But who may not have the attention they deserve…
We are currently about a third of the way into the season, and we have our clear contenders for league and continental silverware coming to the fore. Teams like Man City, Liverpool, Chelsea, Bayern Munich, and Real Madrid remain the global colossal teams full of the stars the world is fixated upon.
And that is all well and good. But I think there are a few teams to keep an eye on outside of the same big names that continually grab all of the headlines. These might be teams you see in the Champions League next season, or teams that you could see win major honors, even league titles, this season, or these might be teams that are at a major point in building a project that could be major players in the very near future. Or these could just be incredibly entertaining teams with good players. It is a mixture of a lot of things. But we are about highlighting stories and teams that may not get the mainstream attention here, giving a fair and equitable amount of time in the spotlight to all of the clubs that deserve it regardless of “size” and budget, and that is the aim of this piece. These are the teams that have something big going for them but are not the big names you continually hear about.
Brighton & Hove Albion
We start in the Premier League, which usually does not get much mention from me when it comes to under the radar players or teams. The Premier League is known to be the center of the money and power in football at the moment, and it is also known for being a league that tends to just revolve around six global giant teams, at least for the most part. Leicester and West Ham have each done a good job of breaking the proverbial glass ceiling over the last few seasons, but one team has quietly been putting the building blocks together to turn into something serious in the next few years.
Brighton. Little ol’ Brighton. That charming team on the south coast of England playing in a stadium sponsored by American Express. They are building something very interesting helmed by a man named Graham Potter, who might be one of the best young managers in football at the moment. Potter has built a system that is both fluid in attack and solid in defense, able to keep the relatively small Brighton in the league while also capable of pushing higher up the table. They are also so well-drilled and so confident in their system that it can now survive without the big names, as they have learned since Yves Bissouma’s…well…legal troubles. Potter has gotten a significant amount out of Pascal Groß and Adam Lallana in midfield, Joel Veltman has deputized well in place of the injured Tariq Lamptey, and the largely veteran defense of Dan Burn, Lewis Dunk, and Shane Duffey have played so well that it makes you forget that this team lost Ben White in the summer. Much has been made, even joked about, regarding Brighton’s high Expected Goals number and status as “xG FC”, but the hype can be justified. Yes, Brighton are not the complete package yet, but they are close. The high xG vs. their relatively tame actual goals stats shows that they are certainly a quality striker away from being dangerous.
And it is worth highlighting the young talent in this team. Marc Cucurella is a phenomenal young player who fits perfectly as a wingback in Potter’s system, and the fact that they brought him in for allegedly as little as £15.5 million makes him possibly the best long-term pound-for-pound signing of the summer. Zambian midfielder Enock Mwepu, who scored for the Seagulls at Anfield a few weeks ago, has shown himself to be a very capable young player and a shrewd signing for only around £20 million. Jakub Moder, Kjell Scherpen, Alexis Mac Allister, and Steven Alzate are all around the team with potential to be at least competent Premier League players, especially Moder, who looks like a very capable player already. And when their loan list includes talented young players like Moises Caicedo and Abdallah Sima, it is clear that the future is bright, should they be able to keep Potter and Sporting Director Dan Ashworth and keep the plan rolling along.
Racing Club de Lens
We cross the English Channel over to France to talk about maybe the biggest surprise in Ligue 1 over the last few years, maybe even bigger than Lille winning the league last season. Lens are certainly not a “big” team, especially given that they come from a town of a little over 31,000 people. Lens are a historic team, however, being prominent in the late 90s-early 2000s and producing several high level players, most famously 2018 world champion Raphaël Varane. This, paired with a passionate fanbase and iconic colors, makes them a team that is held in high regard throughout the football community in France (well, except among Lille fans).
Lens have gone down and up a few times, though, and they most recently earned promotion back to Ligue 1 during the shortened 2019/20 season. With the departure of their manager following promotion, the job was handed to Lens’ B team coach to guide them in their return to Ligue 1, with the aim of keeping le Sang et Or in the top flight. That man is Franck Haise, and he’s done a little bit more than just keep them up. Lens were the surprise package of Ligue 1 last season, finishing 7th and only three points behind Marseille for the final European place, a season that earned Haise a nomination for Ligue 1 Manager of the Year. As of right now, they are currently 2nd and look, quite frankly, truly like the second-best team in the league at the moment, playing an imperious attacking style that has all of the confidence of a top team despite not having the resources of the teams around them. Like Brighton, they play a three at the back system that allows them to be defensively solid while also being threatening going forward, and it is the well-drilled system that Haise has built combined with some very solid individuals in the team that have turned them into a contender for the Champions League places.
Again, like Brighton, they bring a nice combination of young talent and veteran experience. Haise has certainly been able to get a lot of production out of not that much available to him, and he has helped turn a few journeyman players into top class talents. The biggest example of that is right back Jonathan Clauss, who has gone from a largely lower-league journeyman into the best right back in France and arguably deserving of a France call-up. Gaël Kakuta (remember him, Chelsea fans?) and Seko Fofana (remember him, Man City fans?) have become key cogs in this Lens team under Haise. Przemysław Frankowski was plucked from the Chicago Fire in Major League Soccer this past summer and turned into maybe the best left back in France under Haise’s management. The young talent is there, too. Arnaud Kalimuendo is one of the better teenage players in Europe at the moment, and Cheick Doucouré and noted Football Manager hero Wuilker Faríñez have begun to show their talent. Not just for their style, but their talent also makes this Lens team one to watch. And who knows? They might be in the Champions League next season.
We have talked a bit about Real Sociedad on blogs and podcasts, but they certainly do deserve more love. The Basque team have emerged as possibly the next “Atalanta-esque” team to challenge a league hegemony despite a lack of resources, and they currently find themselves top of LaLiga about a third of the way through the season. They are a team that plays an attractive attacking style of football while being mature enough in midfield and defense to hold their own on big occasions, which is an improvement from previous iterations of La Real.
There is a very common theme here: teams with strong managers and strong talent. Real Sociedad are no different, with manager Imanol Alguacil creating a well-oiled machine of a team that is able to function with and without their star players. David Silva is very much a known quantity for football fans, while Alexander Isak and Mikel Oyarzabal have gone from up-and-coming prospects to top players in LaLiga and key cogs in their respective national teams. The real major revelations of this La Real team, however, are the players emerging into big roles this season. Mikel Merino has become among the best center midfielders in LaLiga this season, and his midfield partner Martín Zubimendi, who is only 22, looks like one of the league’s best young talents. Andoni Gorosabel and Robin Le Normand have both also been very impressive in defense this season, with the center back partnership of Le Normand and Aritz Elustondo being maybe one of the best pairings in the league at this stage of the season. Le Normand even won LaLiga Player of the Month for October. My premonition was correct.
The emergence of these players further back from their already star-studded attack has helped mature Real Sociedad into a team that can realistically challenge for major honors this season. If players like Le Normand and Merino and Zubimendi can continue playing at a high level, then La Real now have the attack that can terrorize teams as well as the midfield and defense that can provide control and protection when they need it. They did not have that in previous seasons, and being able to control games and protect leads, especially against weaker opposition in the games you have to win to be champions, is the difference between winning and not winning come the end of the season. I do not know whether Real Sociedad will be champions of Spain in May, but it will be interesting to watch and find out.
And now for the team that is fun just for the sake of being fun.
Some of you may remember hearing about the title race in the Netherlands during the COVID season (2019/20). Ajax, perennial champions at this point, were down to the wire against AZ Alkmaar, who are a prominent Eredivisie club but still outside of the Ajax-PSV-Feyenoord triumvirate that basically dominates the sport in Holland. They were level on points with Ajax when the season was canceled, and due to that, no league title was awarded. AZ’s manager at the time was a man named Arne Slot, who was very well-regarded within Dutch football for his tactical philosophies and his man-management skills. Slot then left AZ the next season to take the vacant position at Feyenoord, taking the plunge into the world of the Dutch “Big Three”, albeit the one that, no disrespect Feyenoord fans, has been the ugly duckling of the three over the past decade. But with the combination of Slot’s management, as well as some fairly smart scouting and resource management, Feyenoord have become a very exciting team.
Feyenoord, once again, follow the trend that the other three teams in this article set. They are a team with exciting young talent led by an exciting young (or young-ish) manager who wants his team to play strong attacking football. They have plenty of young talent dotted all over the pitch, including attackers Luis Sinisterra, Guus Til, and Orkan Kökcü, as well as defenders Tyrell Malacia, Marcos Senesi, Marcus Holmgren Pedersen, and Lutsharel Geertruida ahead of young, promising goalkeeper Justin Bijlow. While they have their limitations, they are a team that wants to fly forward and score, mainly through athletic wingers like the aforementioned Sinisterra and ex-Brighton winger Alireza Jahanbakhsh. This leads to plenty of opportunities for their two main central forwards, Til and Bryan Linssen, to score plenty of goals, which they have done. Til has seven league goals in only 11 games this season, making him the Eredivisie’s joint-top scorer, while Linssen is only one goal behind with six. While they have not scored as much as a team as Ajax and PSV, they are not tremendously far off, and I imagine they will continue to improve as Slot gets more time to work with this team.
What will they do this season? Well, it is hard to say, really. They are currently in a good place in the league, able to be top of the Eredivisie if they win their game in hand on PSV and Ajax, but I find it hard to believe that they will be able to compete with Ajax for the whole of the season. Can they win the domestic cup? Absolutely. But the interesting discussion revolves around the newly-formed Europa Conference League, in which Feyenoord is participating this season. While you might not blame a club like Feyenoord, one with a grand history of European honors, for not caring too much about this competition, they seem to be giving it their all. And while it is hard to truly deem one team or another a “favorite” given that Europa League teams will drop into the competition, I would be comfortable in saying that Feyenoord at their best have the ability to win the Conference League. While they do lack the on-paper talent that a team like Tottenham or Roma have, they have a combination of young, daring players paired with a very good manager and, importantly for knockout competitions, a fortress of a home atmosphere at De Kuip that allows them to be a very threatening team in the latter stages of the competition. While they may not be the best team in the Conference League, I do believe they are a team that not many would want to face in the Knockout Stages.
And there you go. Four teams that are not getting as much attention this season as they should be. These might not be the global giant clubs we are all used to, but they are very deserving of praise and support, and they are certainly exciting enough to watch whenever you have a chance. Who knows, they might even win something this season too.
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