We’ve called fun-to-watch teams “League Pass”-worthy* here at High Press Soccer plenty of times in recent weeks. But until now, we lacked an “official” ranking of Europe’s most intriguing clubs.
*-We’re borrowing stealing this concept from the annual rankings of NBA teams, based on entertainment value, that Bill Simmons and Zach Lowe used to do for Grantland. Lowe continues to do them for ESPN now. The short explanation is that these are the most must-see – but not necessarily the best or most well-rounded – teams in Europe.
What’s a soccer League Pass team?
There’s no specific formula for this. However, here are a few things any team reading this should emphasize if they aspire to join this illustrious group:
- young talent (Red Bull Salzburg and Ajax are prime examples)
- a fun style (think wide-open like Man City, as opposed to whatever Diego Simeone’s club is up to)
- big – but likeable (so not CR7) – personalities
- charismatic/expressive/goofy managers (fingers crossed a top European club calls Miguel Herrera or Diego Maradona soon)
- a propensity for off-field/locker-room drama (PSG and Real Madrid, anybody?)
- an ascendant quality, because teams on the way up are generally more interesting than those trying to remain elite.
HPS League Pass Teams for 2019-20 v1
Without further ado …
1. Red Bull Salzburg
Frequent readers of this site – and/or anyone who watched this team against either Genk or Liverpool – will not be surprised to see the Austrian club atop this list. They check all the “League Pass” boxes, or at least all the ones that help a team win. It starts with Erling Braut Haaland, but he’s just one of several talented pieces up top. Hwang Hee-Chan (23 years old), Takumi Minamino (24) and Patson Daka (21) also get theirs on a team with 47 goals through 11 games domestically. It’s also fun to watch an American manager with A) Jesse Marsch’s fire
“How many fouls have we committed? Maybe 2? It’s not a f–king friendly, it’s a Champions League match.”
Jesse Marsch’s halftime talk vs Liverpool has gone viral. Salzburg scored 2 goals right after this for 3-3, ended up losing 4-3. (Language warning.)pic.twitter.com/eE1NxiAzN2
— Grant Wahl (@GrantWahl) October 4, 2019
(DEFINITELY not taking a subtle shot at Gregg Berhalter) and B) his apparent knack for getting the most from this players.
The only bad news on RBS is that after the loss to Napoli, they’re probably cooked in the UCL, so enjoy their last three group stage games – and fingers crossed they find a way to make it to the knockout rounds.
The purpose of this list is not to rattle off all the teams full of household names. Success, however, does not preclude a team from a high ranking here. Managers (especially not the game’s best) don’t get more fun to watch than Jurgen Klopp, whether you’re a fan of his teams or not.
In addition to his touchline antics, Klopp’s teams always play with a frenetic energy. That scheme + world-class players all over the pitch + the electric atmosphere at Anfield make it impossible to rank Liverpool lower than second or third.
How much time do you have? The darlings of last year’s Champions League appear to have an even bigger chip on their shoulder than they did a year ago. With many questioning what they could do after Matthijs de Ligt and Frenkie de Jong left this summer, Ajax smoked its first two UCL opponents before Wednesday’s close loss to Chelsea. Hakim Ziyech would have a case to be No. 1 on a list of “League Pass” players, and he’s one of several guys on this roster who play absolutely beautiful soccer – Dusan Tadic is another human highlight reel. The chemistry on this squad isn’t bad either.
David Neres getting a slap in the face from Dusan Tadic in the Ajax goal celebrations 😂
— Photos of Football (@photosofootball) September 17, 2019
Few attacking trios can touch the ceiling that Lionel Messi, Luis Suarez and Antoine Griezmann can reach. These three are just now getting used to playing together, but if this group jells, it could recall – or surpass?? – the devastating work that Messi, Suarez and Neymar did before the Brazilian’s exit to PSG. Barcelona also boasts an excellent keeper in Marc-Andre ter Stegen and after flameouts the last two springs, the tension for this team’s knockout match-ups will make each game a hell of a spectacle.
Nobody’s playing better while relying more on teenagers than Frank Lampard’s squad. Winning at Ajax on Wednesday in the UCL was a massive feat. After that result, in addition to being just two points out of second place in easily the toughest league in the world, the Blues are currently tied atop Group H with Ajax.
They’ve also won four of five in the EPL and have scored more (19 goals through nine games) than anyone other than Liverpool and Manchester City. When’s the last time a top European team was getting it done while being so dependent on so many young players essentially breaking out at the same time??
6. Leicester City
The winners of the ’15-16 EPL have by no means fallen off the map since that Cinderella run. Claudio Ranieri might be long gone, but this remains a likeable, entertaining team – and one that also happens to be really good. At third place in the EPL and with a goal differential of +8, they’re not going anywhere. Even if this isn’t the first time they’ve pushed their far richer rivals, it’s still really entertaining. Go watch their narrow loss to Liverpool – or at least highlights of it — from October 5th and tell me you’re not in on James Maddison and Co.
7. Inter Milan
It starts with Antonio Conte, another of the rare managers who’s worth keeping an eye on as much as possible. They also have scoring talent both young (22-year-old Argentine Lautaro Martinez is on a tear) and not-so-young (Romelu Lukaku) who, it turns out, is actually only 26. That seems hard to believe. Anyway, Inter were probably going to get left off this list if they didn’t beat Borussia Dortmund on Wednesday to keep their Champions League knockout hopes alive. But with that win, they’re in the mix in Group F. The return, at some point, of a seemingly rejuvenated Alexis Sanchez will also give this team a lift.
8. Borussia Mönchengladbach
The first-place team in Germany is not Bayern Munich or Borussia Dortmund. Those two powers are currently third and fourth, respectively, behind second-place Wolfsburg. But let’s talk about the team with the easiest name to spell in Europe. They are not loaded with top names, but any underdog leading a top European league after eight games is worth checking out. And based on their goal differential of +8, they’re not going anywhere.
What the hell is going on with these guys? Only one team in Spain has a better differential than this club’s +7. With that in mind, you’d imagine they’d be no worse than about fifth in the standings, right? Instead, they’re currently in seventh place with just 14 points through nine games. They opened the season by drawing Granada 4-4. If that’s not a “League Pass”-type score, I don’t know what is. They also earned a draw vs. Real Madrid on September 1 and played Barcelona tough in a 2-1 loss. This is a team worth getting to know ASAP.
10. Real Sociedad
Staying in Spain (and forgoing well-known options like Manchester City, Napoli, etc.), Real Sociedad is in fourth place. Their place on this list is 90% about Martin Odegaard, who might be the best player in the league outside the big three clubs. OK, so he’s actually a Real Madrid loanee, but the 20-year-old is nevertheless making his current team one of Spain’s most intriguing. The long-hyped Norwegian’s numbers through nine La Liga games (two goals and two assists) do not do justice to the impact he’s having. There’s been a lot of buzz about Odegaard for a while, and he’s shown what all the fuss is about through the first two months of the ’19-20 season.
Note: This list will be updated as the season rolls along.