The November international break is a bummer for everyone who isn’t a fan of the handful of national teams still fighting for a place at next summer’s World Cup. Right as the season starts to get into a groove and patterns begin to emerge … nope, now your favorite player has to fly to China to play a game that doesn’t count.
But do not fret. We’re here to provide you with a silver lining: A set of arbitrary power rankings spanning all of European soccer! What better reason to take stock of all the top teams on the continent than a two-week break in play?
To analyze these sides, we looked at their results so far, but we also looked at their underlying metrics. Scoring happens so infrequently in soccer that short-term wins, losses, and ties often get skewed by randomness. While there are some exceptions, the way to build a successful team through a season and beyond is to create lots of shots and concede very few. Even better: create lots of high-quality shots and concede only low-quality ones. Expected goals is a stat that determines the quality of every shot a team takes based on historical data. If a shot is converted 10 percent of the time, it gets 0.10, and so if a team takes 20 of those shots in a game, their expected goals for that game will be 2.0. Some players—Messi, Lionel—will finish their chances at a rate that exceeds the historical data, but almost everyone else eventually falls into line with the stat.
So, with that in mind, let’s take a look at the 10 best teams in Europe so far this season.
10. Manchester United
Points per game: 2.09
Goals per game: 2.09
Goals allowed per game: 0.45
Sure, the sky is crashing down on Old Trafford, and the transfer-rumor industrial complex already says David de Gea is going to Real Madrid. Yes, even you—FIFA 18 master-blaster that you are—might be able to manage Manchester United to greater success against the Premier League’s top six than José Mourinho. And fine, after starting off the season with seven shots, 13 chances created, and five assists in his first three games, it looks like Henrikh Mkhitaryan hit his midseason wall … in September. He’s notched just six shots, 10 chances created, no assists, and one goal in the eight league games since.
But Manchester United is just a shirt-sleeve sponsorship away from being the wealthiest team in the world at any given moment, and a crisis for a club that rich, and that big, only means slipping from title contender to “borderline top-10 club in Europe.” De Gea is still on the team and still giving opposing fan bases night terrors. (His 87.1 save percentage would be the best Premier League mark this decade by nearly 10 points—a number that’s sure to regress, but one that also speaks to just how impervious the 27-year-old Spaniard can be.) And the team’s other superstar, Paul Pogba, might be coming back after the international break.
Paul Pogba is set to make his return to action after the international break— WhoScored.com (@WhoScored) November 8, 2017
Safe to say Manchester United fans can't wait to see the 24-year-old back in action given their contrasting performances with and without him...https://t.co/gFISfJs13S pic.twitter.com/JAzaGkxO3P
Things could always be worse, United fans. After all, West Ham just hired David Moyes.
9. Borussia Dortmund
Points per game: 1.82
Goals per game: 2.55
Goals allowed per game: 1.27
Another club in crisis … that’s actually not in crisis at all. Dortmund started the season as well as any club in the world—thanks in no small part to a relatively easy schedule that allowed them to rack up six wins and one draw while scoring 21 goals and conceding just two in their first seven Bundesliga matches. None of those games came against teams currently in Germany’s top seven. That Dortmund’s barn-burning beginning to the year coincided with Bayern Munich stumbling toward the eventual firing of Carlo Ancelotti only tilted the narrative momentum even further toward Peter Bosz and Co.
Fast forward to today, and Bayern is six points clear of Dortmund, who now sit in third place after losses to second-place RB Leipzig, sixth-place Hannover 96, and Bayern. While the 3-1 loss to Munich might seem like the strongest condemnation of Dortmund’s situation yet—Fox Sports announcers called it “simply not good enough”—the result is bullshit. Andriy Yarmolenko and Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang combined to miss a number of high-quality chances, and Bayern’s second goal came off an unfortunate deflection. On another day with the same chances, Dortmund would tie or win this match, and we’d be having a different discussion. A tough Champions League group (including two teams higher on these rankings) will put an end to that campaign too early, but would a Europa League run and a second-place finish in Germany really be all that bad? Plus, Christian Pulisic is somehow still even better than we thought.
Let’s watch Christian Pulisic dance away from Bayern Munich players and shrug off David Alaba pic.twitter.com/qIwBjfYntb— Henry Bushnell (@HenryBushnell) November 4, 2017
Enjoy him in yellow-and-black while you still can. As always, Bayern is coming.
Points per game: 2.58
Goals per game: 2.92
Goals allowed per game: 0.92
This doesn’t look like another 2010s vintage Juventus side, but until that’s officially proved to be the case, six Serie A titles in a row and Champions League finals appearances in two of the past three seasons will get you an honorary spot in the top eight.
They won today but still, that Juventus defense doesn't look at imperious as it has during their scudetto streak. pic.twitter.com/mVVQEUbwBC— Michael Caley (@MC_of_A) October 28, 2017
Massimiliano Allegri’s side sit just one point back of Napoli in Serie A and they’re a win away from being tied on points with Barcelona in their Champions League group. But their underlying numbers tell a different story: Juve has the most goals in Serie A with 35 on just 21.3 expected goals, per Understat, . Their goal-scoring is exceeding their shot quality by nearly 14 goals—by far the biggest discrepancy in Europe’s top five leagues.
Some of that comes down to Paulo Dybala and Gonzalo Higuaín (18 league goals between them, but just 10.5 expected goals) converting their chances, but there’s no chance that the team as a whole keeps finishing at such a high clip. Some goal-scoring reversion would be fine … if the defense were still Juve-level elite, but after the departure of Leonardo Bonucci to AC Milan this summer, that group has taken a couple of steps back. Unless something changes—or, it turns out that Dybala is Lionel Messi—this will be the year the Bianconeri relinquish their six-year run atop the Italian table.
7. Bayern Munich
Points per game: 2.36
Goals per game: 2.45
Goals allowed per game: 0.73
Another team that’s probably not as good as it used to be. After firing Ancelotti and bringing in Jupp Heynckes, who led Bayern to the treble (Champions League, Bundesliga, and DFB-Pokal) in 2012-13, the club has won six of six in the Champions League and Bundesliga, and scored 16 goals and conceding just two. They brushed Leipzig and Dortmund, their two closest competitors, with ease and have already basically clinched the Bundesliga: FiveThirtyEight gives them a 92 percent chance of winning the league.
This team has always had a higher gear; who knows if it’s still there. They beat Dortmund by two, but didn’t outplay them, and the Leipzig game was essentially over as soon as Bayern’s opponent’s had a man sent off in the 13th minute. Robert Lewandowski is still a goal-scoring metronome. Against Dortmund, James Rodríguez had a few moments that suggested he might become a star again. At just 22, Joshua Kimmich has become his club and his country’s most consistent player. Beyond those three, though, no one else seems to be playing the best soccer of his career. Even with an All-Star injury list, there’s plenty of talent in this squad, but they’ve yet to exceed the sum of their parts.
6. Real Madrid
Points per game: 2.09
Goals per game: 2
Goals allowed per game: 0.82
And thus begins the third and final “living off the reputation of years past” portion of our programming. More than any all-time team in recent memory, Madrid has relied on its stars to, well, be stars. However, they just got smoked by Tottenham, 3-1, in the Champions League, and they’re currently eight points back of Barcelona in La Liga—in addition to being four points back of second-place Valencia. But man, has it been a weird season in Madrid so far.
xG map for Spurs - Real Madrid. A more clinical game from Ronaldo could have made a difference, but Spurs earned those goals. So much fun. pic.twitter.com/Xn7BDjbuK5— Caley Graphics (@Caley_graphics) November 1, 2017
The Tottenham game turned on Cristiano Ronaldo not doing the thing that he always does: scoring a minor continental ocean’s worth of goals. And the issues extend to domestic play as well: Through 638 La Liga minutes, the just-crowned FIFA Men’s Player of the Year has taken 48 shots and scored one goal. That’s not going to continue—expected goals pegs him at 5.3—but it’s representative of Madrid’s season: They’re undershooting their expected goals by nearly seven. As such, expected points (the number of points a team would typically win given their expected goals numbers across a season) actually puts Madrid one point ahead of Barcelona. They’ve been unlucky—and have probably already lost the La Liga title because of it. But part of the deal with Madrid through the past few seasons is that they always outperformed their metrics. It didn’t matter that Zinedine Zidane played a relatively simple system or that they took so many long-range shots or relied on the inefficiency of crossing; they had Ronaldo, Karim Benzema, Gareth Bale, Luka Modric, Toni Kroos, and Isco, so the numbers didn’t matter.
The club may have been due to come back to earth, but not because of bad luck. They had no specific style; everyone kept having career years. That wasn’t going to keep happening, especially given the advanced ages of Ronaldo and Modric. And now we’re seeing the result.
Points per game: 2.09
Goals per game: 1.82
Goals allowed per game: 0.64
You, person with Paul Pogba as your Twitter avatar: Yeah, but they lost to Manchester United!
They played Madrid toe-to-toe twice and came away with four points against the two-time defending Champions League winners. They may have single-handedly ended Dejan Lovren’s run not just as a soccer player, but as a person who’s willing to ever go out in public again. And as much as any team in the world, Mauricio Pochettino’s side have had an answer to every problem.
Playing against Dortmund’s devastating attack? Oh, they’ll just sit back and counterattack even though no one’s ever seen them play that way. Faced with a Liverpool press that suffocated them last season? No big deal, they’ll just play three attacking-minded players in the midfield and knife right through the pressure every single time. Mousa Dembélé can’t play every game? Yeah, they’ll sign a 21-year-old Colombian center back to free up Eric Dier to move back into the midfield. Harry Kane can’t score in August? Harry Kane’s gonna score every time the sun comes up in September.
The loss to United came in a relatively even game, and considering the overall results and performances since August, Spurs seem like the clear second-best team in England. If you want a dark-horse Champions League winner, Tottehnam’s currently at 14/1.
Points per game: 2.67
Goals per game: 2.67
Goals allowed per game: 0.67
On the watchability rankings, these dudes are no. 1. Thanks to a practiced formation that puts all of its players in a position to succeed, provides vertical passing options all across the field, and doesn’t change as the team shifts from attack to defense, Maurizio Sarri’s side play a magnetic brand of soccer. Seriously, it looks like there’s magnet in the other team’s goal.
Since moving from winger to striker, Dries Mertens has been an unsolvable problem for opposing center backs: After 28 goals and nine assists last season, he’s got 10 and two this year. Meanwhile, no midfielder in the world is playing as well as Jorginho is right now.
Napoli are just one point clear of Juventus in Serie A, but their metrics are by far the best in Italy. On expected points, Sarri’s side is five points ahead of second-place Lazio. A loss to Shakhtar Donetsk in the Champions League has put a large dent in their hopes of getting out of the group stages—FiveThirtyEight gives them a 21 percent chance—but despite losing both games against Manchester City, Napoli played them closer than any other team has so far this season. A “good loss” against City is as good as a win against almost any other team.
Points per game: 2.67
Goals per game: 3.25
Goals allowed per game: 0.67
There are plenty of problems with PSG. Their chairman is being investigated for various misdealings, including the clearly-in-violation-of-Financial-Fair-Play offseason transfer deals for Neymar and Kylian Mbappe. Despite all the money, they’re only four points clear of Monaco in Ligue 1. It’s unclear if anyone on the team actually likes Neymar. And they’ve already become reliant on their all-world forward line. But damn, when they’re clicking …
That happened way back in September, but PSG’s demolition of Bayern Munich was the most impressive performance by any club in any competition so far this season. Part of the struggle with assessing PSG is that their weekly performances exist in a different world, as the quality of the French league is lower than all of its European counterparts. Moreso than any other team, we can’t know how good PSG is until we see them play against another top continental side. Except, we already did, and PSG flattened them under their tires. Since there’s so much uncertainty among all of the clubs here, outside of the top two, that one game is good enough to earn them this spot.
2. FC Barcelona
Points per game: 2.82
Goals per game: 2.73
Goals allowed per game: 0.36
They were a one-man team two months ago, and they still are today. In 11 La Liga matches, Lionel Messi has 12 goals, and the rest of his teammates have only 15. Barcelona’s taken 169 shots so far; Messi’s taken 69 of them, Despite just turning 30, Messi is producing his most successful dribbles per 90 ever. And if those surface-level numbers aren’t enough, how’s this? Messi is leading La Liga in expected goals and expected assists. He’s always been able to do everything—but we’ve never seen him do so much of it all at once.
The results: Barcelona have won 10 of 11 La Liga games, while tying the other. They’ve scored 30 goals and conceded just four. It’d take a shocking dip in performance for them not to win the league—or an injury to you know who. Messi is better than all of the superstars on Real Madrid, and it’s not even close.
As for what this team’s ceiling is: like pretty much everyone else on this list, it’s probably lower than it’s been in years past. The Ivan Rakitic, Sergio Busquets, and Andrés Iniesta midfield is the same one it’s always been, but all the players are slightly older and slightly worse. Paulinho, the joke-generating transfer of the summer, has actually been an important piece and scored three goals from the midfield so far. Luis Suárez has the same number of goals as the Brazilian, but he’s getting plenty of chances and just not converting, so the goals will probably start to come. And club-record signing Ousmane Dembélé has played just 50 La Liga minutes. There’s still room for improvement here, and Barca’s expected numbers are roughly the same as Madrid’s. But the presence of Messi is enough to push them over every team but one.
1. Manchester City
Points per game: 2.82
Goals per game: 3.45
Goals allowed per game: 0.64
In the Champions League and Premier League combined, Manchester City have played 15 games. They’ve won 14—the only blemish being a tie against Everton when they went down to 10 men in the first half. With 38 goals scored and seven conceded, their goal differential in the Premier League is plus-31—the same number as Tottenham and Manchester United combined. United have allowed five goals this season, and Tottenham have gotten the better of Real Madrid and Dortmund—but City have basically lapped both of their closest competitors. The Premier League’s Top Six is a myth; it’s five teams fighting for the three Champions League spots behind Pep Guardiola’s side. Before the season began, I wondered when we’d see the next great Premier League team, and it’s already here. In fact, this might be the greatest Premier League side of all time.
Guardiola’s taken his wealth of attacking talent and turned it into an equally beautiful and brutally efficient machine. Every bit of possession opens a lane forward, and every attack hunts out a tap-in from six yards out. Dropped back into a deeper midfield role, Kevin De Bruyne has become the clear best player in the Premier League. The quartet of attackers—Sergio Aguero, Gabriel Jesus, Raheem Sterling, and Leroy Sané—all have at least six goals, and none of them have played more than 665 league minutes. Meanwhile, the oft-maligned John Stones has become one of the best center backs in the league, and Ederson, 24, immediately solved all of City’s keeper issues as soon as he arrived this summer. Their depth at holding midfield is sketchy—Fernandinho, 32, has played 966 league minutes so far—but right now, this team is close to flawless.
With every other club in the world dealing with some kind of very clear weakness, that’s enough for City to claim the top spot. They might not have Messi, but they have everything else.