Paris Saint-Germain have already matched the end-of-season point gap they won Ligue 1 with last season. Juventus have doubled the four-point margin with which they won Serie A in the spring. And Borussia Dortmund have stolen the Bundesliga spotlight. Manchester City have fallen, leaving Liverpool as the last of the Premier League clubs without a defeat.
In terms of playing styles, what the four unbeatens of Europe’s top-five leagues have in common is they all play well above their respective league averages when it comes to fast tempo football. Beyond that, each differentiates themselves from the rest of the elite group in very specific ways.
We’ll analyse in order of how big of a lead they have in their respective leagues.
PSG have a 13-point lead in Ligue 1 with a match in hand over second-place Lille. At this pace, they may clinch the French title closer to the end of the transfer window than the end of the season.
Their 60 percent possession is the highest among the unbeatens, but they don’t waste a lot of time holding the ball in the back – note their maintenance percentage is a relatively innocuous plus-23 percent of the league average while their build up is at +54.
Switch focus to the opponent playing styles, and you’ll notice teams are countering on PSG more than the other three unbeatens, but they defend it rather well by allowing an average of 2.4 shots out of those 11.1 possessions, resulting in 0.1 goals. For the sake of comparison, Dortmund allow an average of 9.6 counter possessions, which results in 2.6 shots and 0.4 goals against.
Domestically, Paris play faster than any of the other three clubs we’re looking at here, but they’re producing fewer shots out of fast tempo play than Juventus and Liverpool. Instead, PSG are scoring by doing a little bit of everything. Notably, their most efficient paths to goal have involved direct play (1.1 goals per match on 3.8 shots), countering (0.9 goals per match on 3.5 shots), and building out of the back through maintenance (1.1 goals per match on 3.8 shots). Keep in mind a shot or goal can develop out of multiple styles, so there’s some overlap here:
PSG do, however, allow more shots – an average of 11.0 per match amounting to 1.03 expected goals – than Juventus, Dortmund and Liverpool. That would lead one to believe their goalkeeping has been above average, and that’s true to the tune of a +0.27 expected save differential. The bars on the left indicate actual saves for PSG and their opponents with the league average as the dotted line. On the right, we see expected saves:
Now, Gianluigi Buffon has only played seven league matches compared to Alphonse Areola’s nine. But who’s most responsible for that above average goalkeeping? It’s been Buffon with a +0.4 xS differential. He’s actually been tasked with making above the league average in saves in his Ligue 1 matches, which is rather odd for a keeper of such a possession-dominant side:
So the age-defying Buffon has proven to be a worthwhile investment, but his previous club is finding other ways to win.
Juventus have been dominant – so much so that they’re scoring nearly as many goals from crossing (1.2 per match) as Serie A clubs average in total per match (1.4). Their 28.2 crossing possessions on average are a significant departure from any of the other three unbeatens, as is their 32.0-17.9 crosses in play per match advantage over their opponents. This works in concert with their +36 percent sustained threat (31.7 possessions on average), which is the best of this group.
Stopping there would be irresponsible because what’s buried in Juventus’ playing styles is the efficiency of their counter attack. With an average of 9.8 such possessions, they’re at -9 percent of the Serie A average. Teams that look no further into those numbers will be burned because Juve are scoring 0.8 goals per match on just 3.4 shots that come out of those possessions:
We saw PSG at that level of efficiency with a few different styles, and we’ll see Dortmund are also above that level. But what’s scary about this for opponents is Juve aren’t even finishing quite as much as they should be. Their impressive 18.9 shots per match come with an expected goal value of 2.26, while they’re scoring 2.1 per match. So it seems this is not just a sustainable pace, but one they may be able to improve upon.
Dortmund, meanwhile, will have to continue exceeding expectations to stay on their current pace.
In terms of style, BVB are probably the most average looking club of the group. They play fast tempo more than a typical Bundesliga side, but their 9.1 such possessions per match rank lowest among the four clubs we’re discussing. Everywhere else, they hardly differentiate themselves from the league.
What’s more is their goalkeeping isn’t matching their expected saves per match (2.2 actual saves versus 2.47 expected), and they’re allowing more crosses in play than they’re producing (21.3 for opponents and 17.5 for themselves).
So what’s led them to a seven-point lead and plus-25 goal difference through their first 14 matches?
Overall finishing efficiency. At an average of 12.5 shots per match with 1.72 expected goals, Dortmund aren’t exactly racking up a massive quantity of scoring chances with respect to traditional table-toppers (recall Juventus are averaging 18.9 shots with a 2.26 xG). What BVB are doing is finishing the chances they get at an impressive rate. Averaging 2.8 goals per match, their xG +/- is an impressive +1.08. So they’re actually scoring more than anyone on this list other than PSG’s 3.1 goals per match and with a world-class level of efficiency.
Where’s it coming from? Dortmund’s 1.2 goals per match involving direct play are twice the Bundesliga average, despite being below the league average for shots generated from direct play (4.0 per match vs. 4.3 Bundesliga average). Their 0.9 goals involving counter attack are coming on just 2.9 shots per match:
What that means for opponents is if Dortmund start going direct and produce a shot, there’s a 30 percent chance it’s going in. If they get a shot off a counter, there’s a 31 percent chance it’s going in.
But it’s also coming from outside the penalty area at an impressive rate – six of their goals have come from beyond the 18 in 14 matches, while the other three teams on this list have combined for nine in 47:
Dortmund also have six goals from set pieces (three free kicks and three corners), which is tied with Liverpool for most on this list, but Dortmund have done it in two fewer matches.
The likely argument against Dortmund is they just can’t keep any of this up, but the larger the sample size grows with continued success, the more difficult that argument becomes.
Through 16 matches last season, Liverpool had conceded 20 goals. This season, six. Yes, they are certainly allowing fewer chances (0.4 goals per match and 0.99 expected goals compared to 1.3 and 1.21 at this stage in 2017/18), but they’re also getting more from that last line of defence.
Liverpool are more of a possession-based side than their reputation leads one to think, but they still operate in transition more than the rest of this group with an average of 12.4 counter attack possessions per match. That works in concert with those 54.8 direct play possessions, which at -1 percent of the Premier League average makes the Reds the only among the group of unbeatens to attack with anything resembling normal directness. They score more goals (0.8 per match) from direct play than any other style, and it also happens to be where they’re most efficient – 0.8 goals on 5.0 shots:
What that tells us is the Reds aren’t quite as efficient with their goals-to-shots ratios as the other three. As a result, unlike Dortmund, their actual goals per match (2.1) isn’t greatly exceeding their expected goals per match (1.95).
What, then, is happening at the other end of the pitch? Liverpool keepers made 1.6 saves per match through 16 games last season with an expected save mark of 2.22. That’s bad. This season, Alisson is making 2.3 per match and expected at 1.84. That’s good. That roughly half a goal saved per match accounts for most of Liverpool’s -0.59 xGA +/- noted three paragraphs up.
Related to this, we’ve thus far mostly neglected those opponent playing styles next to each team we’ve analysed. Consider Liverpool’s opponents compared to the opponents of the other three unbeatens, and you’ll see they’re allowing roughly the same amount of maintenance possessions. Liverpool just aren’t allowing clubs to advance up pitch with possession and operate in build up or sustained threat. It follows that Liverpool opponents would go direct considerably more, which checks out (55.1 such possessions per match), but that’s resulting in 23.0 percent below the league average in direct play shots (3.3 for Liverpool opponents vs. 4.3 for the league) and a mere 0.1 goals per match.
So it seems the Reds are dictating play and forcing teams to attack in ways in which it’s pretty clear Liverpool feel comfortable defending.