A Look Through The Women’s European Leagues

Defensive Performance

Starting with defensive figures, it’s no surprise to see which teams dominate. This will likely be a common theme throughout. Each league has one to three teams that look head and shoulders above the rest on most metrics. The lack of the missing matches making this difference even worse. If it’s top teams that have more games, then a bigger chunk of lower team’s matches will be against the top sides. It means the sample will include the smaller sides getting trounced, but not their more even matches.

Jumping into the data, the first thing I looked at came as no surprise. Lyon have conceded the lowest npxG per match this season. Their opponents have created 0.33 npxG from a measly 3.1 shots per match. Despite the solid defence, Lyon trail PSG in the league. OL have performed in line with their defensive figures, conceding 5 goals from 5.2 npxG. PSG have only conceded twice from 6.48 npxG against. It’d be unfair to say PSG are lucky to be top though. The leaders also have the best npxGD in the division.

But this doesn’t tell the whole story of the data. PSG, and other big clubs, tend to destroy most of the league, inflating their numbers. Looking at games where teams have at least one more expected goal than their opponent shows how PSG have gained points from a couple of even games. It’s not a great way of looking at it, single game xG isn’t great to use and the boundaries are arbitrary. The problem is when teams can rack up the figures they do, it’s hard for the averages to be anything but great. If they beat the bottom sides by lots, they can scrape past a few games and the average will make it look as though they’ve cruised through the lot. Instead, PSG had games with even-ish, at least more even than usual, expected goals against Montpellier in October and Bordeaux in January. But they came out of both with wins. More important was their win against Lyon back in November with even xG. Their only dropped points this season came back in September against Bordeaux. In that game, they conceded next to nothing and missed a penalty on top of other good chances.

It’s not to say they haven’t been great or should trounce every team. Their figures are incredible and I’ve enjoyed the small bits I’ve seen of them. It’s more that with how tight the margins are, coming out of a few even games with things going in your favour could be the difference between 1st and 2nd. So far things have gone in PSG’s favour, but there’s still time for Lyon to bring their season crashing down. Their match in the league could be a title decider, while they have a Champions League quarter-final second leg to play, with Lyon having a 1-0 lead and an away goal.

Moving on from France for a moment, it goes without saying Barcelona’s season has been incredible. They have a 100% record, are averaging five goals a game and have conceded four times in the league. More worrying, at least for the rest of the league, is how this isn’t off the back of a huge overperformance. The sample only contains 18 games from Barca’s 22, but in those games, they haven’t put a foot wrong.

Looking again at how many games a team has had at least one expected goal more than their opposition, Barcelona take it to a new extreme. There have only been two matches they’ve had an xG difference less than two. But both those games were still more than one. Both came in early February. +1.34 against second-placed Levante and +1.72 against Logroño. Like PSG, they’ve had some overperformance at the back, conceding less than expected. But, unlike PSG, they haven’t had any even games. Game state can play a part, but with how strong their xG figures are at both ends of the pitch it’s hard to imagine it’d make much difference if their defensive figures fell in line with their xG against. I don’t want to talk about attack yet, but their average xG against (including penalties) is 0.43. The lowest xG they’ve produced this season has been 2.68(!).

Barcelona aren’t the only team with a 100% record. Both Bayern Munich and Juventus still have a perfect record. There’s still room for drama in the Bundesliga. Bayern have a six-point lead with five matches left, but five of the teams they have to face are in the top seven, including a huge match against Wolfsburg. You’d imagine Bayern have done enough, but there’s still the small chance of late excitement.

Both Turbine Potsdam and Bayer Leverkusen will be hoping to put in a late charge to take the third Champions League place. They both trail Hoffenheim by five points. It means Bayern will be playing teams who are still competing for something. With only twelve teams, the top seven can sound stronger than it is. But with the sides playing for something and Bayern having a Champions League semi-final on their plate too, there’s a chance for dropped points somewhere. That’s the more exciting option though. Most likely Bayern will win their next two and only need a draw from Wolfsburg to remain six points clear with two games left.

Juventus, too, are an interesting case. They’re dominating Serie A but aren’t among the ‘elite cluster’ for defensive measures. They’re not far away from the likes of AC Milan and Roma on the above graph. Sassuolo, third in Serie A, also have worse defensive figures than Roma, who sit in fourth. AC Milan and Roma may feel unlucky this season. Not only have Juventus conceded less than expected for non-penalty xG, but they’ve also conceded fewer penalties. Roma have conceded five penalties in seventeen games. Almost one every three games. AC Milan have conceded four. It’s not to say these would have made a big difference in the title race. Juventus, like Bayern, are six points clear with five games left. But might be enough to make you feel unlucky if you’re a Roma fan.

Roma pop up with some interesting figures elsewhere. Looking only at their expected goals though, they haven’t been unlucky, but haven’t had the same luck as the top two. Their npxG is right in line with their non-penalty goals conceded. Both Milan and Juventus have enjoyed either good luck or good goalkeeping at the back. Juventus have conceded 0.48 non-penalty goals per match from 0.70 npxG. Milan have conceded 0.53 from 0.81. Roma have conceded 0.87 from 0.88. Having two rivals not only outperform but also not concede excess penalties is a double blow for Roma.

In some ways, it’s not a bad position to be in. There’s nothing to suggest that a team who have given away lots of penalties will continue to do so. But if it’s the difference between being able to put together a challenge at the top or not, it won’t feel that way.

In England, it’s not surprising to see Chelsea and Manchester City to do so well. Then, I guess it’s surprising but also not surprising to see Arsenal trail. It’s the same story as in the actual league table but the above makes it look more like a big two then Arsenal and Manchester United, rather than the big three. I’ve been debating writing something about Arsenal for a while. Some of their figures have changed across the season and Joe Montemurro’s time in charge. I thought I’d wait to see if the trends are still there at the end of the season as it may work better looking back. With the news of Montemurro leaving it could be better to wait and have it be more retrospective. So I won’t mention much now.

Coming back to the elite clubs, perhaps the scariest thing is how so many have overperformed their already great defensive figures. It may be a result of strong goalkeepers, but it’s hard to say anything insightful about it because it doesn’t seem fair. Not only have Bayern Munich got some of the best underlying defensive figures, but they also have the biggest overperformance in these figures. Their npxG rating (conceded non-penalty goals divided by non-penalty expected goals) is 0.14. They’ve conceded just 14% of what you would have expected them to. The two clubs after that, with a rating of ~0.3 are Barcelona and PSG.

At the other end of the scale, the most unlucky team has been Deportivo de La Coruña. They’re not only bottom of the table but also have the worst npxG against rating (at least in the 10 games in the sample). They’ve conceded 48% more of what you’d expect. One place above them are Turbine Potsdam, who have an npxG against rating of 1.43. Potsdam have the 2nd youngest average age in the Bundesliga and will be eyeing the third Champions League spot. Hoffenheim currently occupy it and have overperformed at the back, with a rating of ~0.75. Hoffenheim do have the better non-penalty expected goal difference though, so Potsdam shouldn’t feel too hard done by.

I’ve only touched on the top teams. With how broad I’m looking, it’s hard for anyone in the middle to stand out. There’s also a lot of drama left in some of the relegation battles that I haven’t mentioned. But I don’t want to go on too long. The graph gives a brief look at defensive strength and performance to try and help me get some bearings. Now we can move on to looking at things that may be more stylistic and hopefully more interesting.

Pressing and Stopping Progression

The below graph shows PPDA and the percentage of total passes that successfully move the ball into the final third. It’s to try and get an idea of how active teams are out of possession, as well as how hard it is to get the ball into advanced areas against them.

It’s hard to read much into it because of how much of an outlier Dijon are. Dijon have pretty average defensive figures, which makes for an interesting combination. I’d guess that problem here is the calculate to get the average PPDA. As mentioned before, it’s an average of an average. Against Lyon, Dijon have twice posted a PPDA above 100. But only those two matches and their match against PSG has been above their average. They’ve even had four games below 10. They rank low in other figures you’d link with pressing, but that may fall victim to the same problem. My guess would be they are on the more passive side, especially against those above them, but not to an extreme that the graph makes out. To make it a bit easier to look at though below is a Dijon-less version.

From here a few teams pop up as interesting. Brighton are one of those. They don’t have a low PPDA but have strong figures for the percentage of passes that enter the final third. I double-checked these figures with fbref and Brighton do well there too. But, even if teams don’t often advance into the final third against them, it hasn’t served them all that well. They’ve hit a good run of form lately, but it’s thanks to some overperformance on xG rather than a change in fortunes. They lost 3-0 to Bristol City before beating Chelsea away. The win set them on a string of wins, winning five of their last six, the consecutive run interrupted by a 5-0 loss to Everton. But in those games, they had an xG of 6.2 and xG against of 10.7. Compared to actual goals of 8-6. But 5 of those goals came against Everton. Taking that Everton game out they conceded once from an xG of 7.2.

Hope Powell’s side make a lot of pressures, the 2nd most in the division, but relative to the touches the opposition have they don’t appear aggressive. They make the 2nd most pressures in the middle third but are 6th for touches per pressure. They’re also 6th for the same measure in the defensive third. Despite this, and the underlying figures, they must be doing something right to stop the opposition moving into the final third.

Yet, there are some peculiarities when looking at how much teams create once they get up the field. Brighton are 6th for touches in the final third per touch in the box. This isn’t a concern. It’s in line with their other figures. It doesn’t read as a team that often makes it difficult to progress, but is vulnerable if you do progress. Reading used to pop up like this, but this season appear not as tough to progress against. But, when looking at non-penalty expected goals produced per 100 touches the opposition has in the attacking third, Brighton look vulnerable. They have the 4th worst figures in the division. This is the kind of thing that would be interesting to look into with more depth and with video. It’d also be worth slicing the fixtures up and looking at which games they’re most susceptible in. If it’s matches against the big sides skewing things, it’s not a huge concern.

The other team to stand out is SGS Essen. Only a handful of elite clubs have a lower proportion of their opponent’s passes move the ball into the final third. They’re even ahead of Chelsea.

Essen concede the 3rd least shots in the Bundesliga and have the 4th best xG against. They have the youngest average age, just ahead of Potsdam. It’d be easy (or lazy) to assume that a young squad who are tough to progress are active off the ball, making the most of the youthful energy they have. But, as is evident on the graph above, they’re not that active. Essen are only 7th out of 12 for Challenge Intensity. (After looking at the Dijon figures I am now second-guessing all these figures though.)

But that shouldn’t detract from the success they’ve had at stopping the opposition from getting into advanced areas. Only the top two have allowed fewer deep completions (both passes and crosses) per match in the Bundesliga. Having a quick search, it seems developing youth players is a big focus for the club. A season preview on bundesligafan.com described them as the “best talent factory in the contemporary era”. Last season they had both Lena Oberdorf and Lea Schüller playing for them. After seeing Oberdorf against Chelsea and how much they’ve both shone in the figures for their new clubs, I imagine this was a massive blow to them. This season, their defensive figures are somewhat undermined by their not so great attacking figures. But after losing their three xG leaders from last season, it might not be too surprising.

To be both a defensively solid team and one typically in the top half with such a young side is a good achievement. But you imagine for the fans there’d also be a nagging feeling, thinking about what could have been if they held on to certain players for a couple more seasons.

Elsewhere on the above graph, Everton give a good account of themselves, but the likes of Real Betis and Sevilla aren’t in the best of spots. Though their seasons look to have different fortunes, with Betis in a relegation battle and Sevilla comfortable in midtable, they’ve both been active off the ball but not all that difficult to progress against.

In Spain, even on something more stylistic, there’s still a big gulf between Barcelona and everyone else. Atlético Madrid, who have had a disappointing season and are sat in 7th, are the closest Spanish team to them. But Atléti have the 2nd best non-penalty xGD in the division. They may be a team worth looking into in more depth at some point. For a team that won three consecutive titles between 2017 and 2019, this is a big drop in form. They still have strong underlying numbers and are even (very slightly) outperforming them. It seems interesting to look into and try to figure out why there’s been such a drop in form. (When writing this, I forgot there are lots of missing matches in the Spanish League. It may just be a consequence of this. It still seems a surprising drop off though. For more reference, their xG for is down on last season (~2.2 to ~1.9) but their defence is around the same. That doesn’t seem like a big enough drop to go from 2nd to 7th).

Roma are again a team worth mentioning. They’re among the big-hitters for most measures looking at stopping opposition progression. In Italy, they have the lowest percentage of opposition passes that move the ball into the final third, the fewest opposition deep completions and the highest percentage of recoveries outside their defensive third. Only AC Milan have a lower PPDA than Roma in the leagues mentioned, while no one’s opponents manage fewer passes per possession than Roma. The below graph shows how Roma are close to the elite clubs for these last two measures.

It also further highlights how SGS Essen profile different. French side Fleury 91, though different to Essen in the previous graph, also pop up as interesting above.

Looking at conceding counterattacks, Barcelona are the best by some distance. They’ve conceded the least with the lowest percentage leading to shots. Quite a fun contrast, Juventus concede the 2nd least but have the highest percentage lead to shots. With how few they concede, it’s not much a problem. Though you wonder if it’s something that might prove costly either in more even matches or in the Champions League.

Elsewhere, Roma again have strong figures, as do Sassuolo. Lyon concede more than I would have expected to have seen, but with only a low portion leading to shots.

At the other end, Brighton don’t have great figures which could tie in with what was talked about regarding them before. There looks to be a decent portion of WSL sides in that bottom-left quadrant.

I’m going to leave it here for now. I know I’ve only talked about the big clubs or a couple of outliers, but it’s hard to talk about defending without looking at a lot of video. The above still gives some interesting points and questions worth looking into though. As a quick summary:

  • The group of elite clubs – Lyon, PSG, Bayern Munich, Wolfsburg, Chelsea, Manchester City and Barcelona – are some way ahead of the rest for defensive performance
  • Juventus have a 100% record in Serie A but aren’t among the elite cluster. Both AS Roma and AC Milan aren’t miles away on underlying figures
  • A lot of the top clubs have had a huge overperformance at the back, but perhaps none have benefitted more than PSG and Bayern Munich, who are both fending off other teams in the elite. There may still be time for some twists and turns in the title race though. Lyon and PSG play each other in what could be a title decider. Bayern still have to play Wolfsburg and have a tough run-in as well as a Champions League semi-final to contend with.
  • Brighton look tough to get the ball into advanced areas against, but it hasn’t led to great defensive figures. Teams are slower or less successful to move it into the final third but can create a lot once they’re there. Which isn’t an obvious conclusion considering they’re not all that active off the ball. Unless they’re more selective about when they press and it hasn’t gone entirely to plan. With this, their good form but poor xG figures they may be worth looking into more
  • SGS Essen are another outlier. The youngest squad in the Bundesliga have great figures for stopping the opposition progressing and completing actions close to goal, but aren’t that productive in attack.
  • Atlético Madrid are having their worst season in recent years, but have the 2nd best non-penalty expected goal difference in the division. But this is based on an incomplete sample, so perhaps the other teams shine with more matches. Madrid CF and Levante are both above them but have less than ten games in the sample. Even so, it seems more likely these teams would be in the same performance cluster as Atlético Madrid rather than the elite group at the top. I’d be interested to see if the difference is lessened with a complete sample. Both results would be interesting to look into. If Atléti have strong xG figures, why have they had the dip in league position? If they don’t have strong underlying figures, what could be the cause of that?
  • Roma look like one of the most exciting teams to keep an eye on. They’ve given away too many penalties, otherwise they have some of the best defensive figures around. They do a good job of stopping their opposition moving the ball into dangerous areas and have the npxG to back that up. As we’ll get into soon, they also have some exciting young attackers that look to create a lot of danger in the final third.