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Every year, we get definitive examples of why overreacting to what we see early in any given season is a fool’s errand. Remember when Tottenham were in first place in the Premier League (and Manchester City was in seventh) about one-third of the way through the 2020-21 season? Remember how City finished first (and Spurs finished seventh)? Remember how Arsenal began last season with three consecutive humiliating losses, then played at a top-three level from there? Remember how Bayern Munich was in seventh place at nearly the midpoint of the 2019-20 Bundesliga season, then didn’t lose again for more than nine months?
The soccer season is long and, thanks to the timing of the World Cup, the 2022-23 campaign will be the longest ever (pandemic delays aside). What we saw last weekend, as the Premier League, Bundesliga and Ligue 1 all got underway, will be mostly forgotten by the time we get to the finish line, as things will probably look about as we expected once we get there.
But even if we inherently understand this, it’s really fun to overreact. We made it through the offseason, we saw all the transfers (and rumored transfers) go whizzing by, and we thirsted for the first impression that last weekend gave us.
So let’s create a safe space. Below are six reflexive overreactions to what we just saw. They are grounded in truths — you’ll find no “Fulham to the Champions League!!!” or anything here — but they are small-sample overreactions all the same. Find me on Twitter, and share yours with me. We will not hold each other accountable for these opinions months from now.
Granted, this isn’t the boldest of opinions considering these two teams played in the Champions League final less than two calendar years ago. But over the past two years, PSG lost the Ligue 1 title in 2020-21, then, despite adding Lionel Messi — aka one of the best and most aesthetically appealing players of all time — proceeded to slog their way through a joyless 2021-22 title run and early Champions League exit. Bayern have remained excellent and watchable, but found themselves handcuffed in a Champions League quarterfinal loss to Villarreal, then lost Robert Lewandowski to Barcelona after a strangely public falling-out.
Despite obvious talent — PSG retained the services of Kylian Mbappe to give it another go with Messi and Neymar, while Bayern added Sadio Mane among others — there was reason to wonder if we would see the best version of either club this season…
… and yet, we saw it pretty much immediately. Bayern destroyed Eintracht Frankfurt, 6-1, creating an endless supply of excellent scoring opportunities against a team that won the Europa League in part by playing the Bundesliga’s version of strong defense. This came after a 5-3 win over RB Leipzig in Germany‘s Super Cup, during which the 10-time defending Bundesliga champs raced to a 3-0 lead before running into attention span issues in the second half.
In Lewandowski’s immediate absence, Bayern have scored 11 goals in two matches against what are likely two of the better defensive teams Germany has to offer. Mane and teenager Jamal Musiala have taken on a lot of the central attacking duties, scoring five times on 14 shot attempts (Musiala also recorded an assist against RBL), and old reliables Thomas Muller, Serge Gnabry and Leroy Sane have pitched in three more goals and five assists.
When the club made the media rounds during its preseason American tour, both fullback Alphonso Davies and club CEO Oliver Kahn expressed similar sentiments about a Lewandowski-less Bayern attack, suggesting that manager Julian Nagelsmann’s creativity and tactical prowess would assure the goal spigot remains open. “He’s gonna be missed on the pitch,” Davies said, “but I’m sure Julian has a plan in his head.”
“When you look at Nagelsmann,” Kahn added, “he’s a very tactically savvy coach. He has so many thoughts in his mind. Now we are very flexible. This could be hard for our opponents.” Thus far, that has proven an understatement.
PSG have been similarly rampant under Christophe Galtier, beating Nantes 4-0 for the Trophee des Champions, then walloping Clermont 5-0 in the Ligue 1 opener. Messi, fresh off maybe his worst finishing season of all time, has scored three goals on 10 shots. Neymar, coming off of a dismal-by-his-standards nine-goal and five-assist performance in Ligue 1 play, combined three goals with three assists in his first 180 minutes. He looks like he’s having an absolute blast, too.
Oh, and Mbappe hasn’t even played yet, nor have midfielders Renato Sanches (recently acquired from Lille) and Fabian Ruiz (soon to be acquired from Napoli). This isn’t even the full-strength version of what PSG should become, and they’ve outscored two domestic opponents by a combined 9-0.
Should Bayern and PSG be winning these matches? Of course. They are favored almost every time they take the pitch. But PSG fell to Nantes last spring, while Bayern and Eintracht split four goals in two matches last season. Even by their own standards, these early results have been jarring and impressive.
Relevant results for overreactions: Manchester City 2, West Ham United 0
Haaland averaged 1.1 goals per match for RB Salzburg and 1.0 for Borussia Dortmund. Two matches into his Manchester City career, the 6-foot-5 Haaland, acquired over the summer, is averaging… 1.0. After missing a couple of excellent chances in a Community Shield loss to Liverpool on July 30, he made up for it by earning and burying a penalty in the first half of his Premier League debut, then scoring on a patented breakaway in the second as City cruised to a 2-0 win over last season’s seventh-place finisher, West Ham.
And so it begins… 🇳🇴 pic.twitter.com/S73pd3wZTs
— Manchester City (@ManCity) August 8, 2022
We know about the supposed “Bundesliga tax” — the drop in production that tends to follow attacking players as they move from such a wide-open league to one that is a bit richer and more diverse in style. It’s probably unfair to expect Haaland to keep up the ridiculous and sustained goal-scoring form he established in Austria and Germany, but two matches — and against two of England‘s better defensive teams, no less — have already yielded six shots worth 0.24 xG or more in just 168 minutes, and he has been slightly unlucky to only score twice.
Haaland remains the biggest, fastest target you could possibly ask for, and he has some of Europe’s most creative passers — Kevin De Bruyne (who assisted Haaland’s second goal), Jack Grealish (one chance created for Haaland), Ilkay Gundogan (one), Bernardo Silva (one), Phil Foden (one) — setting up opportunities for him. That might be enough to avoid any sort of Bundesliga tax, and if it is? Lord help everyone else in the Premier League and Champions League.
The primary question moving forward is, even if Haaland really is this productive all year, how much does he actually improve City’s attack? In two matches against West Ham last season, the English champs averaged two goals and 25 shots worth 2.8 xG. Haaland’s City last weekend scored two goals from 14 shots worth 2.2. The shot quality went up, the shot quantity down. That will be interesting to track in the coming weeks; so too will Haaland’s potentially gaudy numbers.
Relevant results for overreactions: Newcastle 2, Nottingham Forest 0; Brighton 2, Manchester United 1
It’s always a bit funny when English fans roll their eyes and complain that the Bayern-dominated Bundesliga is too predictable to be interesting. The only real difference between the Premier League and Bundesliga is that the former has six super-rich superclubs compared with Germany’s one. Manchester City have won four of the past five Premier League titles, City and Liverpool have accounted for seven of eight top-two spots over the past four seasons, and in the past 10 years, England’s six biggest clubs — City, Liverpool, Chelsea, Arsenal, Tottenham Hotspur and Manchester United — have vacuumed up 53 of 60 spots in the year-end top six.
A bastion of parity, the Premier League is not.
Four of the Big Six comfortably won their first league matches of the season last weekend, and one that didn’t — a leggy-looking Liverpool, which drew against Fulham — was coming off of a brilliant performance against a fellow Big Sixer, City, in the Community Shield. It’s safe to say we know the pool of teams from which England’s four Champions League spots will be drawn.
Manchester United, however, began the season looking every bit the mess they resembled for much of last season. They lost 2-1 to Brighton in Erik Ten Hag’s managerial debut, creating minimal disruption without the ball and minimal danger with it. Even if Ten Hag ends up being a long-term success, it’s clearly possible that this roster might not be ready to do what he requires for a while longer.
Granted, even in a terribly messy state, United still snared sixth place last season. Such are the Big Six’s advantages over the rest of the league. But there’s a club aspiring to make this a Big Seven and it’s hard not to notice how good that team has looked, both over the second half of last season and in last weekend’s season debut.
Premier League points per game from Jan. 21 to the end of the 2021-22 season:
Manchester City, 2.31
Newcastle United, 2.06
Tottenham Hotspur, 1.90
Manchester United, 1.44
xG differential after the first match of 2022-23:
Manchester City, +1.74
Newcastle United, +1.46
Tottenham Hotspur, +1.09
Newcastle is in no way a rags-to-riches underdog tale. A LIV Golf for the Premier League, the club was officially taken over by Saudi Arabia‘s Public Investment Fund in October. It has gotten much better in a very short amount of time.
Newcastle have so far laid out around $185 million on seven players in the past two transfer windows, and five of them starred in the club’s 2-0 win over Forest last weekend. Granted, new goalkeeper Nick Pope and defender Dan Burn didn’t have a ton to do, but the wrecking-ball trio of full-backs Kieran Trippier and Matt Targett and defense-minded midfielder Bruno Guimaraes combined for eight chances created and a jaw-dropping 35 ball recoveries.
Newcastle had Forest fighting uphill all match, beginning possessions an average of 45.1 meters (49.3 yards) up the pitch (best of the weekend in the Premier League) to Forest’s 26.6 (worst) and commanding 81% of the match’s touches in the attacking third. The 2-0 final score was kind to the visitors.
Now, Forest might end up the worst team in the league this season. As exciting as it has been to see them climb back into the top division for the first time since 1999, the Reds earned promotion with a lot of loanees and are still in the process of putting a genuine Premier League roster together. Newcastle should have controlled this match anyway, but what we saw Saturday was a continuation of what we saw for much of the second half of last season.
With the World Cup providing a disruption in the coming months, and with many of the top clubs potentially watching their most important players adding extra miles during the competition in Qatar, Newcastle might not have that many players involved, which could mean they are particularly well-positioned to make a move on the rest of the Big Six this season.
Heart-warming? No. Potentially happening all the same? Yes.
Start slowly, then charge. It’s been the Monaco way of late. They lost six times in their first 15 Ligue 1 matches in 2020-21, then lost only two of their final 23 on the way to a third-place finish. Last season, they were in 10th place in late March before winning nine straight to again finish third.
The slow starts have been costly — forced into the Champions League qualification playoff, they lost to Shakhtar Donetsk in extra time last season and were just eliminated by PSV Eindhoven in extra time this season. They will again compete in the Europa League because they couldn’t find their top form until it was too late for a top-two finish, but the underlying numbers we’ve seen from their first three matches suggest both that (a) they could already be in prime form this year and (b) even if they drop some points that they shouldn’t, they are going to be ridiculously watchable.
For starters, they controlled large swaths of their two-legged tie with PSV, generating 4.4 xG from 45 shots while allowing just 1.6 from 19. PSV made the most of the chances it created, but that’s a tie Monaco wins far more often than not. In between those PSV matches, they looked brilliant against a Strasbourg squad that finished a healthy sixth in the league last season. The score was merely 2-1, but they were again a fountain of high-quality chances, generating 2.8 xG from 24 shots while allowing just 0.8 from 11.
That’s a +4.8 xG differential in just three matches. Star Wissam Ben Yedder (1.2 xG, one goal, two chances created) has been solid, newcomer Breel Embolo has been a chance-creation machine (seven shots worth 0.7 xG, six chances created) and youngsters Youssouf Fofana (23) and Sofiane Diop (22) have been chaotic in all the best ways: nine shots worth 1.33 xG, one goal, 11 chances created and 36 ball recoveries.
Maybe finishing remains an issue as it has been out of the gate, and maybe that holds the club back. But Monaco matches are going to be extremely entertaining this season. And if the opening weekend is any indication, that might go for all of Ligue 1.
As fun as Monaco-Strasbourg was to watch, it was one of the league’s least-prolific matches: PSG’s 5-0 win over Clermont was one of five matches that produced five combined goals. Marseille (over Reims) and Lille (over AJ Auxerre) won 4-1 decisions, while Montpellier (over Troyes) and Lens (over Brest) won by 3-2 margins. Scoring has increased for two consecutive years in Ligue 1 — it was at 1.4 per team per match last season — and early indications suggest the streak might reach three seasons pretty easily.
Relevant results for overreactions: Union Berlin 3, Hertha Berlin 1
I spent much of the offseason writing about the Bundesliga and how all of last season’s best non-Bayern teams (Borussia Dortmund, Bayer Leverkusen and RB Leipzig) all look like they could improve over their 2021-22 form. BVB and RBL have both made intriguing additions, while RBL and Leverkusen both made a concerted effort to keep most of last season’s attacking stars. Per FiveThirtyEight, they are all projected favorites to reach next year’s Champions League just as they did this year.
Even after last season’s fifth-place finish, Union Berlin entered this season with just a 16% shot at the Champions League. Sixth-place Freiburg was at 14%. Even in the midst of basically professing my love for Union in a recent piece, I also noted the role gravity tends to play on upstarts punching above their weight.
But the more we doubt these clubs, the better they play.
Union began this season with yet another manhandling of rival Hertha in the Berlin derby, their fourth straight derby win. They scored twice on beautiful transition goals — one for newcomer Jordan Pefok on an assist from Sheraldo Becker, one for Becker on an assist from Janik Haberer — and finished things off with a set-piece score. Meanwhile, their defense was as unforgiving as ever, allowing just seven shot attempts, only one of which was worth more than 0.05 xG. It was the prototypical Union win; the recipe could work quite well for another season.
Speaking of prototypes, Freiburg led the league in set-piece goals last season and scored a pair of them in a season-opening 4-0 blowout of Augsburg. Despite losing star Nico Schlotterbeck to Borussia Dortmund, they played typically stingy Freiburg defense — Augsburg attempted 11 shots, none worth more than 0.12 xG — and veteran Matthias Ginter, the presumed Schlotterbeck replacement, not only contributed well in defense but scored a goal as well.
Meanwhile, RBL sputtered out of the gate with a 1-1 draw against Stuttgart (albeit one in which they held a solid xG advantage), and Bayer Leverkusen has begun the season with massive defensive issues: They lost 4-3 to third-division Elversberg in a DFB-Pokal upset, and they were lucky to allow only one goal to Borussia Dortmund in their 1-0 league-opening loss. If either of those clubs suffers a prolonged glitch, steady, reliable Union and Freiburg could be best positioned to take advantage. They do what they do very well.
Relevant results for overreactions: Fulham 2, Liverpool 2
In 2018-19, Fulham was relegated from the Premier League, while Norwich City was promoted from the Championship.
In 2019-20, Fulham was promoted and Norwich was relegated.
In 2020-21, Fulham was relegated and Norwich was promoted.
In 2021-22, Fulham was promoted and Norwich was relegated.
It’s comforting to have constants in life, and Fulham and Norwich have provided just that. One goes up and the other goes down, without fail.
This year, the streak could very well end. For starters, Norwich has started its latest second-division season poorly, pulling one point from two league matches and losing to Birmingham City in the EFL Cup. (American forward Josh Sargent: 99 minutes, three shot attempts worth 0.11 xG, no goals.) More noteworthy, however, was Fulham’s tit-for-tat home performance against mighty Liverpool on Saturday. Aleksandar Mitrovic scored twice, and Fulham generated nine shots worth 1.3 xG to Liverpool’s 11 shots worth 1.2.
Granted, a pretty light penalty accounted for a majority of Fulham’s xG total, and Darwin Nunez‘s performance for Liverpool off the bench — 4 shots worth 0.6 xG, 1 goal and 1 assist in just 39 minutes — was excellent enough that it’s easy to see the result flipping in the Reds’ favor if he plays a full 90 minutes. But this is only so much about the result itself. Fulham genuinely looked the part of a Premier League team, playing with confidence and coaxing mistakes from a Liverpool team that didn’t make many of them last season. They pressured the ball well in the midfield and won 62% of ground duels. And most importantly, Aleksandar Mitrovic looked fantastic.
Mitrovic has been part of two first- and two second-division seasons with Fulham, and like Fulham, he has been two completely different entities at the two levels. In two Premier League seasons, he scored just 14 goals in 64 matches; in two in the Championship, he scored 69 in 84. Forty-three of those came in a breakout season in 2021-22, and he as much as anyone needed a strong, confident start to 2022-23. Mission accomplished.
Fulham’s next two matches are away to Wolves, which lost to Leeds to start the season, and home against Brentford, which rallied to draw with Leicester City. If they continue this confident start by pulling three to four points from those two matches as well, they will be in even better shape when it comes to avoiding a dour, full-season relegation battle. It’s been a while.