Which was the most fun soccer team to watch last season? Which played the most boring style that somehow won games? And which player acquisitions yielded the most enchanting new dynamics for an already-powerful club?
If your intuitive answers to those questions are, respectively, Barcelona, Burnley, and Neymar and Kylian Mbappé to PSG, you’re right — and now we have the numbers to confirm those suspicions. Throughout the upcoming European season, The Ringer will be publishing and updating its Soccer Watchability Rankings, which will rank every club from Europe’s top five leagues on a scale from most to least watchable. These won’t be a one-to-one reflection of team quality, nor will they account for every possible stylistic preference a soccer fan might have; after all, it can be just as enjoyable to watch a well-choreographed, perfectly positioned defensive unit frustrate the right opponent.
Rather, this set of rankings aims to encapsulate how proactive a team is both with and without the ball. Throughout a season, which clubs will be the most fun to follow? And — perhaps more importantly — which matches will prove the most unexpected delights, from a purely artful perspective? While they aren’t definitive by any means, these watchability scores will help, as they’re based on four factors that collectively account for the sport’s four main areas of action: dribbling, passing, defending, and shooting.
- Dribbles. Last season’s individual leaders in attempted dribbles per game were Neymar, Lionel Messi, Wilfried Zaha (there’s a reason Crystal Palace rates much better here than its standing in the EPL table might suggest), Eden Hazard, and Christian Pulisic. Dribbles are fun! They don’t have to be successful to reflect a team’s style, either, so all attempts are included.
- Deep completions. DC are passes completed within 20 yards of goal (crosses excluded), which serves as a proxy to measure not just possession, but dangerous possession. It’s one thing to handle the ball in the midfield without probing or threatening a set defense (see: Spain vs. Russia at the 2018 World Cup), but it’s another entirely to capably possess and move the ball within range of the net.
- Passes allowed per defensive action (in the opposition half). PPDA measures how quickly a club lets the opposition circulate possession before engaging in a tackle, interception, challenge, or foul. As Colin Trainor wrote for StatsBomb in 2014, “A smaller PPDA value signifies a greater level of defensive intensity, as in essence, the defence [sic] has allowed a smaller ratio of uncontested passes to be made.” Manchester City had the lowest PPDA in Europe last year, as Pep Guardiola’s squad employed blitzing counterpress tactics, while many of its Premier League brethren — Brighton, Swansea, and the like — ranked among the clubs with the highest, as they were content to sit back and absorb pressure rather than cut it off at the source.
- Expected goals. At its simplest, xG rewards teams for creating scoring opportunities in the most dangerous positions, and viewers enjoy watching players and teams who create chances and attempt to score from the most dangerous positions.
Using domestic play only, we’ll collect these numbers (from WhoScored.com and Understat.com) on a rate basis for all 98 clubs in Europe’s top five leagues and calculate a z-score that reflects how much better or worse than average they were in each category; summing up the four component z-scores then yields an overall watchability score, with scores greater than 0 representing better-than-average watchability and scores below 0 representing worse-than-average aesthetics. It’s a simple system, but it does the trick — and besides, how complex a methodology is necessary to confirm that Barcelona plays a mesmerizing brand of soccer?
The 2018–19 scores will start to accumulate soon, once the five domestic campaigns kick off this month, but for now, here are last season’s rankings, in addition to five lessons that can still inform soccer-watching habits in the upcoming season.
Soccer Watchability 2017-18
|Rank||Team||League||Dribbles Score||DC Score||PPDA Score||xG Score||TOTAL SCORE|
|Rank||Team||League||Dribbles Score||DC Score||PPDA Score||xG Score||TOTAL SCORE|
|2||Paris Saint-Germain||Ligue 1||2.74||2.73||1.66||2.75||9.88|
|3||Manchester City||Premier League||0.94||3.41||2.16||2.86||9.37|
|4||Real Madrid||La Liga||1.11||2.46||0.85||2.85||7.26|
|18||Manchester United||Premier League||0.97||1.01||0.14||0.62||2.75|
|25||Atlético Madrid||La Liga||0.58||0.34||0.52||0.02||1.45|
|27||Inter Milan||Serie A||-0.66||0.88||0.46||0.75||1.43|
|30||Real Sociedad||La Liga||-0.02||0.19||0.63||0.44||1.24|
|32||Athletic Bilbao||La Liga||-0.12||-0.19||1.16||0.12||0.97|
|33||Crystal Palace||Premier League||0.84||0.23||-0.61||0.47||0.93|
|35||Las Palmas||La Liga||0.77||-0.11||0.98||-0.84||0.80|
|36||Celta Vigo||La Liga||-0.19||0.27||0.36||0.32||0.75|
|39||Real Betis||La Liga||0.48||-0.46||0.73||-0.23||0.52|
|45||Deportivo La Coruña||La Liga||-0.02||-0.09||0.13||-0.02||0.00|
|46||Leicester City||Premier League||0.81||-0.46||-0.44||0.02||-0.07|
|60||AC Milan||Serie A||-1.56||0.35||-0.09||0.06||-1.23|
|72||West Ham||Premier League||0.14||-0.57||-0.98||-0.91||-2.31|
|84||Newcastle United||Premier League||-0.79||-0.59||-1.50||-0.37||-3.25|
|89||Stoke City||Premier League||-1.06||-0.39||-1.72||-0.91||-4.09|
|91||S.P.A.L. 2013||Serie A||-0.82||-0.80||-1.54||-1.06||-4.23|
|92||West Bromwich Albion||Premier League||-0.89||-0.92||-1.47||-1.02||-4.31|
|93||Huddersfield Town||Premier League||-1.19||-1.09||-0.89||-1.23||-4.40|
|96||Swansea City||Premier League||-0.89||-0.84||-2.16||-1.40||-5.29|
|97||Brighton & Hove Albion||Premier League||-1.26||-0.72||-2.65||-0.88||-5.50|
Winning Isn’t Everything … but There’s a “W” in Watchability
FiveThirtyEight explores the quality of a match by looking at both teams’ SPI ratings, which measure overall team ability. But not every good team is watchable, and not every watchable team is good. Our rankings peg Burnley as the least watchable team in Europe last season, despite Sean Dyche’s club placing a tidy seventh in the EPL table; conversely, Las Palmas rated as the 35th-most watchable team in Europe but finished 19th in La Liga en route to relegation.
A strong relationship exists between aesthetic quality and winning, however. The correlation between team watchability and team success (as measured by league points per match) last season was 0.78, on a scale in which 0 means no relationship and 1 a perfect link. And while that sort of relationship might be expected, given that good teams are more likely to collect statistical indicators such as xG, it’s not solely a result of xG’s inclusion. Removing any one of the four factors didn’t change the link much; in all four cases, the resulting correlation remained between 0.7 and 0.8.
Take out xG, and the top five teams in watchability are still the top five, just with Bayern and Madrid flipping spots. Those five clubs — four that coasted to domestic titles, plus the Champions League victor — were the five best and the five most watchable last season, no matter how those traits are being judged. City led Europe in DC, PPDA, and xG while ranking 16th in dribbles; PSG ranked in the top four in all four categories; and no. 1 overall Barcelona placed first in dribbles, second in DC, and third in xG. They’re good and fun — what more could a viewer want?
When in Doubt, Go to Spain or Germany
Outside the Premier League’s big six teams, Crystal Palace ranked 33rd in watchability, and Leicester (46th) was next. But 14 La Liga teams placed ahead of Leicester, and a 15th placed one spot behind. The average midtable match in Spain, then, is more likely to result in a randomly enjoyable Saturday morning than, say, Southampton (56th) vs. Everton (68th), even though those teams ranked 10th and 11th, respectively, among Premier League clubs in watchability.
While clubs from La Liga and the Bundesliga were concentrated in the top half of the rankings and Ligue 1 clubs spread throughout the list, those from Serie A and the Premier League clustered closer to the bottom. The bottom three, and six of the bottom 10, all came from the Premier League, though half of those offenders — Stoke, West Brom, and Swansea — have since been relegated. English teams almost monopolized “least watchable” component designations, too: Of the 98 clubs in question, Burnley tallied the fewest dribbles, Brighton the highest PPDA, and Swansea the fewest xG per game. Only Ligue 1’s Amiens, which completed the fewest deep passes, broke the English stronghold on the bottom.
Past the top five, even the other teams in the top 10 of this ranking are known quantities, as either Premier League stalwarts (Liverpool, Tottenham) or Bundesliga hipster favorites (Dortmund, RB Leipzig). Marseille doesn’t fit either category, but the Ligue 1 club was about as fun as any team in Europe last season. In one three-match stretch in October, for instance, Marseille beat Nice 4–2 before tying Strasbourg 3–3 and PSG 2–2; in a similar span in the winter, they sandwiched a 6–3 defeat of Metz with 2–2 ties against Monaco and Saint-Étienne.
Only one Marseille man reached a double-digit goal total last season, but among all Ligue 1 players, Florian Thauvin ranked second only to PSG’s Edinson Cavani in both goals (22) and xG (17.2). The French forward also added 11 assists, joining Messi, Mo Salah, and Luis Suárez as the only players in a big five league to produce a 20–10 domestic season.
In manager Rudi Garcia’s second season with the club, Marseille leaped from 29th in watchability in 2016–17 to sixth in 2017–18, and they shouldn’t fall back much in the upcoming campaign; in this summer’s transfer window, they haven’t lost a single player from last season’s squad. Make Marseille — and, to a lesser extent, Atalanta (12th in watchability) and Lyon (13th) — your own hipster squad to follow for the next nine months.
Watchability Is a Sticky Season-Over-Season Statistic
Another reason that Marseille is unlikely to fall far this season is that with a handful of exceptions, teams don’t tend to become much more or less watchable between seasons. Manager changes can alter team strategies and thus these metrics, but overall, teams that are watchable stay watchable, and vice versa.
The correlation between clubs’ 2016–17 and 2017–18 watchability scores (not counting teams involved with relegation and promotion) was 0.91. That’s not to say there was no year-to-year movement, but it was certainly muted on a grand scale. Barcelona finished first in both seasons, and eight out of the top 10 clubs from 2016–17 remained in the top 10 the following season. The two exceptions didn’t fall far: Arsenal slid from eighth to 11th and Lyon from 10th to 13th. (In their stead, RB Leipzig climbed from 14th to 10th while Marseille made their jump from 29th to sixth.)
So even though 2018–19 results haven’t yet begun to inform the next set of watchability rankings, one shouldn’t expect drastic changes anywhere on the list. Plan your early-season TV viewing accordingly.
Watch Out for PSG
It’s not as if PSG had much room to grow last season, either by actual results or watchability score. The club that brought in Neymar and Mbappé recaptured the Ligue 1 title by 13 points and moved from seventh in watchability to second; by raw watchability score, they improved more than any other team last season (Marseille ranked second by that measure). But they could rate even better this season, both with Neymar recovered from the foot injury that cost him the last couple months of last season and because Thomas Tuchel has assumed PSG’s managerial role.
Tuchel last coached for Dortmund in 2016–17, when that club finished fourth in watchability, but with a pair of new managers last season, Dortmund’s watchability fell by more than all but five other teams’ scores. He employs a frenetic counterpress; both of his Dortmund teams led the Bundesliga in xG, besting even Bayern Munich; and now he’s managing the most talented collection of attackers he’s ever had. PSG came close to unseating Barcelona atop the European watchability rankings last season, and they might actually accomplish that feat in 2018–19. At the very least, their matches against Marseille are sure to delight.