The European soccer season is a marathon. We freak out early over weird results and small sample sizes, only for the world to (mostly) right itself by Christmas. But once the calendar changes, we get a much better feel for what we should really be freaking out about.
Back in early January, I wrote a piece called the PANIC INDEX, in which I graded the big story lines and questions on a panic scale of 1 (remain calm, all is well) to 5 (oh god, oh god, oh god). It wasn’t rocket science, but the piece had a pretty good batting average: Manchester City was indeed about to surge to a double-digit Premier League lead, Chelsea‘s bad close-games luck has indeed begun to turn, and Spurs’ offense was indeed in trouble (until Gareth Bale was taken out of mothballs, anyway).
Now that we’re approaching the season’s final international break and the home stretch is on the horizon, it’s time to PANIC once again.
Should Bayern Munich panic about its transition defense?
Even in otherwise lovely results, the glitches have been hard to ignore.
– Up 4-0 on Lazio in the first leg of the Champions League round of 16, Bayern Munich let Joaquin Correa slice right through about six defenders into the middle of the box, where he easily knocked a shot past Manuel Neuer.
– Before they unleashed a 4-0 run on Der Klassiker rival Borussia Dortmund, they first had to fall behind 2-0 after BVB unleashed a perfect, three-pass combination into open spaces, finished by Erling Haaland.
– Up 3-0 against Werder Bremen on Saturday, they allowed a simple two-pass combination to beat five defenders and start a fast break that Niclas Fullkrug finished for a consolation goal.
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Bayern are four points clear at the top of the Bundesliga with nine matches to play; despite the fact that RB Leipzig have been able to make the eight-time Bundesliga champs sweat of late, Bayern remain favorites to win a ninth straight title. But after winning basically every trophy in existence in 2020 and early 2021 — Champions League, UEFA Super Cup, Bundesliga, DFB-Pokal, DFL-Supercup, FIFA Club World Cup — any sign of vulnerability is noteworthy, and like most heavyweights in this odd, compacted season, Bayern had more vulnerable moments than usual.
Almost none of them are on offense, mind you. They’re averaging 3.0 goals per match in the Bundesliga; no one else in Europe’s Big 5 leagues tops 2.4. With 32 goals in 24 matches, forward Robert Lewandowski has an excellent shot at breaking Gerd Muller’s previously-thought unbreakable 40-goal mark in Bundesliga play this year.
But the defense, impenetrable for much of the 2019-20 season, has been consistently glitchy.
The loss of Thiago, whose tactical fouls were extremely noticeable in the Champions League’s late rounds, has been apparent, particularly with the amount of lineup shuffling required in this pandemic season, and a back line that was perfectly simpatico last year has lacked cohesion: Jerome Boateng is a year older, David Alaba has struggled to match last year’s form and manager Hansi Flick has tried to figure out exactly what to do with Lucas Hernandez and Niklas Sule. (He’s been fielding the 6-foot-5 Sule at fullback, and it’s worked out quite nicely of late.)
Bayern have kept clean sheets in only two of seven Champions League matches and five of 25 Bundesliga matches. (And two of the five were against Schalke 044, which doesn’t really count.) Among FiveThirtyEight’s top 20 clubs, they are allowing the most league goals: 1.4 per match. This has already cost them in domestic play — allowing two goals to second-division Holstein Kiel in January set up a shocking penalty shootout loss in the DFB-Pokal, and their four-point lead over RBL could make April 3’s trip to Leipzig awfully big.
Surely this vulnerability will catch up to them in the Champions League, too, right? Possibly. But Bayern does still have one thing going for it in this regard: just about everybody else left in the competition is vulnerable, too.
Here are the key shooting stats — league play only — for the 12 remaining Champions League competitors over the last two months. (Teams in bold have already advanced to the UCL quarterfinals.)
A quick key: shot/poss = shots per possession, xG/shot = expected goals per shot and xGOT/SOT = expected goals for shots on target per shot on target (a post-shot xG type of average). Basically, these three measures look at shot quantity, shot value and shot placement.
Even with the glitches, Bayern is still only allowing 1.1 goals per league match in this period, almost identical to Atletico Madrid. Meanwhile, they’re scoring like Manchester City. Their offensive numbers are nearly unmatchable, and they’re not the only team offering particularly high-quality transition opportunities. They are vulnerable to counter-attacks like all high-line, possession-heavy teams, but they have an attack other teams would kill for.
PANIC RATING (1-5): 2. In this case, the 2 also stands for “second-favorite” — FiveThirtyEight gives them the second-best odds of winning the Champions League (18%), and Caesars by William Hill lists them as the No. 2 betting favorite (+300, equivalent to 25%). They have ceded the banner of favorites to Pep Guardiola’s Manchester City, but they are still nearly the most trustworthy entity remaining in the field, even if they gift you a goal or two at some point.
Should Paris Saint-Germain panic about maybe actually losing Ligue 1?
Outside of the Premier League, which itself rarely has a close race and is probably about to award its third title in four years to Manchester City, we haven’t exactly wrung much drama out of recent title races in Europe’s “Big 5” leagues. Bayern has indeed won eight titles in a row in Germany, Juve nine in Italy and either Barca or Real Madrid has won 16 of the last 17 La Ligas. While PSG doesn’t boast anything close to these clubs’ overall histories, they have won seven of the last eight Ligue 1 crowns with Qatar Sports Investments’ money in their account.
The only time since 2012 that the French title didn’t end up at the Parc des Princes was in 2017, when Kylian Mbappe helped to lead Monaco to a surprising title. PSG responded by acquiring Mbappe, winning the next three titles and finally breaking through to the Champions League final in 2020 as well.
COVID-19 diagnoses and injury problems have led to constantly shuffled lineups for PSG this season, however, and the past six months have seen a steady diet of “Okay, now they’re rolling” bursts, followed by another blip.
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Even a managerial change — from Thomas Tuchel to Mauricio Pochettino at the start of the calendar year — hasn’t stemmed the tide. In the last two months, they’ve lost to both 17th-place Lorient and 18th-place Nantes. They’re on pace for only 79 points, their lowest full-season point total since 2012, and even worse, their three biggest challengers for the league crown are all producing strong fundamental stats.
Current point totals: Lille 63, PSG 60, Lyon 60, Monaco 56
Points per game, last two months: Lille 2.4, Monaco 2.3, PSG 2.1, Lyon 2.0
xG differential, last two months: PSG +0.97, Lyon +0.95, Lille and Monaco +0.80
FiveThirtyEight gave PSG a 91% chance of winning Ligue 1 before the season began and still had them at 63% in mid-February. But those odds have fallen to just 38% — Lille are at 36%, Lyon 23% — and their European ranking has fallen to 16th, between Borussia Dortmund and Ajax.
There’s nothing specifically wrong — their attack is basically tied with Lyon for best in the league, their fundamental possession numbers are strong and they pressure the ball as well as anyone — but that almost makes things worse.
You can’t say “this right here is what they need to fix,” either; they just look like themselves right up until the moment they lose to a relegation contender.
PANIC RATING (1-5): 3. They’re still technically the favorite, if only slightly, and Neymar should return from an adductor injury soon. They’re still alive in both the Champions League and Coupe de France, and it’s hard to panic too much when a treble is still technically on the table. But the quality Lille, Lyon and Monaco have offered in recent months likely means there’s no margin for error here. Either Les Parisiens hit fifth gear soon, or they lose their domestic crown.
Should Atletico Madrid panic about its shrinking La Liga lead?
On Jan. 31, Diego Simeone’s Atletico pummeled Cadiz to win its 16th match of the league season in only 19 tries. Atleti had 50 points, 10 more than Real Madrid and with a game in hand. They were overachieving their expected goal figures in a reasonably foreboding way; there was reason to think at least a slight downgrade in form was coming, but with that lead, it didn’t seem it would matter. Even with FiveThirtyEight’s club ratings holding extreme fondness for Barcelona, it still gave Simeone’s squad a 60% chance of winning the league.
Following Saturday’s 0-0 draw with Getafe, those odds are down to 38%. A surging Barca is within four points, and after a seemingly endless array of late-game magic acts, Real Madrid is within six. Atletico have only lost once since Jan. 31 and twice total in league play, but they’re hemorrhaging points all the same, suffering draws with Celta Vigo and Levante and giving up a late goal to settle for a 1-1 draw with Real Madrid on March 7.
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You could make the case that Atletico’s problems are simple, relentless regression to the mean. Through Jan. 31, they were averaging 2.1 goals scored and 0.5 allowed, but their xG figures — 1.6 xG for, 1.0 xG allowed — suggested such regression was on its way. Since the Jan. 31 win over Cadiz, xG averages have shifted only slightly: 1.5 for, 1.2 against. But they’re scoring 1.3 and allowing 1.0. They were averaging an unsustainable 2.43 points in matches decided by zero or one goal; since 1/31, they’re averaging 1.67. For the season, their xG differential (+0.52 per match) ranks only fourth in the league.
They probably should have never been as comfortable as they appeared a few weeks ago.
Yet none of this would necessarily matter if Barcelona, in particular, weren’t smoking hot.
The Blaugrana haven’t lost in league play since Dec. 5, reeling off 44 of a possible 48 points. FiveThirtyEight’s algorithm ranks Barca second in Europe right now, and while you might think that seems odd considering their Champions League elimination, they’ve more than backed up those numbers in league play. In this supposed “disaster” of a season — Lionel Messi tried to leave, Ansu Fati‘s been hurt most of the season, Luis Suarez was sold to Atletico and they opened the season in torrid form, the financial numbers are horrifying, a rickety youth movement is underway — Barca has decent odds of pulling off a La Liga/Copa del Rey double all the same.
PANIC RATING (1-5): 4. The numbers have been against Atletico for a while, and to a degree, the schedule is too: they visit Sevilla on April 4, they play at Barcelona (May 9) and then go home to host a smoking hot Real Sociedad (May 12) back-to-back near the end of the season. Granted, we might see a couple more plot twists between now and May, but there is nothing to be comfortable about in the Wanda Metropolitano.
Should Dortmund, Leverkusen be worried about losing “second-best” status?
Borussia Dortmund has finished in the Bundesliga’s top four in eight of the past nine seasons; Bayer Leverkusen has finished fifth or better in nine of 10. BVB in particular needs Champions League money to hold onto its high-upside young roster corps (Erling Haaland, Giovanni Reyna, Jadon Sancho), but while they’ve rallied to within two points of fourth place, the road ahead is dicey because of one key thing: the quality of the usurpers.
Eintracht Frankfurt played in one of the most famous matches in European Cup (now Champions League) history, acquitting themselves well against an all-time Real Madrid squad in the 1960 finals but still losing, 7-3. Since then: zero appearances. They won the 1980 UEFA Cup (now Europa League), and they’ve had plenty of respectable runs in their history; they’ve finished in the upper half of the Bundesliga four times in the past six years as well. But they haven’t recorded a top-four finish since before the Champions League started offering more than one bid per league.
Following a rousing draw with RB Leipzig, however, their top-four bona fides are pretty strong, as are those of Wolfsburg, who haven’t finished in the top four since 2015. Along with Bayern and RBL, they’ve separated themselves from the pack in terms of recent play.
Current point totals: Bayern 58, RB Leipzig 54, Wolfsburg 48, Eintracht Frankfurt 44
Points per game, past two months: Bayern 2.5, RBL 2.3, Wolfsburg 2.3, Eintracht 2.1 (no one else is over 1.5)
xG differential, past two months: Bayern +1.41, RBL +1.07, Eintracht +0.89, Wolfsburg +0.49
Despite statistical solidity, Eintracht have leaked points of late, losing to Werder Bremen and drawing with VfB Stuttgart before the draw with RBL. Wolfsburg, meanwhile, have only been slightly ahead of a pack of other teams with its +0.49 xG differential over the last two months. (Borussia Dortmund: +0.44 in that span.) That’s kept the door open. But they have earned their top-four status to date.
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Borussia Dortmund has finished in the Bundesliga top four in eight of the last nine seasons; Leverkusen have finished fifth or better in nine of 10. BVB in particular needs Champions League money to hold onto its high-upside young roster corps, but while they’ve rallied to within two points of Eintracht, the road ahead is dicey.
PANIC RATING (1-5): 4. FiveThirtyEight gives Wolfsburg an 80% chance of snaring a Champions League slot, while Eintracht is at 56%, BVB 49% and Leverkusen 14%. Luckily for all of us, the schedule makers have provided a steady stream of huge bouts in the coming weeks….
April 3: Bayern Munich at RB Leipzig; Eintracht Frankfurt at Borussia Dortmund
April 10: Wolfsburg at Eintracht Frankfurt
April 17: Bayern Munich at Wolfsburg
April 21: Bayer Leverkusen at Bayern Munich
April 24: Eintracht Frankfurt at Bayer Leverkusen; Borussia Dortmund at Wolfsburg
May 15: Wolfsburg at RB Leipzig
May 22: Bayer Leverkusen at Borussia Dortmund
If the upstarts are to hold off the old standard and Bayern is to officially take down RBL to win another crown, it will all unfold on ESPN+ a little bit each weekend over the coming months.
Never mind the title race: should AC Milan panic about making the Champions League?
AC Milan didn’t suffer its first Serie A loss until Jan. 6. The Rossoneri were still in first place as late as Feb. 13. And while FiveThirtyEight’s ratings have favored rival Inter in the title race for a while, it still gave Milan a 23% chance in the race in mid-February.
Their title odds right now? Just 1%. Starting with a 2-0 loss to 15th-place Spezia, they’ve snared just seven points from their last six league matches. A 1-0 defeat to Napoli on Sunday dropped them nine points back of Inter and perhaps as importantly, it brought them to within six points of Napoli in fifth. Dreams of their first Scudetto since 2011 have all but vanished, but they have work to do just to ensure they get a Champions League bid.
If all Italian teams were to maintain their two-month points-per-game pace for the rest of the league season, here’s how the top of the table would look at the end of the season:
That is tight. Milan have to travel to Lazio (April 25), Juve (May 9) and Atalanta (May 23) in the final weeks of the season, and recent form suggests that Atalanta, Napoli and Lazio could all close in pretty soon if Stefano Pioli’s less-than-full-strength squad doesn’t turn things around.
While the team is playing well as a collective, individual absences have proven tough to overcome. Zlatan Ibrahimovic has been out since late-February with a muscle tear, midfielder Ismael Bennacer has been out since mid-February and recent signee Mario Mandzukic has recorded only 158 total minutes for his new club because of injury. Since this slide began on Feb. 13, only one player — defensive midfielder Franck Kessie — has scored more than once in all competitions, and he’s done all of his damage from the penalty spot. An actual forward hasn’t scored since Ibrahimovic’s brace against Crotone on Feb. 7.
PANIC RATING (1-5): 4. Milan’s comeback to draw 1-1 against Manchester United in the first leg of the Europa League round of 16 showed that they still have some fight in them, and the positive way of looking at the late-season schedule is that they’ll have every chance in the world to earn the points necessary for a top-four finish. But they’ve hit a skid just as top rivals have begun to step on the gas. They don’t have much time to find their rhythm again.
Should Everton panic over missing out on any European competition?
It’s been a season of spurts for Carlo Ancelotti’s Everton. The Toffees began the season with seven straight wins in all competitions, four straight in the Premier League. And every time a funk sent them backwards, a surge followed — three points in five matches, then 13 in five. Five points in six matches, then three straight wins.
They’re going to need another surge. After a win over West Brom on March 4 brought them back to fifth place, one point behind Chelsea for fourth with a game in hand, losses to Chelsea and Burnley have knocked them back to sixth. They’re still only five points out of fourth, and they still have that game in hand, but they’re also only five points up on 10th-place Aston Villa.
Here’s where I should mention that the predictive metrics HATE the Blues. FiveThirtyEight’s algorithm ranks them 12th in England, and they’ve put together their current sixth-place resume with an xG differential of minus-0.19 per match — good for 12th in the Premier League. Over the past two months, that has slipped to minus-0.42, 15th-best behind two teams currently in relegation spots (Fulham and West Brom).
This has been a “shot quality over quantity” team all year, ranking 15th in shots per possession (0.11) but first in xG per shot (0.14), but since January, these rankings have fallen to 17th and fourth, respectively. They have no real pressure game to speak of, and for the season, opponents have finished 44% of possessions in the attacking third to Everton’s 36%. Individual attacking brilliance has carried them during their aforementioned spurts, but since Jan. 1, Dominic Calvert-Lewin has scored only three goals, and James Rodriguez has missed five league matches and recorded just two goals and six chances created in the other eight. Richarlison did his best to pick up the slack, scoring in four straight matches at one point, but he’s otherwise come up empty in 2021.
PANIC RATING (1-5): 5. The metrics had been suggesting Everton would struggle to finish this race in England’s top four, but even a top-six finish (which would guarantee European competition of some sort) feels a bit optimistic at this point.
If they’ve got another spurt in them, it better come soon: after the upcoming international break, they host Crystal Palace on April 3, then visit Brighton on April 10 before four straight matches against teams also vying for European slots (Tottenham Hotspur, Arsenal, Aston Villa, West Ham). The darling of September will need a huge April to remain in the UEFA conversation.