The unpredictability of football was in evidence over the weekend as Manchester City, Juventus and Bayern Munich all dropped points. Fans love underdog stories and there have been plenty across Europe’s big leagues so far this season. From newly promoted sides making waves in the top half to strugglers from the previous campaign hitting their stride, here are the surprise packages of 2019-20.
Premier League: Sheffield United
Sheffield United were favourites to be relegated before the season began but, with 19 points on the board after 14 matches, they are seventh in the table and halfway towards survival. Chris Wilder’s side finished second in the Championship last season thanks to a brilliant run in the second half of the campaign. They lost just two of their 21 league matches from New Year’s Day onwards and their happy habit of avoiding defeat has continued this season. They have not lost any of their last seven games, meaning only Liverpool (14) and Wolves (nine) are on a longer unbeaten streak in the Premier League.
While most promoted sides rely heavily on their home form, Sheffield United have been superb on the road. They have not lost any of their seven away games so far. Only five other teams in Europe’s top five leagues remain unbeaten on their travels: Liverpool, Juventus, Atalanta, Inter and Cagliari. That is a remarkable record for a promoted team. Having been written off as pushovers before the campaign began, they now have the third best defence in the Premier League.
Serie A: Cagliari
Following back-to-back home defeats at the start of the season – the first of which came against newly promoted Brescia – it looked as if Cagliari were facing another long, hard slog this season. They have not finished in the top half of Serie A since 2008-09 and 15th-placed finishes in their last two seasons did not suggest the team was going to jump up the table. Yet they are now fourth in Serie A directly above Roma, Atalanta and Napoli.
There was some cause for optimism before the season when Radja Nainggolan arrived on loan from Inter. However, no one would have predicted the run that they have embarked upon. They came back from 3-1 down to beat Sampdoria 4-3 on Monday night, stretching their unbeaten run to 12 games. Only Juventus and Liverpool are on a longer unbeaten run. And, like Sheffield United, Cagliari are yet lose an away match this season.
Nainggolan has been at the heart of their sensational recent form, with three goals and four assists in his last three appearances, but he is not the only player at the top of his game. Brazilian striker João Pedro has already scored more goals this season (nine) than in any of his previous four campaigns at the club. Rolando Maran’s team have scored 29 goals already in the league this season – four more than Juventus.
La Liga: Osasuna
Fifteen games into the season in Spain and Osasuna – back in the top flight after a two-year absence – are mounting an unlikely bid for a European finish. Their success has been built around a strong mentality. Jagoba Arrasate’s side have lost just three times – the same number as league leaders Barcelona. They have also found the net freely, scoring 21 goals so far – more than Sevilla and Atlético Madrid.
Osasuna do not try to soak up pressure and hit teams on the break like many other promoted sides. They trust their ability on the ball and boasting an above average share of possession.
Pervis Estupiñán, their 21-year-old Ecuadorian full-back, has been a star turn, while Argentinian forward Chimy Ávila has led the line admirably. Their nine-point cushion to the relegation zone will no doubt be tested by a tricky run of fixtures before the winter break, but it’s been a job very well done by Arrasate so far.
While league leaders Borussia Mönchengladbach and third-placed Schalke are exceeding expectations in Germany, both have been regular battlers for European spots in recent times. Freiburg, however, have only finished in the top half of the table once in the last six years. Yet, after 13 matches this season, they are in sixth, just two points behind champions Bayern Munich.
They lost to Gladbach at the weekend, but that was just their third defeat of the season so far. And they have been given a tricky start. They have picked up points against Borussia Dortmund, RB Leipzig, Bayer Leverkusen and Eintracht Frankfurt. Moreover, Christian Streich’s side have scored in all but one of their 13 matches so far, spreading the goals around eight players in the team.
They have,however, been relatively passive out of possession, so it remains to be seen how long their fine start will continue. They are bottom for tackles and top for shots conceded, so have ridden their luck at times. But in Gian-Luca Waldschmidt, Lucas Höler and Nils Petersen they have three strong finishers, so remaining in the top half is not out of the question.
Ligue 1: Angers
Angers are third in Ligue 1 because of their excellent home record. They have picked up 19 points from their eight games at the Stade Raymond-Kopa this season – only Lille have won more points at home (20). In fact, Stephane Moulin’s side have already won more home matches this season (six) than they managed all of last season (five).
Their record away from home is poor by comparison, but defeats to Lyon, Lille, PSG and Nice will not have come as big surprises to fans of a club whose highest Ligue 1 finish this century is ninth.
They are bottom of the league when it comes to possession (45%), but they are also bottom of the league for shots conceded (8.9 per game), which shows they are exceptionally well organised at the back. Their defensive midfielder Baptiste Santamaria has been key in that regard. They transition from defence to attack impressively, ranking second behind PSG for shots (14.9 per game), despite having lost key men in Flavien Tait and Jeff Reine-Adelaide over the summer.