We'd be nearly half done if the European soccer season was like an NFL football season. Arsenal's 0-3 start would have ended Arsenal's playoff hopes. Five points from Juventus in five matches would have sent the Bianconeri into the wild-card race. American football is over in a flash.
European soccer is clearly very different. The Jacksonville Jaguars are not stuck in a relegation fight at the moment. Another reason is that the league season lasts nearly 40 matches. Although a slow start could hurt your chances of winning your league title, you still have plenty of time to make it back in contention. Manchester City, the defending Premier League champion, dropped 16 points in their first 12 matches. They were stuck in 14th in November and went on to win the league.
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Although there isn't likely to be a Manchester City among this season's slow starters, quite a few teams with big goals have started the year in a rut. Let's take a look at eight teams who entered the season with European ambitions or something similar, but have struggled to make it through. We'll be comparing each team's current season projections using FiveThirtyEight’s SPI with the position they were at the start of the season.
Jump to: Juventus | Monaco | Arsenal | Leeds | RB Leipzig | Leicester | 'Gladbach | Villarreal
Juventus (Italian Serie A)
So far: 5 matches, 5 points, -1 goal differential
Projection: Seven points down from 74 (second) in the start of the season to 65 (fifth).
Juventus was in serious trouble late Wednesday night. They started the day 11 points behind Inter Milan in the Serie A race. They had taken only two points from four matches and found themselves trailing host Spezia (last year's 15th-placed team) 2-1 after the 60-minute mark.
Federico Chiesa will likely be the one to turn the season around for Max Allegri's team if it does. He took on several defenders to get the ball into the box. After playing a quick pass with Alvaro Morata and splitting two more defenders, he scored the goal. Juve was saved six minutes later by Matthijs de Ligt, a defender.
They won 3-2 but it didn't change the ship. They're still eight points behind, outscored this season and still haven't won a league game in 60 years. If Chiesa can create more such moments, and if the star turn that he's had over the past 12 months continues, he might be able to drag Juve up with him.
Although Juventus beat Spezia on Wednesday to stop a slide in the league, Paulo Dybala & Co. must fix their midfield quickly if Serie A is to be regained. Andrea Staccioli/Insidefoto/LightRocket via Getty Images
In 467 minutes, Chiesa has scored three goals while Morata has created 18 chances (one assist) and had 18 chances. Although they have been great on a touch basis, it has been difficult to get enough touches in dangerous areas and other attackers like Paulo Dybala or Moise Kean. A messy midfield is the main culprit. Manuel Locatelli, Star Sassuolo's new addition, is still integrating -- he currently has 0.93 expected goals or assists (xG+xA), in 250 minutes -- Allegri has played eight different middlefielders between 161 to 302 minutes.
This unit was a defense against the opposition's attacks. They had allowed 51% (the highest percentage in Serie A) of opponents possessions to end up in the attacking third before Wednesday's match against Spezia. They were therefore closer to their goal than any other team when they received the ball back. Ask any NFL coach how difficult it is to win when you are losing the battle for field position.
Juve still have a very limited presence at the front. You would expect your goal-scoring prowess and pressing ability to shrink when Cristiano Ronaldo is allowed to leave Juve. This has not been the case. Opponents are allowed to freely move into potentially dangerous areas when they take possession. Juve have allowed opponents to take far more shots than they attempted. This has made it difficult for them despite solid individual attacks and some buildup.
FiveThirtyEight gives them a 40% chance of qualifying next year for the Champions League. This is down from 67% at beginning of the season. The dropped points will continue until the defense and especially the midfield defense start obstructing other players more.
AS Monaco (French Ligue 1)
So far: 7 matches, 8 points, -2 goal differential
Projection: From 68 (second) at season's beginning to 54 (fourth), down seven points
It was not surprising that Lille, the defending champions of Ligue 1, have struggled to get out of the gate. Their 2-1 win against Reims on Wednesday brought them to eight points in seven matches. Les Dogues went through a managerial overhaul and saw more of their proven talent leave (Mike Maignan, Boubakary Sumare) than they received.
Monaco, by contrast, enjoyed a solid level of consistency. They finished the 2020-21 season playing as well, or better than Lille and Paris Saint-Germain. Manager Niko Kovacs was back for a second year. They lost full-back Benjamin Henrichs, but they did bring in a few fun, young players in AZ's Myron Boadu, and Lyon's Jean Lucas.
The French Riviera team also loaned goalkeeper Alexander Nubel from Bayern Munich. However, he has had the most difficult start to his season. He has had 19 goals on goal, which is 6.1 xGOT. He has also allowed 10 goals, which has seen his save percentage drop to a level seldom seen in Europe's Big 5 leagues. This is worse than the 2019-20 Chelsea Kepa Arrizabalaga experience.
Monaco allowed the least number of shots per possession in Ligue 1. Their xG differential, +0.45, ranks sixth. It is not what you would expect but it is not terrible. Unfortunately, the +0.45 xG becomes a goal differential that is minus-0.67 per game.
Kovacs has tried many different formations. Monaco's possession rate is 61.5%. Monaco could climb back up the league table if Nubel regains his confidence and gets more bounces. Maybe that is what happened with Wednesday's 3-1 win over Saint-Etienne (10-man). Saint-Etienne won despite scoring on a shot that was only 0.16 xGOT. If your opponents find it difficult to score, you won't qualify for the Champions League.
Arsenal (English Premier League).
So far: 5 matches, 6 points, -7 goal differential
Projection: Six points down from 60 (fifth) in the start of the season to 54 now.
Arsenal finished eighth, which kept them out all European competitions. This was despite their grudging youth movement. FiveThirtyEight still projected them as fifth, which would have been enough to get them into the Europa League.
Their projection is now lower than last year's after just five matches. Although the Gunners won two matches in a row, it is not enough to make a turnaround after a terrible three-match losing streak. A pair of wins by the Gunners is a welcome relief after losing the first three matches by 9-0.
Play 1:40 Arsenal's victory vs. Burnley is 'a step forward' for Arteta Shaha Hislop, who debates whether Arsenal has turned a corner after their back-to-back victories in the Premier League.
Arsenal continues to suffer from severe shot quality issues. They are seventh in the Premier League for shots per possession but last in xG per shoot and post-shot (xGOT/SOT) Poor execution and bad fortune have plagued them. Although the xG numbers are terrible, Nicolas Pepe and Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang, EmileSmith-Rowe, and Bukayo Saka combined have shot shots worth 4.2 xG, but they have only scored once. This should change over time.
Even worse, opponents are not having the same problems: Arsenal ranks 16th in shots per possession, 17th for xG per shot, and again dead last in xGOT/SOT. Arsenal players have failed to make good shots on rare or difficult shots, while opponents (at least the first three) have made many high-quality shots. This is a terrible combination.
A few close wins can boost confidence, but the finishing should be there at some point. Arsenal has one problem: Who are they? They are not a pressure team. They rank 17th in defensive passes allowed (PPDA), and they play in a zone where passivity is the norm, alongside teams like Newcastle, Watford, Burnley, Norwich, Newcastle, and Watford. They have almost no possessions in their attacking third. In fact, they've had opponents enjoy far more touches in this zone (197.0 per match to 162.6).
They are not a possession team. Their possession rate is 56% when tied but 47% when ahead and 37% when behind. They won't let the ball go to the other team, even when they need it.
They are not an offensive, counter-attacking team. They rank 15th in Stats Perform’s direct speed measure. This measures the distance the ball travels when measured directly upfield, divided by the time it takes to complete a sequence. They scored two goals from possessions with eight passes. Saka and Smith-Rowe are good examples of players who can play more directly. There is no urgency and 93% of their shots have been made with at least two defenders between the goal and shot. A higher percentage has been attempted by Burnley.
This section was too full of Burnley comparisons for a team like Arsenal. At least Burnley knows what they are.
Leeds United (English Premier League)
So far: 5 matches, 3 points, -3 goal differential
Projection: Six points down from 50 (11th) at season's beginning to 44 (14th).
Marcelo Bielsa's Leeds was easily one of the most memorable stories of the 2020-21 season. Leeds was all sprint in a campaign that saw a lot of fixture congestion. Everyone seemed to be trying to keep track of their effort and spend as much time in third gear as possible. Leeds' 9.3 passes per defensive act (PPDA) was the lowest in the Premier League. They also had the most possessions per match at 101.7. They kept their opponents to just 3.5 possessions and were constantly challenging (76.2 ground duels per match was third).
They finished ninth in the Premier League's first season after a 16-year hiatus. They didn't enter the season as Champions League hopefuls, like Arsenal, but they were open to the Europa League or Conference League.
Raphinha, Leeds appear to have lost some the speed and energy that defined their 2020-21 season. Are they capable of regaining their energy and rediscovering their attacking flair? Mike Egerton/PA Images via Getty Images
While the DNA is the same, the results have changed. They are still at a solid 10.9 PPDA, third in the league. Their 101.2 possessions remain the highest and they allow opponents only 3.6 passes per possession. They're losing ground duels (69.4) but are still winning many (55%, second in league).
It has been much harder to turn this intensity into scoring opportunities. It's becoming more difficult to convert this intensity into scoring chances for Rodrigo and Jack Harrison.
Rodrigo had an average of 0.61 xG+xA for 90 seasons, while Harrison had 0.37. They are currently at 0.36 and 0.10 respectively, according to their averages. Although Leeds still attempt as many shots last year (0.14 shots per possession in both seasons), they have improved their xG per shot from 10th to 19, and their xGOT/SOT from 8th to 17th. Although forward Patrick Bamford was a star for 2020-21, his shot quality has declined slightly (from 0.18 to 0.15 xG per shot) and he has only one goal in five matches after scoring 17 goals last season.
Bielsa is a soccer encyclopedia and almost certainly has many ideas on how to un-muck midfield. Leeds is finding it much more difficult than many other teams in their second Premier League season.
RB Leipzig (German Bundesliga)
So far: 5 matches, 4 points, -1 goal differential
Projection: Five points down from 64 (third place) at the start of the season, to 59 (third).
His chances of success were high when Jesse Marsch was promoted to Leipzig manager from RB Salzburg. Although his Salzburg team was not able to progress in the Champions League, they still took four points from Lokomotiv Moscow. They also had Bayern tied in Salzburg after 75 minutes, and Atletico Madrid tied in 80. After Julian Nagelsmann had made them a more controlled possession team, he wanted to bring the "gegen" back to RBL and increase their energy.
A frenetic team that is press-heavy and has a strong defensive line is a good example of a solid defensive line. High levels of chemistry are also required. They lost Nagelsmann to Bayern and Dayot Upamecano, a defender. Marcel Sabitzer, a midfielder, also left the club late in the summer transfer window. Ibrahima Konate went to Liverpool. Marsch tried to do a personnel chemistry experiment and also installed a low margin-for-error style.
play 1:43 Is Jesse Marsch already in trouble at RB Leipzig? Herculez Gomez sheds light on RB Leipzig’s slow start in the Bundesliga season.
Retrospectively, it was reasonable to expect a slow start, since the glitches have been just too costly. RBL is sixth in the Bundesliga for shots per possession. However, they are 16th among 18 teams in xG per shot. Borussia Dortmund, another possible German contender, ranks worse in terms defensive breakdowns but has Erling Haaland leading an attack that rescues them.
Marsch is now home to two more newcomers, forward Andre Silva (right) and Dominik Zoboszlai (left), who are still getting used to their new roles. RBL's attack against organized teams has been inconsistent and their defense has become a mess. They allowed 10 goals to Bayern Munich, Manchester City and 10 to Dominik Szoboszlai in just 180 minutes.
This all seems to work in theory. RBL may have more young talent, despite the summer raiding of big clubs. Szoboszlai's two goals and nine chances were created by Szoboszlai, while Christopher Nkunku created 10 chances and scored the hat trick in Champions League against City. RBL may ignite if Dani Olmo, the attacking midfielder, gets his sea legs back following a busy summer. How many points will they have lost by that time? Marsch will still be employed?
Leicester City (English Premier League).
So far: 5 matches, 6 points, -3 goal differential
Projection: From 57 (seventh place) at the start of the season, to 52 (10th), it is down five points.
After starting quickly, and then fading to fifth place -- just short of being in the running for a Champions League slot - the Foxes were able to make a fast start for 2021-22. Only two teams (West Ham away and Manchester City at home) were in the Premier League's top 10, but it didn't turn out that way.
While a loss of 10 men to West Ham is not something to be ashamed about and a respectable loss to City are both to be expected, Sunday's 2-1 defeat to Brighton was disappointing. Five matches in, they're still in 12th.
play 1:08 Could Youri Teelemans fill in for the Wijnaldum void in Liverpool? Jaunsz Michallik talks about what Leicester City's Youri Telemans can bring to Liverpool.
It's not a case of unlucky jumps. Leicester ranks 17th in xG differential and 19th in attack, while 16th in defense. The loss of Wesley Fofana, the center-back, and Nampalys Mendy, the defensive midfielder, is clearly a problem. Their ball progression has been a mess. They average just 121.4 touches per 90 minutes in the attacking third (16th), which means they are taking 0.10 shots per possession (20th). Although they are quite good at shooting, it can be a problem when your opponents attempt twice as many shots.
It will be a huge help if James Maddison can find the form he created over most of 2020-21.
Maddison 2020-21: 64.4 touches for 90, 83.3% completion rate, and 2.2 chances per 90
Maddison 2021-22: 39.4 Touches, 72.6% Pass Completion, 0.8 Chances
Maddison had eight league goals and five assists last season (among 51 opportunities), but he hasn’t scored since February 21, and hasn’t recorded an assist since February 3. At halftime against Brighton, he was pulled from the game. Youri Tielemans tried to make up for Maddison’s lack of production but it has not worked. Although the Foxes are more creative than ever since Riyad Mahrez's departure, they still lack the ability to exploit dangerous areas with their attacking talent.
Borussia Mnchengladbach (German Bundesliga)
So far: 5 matches, 4 points, -4 goal differential
Projection: Three points down from 50 (sixth at the start of the season) to 47 (seventh).
After Marco Rose, their manager, was lost to Borussia Dortmund, Gladbach drafted Adi Hutter from Eintracht Frankfurt. Both Gladbach and Eintracht now have four points each after five matches. They were able to draw 1-1 with Bayern in the opening match, but they were beaten by Bayer Leverkusen after which they suffered one-goal losses against Union Berlin and Augsburg.
Many of their problems stem from poor and/or inexcusable finishing. Die Fohlen average 1.9 xG per 90 (sixth). 25% of their shots are taken with less than two defenders between the shot (second) and the goal. This is equivalent to just 1.0 goals per match (14th).
Alassane Plea is slowly getting back to form following a preseason injury. He's had nine shots and one goal in 378 mins. Marcus Thuram has been out of action until mid-October due to a torn left MCL. This injury allegedly prevented him from moving to Inter Milan for 25 million. Hutter has had no choice but to rely on the creation of attacking midfielders Jonas Hofmann and Hannes Wolf. Their 31 attempts have been worth 4.8 xG, which is a good 0.16 xG per shot. However, they have only scored three goals. This is combined with the vulnerability of possession teams to counter attacks and their solid scoring chances and you have problems.
Gladbach may still be in contention for a Champions League bid if the finishing moves towards the mean. Their projections have dropped only three points since the beginning of the season so they shouldn't be stuck in the relegation zone for too long. They still have matches against Borussia Dortmund, third place, and Wolfsburg in the two remaining matches. It could get worse before things get better.
Villarreal (Spanish LaLiga)
So far: 4 matches, 4 points, +0 goal differential
Projection: Two points down from 60 (sixth), at the start of the season, to 58 (sixth).
Villarreal was in fourth place at the midway point of 2020-21 La Liga campaign. They were just two points behind Barcelona and six ahead of first-place Atletico Madrid. They had only lost twice in 18 matches but their penchant for drawing -- eight at that point -- kept them somewhat behind the pace. After a 4-0 victory over Celta Vigo they would suffer four more draws. Then, a quick slump of three losses in four matches saw them drop out of the top-four. Although their Europa League win allowed them to back-passage into the Champions League, the draws did not help the cause.
Yeremi Pino, 18 years old, scored a goal and an assistance in Wednesday's 4-1 victory over Elche. Goals by Alberto Moreno and Arnaut Danjuma turned the match into a rout. Draws were still an issue. The Yellow Submarine started the season with three 0-0s, and a draw with Atletico Madrid. Although they've been difficult to break down, their cautiousness has been crippling. They had ended 44% of their possessions (sixth in La Liga) in the attacking third, but they were ranked 10th in shots per possessions.
Forward Boulaye di and Gerard Moreno had combined 16 shots and 2.05xG to zero goals. After combining 41 goals and 12 assists in the previous two seasons, Moreno now has zero of each in just 270 minutes. He's also out with a minor injury. He will eventually get out of his slump, and Villarreal may have started to do the same on Wednesday.