For going on five years now, the world soccer hierarchy has looked like this: Barcelona, Real Madrid, Bayern Munich … and then everybody else. So, as players return from the international break and domestic leagues resume play this weekend, it’s time to ask: Who exactly is the best of the rest? This season, three teams have the chief claims, but questions surrounding their legitimacy make the answer as unclear as ever.
The “Awww, It’s Sweet That You Think That” Division
Manchester United: Until they were thumped by Arsenal two weekends ago, United seemed to be gathering steam for a title challenge. They’re better than they’ve been over the past few seasons, and — Emirates steamrolling aside — Louis van Gaal has implemented a midfield press that’s a true defensive force. Still, it’s way too early to say they’re better than a couple of other teams in their league, let alone contenders for fourth in the world.
Chelsea: Two months ago, they’d have been contenders — if not front-runners — for this spot. Now those same players with that same manager in that same league are simply not very good at all. Life comes at you fast, man.
Fiorentina: The surprise Serie A leaders get to be here because they are the surprise Serie A leaders. They’ve played well so far, but they don’t have a group of players tested at the heights of Europe. Plus, it’s only seven games. Congrats on the hot start, but get back to us in five months.
Inter Milan: See: Fiorentina. Substitute “second-place team” for “leaders,” and add Roberto Mancini.
Villarreal: Also, see: Fiorentina. Substitute “La Liga” for “Serie A.”
The “Why Aren’t You Better?” Division
Atletico Madrid: If you looked at all of their results over the past few seasons, Atletico Madrid would have as good an argument as anybody for fourth in the world. Two seasons ago, they were in the Champions League final. But this team isn’t as good. There’s no Diego Costa or Arda Turan. The resolute midfield of Gabi and Tiago is two years older and has two seasons’ worth of added Diego Simeone miles on its odometer. Plus, and I can’t stress this enough, Fernando Torres is now prominently involved in all of Atletico Madrid’s big games. Starting Torres at forward might be enough to single-handedly disqualify them from consideration.
In related news: The defensive side of the ball remains resolute as ever, but Atletico’s attack has yet to come together. Simeone’s history in Madrid suggests it eventually will, but right now the team is only seventh in the league in expected goals scored.1 What’s maybe more concerning is that they’ve scored only one goal off corner kicks and set pieces. Last season, they scored 26, eight more than anybody else; they also led the league with 18 such goals two seasons ago.
All stats via ESPN Stats & Info.
Now, none of this is enough to be a major concern going forward, but put it all together and you have a team that is hovering somewhere below the magical heights it’s reached over the past few seasons.
Juventus: Coming into the season, Juventus were in pole position for the race for fourth. Last season, they reached the Champions League final by beating one of the big three, Real Madrid, in the semis. But much like Atletico, the previous surprise European runner-up, this Juventus team is not as good as last year’s vintage. Carlos Tevez, Andrea Pirlo, and Arturo Vidal are gone. Claudio Marchisio and the newly arrived Sami Khedira have been fighting off injuries, as has striker Álvaro Morata. And amid all of that upheaval, the team has struggled to get results: They sit 12th in Serie A with eight points from seven games.
Things, however, promise to improve. In addition to the injuries, Juventus have a mysterious cloud of rotten finishing luck following them around. They have the third-worst shooting percentage in the league (6.6 percent) despite shooting from the fourth-closest distance (18.5 yards). Given that, it’s no surprise their nine goals scored are well below the 14.46 expected — the biggest gap in the league. Of course, things aren’t perfectly fine, either. It’s certainly possible the change in personnel and a continued conversion to manager Max Allegri’s preferred, somewhat more conservative 4-3-1-2 formation are dragging those numbers down. But even if that’s the case, the numbers should still get better.
There are already such signs. A few weeks ago, they absolutely suffocated a good Sevilla team in the Champions League, winning 2-0 and outshooting them by an astounding 24-1. Also, Paul Pogba played this pass against Manchester City.
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In short: Things are fine at Juventus, but “fine” doesn’t make you the fourth-best team in the world.
Arsenal: Before the international break, Arsenal had the most Arsenal week ever. They dealt with a comical home loss to Olympiacos that seriously threatens their chances of making it out of the Champions League group stage. The defeat makes it zero points from two matches, and back-to-back showdowns with Bayern are coming next. It was the exact kind of performance that always gets the “Arsenal is soft, weak, and never good enough” machine going. Then, a few days later, they blew the doors off Manchester United, scoring three goals in 20 minutes and never looking back. It was the exact kind of performance that gets the “Arsenal can finally win the Premier League” machine going.
They’re hopeless self-saboteurs. And they could seriously win the title.
Everything about the current version of Arsenal screams “This is a very, very good team.” They dominate possession, inundate opponents with an endless barrage of shots, and give up comparatively few chances on the other end. Mesut Özil, Alexis Sánchez, and a healthy Theo Walcott make up a terrifying attacking group — a perfect mix of speed, technique, and creative ability.
Yet, despite that, they’re still the same old Arsenal. The team needs depth and defensive midfield help, but the only summer arrival was a goalkeeper. Arsenal can be great, but we have a decade of evidence suggesting they won’t be able to do so consistently. Forget fourth in the world; they might finish fourth in their own Champions League group.
Now for the true contenders …
The “They Might Be Giants” Division
Borussia Dortmund: The core of this team has been near the top of the Bundesliga for years. Finishing seventh last season was the exception to the typically dominant rule. When Dortmund got pasted 5-1 by Bayern Munich two weekends ago, the lineup that took the field contained four players — Lukasz Piszczek, Mats Hummels, Ilkay Gündogan, and Sven Bender — who started when the teams played in the 2012-13 Champions League final. A fifth, Marco Reus, came off the bench. Shinji Kagawa also started Sunday, and while he was on Manchester United during Dortmund’s Champions League run, he played on both of Dortmund’s Bundesliga-winning teams in 2010-11 and 2011-12. Now led by Thomas Tuchel after Jurgen Klopp left in the wake of last season’s disappointment, Dortmund gets the benefit of years of a very high baseline.
It’s a shame they aren’t in the Champions League, which would allow them to play other major, non-Bayern teams and give us a better sense of just how good they are. In the Bundesliga, they’re clearly not as good as Bayern Munich but clearly better than everybody else. They’re second-best in just about every category imaginable: goals, expected goals, and expected goals conceded. They’ve conceded 11 actual goals, but that might have something to do with keeper Roman Bürki running around like a chicken with his head cut off against Bayern Munich, arms flailing as the ball went into the empty net behind him:
We might never be able to finger how good Dortmund actually are this season, but the collection of talent they have, combined with one of the most well-respected young managers in the game, suggests they’d be able to compete at the latter stages of the Champions League. For this season, Europa League Thursdays will have to do.
The “Eye of the Beholder” Division
Manchester City: Here are two statements:
• Manchester City are the best Premier League team of the decade. They haven’t finished lower than second since 2010-11 — and even then they were tied on points with Chelsea and finished third because of their inferior goal differential. If it wasn’t for West Ham managing to score twice from their first two shots on target and then withstanding a 27-shot barrage, along with Tottenham Hotspur getting gifted goals from blown offside calls, Manuel Pellegrini’s side would be undefeated and running away with the league. They’ve been stuck in Champions League groups with Bayern Munich the past two seasons, and that’s led to consecutive round-of-16 matchups against Barcelona. With a more equitable draw, they’d have made deeper runs in the tournament. With a key away win at Borussia Mönchengladbach this season, they’re already in a strong position to advance.
• Manchester City are a bunch of impostors. They threw away a chance to put a hammerlock on the Premier League when they couldn’t even get past lowly West Ham, and then they showed a lack of ability to overcome adversity when they melted down against Spurs following a blown offside call. Sure, they lost twice to Barcelona, but they only played them because they didn’t know the tiebreaker situation one year and then failed to take any points from CSKA Moscow the next. And besides, shouldn’t the fourth-best team in the world occasionally be able to beat Barcelona, anyway? This season, they’ve already lost against Juventus at home, and it took a last-minute penalty for them to overcome a mediocre Gladbach team. They’re once again putting themselves in position to finish second in the group and then complain about an unfortunate (but self-inflicted) draw.
The truth, of course, is somewhere in the middle. It’s obvious that City are an incredibly talented, deep, well-built team. Their major offseason additions of Raheem Sterling and Kevin De Bruyne have slotted in seamlessly. It’s early, but it’s hard to see their streak of top-two finishes in the Premier League ending this season. Despite flirting with disaster by losing their first match at home, they’re still in decent shape in their Champions League group. Domestically, they’re first in shots, shots on target, shots allowed, and expected goals conceded. They’re second in expected goals scored and shots on target allowed. And they’ve done it all while dealing with injuries to David Silva, Yaya Touré, Vincent Kompany, and Eliaquim Mangala.
In the immediate future, the biggest problem is the loss of Agüero, who scored five goals in the most recent game against Newcastle but then hurt his hamstring while playing for Argentina. He’s the best player in England, and now he’s likely out until late November. But considering Agüero’s injury history, the club should’ve expected there to be at least one extended stretch without him. They’re good and deep enough to cope temporarily, and if they do, maybe this is the year they’ll finally win their Champions League group and/or get a more favorable draw. Maybe they’ll coast to the quarterfinals, win a tough matchup, and show up in the semifinals. There’s no reason this team shouldn’t be capable of that; they just haven’t done it yet.
The “Coward’s Pick” Division
Paris Saint-Germain: Calling PSG the fourth-best team in the world is easy — you know they won’t disappoint you for months. At this point, they’re not likely to play a game that’s both challenging and meaningful until the Champions League knockout rounds sometime next year. They’ve got a five-point lead in a weak Ligue 1, where they’re the only undefeated team. In the Champions League, they have back-to-back matchups with Real Madrid looming, but thanks to two wins from their first two, advancement to the knockout stages is all but set. If they beat Madrid two games in a row, it’ll be tough not to give them the nod for no. 4 (if not higher), but that’ll disappear if, like City, they don’t improve on recent Champions League performances. Barcelona are also PSG’s bogey side, as they’ve knocked the French club out in the quarterfinals of two of the past three tournaments.
Talentwise, the Parisians are there with any team in the world. In attack, Zlatan Ibrahimovic is supported by Edinson Cavani and summer acquisition Ángel Di María. That trio is supported by midfield playmakers Javier Pastore and Marco Verratti. Meanwhile, the spine consists of the Brazilian center-back tandem of Thiago Silva and David Luiz (who is actually very good and not nearly as flighty as you remember him being from the World Cup or his Chelsea days).
They’re a stacked, well-rounded team, full of stars who complement each other. Are they better than Manchester City? There’s no way to answer that. But I’m certainly not going to be the one to tell Zlatan he isn’t.