The American football season is easy by comparison. Your team has either 12 or 17 games — depending on if you most closely follow college football or the NFL — and at a glance you can piece together the season’s hardest stretches, most important games, et cetera. Whether you’re a writer or a fan, you can make sense of the calendar. You can craft a battle plan of sorts.
The European football season, on the other hand, is endless. It starts before the American football season and ends months after it. When Tottenham Hotspur‘s Antonio Conte and Chelsea‘s Thomas Tuchel nearly came to blows after a wild and contentious derby match, there was no need to get excited and check the calendar for when the rematch occurs: It’s six months from now! Many things (including an entire World Cup) will happen between now and then!
Neither the matches nor the narrative machinations ever stop. Somehow, the transfer rumors never stop either. In other words, it’s a lot more difficult to craft a plan for the season, but you can at least create a set of guidelines to follow from week to week to get the most enjoyment out of the season. So, here are mine.
Each week I try to keep up with not only the biggest match-ups but also the most bitter match-ups, the most interesting players and the games involving teams that are either particularly fun, particularly weird or both. Here are the guiding principles I’m following this season.
Make sure your internal calendar doesn’t stop with the major rivalries
Each week indeed starts with some fence posts, so consider this a loose guide for the biggest and/or most intense matches of each week between now and the World Cup. It’s hard to pin particularly huge stakes to single games this early in a long season, but these matches will deliver plenty of bang regardless of the stakes.
Weekend of August 19-21: Liverpool at Manchester United (Aug. 22), AC Milan at Atalanta, PSG at Lille. The big match comes on Monday night, as Manchester United attempts to arrest its ridiculous and existentially awful start, but any Milan trip to Bergamo produces a wild atmosphere while PSG vs. Lille is a battle of the last two Ligue 1 champs.
Weekend of August 26-28: Roma at Juventus, Marseille at Nice, Borussia Monchengladbach at Bayern Munich. Gladbach is Bayern’s perpetual bogey team — one Bayern win in their last five meetings — and we’ll get a great look at what Roma has to offer this weekend. But honestly, Nice vs. Marseille might be the headliner. Few matchups in Europe are more intense, for better or worse.
Weekend of September 2-4: Arsenal at Manchester United, Inter Milan at AC Milan, Barcelona at Sevilla. LaLiga’s slate is back-loaded a bit, with a lot of the biggest derbies of the first half of the season coming in January but Barca vs. Sevilla should deliver, and the Milan Derby always delivers.
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Weekend of September 9-11: Tottenham Hotspur at Manchester City, Borussia Dortmund at RB Leipzig, Nottingham Forest at Leeds United (Sept. 12). Spurs vs. City and BVB vs. RBL are easy enough to explain, but if you want atmosphere, tune into the first Forest vs. Leeds Premier League match since 1999 and turn the volume up loud.
Weekend of September 16-18: Real Madrid at Atletico Madrid, Schalke 04 at Borussia Dortmund, Leeds United at Manchester United. Two of the most famous derbies in Europe plus, in Leeds vs. United, one of the most underrated (and, for most of the 2000s, dormant)? Yes, please.
Rob Dawson explains why Cristiano Ronaldo is as big a problem as any for Erik ten Hag at Manchester United.
Weekend of September 30-October 2: Tottenham Hotspur at Arsenal, Manchester United at Manchester City, Roma at Inter Milan. The North London Derby could carry even heavier stakes than normal this season. (The Manchester Derby? Perhaps not so much.)
Weekend of October 7-9: Bayern Munich at Borussia Dortmund, Liverpool at Arsenal, Koln at Borussia Mönchengladbach, Juventus at AC Milan, Lens at Lille, Nantes at Rennes. Bayern vs. Dortmund has become the Bundesliga’s marquee match given that both teams end up at the top of the table, but Koln vs. Gladbach could be even more intense. We’ve got a couple of huge, regional French rivalries this weekend, too.
Weekend of October 14-16: Barcelona at Real Madrid, Manchester City at Liverpool, Juventus at Torino, Marseille at PSG. El Clasico and City vs. Liverpool in the same weekend? That automatically qualifies this as the biggest weekend of the early season.
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Weekend of October 21-23: Manchester United at Chelsea, Napoli at Roma, Sevilla at Real Madrid. By now, we should understand the stakes of the Serie A title race and whether Napoli or Roma, though intense, might or might not be a part of that. (We’ll also know what the stakes of United’s season are by now, too.)
Weekend of October 28-30: This is the one weekend of the early season that really doesn’t boast an obvious bellcow match.
Weekend of November 4-6: Arsenal at Chelsea, Sevilla at Real Betis, Bayer Leverkusen at Köln (Nov. 8), Lazio at Roma, Liverpool at Tottenham Hotspur, Inter Milan at Juventus, Lyon at Marseille. We finish up the pre-World Cup portion of the season with an absolutely massive set of matches. Goodness.
Understand the tightest races
It is folly to assign title significance to early matches: The season’s just too long, and we’ll wear ourselves out if we pay too much attention to the table too early. But we also head into each season with an understanding of which races might be tighter than others. It doesn’t hurt to acknowledge that.
The Italian Serie A title (the Scudetto). Juventus’ nearly decade-long title streak ended a couple of years ago and Serie A’s balance of power has been pretty blurry since. That’s bad for fans of the Old Lady, but it’s great for us. Inter and AC Milan have split the last two titles, Juve have added some fun, creative pieces this offseason, and both Napoli and Roma bring quite a bit of optimism into the 2022-23 campaign. Inter is the betting favorite at the moment, but no major title race could feature more teams or more plot twists.
Third and fourth place in the Premier League. For now, we’ll ignore Liverpool’s slow start (two draws from two matches) and assume that the title race again comes down to the Reds and Manchester City. But three other members of England’s Big Six — Tottenham Hotspur, Arsenal and, of course, Chelsea — seem to very much have their acts together this season, and only two of them can snare Champions League berths.
Fourth place in the Bundesliga. It’s fair to assume that Bayern and Borussia Dortmund will snare two of Germany’s four Champions League spots, and despite a slow start, RB Leipzig remain a pretty solid favorite as well. But who finishes fourth? Will Bayer Leverkusen get going after a dreadfully slow start? Will defense-heavy (and intensely lovable) upstarts Freiburg and Union Berlin continue to thrive? Are Borussia Monchengladbach ready for a rebound? What about Koln or Eintracht Frankfurt? Right now, FiveThirtyEight gives 13 teams at least an 8% chance of securing a Champions League slot!
Premier League relegation. Two weeks into the season, nearly every team in the Premier League has shown at least a hint of promise. But three teams will go down, of course, and FiveThirtyEight gives 11 teams — more than half the league! — at least a 10% chance of doing so. Heck, Manchester United are at 8%! Someone with either a massive bank account or a very good plan will be playing second-division ball next year.
Second place in Ligue 1. PSG have been rampant out of the gate this year and might run away with the title once again. Fine. But the second-best team in the country could be almost literally anyone in the league. Monaco? Marseille? Lyon? Lille? Rennes? A promoted team like Toulouse (we’ll get to them in a bit)? You could convince me of any of these.
Fourth place in LaLiga. The top four leagues in Europe — Premier League, LaLiga, Bundesliga, Serie A — command 16 of the current 32 bids in the Champions League. Of last year’s 16 qualifiers, no one feels more vulnerable to me than Sevilla.* They were awfully poor down the stretch last spring, and clubs like Real Betis, Villarreal and Real Sociedad are all hinting that they might have their respective acts together this season. Granted, they hinted at the same thing last year and couldn’t maintain form, but Sevilla should be preparing for a huge challenge here.
*Leverkusen is certainly making a case, too.
The “Fun, young-ish and making a spirited run at a Champions League spot (or better)” contenders
Each season features a set of clubs that might always have high expectations but manage to bring a lot of up-and-comer energy to the table. They are usually (but not always) pretty young and typically quite fun to watch. Here’s my best guess at this year’s batch:
Napoli. They scored the third-most goals in Serie A last season, allowed the second-fewest and finished with a better goal differential than champion AC Milan. Forward Victor Osimhen is one of the most fun players in Italy while newcomer Khvicha Kvaratskhelia, a 21-year old Georgia international winger acquired from Dinamo Batumi, made the best possible first impression this past week, recording both a goal and an assist in his club debut.
Whether or not they win their first Scudetto since 1990, you will never regret tuning into a Napoli match. They are intense and wonderfully optimistic. (To say the least, their 5-2 win over Hellas Verona on Monday was proof of concept in this regard. Man oh man, were they enjoying themselves.)
Arsenal. Yes, Arsenal. I’m honestly not sure how to respond to liking the moves the Gunners make in a given offseason, but adding Gabriel Jesus and Oleksandr Zinchenko — a pair of seasoned Manchester City title winners who are each somehow still just 25 years old — to one of the Premier League’s youngest and most high-upside rosters was fantastic business. Jesus has exploded for two goals and two assists in Arsenal’s first two matches (both wins), and the team is playing at a high level despite getting little from Bukayo Saka thus far.
This was the third-best team in England last season after a dreadful first three matches, and there’s legitimate reason to be optimistic that their five-season streak of Champions League absences might end soon, even if they’re going to have to beat out one similarly rich and organized team to get there.
Real Betis. There’s nothing particularly young about this Betis squad — only one player under 25 started in Los Verdiblancos’ debut romp over 10-man Elche — but Manuel Pellegrini’s squad, led in attack by Juanmi, Nabil Fekir and Borja Iglesias, was maybe LaLiga’s most optimistic and exciting last year, and the Betis crowd is one of Spain‘s best. Only a slow start kept them out of the top four last season.
Lyon. Like Arsenal, Lyon bring history and expectations to the table, but they’ve been stuck outside the top three for three straight years. Adding veterans Alexandre Lacazette, Nicolas Tagliafico and Corentin Tolisso to a lineup that features younger talents like winger Tete (22), midfielder Lucas Paqueta (24) and another newcomer, Johann Lepenant (19), could reap dividends. Tete looked particularly inspired in a season-opening win.
Basically everyone in Belgium. Do you enjoy the Bundesliga, but think its matches somehow aren’t chaotic enough? Say hello to the Jupiler Pro League! It featured easily the best title race of any of Europe’s top leagues, with Union Saint-Gilloise making a shocking post-promotion run to the regular season crown, but narrowly losing the playoff to heavyweight Club Brugge. It also features goals, goals, goals and more goals.
Through four matchdays, seven teams are averaging at least 1.8 goals per match, while Genk average 3.3. Royal Antwerp have raced out to 12 points, but Brugge, Genk, Gent and Anderlecht are all well-positioned for title runs. This is going to be absolute, wonderful nonsense from start to finish… and ESPN+ airs a selection of matches each weekend!).
Teams doing weird stuff
There is, at any moment, a dominant style of play in any sport. We’re heavy on three-pointers and layups in basketball at the moment, while the strikeouts-and-homers era in baseball is full-go. Soccer has been trending toward a modern combination of slow buildup, possession play and counter-pressing for a while now, but in an environment in which only the richest club teams can acquire the most possession-friendly pieces. That leaves everyone else to either try to win without the ball or piece together a more unique approach.
Among these five teams, only one has decent odds of a top-tier finish, but they are “Trying Things” and are worth watching because of it.
Brighton: possession without firepower. For two straight seasons, Graham Potter’s Seagulls have done as well as any mid-level team when it comes to crafting a possession-friendly approach without a heavyweight budget. They’ve lacked the high-quality finishing required to snare one of England’s European berths, but they notched top 10 finishes in both years, and their level of organization is maddening for most opponents.
Athletic Club: just impossibly annoying, year after year. Both Freiburg and Union Berlin nearly snared Champions League bids last year by deploying a defense-heavy style antithetical to our assumptions of “Bundesliga ball,” But let’s pay homage to a team that has been doing that forever. Athletic recorded yet another top-10 finish last season by allowing less than a goal per match. They almost never offer opponents good looks at goal, and while they aren’t as physical as they were in the “Butcher of Bilbao” days of the 1980s, they still don’t mind some bruises. They continue to execute this cup-friendly style as well as anyone, even if they never score nearly enough for a top-four finish.
Bayer Leverkusen: possession and counterattacks, simultaneously. Granted, the balance has been off so far this season — their defensive spacing has been woeful — but Gerardo Seoane’s squad crafted a particularly attractive style of play last year by combining elements of possession with a propensity for luring opponents into their half of the field in order to open up huge counterattacking opportunities. I assume they get back to a high level at some point soon. (For Seoane’s sake, they better.)
Udinese: haymakers, all the time. Twelfth place is just about the most forgettable spot in the table, but Udinese achieved 12th in memorable fashion last season, both scoring and allowing over a goal and a half per match. They were excellent at creating scoring chances in transition, and terrible at preventing opponents from doing the same. From a “styles make fights” perspective, they could suck anyone into a track meet. And despite a new manager (Andrea Sottil), their opening match — a wide-open 4-2 loss at defending champs Milan — suggests they’re still pretty open to such a style this season. That’s good news for us, at least.
Toulouse: NERRRRRDS. Looking for a Moneyball soccer team to adopt? Well, how about one associated with Moneyball godfather Billy Beane himself? In 2020, American investment firm RedBird Capital, with which Beane is associated, acquired this recently-relegated club and set about restoring it to glory through the power of analytics.
So far, so good. Toulouse handily earned promotion last season, hitting all the notes of a strong possession-and-pressing team, and while there’s only so much you can learn from one match, they controlled the field and held their own against likely top-10 French side Nice in a 1-1 draw to start the season. We’ll see if they have the depth to do any sustained damage, but if you’re looking to see where nerds want to take this sport, watch this club.
Teams with tantalizing new signings
The Transfer Industrial Complex never stops humming and cranking out rumors, even when transfer windows are closed and big matches are on the horizon. It occasionally produces thrilling results, too!
These five teams are particularly worth following this season, in part because of what the transfer market brought to town.
Herculez Gomez says a switch to Man Utd would be even worse for Sergino Dest than staying on the bench at Barcelona.
Barcelona. Watching this storied club attempt to work its way out of debt by spending more, by mortgaging away future earnings in service of the present tense, has not been particularly appealing, especially considering the base of young talent Barca boasts and how good they could have pretty quickly become by building around that talent. That said, while adding attackers Robert Lewandowski and Raphinha, midfielder Franck Kessie and defenders Jules Kounde (who still isn’t registered) and Andreas Christensen doesn’t give them a starting XI that can compete with that of Manchester City, Liverpool, Bayern or probably Real Madrid, it probably makes them better. It definitely makes them worth watching.
Borussia Dortmund. This was the offseason in which BVB fully reinvested the funds from the transfers of both Jadon Sancho last summer and Erling Haaland this summer. New arrival Sebastien Haller is out for the foreseeable future as he deals with what turned out to be a malignant tumor — the club acquired 34-year old Anthony Modeste from Koln to fill that gap — but two young German internationals, forward Karim Adeyemi and defender Nico Schlotterbeck, have both already made a difference, with the former scoring in the DFB-Pokal and the latter already putting out many fires in the back.
Combined with the presence of teenagers Jude Bellingham, Youssoufa Moukoko and Jamie Bynoe-Gittens, BVB remain one of the most exciting and youth-dependent teams on the continent.
AS Roma. I’m including Roma more because of “vibes” than a volume of new talent. After winning the inaugural UEFA Europa Conference League last season, the club and its fans celebrated like they’d won the Champions League. Jose Mourinho even got another tattoo! Then they signed Paulo Dybala from Juventus and celebrated like they had signed prime Leo Messi. (They added Mourinho-friendly veteran midfielders Georginio Wijnaldum and Nemanja Matic, too.)
The attacking foursome of Dybala, Tammy Abraham, Lorenzo Pellegrini and Nicolo Zaniolo certainly looked the part in a season-opening 1-0 win over Salernitana that was much closer to 2-0 or 3-0 than 1-1. There’s still a hill to climb if Roma wants to join the crowded Scudetto race, but again, the vibes are strong.
Nottingham Forest. It was incredible watching the former European champions qualify for their first Premier League season since 1999. It’s been even more incredible watching them attempt to spend their way into staying there. After earning promotion with a lineup heavy on loan acquisitions, Forest have signed 15 players and counting this summer, though they’re on this list not because of the volume of signings; it’s about who they’ve signed.
Taiwo Awoniyi is one of the most positive and exciting young(ish) attackers in Europe. Emmanuel Dennis was too good for Watford and could pair beautifully with Awoniyi and holdover Brennan Johnson. Jesse Lingard is finally free of Manchester United, while Neco Williams, Omar Richards and Giulian Biancone are all exciting young fullbacks, too.
Forest have spent over $130 million and counting on roster upgrades, and you could see how this high-wire act could pay off. If they can survive this season and avoid relegation, they will have a roster loaded with upside players in a similar age range (21-25) who can grow in future seasons. But Steve Cooper’s got an incredible chemistry experiment to deal with in the meantime.
Fiorentina. Luka Jovic was one of the best goalscorers in Germany before what turned out to be an ill-fated move to Real Madrid. Fullback Dodo was one of Shakhtar Donetsk’s most exciting young players. They both join a team that finished ahead of Atalanta last season and was only two points out of fifth place in Serie A. The team wasn’t particularly impressive in a season-opening win over freshly promoted Cremonese — they needed a shaky stoppage-time goal to win, 3-2, despite a man advantage — but both Jovic and another newcomer, Rolando Mandragora, scored to save the day.
Make no mistake: This is an exciting team.
The players you’re going to be obsessed with after the World Cup
Just call them the “James Rodriguez All Stars.” The Colombian forward was coming off a decent, nine-goal season with AS Monaco in 2013-14 when he won the Golden Boot at the 2014 World Cup, scoring six goals and tossing in two assists. Within days, Real Madrid was spending big to acquire him.
Every major tournament produces breakout stars, and this one will be no different (even though pretty much everything else about this tournament is different). Here are 10 players I could see becoming highly sought if their respective national teams enjoy stronger-than-expected runs in Qatar.
Jonathan David, FW, Canada (Lille). He’s scored 28 league goals in the last two years, and Canada’s style suits him perfectly. It’s honestly somewhat surprising he’s still at Lille.
Mikkel Damsgaard, MF, Denmark (Brentford). I’m doubling down! Damsgaard was one of my favorites in last summer’s Euros and while he did not follow that success up with a standout club season, he’s got another chance after signing with the Bees.
Luka Sucic, MF, Croatia (Salzburg). The 19-year-old midfielder is already on the radar of clubs like Liverpool and played well in last year’s Champions League; he could do some serious damage next to Luka Modric & Co. in Qatar.
Ismaila Sarr, FW, Senegal (Watford). He couldn’t save Watford from relegation last year, but Senegal have a manageable World Cup group (with the Netherlands, Ecuador and hosts Qatar) and Sarr could be a major reason they advance to the knockout rounds.
Piero Hincapie, DF, Ecuador (Bayer Leverkusen). The 20-year-old is asked to do a lot in defense for Leverkusen — arguably too much of late — but he could be Premier League-bound by next season… or in January if he does well in the World Cup.
Takefusa Kubo, MF, Japan (Real Sociedad). A product of Barcelona’s La Masia, Kubo signed with Real Madrid at 18 years old, but couldn’t break through. Now the winger is in a potentially excellent spot in San Sebastian: In his debut for La Real, he scored and created two chances from the right wing.
Takuma Asano, FW, Japan (Bochum). One reason to think Kubo might have a lovely World Cup: He’s got some veteran creators, like the 27-year-old Asano, around him. Asano is relentless up front, pressing well and constantly trying to stretch opponents’ back line. He’s perfect for Bochum… and could be perfect for your club next!
Luka Jovic, FW, Serbia (Fiorentina). Another promising youngster who couldn’t find his way at Real Madrid, Jovic scored in his Fiorentina debut last weekend. He’s scored more than 60 career goals, he’s already played for Crvena Zvezda, Benfica, Eintracht Frankfurt and Madrid, and he’s somehow still only 24.
Brennan Johnson, MF, Wales (Nottingham Forest). A rare holdover in a sea of Forest newcomers, the 21-year old led a promoted team in scoring in the not-particularly-youth-friendly Championship. He could be a difference-maker for both Forest and an otherwise veteran-heavy Wales squad.
Mohammed Kudus, MF, Ghana (Ajax). Injuries and club depth have hampered the 22-year old since he joined Ajax two years ago, but he has been a difference-maker for Ghana in that same time period, and his club career could take off soon enough, be it with Ajax or another team.
The last step to maximum enjoyment: Adopt a Champions League underdog
It’s pretty easy to find people complaining about how, as Europe’s richest teams have gotten richer, the early stages of the Champions League have grown more predictable, too. And to be sure, the complaints are pretty well-based in fact. But if we know that the sport’s heavyweights are going to advance mostly incident-free to the next rounds, then we can spend most of our early focus on the fun underdog stories.
Be it up-and-comers from power leagues (RB Leipzig, Atalanta and Lyon in 2019-20, for instance) or champs from lesser leagues (Ajax making the semis in 2018-19, FC Sheriff upsetting Real Madrid and nearly making the knockouts in 2021-22), they’re always out there. And they offer an element of discovery — fun, young players and coaches, interesting back stories, weird stadiums — to the event.
We’re midway through the final round of qualification, so we don’t yet know for sure who will be in the Champions League field of 32. The impeccably organized Bodo/Glimt — the team best known for beating Mourinho’s Roma twice last season and nearly wrecking their Conference League plans — might get there if they can finish off Dinamo Zagreb next week. And the winner of the PSV Eindhoven-Rangers tie will be very much worth your time and investment. We know that an increasingly impressive Celtic will be in the group stage for the first time since 2018. So will the recklessly optimistic Napoli. Oh, and Eintracht Frankfurt is worth the time investment for its obsessed and loyal fan base alone. Pick someone and follow their journey.
Adopt a Europa League and Conference League team, too
The stories are even richer here. The Europa League is where the next chapter of the Union Saint-Gilloise story might be written. Union Berlin, too. It’s where Bodo/Glimt might end up. The loser of PSV Eindhoven-Rangers will be playing its intensely watchable football there, as will AS Monaco.
While the Conference League group stage is a lot to take in, by the time of the knockout rounds we’ll have filtered out both the teams that don’t really want to be there as well as the teams that aren’t good enough to be there. Last year’s knockout rounds gave us outstanding ties like Leicester City vs. PSV, Roma vs. Leicester, Roma vs. Bodo/Glimt II and Feyenoord vs. Slavia Prague. It was quite rewarding, and you won’t regret following along.
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