by Zack Lambert
September 16th, 2020
The constant ability to reload after selling some of the most prizes players in the world is a quality that very few teams have, but Ajax is one of them. The fact that the Netherlands seems to have a never-ending supply of star players is certainly a contributing factor, but their own program is the championing reason. They identify talent extremely well and develop players into international stars, sell them for massive profits, and repeat the process. The gap between Ajax and the rest of the teams was nonexistent last season as the team won the Eredivisie on goal differential. No Donny van de Beek won’t help much, but the Ajax roster is still more than loaded enough to take the title again.
Potential vs outcome is one of the great debate topics for a team, or really anything, before a season gets started. On paper something looks like a sure thing to win, but in most cases reality doesn’t emulate our predictions. Napoli was one of those teams last season. Sure, they had some crucial injuries to some of their best players that derailed things, but a team with a player valuation of nearly €600M needs to finish higher than 7th in the league. I’m cautiously high on the Naples side this season because they’re returning all their key players and have added a true star up front in Victor Osimhen who should be a difference maker. Whether or not the core can stay together past this season is also a good debate to have, but not one we’re ready to have.
18. Borussia Mönchengladbach
It’s not a big surprise when Gladbach contend, but it was more of a surprise last season considering the 2019 summer selling list. The losses of some key players made the season seem like one for rebuilding, but they shook off those allegations and led the league for a sizable portion of the first half. Now, Bayern ended up doing Bayern things, but Gladbach still finished fourth with an impressive run of form to close the season. A lot of the young players broke out in ways that GLadbach could have only prayed for with Marcus Thuram, Breel Embolo, Denis Zakaria, and so many more making their mark on the season. With another step in the right direction for these players and it won’t be a surprise to see them gunning for Dortmund’s second place.
17. Shakhtar Donetsk
The Ukranian side make another appearance in the top 20 because, well, they’re just really good. It’s fair to say that they play against a really weak league and that’s why they’re always in European football, and while it’s true, they still get results in international competitions. They struggle to advance past the group stages of the Champions League but there’s always a nice run in Europa League and they often bounce a team from one of the major markets. That’s not luck, that’s talent. Pulling the best players from a large country like Ukraine and having a direct pipeline to Brazil for players like Willian, Douglas Costa, Fernandinho, and Fred make them great. They might not win many international tournaments, but neither would most of the clubs in the world if they had the resources of the eastern giants.
It’s been a long time since the Gunners made an appearance on this list but the time has come for them to be added. Since the turn of the season when Mikel Arteta took over Arsenal have looked like a different squad. In that time they’ve toppled Liverpool in the Premier League, City and Chelsea en route to an FA Cup, and Liverpool again for the Community Shield. Now, their opening win against Fulham might not stack up to those other wins, but taking points while away is something that Arsenal have struggled to do in recent seasons and the commitment to get better made itself obvious as two summer signings were the best players on the pitch for the Gunners in that opening win.
15. RB Leipzig
RB Leipzig seem to be a team on the trajectory to becoming something like a Dortmund or Ajax who can just keep pulling talent in an impressive fashion while also revolutionizing the game of football. Timo Werner was the first of the big selling points for the club, netting a nice fee to fund other transfers, but now the hard part comes. Can the team sustain success to draw in good young players while also selling the key ones from last season? Is the scouting and coaching good enough to make this smart business model a smart football model? Can the key players sustain such volatility around them? Can the young Julian Nagelsmann handle the rigors that come with hitting a reset button every July 1st? It will be interesting to find out.
Everyone’s favorite goal scoring menaces are back after a season in which they led Europe in goals scored. We knew the team was good based off of what they did in 2018/19, leading Serie A in scoring and finishing third in the league, but this season was a different level. 98 goals in the league, three players scoring 15+ goals, seven players with 5+, Papu Gómez with 16 assists, etc. This type of goal production isn’t unprecedented, but it’s unprecedented for a team who finished third in Italy. Repeating the feat will be a difficult job and one that’s almost impossible considering how teams will gear up for them now, but returning just about the whole starting lineup will help a lot. I’m not sure if the team can really challenge for a title but it’s going to be exciting watching them try.
13. Manchester United
United closed their 2019/20 campaign very impressively, finishing 3rd in what felt like a lost season halfway through. The richest defenseman in the world felt like a flop for that type of money and while the attack could score, it wasn’t winning games. So what changed? The addition of Bruno Fernandes seemed to have the club make a U-turn. His presence in the middle of the pitch was massively impactful, his distribution helped Martial and Rashford become great players instead of great scorers and his own ability to find net changed the outcome of matches. Whether the wealth of penalties is sustainable is up for debate, but either way Fernandes made a palpable change in the side and it was not a fluke.
The curious case of Chelsea. Last season was a really nice display of what Lampard could do with a team of players who were mainly home-grown and playing for a spot in the team. This season is going to be a bit more complicated. The clubs spent millions upon millions of euros to bring in players like Ziyech, Chilwell, and Werner, but the issue is figuring out where to play them. These are all established stars in their own rights and signed for money that shouts, “I’m here to play football.” But what about Pulisic? Abraham and Giroud? Kai Havertz needs to fit in somewhere, but then where does Mount play? If Frank Lampard thought he had a tough time picking a team last season, wait until he has to juggle a rotation that sees Jorginho, Ziyech, Pulisic, and Abraham on the bench for 90 minutes. It’s a nice problem to have, but it’s a problem nonetheless. The amount of cash Chelsea spent this season indicates they want a title now. Is it going to happen this season? No way.
Arsenal seem to own the FA Cup, turning into one of the best teams in the competition when it rolls around no matter what their status elsewhere is. Sevilla are the Arsenal of the Europa League. Maybe the other way around, but the point stands. Sevilla made a magical run to the finals of the competition and despite being heavy underdogs to Inter, they took the title yet again, cementing their European legacy and bringing home a trophy to make a great season tangible. But looking forward to this season, there’s a huge opportunity to be had. Atlético were unstable last season and Barcelona is undergoing some massive turmoil. Real seems strong but they can be beaten. This could be the season that Sevilla make a run for the title. A winner outside of Madrid or Barcelona hasn’t emerged since Valencia in 03/04, but Sevilla have the team to do it this season.
10. Borussia Dortmund
Every year Dortmund seem to be what I find Sevilla to be this season. There’s a chance, there’s an opening to pick up a major title or some big, meaningful wins. Every year I’m wrong. The hump to break through past Bayern is Everest-esque and Dortmund don’t have the funds to compete. While this season won’t be different, Dortmund are going to make it closer than the 13 points it closed at last season. It probably won’t even be within a game, but if they can keep Sancho and the other stars through the season then there’s no reason they can’t hit 75 points. A full season of Håland and Emre Can alongside the stars that Dortmund already employ will clean up in the Bundesliga and should have the ability to torch some teams in the international competitions as well.
This spot is low for Liverpool, but it’s justified. I don’t think there’s a team I’ve seen play more than Liverpool in the past 16 or 18 months, and I’m an Arsenal fan. The Reds are a great football team with great players at every position. But they’re also one of the luckiest teams I’ve seen in my life. There were three of four matches before the infamous Watford loss that could have easily been losses for the Reds where they were gifted a penalty, an own goal saved them, or something along those lines struck at the perfect moment to flip the momentum and match. The lack of transfers worry me. There’s no competition up front, the back line has no chance of being usurped, the midfield is stagnant. The team is growing older and the hardest part about winning a championship is doing it again. Liverpool aren’t going to fall apart. They’re not going to be bad. There’s just a chance that things get stale. The championship hangover is a real thing and this offseason was a lot shorter than usual. The Reds need to find a way to keep things fresh and motivating if they’re not going to do it by bettering the squad.
Hoo, boy. If there was ever a storyline in sports it would have been the one that came out of Barcelona this season. When Ronald Koeman, a Barcelona legend and start player in his own right was appointed to manage the club, one of the first things he did was tell Messi that the privileges were over. What a stupid thing to do. Why on earth would you tell the world’s best player and your only chance of winning the league that things weren’t going to be easy for him anymore? I mean, the man scored 25 goals with 21 assists in 32 matches. Who are you going to find to replace that? Get real. Messi is the best player football has ever seen and Ronald Koeman doesn’t have the right to tell Messi anything. It would have been better for Messi to leave the club because now there’s a permanent rift between the players and staff, and that’s not going to sit well in terms of football results.
The Turin giants took the trophy for the 9th season in a row, but the gap is looking closer than it has for some time as Inter closed the season in style, giving Juve just a single point of breathing room to close the season. The close to the season plus the Champions League crash earned Mauricio Sarri a one-way ticket to the curb, and now Andrea Pirlo, football legend, is managing the squad. In the first glimpses we’ve seen of the team he has a very complicated style of play, but one that can work, one that he has the right personnel for. Ronaldo, despite his age, is still putting out stellar performances and the rest of the team is world class. Injuries hurt the defense but with a healthy line and a year of experience for de Ligt, things look stable. The midfield made one of the steals of the century, swapping Pjanić for Arthur, and the attack is always top of the line. Inter, Atalanta, Lazio, and others aren’t going to make things easy for Bianconeri this season, but Juve are up for the challenge.
Ahh, the challengers to the throne. As you know from what I just said about Juventus, things are closer than ever. What better time is there to spring an attack than when you nearly won last time and the opponent is playing with a disadvantage? Style change and some aging players make this season ripe for Inter to snatch a title and break the run, but do they have the power to do it? The defense last season was subpar and key components like Milan Škriniar really underperformed, but he’s capable of much more and should bring those capabilities this season. Serious purchases were made in the midfield in the form of Nico Barella, Achraf Hakimi, and others. Lautaro seems set to stay and Alexis has been made permanent. The team is really solid and really deep. This is the year.
5. Paris Saint-Germain
I understand the outrage that comes with PSG still being so high. They looked very poor in the Champions League Final and have never started this poorly in Ligue 1. The holders are massively talented and the controversy with Neymar is making the waters muddy, but they’re still one of the top teams in the world. They own two of the best five players on the planet and the quality of attackers is probably the best on the planet. The midfield and defense could be improved but the club have plenty of money to make the moves when necessary. If things continue to trend the way they have been domestically then the team will absolutely drop, but I think we can all agree that it’s very unlikely.
4. Atlético Madrid
I always love Atléti. I probably have some masochistic tendency that makes me love their style of stout, defensive football, but I just love it. Last season some injuries to key players forced a slow start, but the close of the season showed us who Los Colchoneros can really be. A stunning performance at Anfield and big wins down the stretch allowed the other Madrid team to leave an imprint on the world, one that will certainly carry over to this season. Despite reports that had nearly every player on the pitch moving to other clubs at some point, the entire key core is intact. Thomas, Giménez, Oblak, Savic, Saúl, they’re all still at the club. They’ve proven a tenacity that can earn them wins in some of the most hostile environments in the world, so with a healthy team all season there’s no reason they couldn’t challenge their crosstown rivals for the title.
3. Manchester City
The Citizens are so good. Manchester City played some really questionable football to start the season, losing to Norwich and not finding the results that were needed to keep pace with the white hot Liverpool. Later in the season things fell into place, like when that robot realigned Mr. Incredible’s back while trying to rip him in half. City finished the season on a tear and despite being knocked out of the Champions League, looked ready to compete at an even higher level than their championship runs. de Bruyne is back to being one of the best midfielders on the planet, the front line is still mind-bogglingly good, and the defense has improved with the purchase of Nathan Aké and eyes set on Kalidou Koulibaly. Things are set up for another title in Manchester and I like the odds of City finding it.
2. Real Madrid
Madrid were beaten out of the Champions League by the team just above them here, City, but the sweetness of reclaiming the league title probably felt pretty good in exchange. Beating out Messi without Ronaldo had to be a great feeling for the club and the quality they found from other players was really impressive. Benzema became one of the best all around center forwards in the league while Casemiro cemented himself as the best defensive midfielder in the world. Sergio Ramos isn’t ready to relinquish the captaincy just yet as he’s still scoring and tackling with the best of them, and Zidane has a very nice line of younger players hanging in wait. The situation couldn’t be much better to repeat as Barcelona eat themselves alive, and apart from the team ranked above them, Real look like contenders for the Champions League as well.
1. Bayern München
Did you watch football last season? Chances are that if you did, you saw a really good Bayern team. Chances also are that you didn’t see a fully healthy Bayern team. The German and European holders were playing with a couple players out of place and an aging Ivan Perišić on the wing. To start this season, everyone is healthy. Süle, Pavard, everyone. Oh, and Leroy Sané one of the best left wingers in the world at age 24, he just joined up to replace Perišić. So yeah. They got better. Good luck, everyone else!