Brighton in the Champions League? Wild Week 1 overreactions

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In the end, I guess I didn’t overreact enough? At this point last year, following the first handful of matches in the new 2022-23 European soccer season, I shared what I felt were reasonably bold predictions and overreactions based on what we had just seen.

I got four or five of them right. Paris Saint-Germain and Bayern Munich didn’t end up the best teams in Europe, but Erling Haaland did score 50 goals, Newcastle United did finish top-six, Union Berlin did reach the Champions League, Fulham did stay up, and AS Monaco nearly won the watchability race.

– Stream on ESPN+: LaLiga, Bundesliga, more (U.S.)

Making solid predictions is generally a good thing, but that’s not really the point of this exercise, is it? If they’re actually bold predictions, I shouldn’t hit on more than 50%. So let’s get bolder.

Based on what we’ve seen through the first two weekends of the season, here are some (hopefully less accurate) new predictions.

In just over two years, Brighton have shipped seven players to England’s richest clubs — midfielders Moisés Caicedo (Chelsea), Alexis Mac Allister (Liverpool) and Yves Bissouma (Tottenham Hotspur), fullbacks Marc Cucurella (Chelsea) and Ben White (Arsenal), attacker Leandro Trossard (Arsenal) and goalkeeper Robert Sánchez (Chelsea) — for a combined €358 million ($389 million). They also lost manager Graham Potter to Chelsea about a year ago.

And yet, they finished ahead of Spurs and Chelsea and nearly toppled Liverpool while finishing sixth. And two matches into 2023-24, they have quite possibly been the best team in the Premier League.

Brighton replaced Potter with someone even more effective (Roberto de Zerbi), and while their current squad is an odd mix of younger, future stars — likely with huge future transfer fees — and extreme veterans, it’s doing beautiful things. The Seagulls have scored the most goals in the league (eight, three more than second place) and allowed the fourth-fewest (two).

Have they played a good opponent yet? Of course not. Their matching 4-1 wins came against a team with the lowest Premier League roster value in ages (Luton Town) and a team that parted with its manager right before the season started because he was unsatisfied with how they were spending their money (Wolverhampton Wanderers).

Call it a hunch, but they probably aren’t going to enjoy 36 more 4-1 victories this season. But each year, they play a more precise and effective version of the ball they’ve played for a long time, and that’s definitely the case 5% of the way through 2023-24. They’ve been building the roster, Football Manager-style — transfer your best players, then acquire three more who will eventually be as good and keep getting better year after year — and they’ve improved at least slightly for four straight seasons. Why would a fifth straight be that much of a surprise?

Brighton has improved by 10 and 11 points, respectively, over the last two seasons. Theoretically, if they were to pull off a similar improvement this year, they would land in a 72- or 73-point range that typically scores you third or fourth place in the Premier League. But let’s be bold here and aim even higher.

They currently have one of the best left-backs in the league in Pervis Estupiñán, and Kaoru Mitoma is quickly developing into one of the league’s scariest wingers as well. Granted, Solly March probably isn’t going to continue averaging 1.5 goals per match, but in the 29-year old March and fellow veterans like forward Danny Welbeck, midfielders Pascal Gross and James Milner, defender Lewis Dunk and goalkeeper Jason Steele, all of whom are 32 or older, they have a sturdy veteran base that knows what the hell it’s doing.

In a league in which everyone else is feeling peer pressure to spend, therefore battling constant “We have 17 new players to break in!” issues of team chemistry, why couldn’t Brighton, the team with the most patience and clearest plan, top either a banged-up and tired-looking Manchester City or a laboring Arsenal, with tight wins over Nottingham Forest and Crystal Palace, to finish in the top two?

If Brighton hasn’t been the best team in England through two matches, it’s possible Brentford has. In a 2-2 draw with Tottenham and 3-0 pummeling of Fulham, Brentford have averaged an xG differential of +2.2 per match, dramatically better than anyone else’s to date. (Brighton is second at +1.3, Manchester City third at +1.2. Arsenal, by the way, is ninth at +0.3.)

In the absence of suspended star Ivan Toney, Bryan Mbeumo and Yoane Wissa have erupted for five goals, and Brentford has created both the best shots in the league (0.22 xG per shot, by far No. 1) and allowed the second-worst (0.06 xG per shot, behind only City at 0.05).

Stylistically, they are completely different from Brighton — passive pressing, lots of numbers behind the ball at all times — but they have mastered the art of balancing patience with sudden attacks. They have attempted 32% of their shots with under two defenders between shot and goal (second-most). Opponents, meanwhile: just 7% of shots, fewest in the league. You typically win the match when you take all the good shots.

After jumping from 46 points (13th place) in their first year in the top division, they jumped to 59 (ninth) last season. Because they don’t play a specifically modern style like Brighton, the only player they’ve lost to a major club of late is goalkeeper David Raya, who is currently on a loan-to-buy deal with Arsenal. Like Freiburg or Union Berlin in Germany, they’ve figured out a style that both works for them and mostly keeps buzzards at bay. And it could earn them an even higher spot on the table this year.

That spot will have to come at the expense of someone else, of course. If Brighton and Brentford are both nabbing top-six finishes in this scenario, that means at least three big clubs aren’t.

Chelsea is an obvious candidate considering they finished 12th last year. While their recent run of obnoxious (and relatively aimless) spending has potentially improved their utterly dreadful 2022-23 attack, the Blues have still been terribly inconsistent early in the season. That is to be expected when you’re giving over half your minutes to players aged 23 or younger.

Liverpool will be toeing a tenuous (and ridiculously entertaining) line between all-out attack and exposed defense all season, and Newcastle has to prove it can maintain a solid level in league play with the Champions League on the docket. But in terms of early form, it would appear Tottenham Hotspur and Manchester United are the most likely other struggle candidates.

Spurs finished eighth last season, then transferred Harry Kane and hired Ange Postecoglou to completely revamp their playing style. I think it will work eventually, but it wouldn’t be a surprise if they were also inconsistent in 2023-24 considering their lack of depth up front and the fact that when you’re building a more aggressive, press-heavy style, you occasionally get ripped apart in defense. (Thus far, Spurs are 14th in both shots allowed per possession and xG allowed per shot.)

Manchester United, meanwhile, has scored just one goal, and while they have been unlucky in that regard (they’ve created shots worth 4.3 xG), they’ve also been lucky to allow only two (opponents have created shots worth 4.1 xG). They were fortunate to beat a Wolves team that Brighton pummeled, and despite much greater continuity than they enjoyed last season — enough so that I felt they were candidates for a fast start — they have been wobbly. The competition levels up top are such that they probably can’t afford too slow a start.

There’s nothing more fun than realizing you’re about to step on the same rake all over again, but here I am, once again talking myself into Bayer Leverkusen.

A year ago, I was all-in on this team being a dark-horse Bundesliga contender. Even without still-injured star Florian Wirtz, they boasted dynamite attackers like Moussa Diaby and Patrik Schick, and their speed on the edge, personified most directly by young right back Jeremie Frimpong, was among the best in Europe. But they suffered a dismal start, with Schick embarking on a year-long finishing slump (which certainly made Wirtz’s early absence more costly) and fired manager Gerardo Seoane less than two months into the season.

They then hired Xabi Alonso, and Wirtz returned in solid form. Frimpong found a new gear (nine goals and 11 assists in all competitions), and Leverkusen played at a top-four level after Alonso’s hire. They got started too late, but again flashed potential. And then this summer, they turned Diaby (transferred to Aston Villa for €55 million) into thrilling young Union St. Gilloise forward Victor Boniface (€20.5 million), 20-year old Brazilian defender Arthur (€7 million) and a pair of sturdy veterans in winger Jonas Hofmann (€10 million) and midfielder and former Arsenal captain Granit Xhaka (€15 million).

After playing at a high level for the last seven months of 2022-23, they have crafted a deeper, more physical and more mature (but still quite fast) squad. And they made the biggest season-opening statement in the Bundesliga last weekend, taking down an RB Leipzig team that had just blown out Bayern Munich in the German Super Cup. Boniface had a beautiful assist on a Frimpong goal, and Wirtz scored in transition in a thrilling 3-2 win. RBL created more dangerous scoring opportunities than one would prefer, but the team also has more exciting young attacking talent than almost anyone in Europe.

The Bundesliga race could go in two completely different directions this season. On one hand, it’s fair to assume that Harry Kane will give Bayern Munich exactly the push up front that they lacked last season and that, after three straight seasons of diminishing returns — 82 points in 2019-20, then 78, 77 and 71 in the three years since — they right the ship and roll to the title.

On the other hand, you can make the case that Borussia Dortmund (the best team in the league last season when Sébastien Haller and Karim Adeyemi were both healthy), RB Leipzig (rejuvenated with said young attacking talent) and Leverkusen have all improved themselves despite recent big-money transfer sales. RBL has pasted Bayern in Munich twice since mid-May, and Leverkusen just beat RB Leipzig.

I’m just saying, Caesars has 2000-to-1 title odds on Leverkusen at the moment, and their odds are better than that, no matter how odd it might feel betting on (a) Bayern to lose a race after 11 straight titles or (b) a club nicknamed “Neverkusen” actually finishing the job.

Bayern went all-in on the Kane acquisition this summer, nearly waiting too long to accede to Spurs owner Daniel Levy’s terms, but finally completed the deal for England’s captain and almost immediately reaped the rewards. After winning only 2-1 at Werder Bremen last May, they began their Bundesliga campaign on Friday with a 4-1 win in Bremen.

Kane is still learning his teammates’ names, but he still offered a couple of perfectly Kane-ian moments on Friday. First, he sprang Leroy Sané for a gorgeous breakaway goal in the opening minutes; then, after Bayern considered ceding control of the match to the home team early in the second half, he combined with Alphonso Davies to score his first Bundesliga goal and put the match away on a lovely counterattack.

The match was a perfect reminder of Kane’s overall skill set — his goal-scoring ability is similar to that of former Bayern great Robert Lewandowski (whose absence was noteworthy last season), but he’s also far more involved in the passing department. And if the opening match was any indication, he could produce a gaudy total in both the scoring and assists departments this season.

In 2020-21 with Spurs, Kane produced a combined 37 goals and assists in league play (23 goals, 14 assists), narrowly topping his previous career high (36 in 2016-17). Granted, there are only 34 league matches in Bundesliga play, four fewer than the Premier League, but his odds of topping that total are solid, especially if he’s able to help both the mercurial Sane and Davies to overcome their respective developmental stagnation. Bayern still has an embarrassment of riches up front — Sane, Jamal Musiala, Serge Gnabry, Kingsley Coman, Thomas Müller — and Kane will be an awfully impressive cog to place atop the attack.

That could be either good or bad for Jude Bellingham, as well as Real Madrid.

Good: The former Borussia Dortmund midfielder, acquired for €103 million this summer, has been absurd early in his Madrid tenure.

In his first two matches, both wins, he has scored three of Real Madrid’s five goals, chipping in an assist as well. Playing in far more of an attacking-specific role than he did with BVB (where he was basically a defensive midfielder and attacking midfielder at the same time), he has meshed beautifully with players like Vinícius Júnior and Rodrygo.

It’s difficult not to be excited about the prospect of getting to watch Bellingham, Vinicius, Rodrygo, Aurélien Tchouaméni and Eduardo Camavinga (and, yes, maybe Kylian Mbappé, too) playing together for years to come, especially if Bellingham just keeps getting better and better from an attacking standpoint.

Bad: He might have to score a large number of goals because this attack really doesn’t have a center of gravity.

Carlo Ancelotti has basically deployed a 4-1-2-1-2 formation thus far, with Bellingham behind Rodrygo and Vinicius up front. It’s worked out — they outscored Athletic Club and Almeria by a combined 5-1 – but the underlying stats belied some weaknesses. They scored five goals from shots worth only 3.1 xG, which will be hard to sustain, and they allowed shots worth 1.8 xG in the process.

While they’re taking plenty of shots (0.22 per possession, third in the league), their average shot quality is dreadful (0.08 xG per shot, 14th); only 2.6% of their shots have been worth at least 0.3 xG, third-worst in LaLiga. They’re allowing a high volume of shots as well (0.15 shots allowed per possession, 15th). Bellingham’s brilliance in front of goal has prevented an early misstep, but Vini’s production is down, and without Karim Benzema as a focal point, everyone’s learning new roles.

Bellingham could lead Real Madrid in scoring because he’s brilliant, but he also might end up doing it because no one else in a suspect attack could.

Was that … fun? Did I just have fun watching a Juventus match? For at least a little while?

After a joyless 2022-23 campaign, during which they were eliminated in the Champions League group stage and followed around by the dark cloud of point deductions — a 10-point knock ended up dropping them to seventh overall, and they are out of European competitions this season — Juve made minimal additions over the summer (primarily just American winger Timothy Weah) and instead focused primarily on who they already had in-house. And against an often tricky Udinese, they scored twice in the first 20 minutes and cruised, 3-0.

Being that they’re still managed by Max Allegri, they sent their attack into hibernation in the second half, but were never seriously threatened. Midfielder Adrien Rabiot, re-signed over the summer, was brilliant, and the attacking duo of Federico Chiesa and Dusan Vlahovic was downright joyful while combining for two goals and an assist.

𝟏𝟐𝟎 𝐬𝐞𝐜𝐨𝐧𝐝𝐢 ➡️ @federicochiesa, un fulmine! ⚡⛪ #UdineseJuve pic.twitter.com/C3tDF8zf9h

Granted, predicting that a team that won nine straight Serie A titles in the 2010s (with two Champions League finals appearances) will win another one feels like the opposite of bold. But haphazard spending and iffy management have rendered them afterthoughts in three straight title races; even without the deduction, they’d have finished 18 points behind Napoli last season.

They have been trending in the wrong direction for a while, but they were not burdened by the requirement to spend big money this offseason — something that seems to make things worse as often as better for many huge clubs — and without the Champions League or any other European competition to worry about, they won’t need as much depth to make noise in Serie A. A refreshed and high-quality Juventus squad could do domestic damage this season, and they started out doing exactly that.

Okay, let’s get really bold now. There haven’t been too many surprises early in the LaLiga campaign. Real Madrid indeed has six points from two matches, and while Barcelona suffered a frustrating draw in their opening match (just as they did last year), they have yet to allow a goal; while they’ve scored just two, they’ve attempted shots worth 5.0 xG. They’re fine. Atletico Madrid is, too, despite getting sucked into a dreary nil-nil draw with Real Betis on Sunday.

Even if the Big Three play at typical levels, however, there’s always the race for No. 4 to follow. Last year’s No. 4-6 — Real Sociedad, Villarreal and Real Betis — have outscored opponents by just a combined 6-5 through four matches, while Europa League winner Sevilla has gotten absolutely ripped apart in defense, giving up six goals in a pair of losses. The door might be open to a usurper, and two intriguing candidates have emerged thus far.

The first is Rayo Vallecano. The Madrid club with the lightning bolt on its chest has overachieved in recent seasons, finishing 12th in its first season after promotion (2021-22), then hinting at a higher ceiling last year before finishing 11th. They lost manager Andoni Iraola (AFC Bournemouth) and left back Fran García (Real Madrid) this summer, but with former Elche manager Francisco now in charge, they’ve begun this season by doing something top-four teams tend to have to do: manhandle lesser opponents. They thumped both Almeria and Granada by matching 2-0 scores, and while their dual clean sheets were probably a bit fortunate, they’ve pulled a Brentford early on, taking lots of high-quality shots (0.14 xG per shot, third in the offense-challenged league) and allowing few (0.08, 10th). Veteran winger Isi Palazón has been particularly strong, and Rayo is handling its business at a time when other aspiring top-four clubs are not.

If Rayo is too much of an outsider to buy into, what about a club with a Europa League title and two UEFA Super Cup trophies to its name and a pair of Champions League final appearances at the turn of the century? Valencia was in the round of 16 as recently as 2020, too, and if you ignore that pesky “Everything has fallen apart recently” thing, they feel like a logical breakthrough candidate.

Things have fallen apart recently, though, to the point where fans were protesting against ownership outside the Mestalla in February. They have finished ninth, 13th, ninth and 16th over the last four years and only avoided relegation by two points last season. But they were also dreadfully unlucky, winning just seven of the 31 matches decided by 0-1 goals and finishing seventh in the league in xG differential.

Two matches into 2023-24, they’ve flipped that all around. They’ve beaten both Sevilla (2-1) and Las Palmas (1-0), actually living up to their xG averages and overcoming a lack of shot attempts (0.10 per possession, 16th in the league) by allowing even fewer (a league-low 0.08 per possession). The defensive midfield combo of Mouctar Diakhaby and new addition Pepelu has been a wrecking ball, and going back to mid-April, they’ve pulled 21 points from their last 11 league matches under manager Ruben Baraja. That’s a top-four pace.

Despite winning two more Ligue 1 titles over the past two years, it’s fair to say that after back-to-back Champions League round-of-16 exits, PSG has been in need of a leadership infusion for a while. They’re getting it whether they were ready or not. Lionel Messi left for MLS, Neymar for Saudi Arabia. The club was until recently in a standoff with Kylian Mbappe, who appears likely to leave next summer. (Granted, we’ve assumed that before.)

In the last two years, they’ve added a number of sturdy and exciting players either in their prime (wingers Ousmane Dembélé and Marco Asensio, center-backs Lucas Hernández and Milan Skriniar) or approaching it (fullback Nuno Mendes, midfielders Manuel Ugarte, Vitinha and Fabián Ruiz, forward Goncalo Ramos). They brought manager Luis Enrique aboard this summer, too.

One could say these are exactly the types of longer-term moves that could work out beautifully for a club that never lacks for money but often lacks a plan. But in the short-term, it’s been … unconvincing.

They’ve begun the Ligue 1 season with a scoreless stalemate with Lorient and a 1-1 draw with Toulouse. Granted, the results were a bit unlucky — in the two matches they attempted 36 shots worth 3.6 xG and allowed 12 worth 1.3 — but they’ve totally lacked high-quality scoring chances. They’re averaging just 0.09 xG per shot (10th in the league), an average that includes an Mbappe penalty, and only 5.6% of their shots have been worth at least 0.3 xG (15th). They have yet to score in open play. When Enrique’s teams fail, it’s typically because of that exact problem, and a young attack with most of its shots coming from Ramos (22 years old), Vitinha (23), Achraf Hakimi (24) and Lee Kang-In (22) is not coming up with much individual brilliance.

Obviously normal production from Mbappe will help, and PSG isn’t going to finish the season with 38 draws. Maybe a sturdy defense (and extreme ball-hogging abilities — they’re at 77% possession through two games) will buy enough time for the new attack to click. But Monaco is creating loads of high-quality scoring chances again, Rennes and Montpellier have begun the season in torrid form, Brest and Lille are generating better scoring chances than PSG, and Marseille is allowing fewer scoring chances.

Last year’s runners-up, Lens, have begun with even more of a dud than PSG, but Ligue 1 has looked deep and solid early. If PSG lost the title race to Lille with a much better attack two years ago, they can lose this one too. They could even lose it to two teams if they’re at this level for too long.

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Brighton in the Champions League? Wild Week 1 overreactions

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