Atalanta, Bayern… Everton? European soccer’s 11 must-see, can’t-miss attacking groups
Duvan Zapata and Papu Gomez are just two of the seemingly endless number of attacking weapons at high-scoring Atalanta. Photo by Federico Proietti/DPPI/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images
Part of the fun of a football goal is its rarity. Every one of them is a miniature miracle, because we don’t know how long we’ll have to wait for another. If there were suddenly 10 goals per match or something, they would feel less miraculous and a lot less special.
A few more wouldn’t hurt anything, however, and that’s what we’re getting in Europe so far this season. Average goals per game are up 6 percent so far in this year’s Bundesliga and Ligue 1, up 12 percent in Serie A and up an incredible 39 percent in the Premier League! Unsustainable? Almost certainly. Expected goals haven’t risen at the same rate in England, and the season’s still young enough for a few outlier matches to skew the averages. Since goals are down 11 percent in La Liga, perhaps any Premier League decrease will see an equal increase in Spain.
– Stream ESPN FC Daily on ESPN+ (U.S. only)
– Predict results in ESPN’s English Soccer Pick ‘Em!
– ESPN+ viewer’s guide: Bundesliga, Serie A, MLS, FA Cup and more
Things have been particularly fun and crazy thus far in Europe. We can hope it keeps up, and we can also celebrate the teams that have been the most fun.
Here are the 11 most enjoyable soccer teams in Europe’s Big Five leagues at the moment, plus lots of honourable mentions because you know what? There’s always room for more fun.
*Presented in alphabetical order.
– Atletico Madrid: No, seriously! Counter-attacking can be fun, and Atleti have shown signs of being particularly good at it this year. Angel Correa, Joao Felix and Yannick Carrasco are excellent creators, and Luis Suarez? Well, he fits right in with manager Diego Simeone.
– Borussia Dortmund: It hasn’t been a torrid start for Lucien Favre’s squad, at least by our extremely high standards for BVB, but Erling Haaland has already scored four goals and American Giovanni Reyna has three assists. Jadon Sancho will likely get rolling again soon, too. BVB will always be must-watch.
– Hertha Berlin: Last seen scaring the hell out of Bayern Munich, Bruno Labbadia’s squad has scored eight goals on seven assists in three games. Matheus Cunha is one of the most exciting young players in Germany. And that’s saying something.
– Leeds United: There’s something to be said for making your shots count. Marcelo Bielsa’s squad is 10th in the league in shots attempted, but third in shots and goals. They seem to only create good chances, and Patrick Bamford (three goals) is converting at a high level again.
– Leicester City: Brendan Rodgers’ squad scored 12 goals in their first three matches before stumbling against West Ham. Jamie Vardy is ageless, Harvey Barnes has never met a long shot he didn’t like and new signing Timothy Castagne is creating at high levels down the right flank.
– Manchester City: Even when they’re not super-dominant, their attacking talent is still absurd. Kevin De Bruyne has created 15 combined chances and assists, and we know the primary goal scorers — Raheem Sterling, Gabriel Jesus, etc. — will start scoring soon.
– Napoli: This being 2020, we can’t simply enjoy everything — after starting with two brilliant matches (Napoli 8, opponent 0) and with 33-year old Dries Mertens playing better than ever, Napoli were placed in isolation due to positive COVID-19 cases and thus forfeited their last match against Juventus. When they play again, they’ll still be delightful (and a major Serie A contender).
– Real Madrid: Consider this a love letter to 20-year-old Vinicius Junior, who’s begun his second year as one of Zidane’s featured players by taking on much more of a scoring role. He’s got two goals on eight shots, and he was within about 2 feet of a hat trick against Levante. More, please.
– Sassuolo: The third-place Neroverdi comprehensively live the “shoot your shot” ethos, as they’re averaging 19 shots per match, third-most in the Big Five. Some of them even go in! Francesco Caputo, 33, is the personification of their positive attitude.
– TSG Hoffenheim: Hoffenheim destroyed Bayern, 4-1, on Sept. 27. Andrej Kramaric already has six goals and thanks to some spectacular counter-attacking maneuvers, they average 5.3 shots per match of at least 0.1 xG in value. Only five Big Five teams average more.
EDITOR’S NOTE: As you’ll see, xG+xA per 90 is used a lot to measure the 11 teams that follow. It’s a great way to gauge how involved a player is within a given attack, both in buildup and in the resulting shots.
THE BEST 11
Key stats (per 90): 6.3 shots on goal, 5.8 shots of 0.1+ xG, 3.7 big chances created
Key players: Kylian Mbappe (two goals, three assists), Neymar (two goals, 1.24 xG+xA), Mauro Icardi (two goals, 0.82 xG+xA), Angel Di Maria (3.5 chances created/90)
PSG overwhelm you with inevitability, both in the standings and on the pitch. They’ve won seven of the last eight Ligue 1 titles, of course, and once they get rolling in any given match, there’s absolutely nothing you can do to keep them out of your defensive box. Kick the ball out, and it comes right back. In all, 61 percent of their possessions end in the attacking third; the only other Ligue 1 team above even 44 percent is Lyon.
This is the way it should be, of course, when you spend this much on fun players. PSG permanently added Internazionale’s Mauro Icardi to an already crowded attacking line, and they’ve already had eight different players score and five serve up assists. After a run of positive coronavirus tests led to a pair of 1-0 losses to begin the league season, PSG have beaten their last four opponents by a combined score of 12-1. It appears they are once again inevitable.
10. EINTRACHT FRANKFURT
Key stats (per 90): 5.0 shots of 0.1+ xG, 2.6 xG, 2.1 xA
Key players: Andre Silva (two goals on 14 shots, 1.56 xG+xA/90), Daichi Kamada (one goal, two assists, 10 chances created, 0.71 xG+xA/90), Bas Dost (two goals, two assists)
I tipped Eintracht to be a potential top-four contender before the season began, and so far, so good. After a draw with Arminia Bielefeld to start the season, they’ve controlled both Hertha (3-1) and Hoffenheim (2-1) to jump both teams both in the Bundesliga table and on this list. In a tempo-friendly league, they are the fastest team, averaging 111 possessions per 90-minute match. They push the ball up the pitch, but they don’t give you many counter-attacking chances either.
Eintracht are a pretty experienced squad; of the 12 players to log 100-plus minutes thus far, eight are at least 28 years old. But they’ve got two exciting 24-year-old attackers in Silva and Kamada — since the coronavirus restart in May, only Robert Lewandowski and Hoffenheim’s Andrej Kramaric have more league goals than Silva — and in three brief appearances, 22-year-old Moroccan Aymen Barkok has already taken two shots and created four chances.
Key stats (per 90): 2.8 goals per 90, 18.8 shots, 7.0 shots on goal
Key players: Mohamed Salah (five goals, 14 chances created, 1.13 xG+xA/90), Sadio Mane (three goals, 1.04 xG+xA/90), Roberto Firmino (two assists)
Everyone knows Salah is good, obviously, but can we talk for a moment about just how good he’s been since the league season began? He’s created as many chances as Kevin De Bruyne (14), he’s taken as many shots as Harry Kane (19), scoring two more goals, and he’s scored as many goals as Jamie Vardy (five). He has been utterly relentless — even more so than usual, that is.
Julien Laurens says a talented Atalanta squad could give Liverpool problems for first place in Group D.
Thanks to positive coronavirus tests, we haven’t seen full-strength Liverpool yet — one that fully incorporates new additions Thiago Alcantara and Diogo Jota alongside Mane and the new Super Salah — and Firmino hasn’t really gotten going yet. And yet, they’ve still scored 11 goals in four matches and, despite Oct. 4’s odd shellacking at Aston Villa, have amassed nine of a potential 12 points.
8. ASTON VILLA
Key stats (per 90): 3.7 goals per 90, 3.3 assists, 4.0 big chances created
Key players: Jack Grealish (three goals, three assists, 0.74 xG+xA/90), Ollie Watkins (three goals, one assist), John McGinn (one goal, three assists, eight chances created)
Granted, there was plenty of good fortune involved in Villa’s 7-2 win over Liverpool — multiple goals went in due to chunky/lucky deflections — but we can acknowledge that while still noting that this might be the slickest passing team in the Premier League at the moment. Of their 11 goals through three matches, 10 have been assisted. Watkins, added from Brentford this offseason, has been exactly the finisher the club hoped he’d be so far, and we haven’t yet gotten a taste of what another new attacker, Bertrand Traore (added from Lyon), will offer.
It’s hard to know what Villa will do over the full season — clubs that survived relegation by one point the year before aren’t known for making runs at the Champions League the next year — but they suddenly have a delightful young core of players who will peak in the coming seasons. And they’re fun as hell. That’s more than enough for now.
7. RB LEIPZIG
Key stats (per 90): 2.7 goals, 2.8 xG, 17.3 shots, 5.7 shots of 0.1+ xG
Key players: Emil Forsberg (two goals, one assist, 0.87 xG+xA/90), Angelino (one goal, seven chances created, 0.74 xG+xA/90), Christopher Nkunku (one assist, seven chances created, four shots on goal)
System over stars. Julian Nagelsmann’s RB Leipzig lost Timo Werner to Chelsea and kept winning, taking down Atletico Madrid to reach the Champions League semis and beginning the young Bundesliga season back atop the table. They have already scored easy wins over Mainz and poor Schalke 04 and scored a solid 1-1 road draw at Bayer Leverkusen. While they drew a Champions League group with both PSG and Manchester United, their current form is about 1,000 times better than United’s at the moment.
Already, six different Red Bulls have scored, and five have provided assists. Veteran Forsberg has led the way while new additions like Hwang Hee-chan (from Salzburg) and Alexander Sorloth (Crystal Palace via Trabzonspor) get their footing, and Nkunku hasn’t even found fifth gear yet. Who knows if Bayern will let the Bundesliga title race become an actual race, but RBL are positioned for another excellent season regardless.
Key stats (per 90): 20.8 shots, 2.5 xG, 84 percent pass completion rate in opponent half, 5.2 shots of 0.1 xG
Key players: Memphis Depay (four goals, 14 chances created, 1.28 xG+xA/90), Karl Toko Ekambi (2.49 xG, 0.86 xG+xA/90), Houssem Aouar (0.73 xG+xA/90)
For the second straight season, Les Gones are doing everything right besides actually winning. They’re hogging the ball (64 percent possession, second-best in Ligue 1), taking loads of shots (0.23 per possession, first), and finishing 61 percent of their possessions in the attacking third (second) to opponents’ 29 percent (first). And yet, they’re 14th in Ligue 1 through six matches. Their 15.2 xG have produced seven actual goals. They used all their good fortune in rolling to the Champions League semis this past summer, and left none of it for league play.
… Though none of this means they aren’t super fun. They somehow managed to hold onto both Depay and Aouar (for now) through the transfer window, and both Moussa Dembele and Toko Ekambi, added from Villarreal in January, are doing everything asked of them besides actually scoring. Being that they have over 200 combined career goals, that will theoretically change soon.
Key stats (per 90): 3.0 goals, 2.3 assists, 7.8 shots on goal, 6.5 shots of 0.1+ xG (most among the Big Five leagues)
Key players: Son Heung-Min (six goals, one assist), Harry Kane (three goals, six assists), Pierre-Emile Hojbjerg (one assist, 91 percent pass completion rate in the attacking third)
Son Heung-Min and Harry Kane have thrived together since the arrival of Jose Mourinho midway through last season. Photo by Tottenham Hotspur FC/Tottenham Hotspur FC via Getty Images
This is a safe space. You can admit it, I won’t tell anybody: Jose Mourinho’s Spurs are fun as hell right now. When he’s got great attacking pieces, they tend to attack well — here’s your reminder that the La Liga goal-scoring record is held by Mourinho’s Real Madrid — and since his late-2019 hire, Mourinho’s Spurs have averaged 2.1 points per match, a top-two pace, when both Son and Kane are in the lineup. They are a perfect pair of vertical attackers, and Mourinho is letting them cook.
At some point, we’ll learn what happens when Son and Kane aren’t both in the lineup. That didn’t work out so well last year, but Steven Bergwijn hasn’t been asked to do much in league play yet, and Spurs brought in loanees Gareth Bale (from Real Madrid) and Carlos Vinicius (from Benfica) for this exact purpose.
4. INTER MILAN
Key stats (per 90): 3.3 goals, 2.3 assists, 17.0 shots, 85 percent pass completion rate in the attacking third
Key players: Romelu Lukaku (three goals, 1.19 xG+xA/90), Lautaro Martinez (three goals), Achraf Hakimi (two assists, one goal, 0.93 xG+xA/90)
Inter came up just short of the Scudetto last year, but they managed to hold onto Martinez through the transfer window and added wonderful wing threats in the 21-year-old Hakimi and Ivan Perisic, who spent 2019-20 on loan with Bayern. They’ve been impossibly entertaining so far, winning matches by 4-3 and 5-2 scorelines and nicking a 1-1 road draw off Lazio. Lukaku and Martinez have been prolific, and Alexis Sanchez has put himself in dangerous positions, too.
Allowing six goals in three matches sure is fun, but it’s not optimal for contention purposes. Inter added former Bayern and Barcelona midfielder/enforcer Arturo Vidal late in the transfer window; we’ll see if Antonio Conte’s Nerazzurri begin to play with a little more control and a little less chaos. It would probably be a good thing for them despite likely being a bad thing for neutrals.
Key stats (per 90): 3.0 goals, 2.3 assists, 2.8 big chances created
Key players: Dominic Calvert-Lewin (six goals), James Rodriguez (three goals, two assists, 12 chances created), Richarlison (one goal, two assists, 0.81 xG+xA/90)
We’ve gotten a glimpse of what this Premier League season could be — Everton and Villa playing attractive attacking football and challenging for a Champions League spot alongside a particularly fun Liverpool, Jose Mourinho’s Tottenham, a potentially prolific Chelsea, a rebounding Man City, etc., all while tons of goals find the net — and it will be a letdown if or when things revert to form.
Ian Darke and Don Hutchison react to Everton’s flying start after a 4-1 win over West Ham in the Carabao Cup.
In the short term, there’s been nothing fluky about Everton’s 4-0 start. They top the league in xG differential, and they are basically performing as a better version of Leeds — they don’t finish all that many possessions deep in the opponent’s end, but when they do, they’re producing a gorgeous opportunity from it.
Rodriguez is the catalyst Everton desperately needed last year, and Calvert-Lewin has not only scored six times in four league matches; he’s also put in three in two League Cup matches. He’s absolutely torrid, and so are the Toffees.
2. BAYERN MUNICH
Key stats (per 90): 4.3 goals, 3.3 assists, 19.7 shots, 8.0 shots on goal, 4.7 big chances created
Key players: Robert Lewandowski (five goals, two assists, 1.99 xG+xA/90), Leroy Sane (one goal, two assists, 1.10 xG+xA/90), Serge Gnabry (three goals, 0.88 xG+xA/90)
It feels like cheating to call Bayern fun — of course they’re fun. Look at who they can afford! Despite losing Thiago to Liverpool and Philippe Coutinho and Ivan Perisic to their parent clubs Barca and Inter, respectively, Bayern still boast the Bundesliga’s best goal scorer (Lewandowski) and reigning assists leader (Thomas Müller, who already has three more this year), plus Gnabry, Sane (a new signing from Man City), and Joshua Kimmich and Leon Goretzka in midfield.
For good measure, they also added Eric Maxim Choupo-Moting from PSG as a Lewandowski backup, Marseille’s versatile full-back/winger Bouna Sarr and, via loan, brought back former star Douglas Costa from Juventus at the end of the transfer window.
Their fixtures list is going to be crowded in the months ahead, though they have enough pieces to basically field a full second squad that would also be one of the best and most enjoyable teams in Germany.
Key stats (per 90): 4.3 goals, 3.7 assists, 8.3 shots on goal, 5.7 shots of 0.1+ xG
Key players: Alejandro “Papu” Gomez (four goals, two assists), Luis Muriel (two goals, one assist), Duvan Zapata (one goal, two assists)
I had high hopes for a brilliant Serie A title race, and that’s what we’ve gotten so far. Inter, Atalanta, AC Milan and Napoli have all played like contenders for Juve’s crown, Lazio and Roma aren’t that far off, and Sassuolo could be, at worst, a thorn in contenders’ sides. The positive coronavirus tests are ticking upward in Italy and basically everywhere else at this point, and that brings with it a sense of foreboding. But on the pitch, the right teams all look really good.
Atalanta, though, have looked the best.
Gian Piero Gasperini’s squad has been Serie A’s most enjoyable and prolific for a while, and this season have won matches by scores of 4-2, 5-2 and, at Lazio, 4-1. Their versatility is astounding — eight players have already scored in league play (three more than once), and four already have multiple assists. New addition Sam Lammers (0.95 xG+xA/90) has only begun to produce, Josip Ilicic (15 goals and eight assists last season) just returned to training, and ex-Chelsea man Mario Pasalic, who was so effective last year, hasn’t even really gotten rolling yet.
Atalanta are everything you could possibly want if you’re looking to simply enjoy soccer, and they might have found a new gear in 2020-21.