It’s still early—the late-summer mantra of the shell-shocked soccer fan and the supposedly level-headed analyst. We’re no more than three games into the season across Europe’s top five leagues. Schedules haven’t come close to evening out, and luck remains the MVP from England to Italy.
Except, all of the games played so far count just as much as they do in October or March. Take Liverpool’s 4-3 win against Arsenal on the opening weekend of the 2016-17 season. Jürgen Klopp’s team finished in the fourth and final Champions League place, while Arsène Wenger’s side ended up in fifth. Come season’s end, the difference between them was just one point.
So, rather than dismissing August results with a hand-wave and a grumble of “early days, still,” let’s take a look at what’s legitimately changed already. According to FiveThirtyEight’s league predictions, these are the four teams in Ligue 1, Serie A, the Premier League, and La Liga who have improved their title odds the most in the first couple weeks of the season.
PSG: 84 percent title odds, plus-7 since the start of the season
A Financial Fair Play punishment could come down at any minute for the defending French champions, so PSG has spent the summer trying to show UEFA that they promise, they really have changed this time. But no matter how lax an interpretation of “don’t spend more than you bring in” you decide to take, there was really no way to bring on the two most expensive players of all time in a single year and not run afoul of the break-even rule. The penalties could range from fines to squad reduction in the Champions League to full-on expulsion from European competition. A source in Europe who represents various players pointed out to me that PSG has already been punished with fines and squad reductions for a previous violation, so why shouldn’t this one be punished with a harsher penalty? In response, PSG sold off €105 million worth of players this summer, and they headed into the season with 18-year-old American Timothy Weah as the only recognized striker on the roster besides 31-year-old Edinson Cavani.
And yet. We’re three weeks in, and PSG have won every game and are averaging three goals per match. Kylian Mbappé has played only 135 minutes, but he’s the team’s leading scorer and his rate of GIFs per 90 is currently untouchable.
The defense, though, has not been great. Five teams have allowed fewer expected goals, and eight sides have allowed fewer completions within 20 yards of their goal. Given the leaky backline, the biggest reason PSG’s odds have jumped up is that their closest potential competitors—Lyon, Marseille, and Monaco—have already dropped 13 combined points in three weeks. With Thomas Tuchel, one of the five or 10 best managers out there, now leading the way in Paris, it’s tempting to expect PSG to put up a Manchester City-like season in which they’re the best team in their domestic league across every relevant statistical category. But this club’s only real benchmark of success is the Champions League, both in terms of public perception and demands of ownership. Since the squad is literally lacking depth—despite 23 roster spots, they have only 19 first-team players—easing through domestic play in order for the first XI to be fully fit for Europe is the ideal. Through three games, things could not have gone any better.
Napoli: 21 percent, plus-7
While Carlo Ancelotti’s suits have replaced Maurizio Sarri’s beefy T-shirts on the sideline, Napoli’s on-field product isn’t nearly as stylish as that of last season’s hipster darlings. In our first set of Watchability Rankings, which will be released on Thursday, Napoli have declined in all of the four relevant stylistic indicators. Unfortunately, our formula does not yet include pregame huggability yet:
Last year, Napoli completed 726 passes per game and that number has dropped down to 669. However, that is still tops in Italy through two games, and against sides that were expected to fight for Champions League places. Per FiveThirtyEight, Lazio and AC Milan came into the year rated as the fifth- and sixth-best teams, respectively, in Italy. Despite falling behind in both matches, Napoli twice created the better chances across 90 minutes and took six points from six available. Ancelotti still has plenty to figure out: Can Marek Hamsík, who was one of the best free eights (essentially an attacking midfielder crammed into a traditional midfielder’s starting position) in the world under Sarri, make a smooth, late-career, Andrea Pirlo-esque transition into a deep-lying playmaker? And though Ancelotti has opted for Arkadiusz Milik as the starter in both games so far, is the team really better off with a traditional striker in place of the diminutive, but often dominant Dries Mertens? Napoli were down 2-1 to Milan when Mertens came on in the 63rd minute; he proceeded to score the winner and take as many shots as Milan did while he was on the field:
To be able to take all the points from two tricky fixtures while the team gets rejiggered on the fly is huge for two reasons: (1) Inter Milan, Lazio, and AC Milan have a combined one point through two weeks, and they’ve seen their collective title odds drop from 22 percent to nine. And (2) Juventus have won both of their games and added 5 percent to their own championship odds. In the next four league matches, neither Juve nor Napoli play a team projected to finish in the top seven this season. But after that? Yep, they play each other.
Liverpool: 28 percent, plus-4
You know all about the firepower from the front three. And you should know all about Naby Keïta, too. If you don’t, allow me to introduce you:
Naby Keita is really good. pic.twitter.com/yjgalaiNVm— Foot Mercato (@Footy_Mercato) August 21, 2018
However, the most notable aspect of Liverpool’s perfect start to the season is the perfect defense. Through three games, Jürgen Klopp’s side hasn’t conceded a goal. They’ve allowed the fewest expected goals, the fewest shots, and the fewest pass completions within 20 yards of their goal. They’re pressing more aggressively than any team in the league. Oh, and they’ve got a keeper who can do this:
Some of those numbers come down to the schedule. West Ham are bottom of the table, and Brighton were expected to be hovering around the relegation zone all season long. But the dominant defense is a continuation of trend that began back in January—right around when Virgil Van Dijk arrived from Southampton. The team allowed 15 goals in the second half of the season, and most impressively, they held Manchester City, perhaps the greatest attacking team England has ever seen, to one goal across two Champions League matches.
too soon to suggest that Liverpool might be getting good at the defense? pic.twitter.com/5ICL9c0Npb— oh you beauty (@natefc) August 27, 2018
The attack, meanwhile, has been just as good, as Liverpool lead the league in expected goals for and deep completions. Thanks to City’s slip-up against Wolverhampton (read: a missed handball call) and the early-season capitulations of Arsenal and Manchester United, Liverpool have already started to creep up on the defending champs. Betting markets haven’t changed their points projections for Pep Guardiola’s side (88 points), but Liverpool have jumped from 81 to 84.
It’s hard to imagine that Liverpool will be this dominant for the entire season, but we know what’ll happen if they are. After all, City showed us last year.
Real Madrid: 45 percent, plus-4
After one game, there was an almost perfectly Cristiano-Ronaldo-shaped hole atop Real Madrid’s attack. Through two games, the shortest distance between two points is three straight lines.
The chalkboard puts the efficiency of the goal into even starker absurdity. (The star marks a completed dribble.)
So far, Real are about dead even with Barcelona in terms of the chances they’ve created and conceded. Real are slightly better if you include penalties; Barca have the edge if you strip them out. The stylistic differences between the two pillars of the Spanish game have been fascinating. Under Julen Lopetegui, Real actually have more possession than Barcelona, but Ernesto Valverde’s side has been better at tilting the field, as they lead the league in time spent in the opposition half (39 percent), while Real are sixth (29 percent). With a four-man midfield diamond and Gareth Bale and Karim Benzema up top, the Champions League champions have been content to possess the ball anywhere on the field before breaking directly in on goal through Bale, who’s been the focal point of the majority of the team’s dangerous possessions.
The jump in odds mainly comes from Atlético Madrid’s disappointing start to the season. They started with 8 percent odds for the La Liga title, but after getting outshot in both their 1-1 draw with Valencia and their 1-0 win against Rayo Vallecano, they’re down to 4 percent. With any potential third contender already falling off the pace, Barcelona’s odds are also up by 3 percent to 46. But we already knew they’d be great. They’re not the ones who lost Ronaldo.