Aston Villa 7, Liverpool 2. Leicester City 5, Manchester City 2. Tottenham Hotspur 6, Manchester United 1. Hoffenheim 4, Bayern Munich 1.
The early weeks of the 2020-21 European soccer season have produced more than their fair share of “Wait, WHAT?” results.
With the transfer window closed and clubs on an international break, it’s a good chance to look at some of the heavyweights that have faced shocks and diagnose who might have actual problems and who just suffered, well, a shock.
Say it with me: “16th-place Manchester United.” Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s Red Devils are lucky to have three points after three matches: They sandwiched thorough defeats to Crystal Palace (3-1) and Spurs with a wacky 3-2 win over Brighton that featured a game-winning penalty in the 10th minute of second-half stoppage time. While most of the teams in this piece are dealing with one particularly poor result, United have yet to produce a particularly encouraging one in league play.
United was a difficult team to get a read on at the end of last season. The attack got a clear boost from the January addition of Bruno Fernandes, but its production was also artificially high due to an unsustainable number of penalties won and a level of finishing from Mason Greenwood that was probably too good to continue. Meanwhile, though the defense was seen as the weak point by many analysts and fans, United were fourth in the league in shots allowed per possession, third in xG allowed per shot and third in actual goals allowed.
There were some obvious regression factors that were going to make a United title run difficult — penalties, Greenwood regression to mean, advantages in set pieces and save percentages that were going to be hard to maintain — but the lineup appeared stable, the roles well-defined.
Yet United are a much easier team to read at the moment: They stink.
The offense has regressed a little in predictable ways, but the defense has completely fallen apart. They’ve gone from allowing mostly mediocre shots to allowing excellent ones (0.16 xG per shot, 17th in the league) and, more importantly, opponents are going from shooting a little to shooting all the damn time (0.21 shots per possession, most in the league by far).
Last year, they allowed an average of 2.6 shots per match with a value of at least 0.1 xG. This year, they’re allowing 5.7. Worse, these high-value shots are coming about in a lot of ways. Each of United’s opponents has earned a penalty so far, which is both obviously unsustainable and a sign of sloppiness. But we’ve seen all three opponents create danger with transitions, too — Spurs scored twice in transition situations, while Brighton hit the crossbar on a quick counter. (With the work they did against Brighton, the posts have been United’s best defender so far this season.)
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The most worrisome development, however, is how easily opponents are creating danger in open-play situations. This was where United thrived last year, but both Palace and Spurs scored from simple “stretch the defense, then send in a good cross” sequences, and all three opponents created good scoring chances with sharp diagonal passing that took advantage of slow-footed defending.
Mark Ogden reflects on the current predicament in the centre-half position at Man United.
Who’s to blame for this suddenly shoddy defending? Basically everyone.
Central defender Harry Maguire was last seen accidentally throwing his own teammate to the ground in the hapless sequence before Spurs’ first goal on Sunday; he has been a step slow and lucky to not add to United’s total of penalties conceded with a string of late tackles. Left-back Luke Shaw was last seen receiving a yellow card late against Spurs for the most blatant, tactical, “this match is over, and I’m tired of chasing this guy” tackle you’ll ever witness. Defensive midfielders Nemanja Matic and Fred have done next to nothing to stop opponents from setting up shop in the attacking third, and Paul Pogba, well … good luck finding an individual stat that suggests anything other than massive regression from him so far.
Paul Pogba in 2020-21:
Pass attempts: down from 77 (per 90) in league play last year to 55
Touches in the middle third: down from 56 (per 90) to 45
Pass percentage into the middle third: down from 88% to 79%
Pass percentage into the attacking third: down from 78% to 73%
Chances created: down from 2.2 per 90 to 0.0
The only increases Pogba’s stats have seen are in tackle attempts (up from 0.6 per 90 to 1.6) and fouls committed (up from 0.8 to 1.6). Those aren’t good increases. If your eyes are telling you he seems a step slow in every possible way, you’ve got a high volume of data to back that up.
So are Pogba, Maguire, Shaw, Matic, Fred & Co. all suddenly terrible and washed up? Probably not. We’re at the start of what will be one of the most demanding seasons ever in terms of match volume and congestion, and the offseason lasted approximately an hour and a half. (OK, about a month for United.) Lots of stars have begun the season in sluggish fashion, and levels of play are simply going to be more volatile at the moment.
Stewart Robson has his say on Man United signing 33-year-old Edinson Cavani.
All of United’s struggling stars will likely rebound at some point moving forward, and the addition of Porto fullback Alex Telles gives them another option for figuring things out in the back. But when will said progression to the mean begin? When play resumes after the international break? Later? Will Solskjaer get fired before things turn around?
Perhaps most importantly, how many points will the team drop before the rebound begins?
They’ve already dropped six in three matches and on average, you only get to drop about 40-45 over 38 games if you want to qualify for the Champions League. Obviously all goals still remain on the table this year, but it isn’t that long until some start to become somewhere between unrealistic and impossible.
Concern level: 8 out of 10. There’s no statistical fluke here — United is 19th in the league in xG differential — and there’s no tactical quick fix for “almost everyone is playing poorly.”
Because of its elite level of haplessness against Spurs, United got to be the headliner for this piece. But their derby mates, Manchester City, had what seemed like more realistic title dreams themselves this year and have already dropped five points in three matches. They dropped only 14 points all season during their 2017-18 title run.
Pep Guardiola’s fifth City team — this is officially the longest he’s ever been in one job — has given three distinct impressions in three matches.
— They were both possession-dominant and physical in a 3-0 dismantling of a Wolves team that swept them last season.
— They hogged the ball (72% possession) against Leicester City, but got sliced up in every possible way in transition, conceding three penalties in a 5-2 loss.
— Justifiably wary of the transition game deployed by Guardiola’s onetime mentor Marcelo Bielsa and Leeds United, City played without the ball far more than usual, possessing the ball just 49% of the time and completing fewer passes (319 to 356), an extreme rarity in the Guardiola era. They led for 42 minutes but settled for a 1-1 draw.
On average, City continue to become a more exaggerated version of themselves.
They are pressuring the ball as well as ever, starting eight more possessions per match in the attacking third than their opponent and lowering their passes allowed per possession (PPDA) average from 10.1 last season to 9.9. They are finishing an even higher proportion of possessions in the attacking third than they did last year, and they’re allowing opponents to finish even fewer there. But their shot quality is down considerably — their 0.10 xG per shot average is fourth worst in the league (the effects of losing David Silva, perhaps?). Plus, last season’s biggest weakness, opponent shot quality, has become even more of one: They allowed a league-worst 0.14 xG per shot last season, and it’s currently at 0.24 through three games.
Frank Leboeuf doesn’t mince words when criticising Benjamin Mendy’s defensive abilities.
Again, progression to the mean is coming, as are reinforcements — City signed AFC Bournemouth center back Nathan Ake in August, and brought in Benfica center back Ruben Dias late in the transfer window. At some point, Guardiola might find the right combination of parts he’s been searching for at the back for quite some time. But against a Premier League that has raised its collective transition game considerably, Guardiola seems to be going through a bit of an identity crisis, fiddling with an even larger array of strategies than normal and failing to settle on one that fixes all that ailed the Cityzens last year.
Concern level: 6. City has only once looked truly bad, but Oct. 17’s match against Arsenal could quickly send this to a 7 or 8.
Now we get to teams in far less overall peril, or whatever constitutes “peril” some three to four league matches into the season.
Bayern’s 4-1 loss to Hoffenheim a week and a half ago was jarring, but it was also their first loss since last December. And it came at a time in which the team was rotating its starters between midweek wins over Sevilla (UEFA Super Cup) and Borussia Dortmund (DFL-SuperCup). Still, their defense has been an issue like it has for many possession-heavy teams across Europe.
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After the Hoffenheim loss, they needed three goals to beat Dortmund and four to beat Hertha Berlin at home. They’ve allowed 10 goals in three matches, which is a warning sign if nothing else. All three teams were able to force turnovers in dangerous areas of the pitch and score in transition — something that almost never happened during Bayern’s months-long winning streak — and both Hoffenheim and Hertha scored on set pieces as well.
The champions’ organization was impeccable last season, though it’s showing shown some cracks. If you read into Bayern’s late activity in the transfer market — they acquired Marseille right-back/utility player Bouna Sarr, Espanyol midfielder Marc Roca and PSG forward Eric Maxim Choupo-Moting, also bringing in Juve’s Douglas Costa (a one-time Bayern employee) and Benfica’s Tiago Dantas on loan — it appears they intend to employ a large rotation all year. That makes sense with the number of fixtures they’ve got, but it’s probably not going to help with communication issues.
Concern level: 3. One assumes Bayern will still field its A-team at key times, and after last year, when Bayern was seventh after 14 matches and roared back to win the league, it’s hard to worry about a single loss.
ESPN FC’s Gab Marcotti explains why Liverpool could be considered the winners of the transfer window.
The season started beautifully for the defending Premier League champs. After winning a frantic 4-3 decision over Leeds in the opener, they beat Chelsea and Arsenal by two goals each, securing six points from two potential title contenders.
Then, last week, things fell apart. Keeper Alisson Becker suffered a shoulder injury, and wingers Sadio Mane and Xherdan Shaqiri and new acquisition Thiago all tested positive for the coronavirus. The Reds bowed out of the League Cup with a shootout loss to Arsenal, then got absolutely smoked by Aston Villa 7-2. Their shot quality shrank a little last week, their shot volume regressed quite a bit, and after a miscue from backup keeper Adrian led to Villa’s first goal inside the opening five minutes, everything fell apart defensively for the champs.
Assuming those with positive COVID-19 tests return to full health without complications — a reasonably safe, though not iron-clad proposition — there doesn’t seem to be anything wrong with the makeup of the squad. The defense has been fine for two of four league matches (and the Reds were unlucky against Leeds from an xG perspective), winger Mohamed Salah has been otherworldly, and the additions of Thiago, Wolves winger Diogo Jota and Olympiakos full-back Kostas Tsimikas should establish both depth and play-making in needed areas.
Concern level: 3. Losing a single league match is not the end of the world, though it does make their Oct. 17 battle at Everton, their biggest derby match in years, awfully important.