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Bayern Munich‘s reign in the Bundesliga is threatened. They just panic-fired their manager with two months left in the season. They’re facing more uncertainty than they have in quite a while. They remain as Bayern as ever, though: still prolific, still the betting favorite (and the No. 2 favorite in the Champions League) and, of course, still incredibly watchable. So are their biggest challengers.
As we prepare for the biggest iteration of Der Klassiker in a number of years — Borussia Dortmund plays at Bayern (12:30 p.m. ET Saturday on ABC) — it’s difficult not to get excited. Sure, Bayern have won 10 straight league crowns and are unbeaten in the past nine Klassikers, and the last time these rivals played a match this important, in the home stretch of a tight 2018-19 title race, Bayern won 5-0.
This match could be tight and gripping, but even if it isn’t, it will probably still entertain. That’s what these teams do. Seventeen of their past 18 head-to-head battles have featured at least two goals, and their past seven meetings have averaged 4.7. And as far as European soccer goes in 2022-23, no two teams are as entertaining.
– Stream on ESPN+: LaLiga, Bundesliga, more (U.S.)
– Why Bayern made a risky switch at manager (E+)
Behold, the third annual ESPN Watchability Rankings, in which Bayern still leads, Crystal Palace, um, doesn’t, and we find that Ligue 1 has made itself increasingly attractive.
How do I go about assessing watchability? With stats and aesthetics. Here are the watchability criteria and how they’re all weighted:
* Quality (6%): It has to matter a little bit, right? If you try to do all the right things, but aren’t very good at them, it’s not going to be as watchable. (Relevant category: points per game in league play.)
* Shots and goals (36%): Traditionalists in every sport will always point out how a good defense can be fun, too, and — harrumph — when things get a little too high-scoring. Although I have indeed seen 0-0 matches that I enjoyed immensely … come on. Shots and goals (and the things that create them) are undeniably fun, especially when you are both taking and allowing them. (Relevant categories: goals scored, goals allowed, total average shots, xG per shot and xG per shot allowed, pass completion rate into the attacking third.)
* Pressure and intensity (25%): A large part of watchability is knowing that the team you’re watching is trying really, really hard. In soccer, that’s reflected frequently in terms of defensive intensity. There aren’t many effective and direct ways of measuring this, but there are a lot of indirect ways, so I’m using quite a few. (Relevant categories: passes allowed per defensive action, opponents’ average passes per possession, possessions beginning in the attacking third and because watchability goes both ways, opponents’ possessions beginning in the attacking third.)
* At least a little verticality (9%): In modern soccer, shot quality is often created through patience, building possessions slowly from the back, lots of horizontal passing, etc. But verticality — the ability to explode forward and create occasional fast-break opportunities — is exhilarating. Adding this to the mix rewards teams that create all the shot quality above with a little bit of extra verve. (Relevant category: direct speed, a Stats Perform measure of how many meters a team’s average sequence advances the ball.)
* Switches and through-balls (2%): I just enjoy them! (Relevant categories: switches of play and through-ball attempts per match.)
* Tension (7%): If you are up or down by a few goals, and the match is effectively over, things get pretty unwatchable pretty quickly, right? (Relevant category: percentage of a team’s matches that take place with the score within one goal.)
* Entertaining big matches (15%): In heavyweight-versus-heavyweight matchups, we can often see an overwhelming amount of caution. Let’s reward the teams that throw caution to the wind against the best opponents on the schedule. (Relevant measures: goals scored and total goals in matches against teams averaging at least 1.5 points per game in league play — the better teams in the league.)
Based on all the above categories, which are weighted to my whims, I graded every team in Europe’s Big Five on a 0-10 scale of watchability. Below are the results.
(Note: You can find 2022’s rankings here. and 2021’s rankings here.)
Don’t watch unless you have a rooting interest (Grade: 0-1)
98. Crystal Palace (0.4)
Three of the bottom-five teams are from the low-scoring LaLiga, but the bottom team overall hails from South London.
There’s nothing worse than growing worse and less watchable at the same time. Palace haven’t won a match in 2023 and just fired Patrick Vieira after spiraling into the relegation fight. Replacing Vieira with the 75-year-old Roy Hodgson is entertaining in its own way, but it probably won’t make them much more entertaining. They don’t create good shots (especially against good opponents), they don’t press much (or well), they attempt verticality, but aren’t very good at it, and they don’t even have the decency to be outright terrible in defense — their matches average just 2.1 total goals.
97. Mallorca (0.4)
96. Getafe (0.5)
95. Union Berlin (0.6)
Union have improved steadily in their Bundesliga stay and could very well end up playing in the Champions League next year — and if fan intensity were part of these rankings, they would rank about 50 spots higher — but despite their quality and verticality, they still rank low on this list because of a combination of passive (but disciplined) defense, low shot totals for and against and minimal offensive creativity (among other things, no one attempts fewer switches of play).
94. Cadiz (0.6)
93. West Ham United (0.6)
92. Roma (0.7)
In his second season in charge, Jose Mourinho has officially molded Roma into his image. They’re both good — they’re in the Europa League quarterfinals, and despite a recent funk they’re only one point outside the top four in Serie A — and great at sucking the fun out of a match. They were 34th in last year’s watchability rankings; this year’s ranking makes a lot more sense.
91. Sampdoria (0.7)
90. Angers (0.8)
89. Everton (0.9)
A year ago, Everton ranked 87th in watchability and needed until the season’s final days to save itself from relegation. This time around, a dreadful attack and passive defense get them ranked slightly lower here. Any lower in the Premier League table, and they’ll be in the second division next season.
88. Nottingham Forest (0.9)
87. Torino (0.9)
At least it’s soccer on TV, right? (Grade: 1-3)
86. Wolves (1.0)
Last season, Wolves nearly ranked at the bottom of this list, but settled for a solid, mid-table finish in the Premier League. This year, they’re more watchable, but are only three points out of the relegation zone. What’s more important, really?
85. Nice (1.0)
84. Clermont (1.0)
83. Lazio (1.2)
They were 23rd two years ago and 62nd last year. Second-year manager Maurizio Sarri is not one for aesthetics and has grown even less so in the home stretch of a tight top-four race: Their past eight league matches have featured 11 total goals. Fans won’t mind too much if they hold onto second place, however.
82. Brest (1.2)
81. Auxerre (1.3)
80. AFC Bournemouth (1.5)
79. Nantes (1.6)
78. Ajaccio (1.8)
77. Osasuna (2.0)
76. Elche (2.0)
75. Monza (2.0)
74. Southampton (2.1)
Like Palace, Southampton are both worse and less fun to watch this season. They were 33rd on this list a year ago, and they’re in serious danger of watching their 11-year stint in the Premier League come to an end.
73. Salernitana (2.2)
72. Lecce (2.2)
71. Hellas Verona (2.5)
No team’s watchability score has fallen as much as Hellas, who graded out sixth overall last year while finishing ninth in Serie A. They’ve lost all creativity, they rarely score and after a brief run of solid form in January and February, they’ve slumped back into the relegation zone as well.
70. Schalke 04 (2.6)
In last place for much of the Bundesliga season, Schalke has spent 2023 rallying itself to safety. They are unbeaten in their past eight league matches. The bad news: Six of those eight “unbeaten” matches were draws, so they’re still second-to-last in the table. The even worse news (for us): Those matches featured just 11 total goals. Four were nil-nil draws.
69. Empoli (2.7)
68. Stuttgart (2.7)
67. Atletico Madrid (2.8)
Like Roma, Diego Simeone’s Atleti ranked disturbingly high in this list last season (19th). This feels right.
66. Koln (2.8)
Could be great fun, could be awful (Grade: 3-6)
65. Cremonese (3.1)
64. Bayer Leverkusen (3.2)
Gerardo Seoane’s squad ranked 11th in watchability last year thanks to speed on the wings and precocious attacking talent. They still have those things, but Seoane was fired quickly last fall after a genuinely dire start to the season. They’ve rallied under Xabi Alonso and are now only three points out of the Bundesliga’s top six — they’re in the Europa League quarterfinals, too — but passive defense and a general lack of creativity are still holding them back here.
63. Real Valladolid (3.4)
62. Hertha BSC (3.5)
61. Juventus (3.5)
60. Borussia Monchengladbach (3.5)
59. Strasbourg (3.5)
58. Espanyol (3.6)
57. Real Betis (4.5)
Manuel Pellegrini’s side played some of the most watchable ball in Spain last season, but they finished fifth in the league, five points out of a Champions League spot. They’re more defensive and bottom-line oriented this time around … but they’re still in fifth, three points out.
56. Spezia (4.5)
55. Chelsea (4.6)
Honestly, it’s an upset that Chelsea have remained in the top 60. Only LaLiga’s Osasuna and Mallorca feature matches with fewer average goals than their 2.1. But the Blues still play particularly intense, pressure-heavy defense, and hey, when there aren’t many goals, no one’s pulling away! The score is within one goal 89% of the time during Chelsea matches. Tension can occasionally trump aesthetics.
54. Villarreal (4.6)
53. Aston Villa (4.7)
52. Freiburg (4.8)
51. Fulham (4.9)
50. Almería (4.9)
49. Troyes (5.0)
48. Tottenham Hotspur (5.0)
47. Celta Vigo (5.2)
46. Sassuolo (5.3)
45. Eintracht Frankfurt (5.3)
The Bundesliga still enjoys the best overall watchability average, and with good reason — it still features shots and goals and pressing, even in matches between good teams. But its lead has shrunk considerably this season, and for three primary reasons: (A) Ligue 1’s averages have shot up, (B) a strange number of Bundesliga matches have been blowouts (only 78% of all Bundesliga possessions have come with the score within one goal, easily the lowest average of the bunch), and (C) some of last season’s most aesthetically pleasing teams — Bayer Leverkusen, Borussia Monchengladbach, Hoffenheim, Koln, Eintracht — have seen their scores drop considerably.
Not even the addition of the amazing Randal Kolo Muani could keep Eintracht from dropping 24 spots in these rankings.
44. Girona (5.4)
43. Leicester City (5.5)
42. Lorient (5.9)
41. Rennes (5.9)
The potential for enjoyment is pretty good (Grade: 6-8)
40. Athletic Club (6.0)
One of Europe’s most defensively sturdy teams remains sneaky-watchable thanks to ball pressure, constant switches of play and the Williams brothers. Inaki and Nico Williams have combined for nine goals and six assists on 61 chances created; if they’re on the pitch, Athletic is worth watching.
39. Bologna (6.3)
38. Real Sociedad (6.3)
37. Mainz 05 (6.3)
36. Hoffenheim (6.4)
35. Newcastle United (6.4)
34. Montpellier (6.7)
Defensive intensity and high-quality shot creation (often from young up-and-comers) have made Ligue 1 delightful in 2022-23, and Montpellier has boasted one of the better young attackers for two straight seasons now: 20-year-old Elye Wahi has scored 22 goals since the start of 2021-22. Oldhand Teji Savanier is still getting it done, too.
33. Valencia (6.7)
32. Bochum (7.1)
31. Brentford (7.2)
30. Wolfsburg (7.3)
29. Werder Bremen (7.4)
28. RB Leipzig (7.6)
27. Rayo Vallecano (7.6)
In a few ways, Rayo is the Union Berlin of Spain — an underdog from a huge city, playing devastating defense and punching well above its historic weight class. But they top Union on this list thanks to a much more aggressive and pressure-heavy defense, and an attack that is less direct, but more diverse and creative.
26. Reims (7.7)
You’re going to have a good time (Grade: 8-9)
25. Lens (8.0)
Promoted just three years ago, Lens is threatening to snare a Champions League spot this season thanks to a lovely combination of close games, defensive pressure and high-level shot quality from Loic Openda (14 goals, 0.19 xG per shot) and the creative right-sided duo of Florian Sotoca and Przemyslaw Frankowski (combined: nine assists from 102 chances created). They’ve scored at least three goals in three of their past five matches, too.
24. Fiorentina (8.1)
23. Manchester United (8.2)
Last year, United ranked 23rd with a score of 8.2. This year, they rank 23rd with a score of 8.2. Erik Ten Hag has shifted the quality and tenor of the team overall, but he’s had the decency to let them remain pretty watchable too.
22. Lyon (8.2)
21. Sevilla (8.4)
This year’s “Watchability, But At What Cost?” champion. Over the past two seasons, Sevilla has combined average watchability rankings (39th and 60th) with top-four finishes. This season, they’ve almost charged into the top 20 on this list … while firing two managers and finding themselves just two points out of the relegation zone with 12 matches to go.
20. Udinese (8.6)
19. Real Madrid (8.7)
18. AC Milan (8.8)
17. Augsburg (8.9)
Since hiring former Borussia Dortmund reserves team manager Enrico Maassen last summer, Augsburg has been the anti-Bundesliga team: ridiculously direct (second in direct speed) and constantly stuck in tight games (91% of possessions coming with the match within one goal). And while quite a few German teams have seen their watchability scores fall, Augsburg has surged from 67th to 17th.
Their place in the Bundesliga table hasn’t changed much — five points from the relegation zone last year, seven this year — but they’re a delight.
16. Brighton (8.9)
15. Atalanta (9.0)
Returns slowly diminished for Gian Piero Gasperini’s squad after it came achingly close to the Champions League semifinals in 2020, but they are just three points outside the Serie A top four heading into April — a nice improvement over last season’s eighth-place finish — and they remain one of Italy’s best entertainers. They press, they switch, they play vertically, and the major reason they don’t rank even higher here is that they don’t give opponents good enough looks at goal. They’re probably okay with that.
Clear room in your schedule to always watch (Grade: 9-10)
14. Internazionale (9.0)
They couldn’t keep up with Napoli in the Scudetto race — no one could — and they haven’t gotten nearly what they hoped for from the banged-up Romelu Lukaku. But they’re still in the Champions League quarterfinals, and they still fire off as many shot attempts as anyone around. Not bad for a semi-disappointing campaign.
13. Leeds United (9.0)
After narrowly avoiding relegation by playing an almost ill-advised brand of aggressive ball — they were third on this list a year ago — Leeds is generating fewer good looks for both itself and its opponents this season. But they’re still intense and aggressive, and they’re almost always playing in nip-and-tuck games. This is about as high as a team averaging a paltry 1.0 points per game can rank.
12. Barcelona (9.0)
Second-year manager Xavi has increased Barcelona’s defensive tendencies this season, which has both tamped down their watchability ranking a bit — they were fifth in 2021-22 — and also set them up to run away with LaLiga. In a league with increasingly stolid possession play, Barca still brings plenty of Barca-esque creativity and shot creation to the table.
11. PSG (9.0)
Among the Big Five leagues, only Bayern and City average more goals, and no one boasts a higher xG per shot average. That’s kind of what you would hope for from a team that employs Kylian Mbappe, Lionel Messi and Neymar, yeah? PSG had yet another disappointing European campaign, but they still entertain in league play.
10. Napoli (9.1)
They were 27th in watchability and third in Serie A last year. They’re 10th and a distant first, respectively, this time around. Call it the Kvaradona Effect.
Adding Khvicha Kvaratskhelia to an attack that already featured the delightful Victor Osimhen has been downright unfair. The two have combined for 33 goals and 14 assists (seven to one another) in league play, and they play the sexiest ball in Europe at the moment.
9. Manchester City (9.2)
Despite the typical lack of directness and participation in plenty of blowouts, Pep Guardiola’s squad grades out well here because of good pressing numbers, loads of goals and some of the more creative attacking-third passing in the world.
8. Monaco (9.2)
Niko Kovac left Monaco for Wolfsburg last summer, and both teams became more watchable. Under Philippe Clement, Monaco has been as prolific and creative as anyone outside of soccer’s ruling class. Adding Breel Embolo to an attacking battery that already featured Wissam Ben Yedder and Aleksandr Golovin was a lovely touch, and while their defense has been too leaky, that only hurts their shot at a Champions League spot. It certainly doesn’t hurt their numbers here!
7. Toulouse (9.2)
Never say the nerds don’t like attractive ball. Owned by the analytics-friendly RedBird Capital, Les Violets returned to Ligue 1 this season and have more than held their own. They’re a solid 12th, safely above the relegation zone, and they’ve gotten there with pressing, creative possession and above-average shot quality. They have some of the brightest young talent in the league, too.
6. Arsenal (9.4)
They aren’t quite in Napoli’s category, but Arsenal has still been a wonderfully pleasant surprise this season, surging to the top of the Premier League and leaping from 51st to sixth in watchability. They were only selectively aggressive in Mikel Arteta’s first few seasons, but he has hit the gas pedal this season. The Gunners press well — within the Premier League, only Manchester City starts more possessions in the attacking third, and only Liverpool allows fewer passes per possession — and can play both the possession game and strike vertically at times. And while their recent flair for dramatic, late game-winning goals isn’t really reflected in these numbers, it’s appreciated all the same.
5. Marseille (9.5)
Ligue 1 might feature as much bright, young attacking talent as ever, but Marseille is playing a young man’s game with an old roster. Ten of their top 14 players from a minutes perspective are between 28 and 36 years old, but they press properly, tilt the field, attempt tons of shots and, for better or worse, allow their opponents plenty of shots, too. They play more directly than most of France’s other top teams, and they pass well in the attacking third. Age is sometimes only a number, apparently.
4. Liverpool (9.5)
Jurgen Klopp’s squad nearly topped Bayern for first place on last season’s list, and while defensive breakdowns have certainly held the Reds back on the pitch, they haven’t really put a dent in their watchability numbers. Combining intensity and strong attacking numbers while giving opponents high-quality looks of their own is a good way to game this system. I encourage everyone to do the same.
3. Lille (9.6)
Two years ago, Lille won a shocking Ligue 1 title with defense and counter-attacking. Now, under former Shakhtar Donetsk and Roma manager Paulo Fonseca, they’re playing a far less direct and possession-happy style, and as with Liverpool, it has produced both strong attacking numbers and counter-attacking glitches. They’re sixth in Ligue 1, but they’re third here, and I appreciate their priorities.
2. Borussia Dortmund (9.6)
At the start of 2023, BVB were nine points behind Bayern in the Bundesliga table. They’re now one point up, and they’ve charged forward in extremely watchable fashion. Only Bayern, Werder Bremen and Troyes matches feature more goals, and even in a pressure-heavy Bundesliga, only Bayern allows fewer passes per possession. Edin Terzic is crafting an identity of both aggression and increasing toughness. We’ll see whether it’s enough to end Bayern’s Bundesliga title streak, but it’s entertaining as hell regardless.
1. Bayern Munich (9.8)
On one hand, Bayern’s firing of Julian Nagelsmann was reasonably understandable. Bayern is on pace for its lowest point total in more than a decade, and rumors suggest he had lost some of the locker room. They head into April in second place in the Bundesliga, and such indignity is not to be tolerated when you’ve won the league for 10 straight years.
They are still the normal Bayern, however. They’re still scoring more goals than anyone else in the Big Five. They’re still defending intensely (with the occasional breakdowns that entails). And the major reason they aren’t winning the Bundesliga as normal right now is poor close-games fortune: While they averaged 1.91 points per game in league matches decided by 0-1 goals over the previous 10 seasons, they’re at an unsustainably low 1.08 at the moment.
That has cost them about 10 points compared to their normal standard, and they were almost guaranteed to progress toward the mean soon even if Nagelsmann remained in charge. It was a very expensive decision to fire him, and while they will almost assuredly do well under Thomas Tuchel, they assuredly would have under Nagelsmann, too.
Either way, long live your Mia san Mia watchability kings.