The final international break of the 2021-22 European soccer season -- the most consequential one in years -- is officially in the rearview mirror, and it's once again time to focus on the homestretch of the club season. In terms of title races, relegations, future Champions League spots or the current Champions League knockout rounds, a whole lot will be decided in the coming weeks. There are lots of big matches coming our way.
Once this season is over, however, we'll have a bit of a void in the weeks and months that follow. You should be watching as much soccer as you can, if only because it's your last opportunity for a little while.
You should also be sure to watch the right teams. Who are the most enjoyable and most watchable teams in Europe's "Big Five" leagues -- English Premier League, Spanish LaLiga, German Bundesliga, Italian Serie A and French Ligue 1 -- at the moment?
For the second straight year, I'm addressing that question with stats and aesthetics. Let's walk through watchability criteria and how it's 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-to-10 scale of watchability. Below are the results as ESPN presents the 2022 Watchability Rankings. (Note: You can find last year's rankings here.)
Do not watch unless you have a rooting interest (Grade: 0-1)
98. Cadiz (0.6)
Last season's least watchable team, Cadiz is actually scoring and allowing even fewer goals this time around (they're winning less, too). Their matches are usually close, but that's not enough to prevent a repeat in the No. 98 spot. Hey, if you're going to play unwatchable ball, play the least watchable ball.
97. Metz (0.6)
96. Wolves (0.6)
What a paradox Wolves are. They are organized and intensely frustrating to play. They have beaten West Ham, Tottenham and Manchester United, and they are currently just two points out of sixth place and a spot in Europe next season. But while goals alone don't make a team watchable ... you need occasional goals, right? Wolves matches average just 1.9 total goals, the lowest in the Big Five, and against England's better teams that average sinks to a nearly unfathomable 1.2. They are talented and solid ... and there is no aesthetic benefit to watching them play.
95. Burnley (0.6)
94. Reims (0.6)
93. Arminia Bielefeld (0.7)
92. Lorient (0.8)
91. Getafe (0.8)
90. Troyes (0.9)
89. Norwich City (0.9)
88. Venezia (0.9)
If we're being honest, "How pretty are their kits?" should be one of the criteria here, too, and it would immediately bump Venezia and its gorgeous shirt aesthetics up about 25 spots. Alas, that's the only pretty thing about this team this season.
At least it's soccer on TV, right? (Grade: 1-3)
87. Everton (1.1)
The Toffees would score bonus points if there were a "can't look away from the car crash" component to the ratings. But there isn't, so all we're left with is a shockingly bad team that gives opponents lots of low-pressure possession and doesn't strike vertically as well as it wants to. They got all the expected aesthetic effects of hiring Rafael Benitez (who was fired in January) but none of the wins he used to deliver.
86. Genoa (1.1)
85. Watford (1.2)
84. Nantes (1.2)
83. Sampdoria (1.3)
82. Union Berlin (1.4)
Urs Fischer's squad is positioned to snare a European bid for the second straight season, and they've gotten there in anti-Bundesliga fashion: defense, structure, defense and structure. Bayern Munich and Borussia Dortmund broke them for 16 goals in four matches, but they've allowed only 22 goals in 24 other matches.
81. Osasuna (1.4)
80. Salernitana (1.5)
79. Cagliari (1.5)
78. Nice (1.6)
Two things you're guaranteed to get from a team managed by Christophe Galtier: points and defense. (Lille ranked 58th in watchability while winning Ligue 1 last year.) If it gets Nice back to the Champions League for the first time since 2017, or if it gets them into the group stage for the first time, no one will complain, though a recent funk has knocked them off the pace a bit.
77. Elche (1.7)
76. Brentford (1.8)
75. Bologna (1.9)
This wasn't a good team in 2020-21, but it was at least a fun one -- the Rossoblu pressed quite a bit, played vertically in attack and ranked 21st in watchability. This season they're a little worse and a lot less fun.
74. Speazia (1.9)
73. Espanyol (2.0)
72. Crystal Palace (2.2)
71. Hertha Berlin (2.4)
70. Deportivo Alaves (2.4)
69. Torino (2.5)
68. Clermont (2.5)
67. Augsburg (2.5)
66. Greuther Furth (2.7)
Could be great fun, could be awful (Grade: 3-6)
65. Brighton (3.1)
Safe to say, if I had run this list a couple of months ago, Brighton might have ranked a little higher. Scoring one goal in their past seven matches (six losses and a draw) certainly dropped them quite a bit.
64. Udinese (3.1)
63. Juventus (3.2)
62. Lazio (3.2)
61. Aston Villa (3.2)
60. Sevilla (3.3)
59. Brest (3.4)
58. Newcastle United (3.5)
57. Angers (3.7)
56. Granada (3.8)
55. Montpellier (4.0)
54. Rayo Vallecano (4.1)
53. Mallorca (4.4)
52. Lille (4.5)
51. Arsenal (4.6)
Mikel Arteta's Gunners were 73rd in watchability and eighth in the Premier League last year. A little bit of extra playmaking, and a few more wins, go a long way.
50. West Ham United (4.6)
49. Freiburg (4.7)
48. Tottenham Hotspur (4.7)
Juve ... Sevilla ... Arsenal ... Freiburg ... Spurs ... This is evidently the place on the list for teams that don't press or attack a ton, or do many exciting things whatsoever, but are firmly in the hunt for Champions League spots all the same.
47. Wolfsburg (4.9)
46. Mainz (5.0)
45. Celta de Vigo (5.2)
44. Lens (5.3)
43. Marseille (5.5)
42. Real Sociedad (5.5)
La Real ranked 27th in watchability last year and do a lot of the same things this time around. The primary difference: They're scoring 0.6 fewer goals per match, and they've played in five nil-nil draws since November. That will cost you some watchability points.
41. Bochum (5.7)
The potential for enjoyment is pretty good (Grade: 6-8)
40. Fiorentina (6.5)
39. Stuttgart (6.6)
You are guaranteed to see goals in Stuttgart matches, just as you were last year when they ranked 10th in watchability. Unfortunately, opponents are doing far more of the scoring this time around, and they might get relegated because of it.
38. Leicester City (6.6)
37. Chelsea (6.6)
36. Strasbourg (6.7)
The anti-Stuttgart, Strasbourg have become much more fun to watch (they were 67th last year) and much better at the same time. Fifteenth in Ligue 1 last season, they're fourth and only two points out of a Champions League spot entering the season's home stretch.
35. Monaco (7.0)
34. Roma (7.1)
Hiring Jose Mourinho has somehow not changed Roma in almost any way. They were 31st in watchability and averaged 1.6 points per game last season, and they're 34th and averaging 1.7 this time around.
33. Southampton (7.2)
32. Levante (7.3)
If you're going to play bad football, you'd might as well do it while attacking as much as possible and getting destroyed in defense.
31. Athletic Club (7.4)
Are Athletic matches high-scoring, up-and-down affairs? Absolutely not. But they're always close. There's something to be said for that.
30. Bordeaux (7.4)
29. Saint-Etienne (7.5)
28. Real Betis (7.7)
27. Napoli (7.7)
Napoli do a lot of pretty things while advancing the ball, but as with last year they are often content to snap off long-range, low-xG shots once they have advanced. Of course, it might win them the Scudetto this season, so who cares whether it's pretty ...
26. Villarreal (7.9)
Unai Emery's squad presses well and averages 1.6 goals per match. Their goal differential is fifth best in LaLiga. They could easily be in contention for a Champions League bid, but an early run of scoreless draws and a handful of one-goal defeats have dropped them 12 points out of the race.
You're going to have a good time (Grade: 8-9)
25. Valencia (8.0)
24. Borussia Monchengladbach (8.1)
23. Manchester United (8.2)
If there were point deductions for "You should be much better and much more organized!!" then United would drop down this list, just as they would have last season. But their propensity for close matches puts them in the top 25 for the season year in a row.
22. Rennes (8.5)
Rennes have caught fire in 2022, not only taking 22 points from their last 10 league matches to charge to third place in the table, but winning matches by scores of 6-0, 6-1, 4-1 and 4-2 (twice) in the process. Bruno Genesio took the governor off of this squad, and free-flowing ball looks great on them.
21. Eintracht Frankfurt (8.5)
20. Empoli (8.6)
The only promoted team in the top 40 here, Empoli are 11 points clear of the relegation zone and have likely done enough to remain in Serie A for a second season. They've also been happy to trade haymakers with opponents, even if it sometimes gets them knocked out -- they've won matches by scores of 4-2 and 3-1 and lost by scores of 3-2, 4-2 (twice), 4-1 and 5-1.
19. Atletico Madrid (8.6)
Diego Simeone is genuinely attempting to modernize Atleti's attack, and while it got them cut up on counters a lot early in the season, they've looked both good and shockingly attractive of late.
18. Real Madrid (8.6)
17. AC Milan (8.6)
16. Internazionale (8.7)
Real Madrid, AC Milan, Inter Milan ... This is evidently the place on the list for excellent teams that pass the ball beautifully but maybe don't play aggressively enough for a spot in the top 10.
15. FC Cologne (8.7)
After barely surviving relegation last season, Cologne hired the fiery and flat-capped Steffen Baumgart as manager, and he has not only turned the Billy Goats' fortunes around, he's also made them an absolute joy to watch. They press, they attempt high-risk passes (which creates semi-rare but high-quality shots), and because they're good but not too good -- their matches are almost always close. Their watchability score in 2020-21 was 1.2. No one has raised their score more this season.
14. Manchester City (8.9)
Granted, some City matches can feel more like a submission move than a high-flying affair, but almost no one in the sport is more hypnotic when they're on than Pep Guardiola's charges. They get no points for verticality, but they still end up in the top 15 because of everything else.
Clear room in your schedule to always watch (Grade: 9-10)
13. Atalanta (9.0)
Gian Piero Gasperini's overachievers were a narrow second in last year's watchability rankings, but injuries and transfers have dampened the team's potency and overall quality. Sunday's loss to Napoli knocked them to seventh place in Serie A, and they will have to rally to snare a spot in Europe for 2022-23. They're still mostly Atalanta, but a slightly distilled version this time around.
12. RB Leipzig (9.0)
Domenico Tedesco has smoothed some of the rough edges the squad developed under fired manager Jesse Marsch -- as in, RBL isn't getting torn up in transition quite as much -- and while it's probably dampened their watchability a bit, they're still awfully high on this list. (They're also back in the Bundesliga's top four, which probably means a bit more to them.)
11. Bayer Leverkusen (9.0)
Led by manager Gerardo Seoane and goal scorers Patrik Schick, Moussa Diaby and the now-injured Florian Wirtz, Leverkusen have become one of the most optimistic (sometimes foolishly so) teams in the Bundesliga. They counter beautifully, they score a lot, their defense is sketchy ... they're maybe the most quintessential Bundesliga team of 2021-22. And if they aren't ...
10. TSG Hoffenheim (9.1)
... Hoffenheim are. Sebastian Hoeness' squad is more than happy to trade blows with the big boys (cases in point: a pair of 3-2 losses to Borussia Dortmund). They've also been heavily involved in the crowded race for one of the Champions League places. Matches that are both extremely watchable and important? Hell yes.
9. Paris Saint-Germain (9.1)
Are they as dominant and beautiful as we might have expected after adding Leo Messi to an attack that already featured Kylian Mbappe and Neymar? No way. But they still score a lot, and they've suffered just enough defensive glitches to make some matches weirder and closer than expected, too.
8. Lyon (9.2)
For the second straight season, Lyon both (a) play attractive, possession-based football and (b) drop more points than they should. The 2020 Champions League semifinalists are currently ninth in Ligue 1, six points back of even a Europa Conference League spot. But hey, that only matters if you're a fan -- if you're a neutral, they're still awfully watchable.
7. Sassuolo (9.3)
The hipster's Atalanta*, Sassuolo ranked ninth here last season. They switched managers, bringing in Empoli's Alessio Dionisi, and they sent star midfielder Manuel Locatelli to Juventus, but here they are, almost equally watchable and equally sound -- they were eighth in Serie A last year, and they're currently ninth.
(*Atalanta is the hipster's Borussia Dortmund.)
6. Hellas Verona (9.4)
Since firing Eusebio Di Francesco after a three-match losing streak to start the season, Verona have turned into an absolute delight under Igor Tudor. They've averaged 1.9 goals per game since the switch -- they've scored at least three goals in eight matches -- and Cagliari loanee Giovanni Simeone has scored 15 times. Combine that with a sketchy defense, and you've got a beautifully watchable squad.
5. Barcelona (9.5)
The Blaugrana probably wouldn't have ranked very high here early in the season, but for a binge of recent brilliance. Their past eight league matches -- 22 points, 25 goals scored, six goals allowed -- certainly added some sparkle. Since Xavi took over in November and the team added quite a bit of attacking talent in January, Barcelona have begun to look like Barcelona again.
4. Borussia Dortmund (9.5)
Just as "Does Burnley rank really low?" is a good spot-check for quality on a list like this, "Is BVB in the top five?" is similar. (They were fifth last season.) Despite missing Erling Haaland and Giovanni Reyna for large chunks of the season, Borussia Dortmund have been as prolific as ever in 2021-22, and some severe defensive glitches have assured that no lead is safe in a BVB match no matter which team holds it.
3. Leeds United (9.6)
Again, "watchable" doesn't have to equal "good," and Leeds' propensity for nonstop action, good or bad, was inevitably going to get them ranked high here. (They were sixth last season as well.) Since Jesse Marsch took over from Marcelo Bielsa in late February, Leeds have won a couple of late thrillers to cut their relegation odds a bit, but it's safe to say that the drama, both on the pitch and on the table, probably isn't over just yet.
2. Liverpool (9.8)
Within the past three years, Liverpool have won both the Premier League and Champions League, but this somehow might be Jurgen Klopp's most beautifully chaotic team yet. (It might be his best, too.) The Reds have scored 77 goals in 30 matches -- within the Big Five, only Bayern are more prolific -- and now that they actually have healthy centre-backs again, their defense is stout once more, too. They have depth and flair, and they've won 10 league matches in a row to charge back into the Premier League title race.
1. Bayern Munich (9.9)
Last year, when Bayern ranked No. 1, I wrote, "No one scores more, almost no one pressures the ball more or allows fewer possessions, and no one is more capable of coaxing good teams into a track meet instead of a 0-0 standstill." That all remains true.
They're more defensively sturdy than they were a year ago, but only so much, and they remain both the most prolific scorers in the Big Five. And even when they start slowly, they can make up ground in a hurry. Case in point: Saturday's win over Freiburg, in which they didn't score until the 58th minute but still ended up pulling away 4-1.
Love them or hate them, you're never going to be bored watching them. All hail the back-to-back watchability champs.