joel Matip, and even the hapless Jordan Henderson and Fabinho), but in terms of watching, the injuries and increased vulnerability made the Reds even more intriguing. They still have the defensive intensity you would expect from Jurgen Klopp’s team, but the weaknesses in the defence have helped opponents score high goals and there have been far more nip and tuck games than we could have hoped for. They probably won’t be any less interesting when they try to return to the table at the end of the year.
7. AC Milan (9.4)
Milan’s dreams of winning their first Scudetto since 2011 are over – Inter are six points clear with one game left to play, but this is still their best team in a long time, and a sexy one at that. They take a lot of good shots, they press with youthful energy (a lot of their minutes are given to players 24 and under), and sometimes they let a lot of shots go by. Serie A as a whole is much more worth watching than its old reputation, and Milan is a major reason why.
Bayern Munich is now at the top of the world. Getty
6. Leeds United (9.5)
It was easy to take anything away from Marcelo Bielsa’s Premier League team, and Leeds didn’t disappoint. They take and allow a lot of shots, they allow just 3.4 passes per opponent’s possession of the ball – the fewest of the Big Five – and they still try to throw haymakers, even if they are occasionally underthrown. They are not fighting for a place in Europe or to avoid relegation, but Leeds’ games will always be winnable.
5. Borussia Dortmund (9.6)
They still have Erling Haaland and Jadon Sancho (and Giovanni Reina, and Marco Reus, and Jude Bellingham, and …), so they’re certainly entertaining. And in the 2020-21 season, they will add bonus points for lagging in almost every game, which will make for many exciting endings.
4. Lyon (9.6)
Can you beat PSG in the Ligue 1 title race? Lyon is an obsession, and they’ve put on more great attacks than anyone else in France. They try a fair number of through balls that beat me, and they keep the gas on against good teams, for better or worse. Even after the 4-2 loss against PSG on the 21st. In March (as I said, pass gas!) they are only three points behind the defending champions, which means you should be following Lyon’s games for aesthetic reasons as well as their importance.
3. Barcelona (9.6)
Like Liverpool, Barca are vulnerable and therefore fun to watch all year round. They have alternated between a team capable of total domination – as in their 6-1 win over Real Sociedad at 21. March – and a team capable of losing four games at the start of the season and drawing against teams like Cadiz and Alaves. But they are fun and productive and always yield a sexy ball movement. Close follow-up.
2. Atalanta (9.7)
It’s not really news anymore, but Atalanta continues to play the most aggressively optimistic football of the Big Five. They pressure you, they try a lot of shots (and allow a lot of them), they move the ball vertically in a way that most richer clubs don’t. They remain a sight to behold and are in a good position to qualify for the Champions League again this year. Let’s hope manager Gian Piero Gasperini never leaves, and never changes.
1. Bayern Munich (9.8)
If you read the criteria above, you probably knew the reigning European champions would do well. Nobody scores more goals, almost nobody pushes the ball harder or allows less possession, and nobody is able to put good teams on the field instead of keeping it 0-0. And in the 2020-21 season, they even had the added bonus that their defense was rather spotty. Bayern are averaging 4.4 goals per game this season, no one else in the top division is averaging 3.6. Even though Bayern will probably win in the end, there will be fireworks and no match will be worth watching.