European football clubs cautiously begin to resume their seasons amid the UEFA pandemic deadlines. Teams are allowing supporters to pay for their cardboard cutouts to occupy seats at matches, and fans around the world finally have something to watch on Saturday mornings again. Bitter rivalries renewed, championships won, and promotions and relegations sorted out. However, as some titles are already sorted—looking at you Liverpool and PSG—and big clubs continue to rake in euros and results, fans may be looking for other teams and storylines to occupy their hearts and minds for the remaining matchdays. Enter yours truly and a handy guide to smaller teams playing energetic, exciting football and achieving big results.
The Eredivisie squad AZ Alkmaar features Dutch youngsters like Calvin Steng, Owen Wijndal, Teun Koopmeiners, and Myron Boadu, Moroccan winger Oussama Idrissi, and Norweigan midfielder Fredrik Midtsjø, an exciting core of players rocketing the North Holland squad into second this season, level on points with current champions Ajax and only behind on goal difference. Fitting, as AZ’s current starting 11 bears a striking resemblance to the Ajax team who made it to the Champions League semifinals with a group of young players. Many of them are now plying their trade at much bigger clubs—Matthijs de Ligt at Juventus, Frenkie de Jong at Barcelona, Kasper Dolberg at Nice, and Hakim Ziyech on his way out this summer to Chelsea.
The disappointment with this team is two-fold. First, the Eredivisie officially scrapped the 2019-20 season with no champion crowned. Hence, there will be no chance for AZ to challenge Ajax for the title, which is unfortunate for a club not often in the title race. The only silver lining is UEFA will honor the current league standings and both teams will qualify for the Champions League. Although, AZ will need to qualify for the group stages by entering in the second qualifying round. This meshes into the second disappointment as a couple of these young players may not make it to playing in these qualifying rounds. AZ’s highly coveted young players are the target of bigger European clubs, similar to Ajax’s aforementioned young players. The hope is the lure of European nights could mean this exciting core stays together and you may still get a chance to see them play.
Another smaller league, another smaller European football club filled with dynamic, youthful players currently in second place! Despite this squad making waves in the Champions, finishing third in Group E but giving Liverpool and Napoli a good fight, and losing two high-profile players (Erling Haaland to Dortmund and Takumi Minamino to the aforementioned Liverpool), this squad is firing in goals and producing more young talent. Attackers Patson Daka, Noah Okafor, Sekout Koita, Dominik Szoboszlai, and Karim Adeyemi are all 21 or under and supplement long-serving teammates like South Korean Hwang Hee-Chan and German veteran Alexander Walke. The team stands out for their exciting batch of stars, but also for their man in the technical area, Jesse Marsch.
The former US-International was born in Racine, Wisconsin, my home state and close to my home city in the Milwaukee area. He is one of the many Wisconsin stars to play for the USNT—Jimmy Banks, Rose Lavelle, and Andrija Novakovich being the cream of the crop. After retiring from playing, Marsch was an assistant to Bob Bradley on the USMNT. In 2015 he took over for Mike Petke as coach of the New York Red Bulls. After four successful seasons in New York, it led to a move to sister club RB Leipzig as an assistant. One season later he took over as RB Salzburg in the Austrian Bundesliga. As of now, Marsch is the most prominent US coach in European football and is off to an incredibly successful start. Follow his career and his team because you may be hearing his name more if he continues to be successful.
From one hometown hero plying his trade in Europe to another managing his boyhood club, newly promoted Premier League side Sheffield United not only features a manager, Chris Wilder, who manages the club he grew up supporting, played for, and captained, it also has a current player who also captains the side he grew up supporting, Billy Sharp. These two lifelong Blades have both been with the club for their incredible ascension from League One, the third-tier of English football, to the Premier League in three short years. No wonder Blades fans sing, “Chrissy Wilder, he’s one of our own,” proudly wherever they go.
It’s quite a story, but not an uncommon one. Smaller English clubs often realize promotion, only for England’s big money clubs to chew them up and spit them out. Sheffield United have not only played well enough to ensure a second season in the Premier League but surpassed all expectations, currently occupying 7th place. This position is good enough for Europa League qualifying and also has the Blades only 5 points, with a game in hand, of Chelsea for the final Champions League spot. Any European football for this team would be incredible, but it is definitely worth watching to see if Chris Wilder can continue to guide this squad of vastly underrated and underappreciated players to new heights as the Premier League looks to restart in June.
The Bundesliga is most often Bayern Munich’s to lose. The European giants have coasted to the title in seasons past, but last season was a close race with Borussia Dortmund and this season has been the most open and competitive in recent memory. Currently, eight points separate first from fifth and in mid-December of 2019 six points separated first from seventh. One team surprised everyone with their early-season inclusion in the Champions League places is the small, University-town club, SC Freiburg. Currently occupying seventh, they continue to fight for Europa League qualification despite being in the bottom third for club value in the Bundesliga.
The Baden-Wüttemberg side is unique for their enigmatic, long-serving manager, Christian Streich, despite their relegation from the Bundesliga in 2015. Streich rescued the club from relegation in 2011, endearing himself to the club for epitomizing the values of Freiburg supporters. Values like riding his bike to work, being a family man, and unapologetically sporting a thick, Southwestern German accent typical of the Freiburg area—Streich grew up in Baden-Wüttemberg. He radiates the vibe of a regular guy privileged to be coaching a club he once played for. Yet another hometown hero looking for European nights with a smaller European football club.
The story of Serie A for almost a decade has not been who will win it. The last eight Serie A titles going to powerhouse Juventus. Every year it is about what teams can surprise from 2nd to 20th place. Atalanta, located in the alpine city of Bergamo and named after the Greek goddess, is this year’s big compelling story. Moreso than Ronaldo’s Juventus, the continuing saga of “pazza” Inter, or Lazio’s goal machine Ciro Immobile.
Under the guidance of Gian Piero Gasperini, the team lives up to its namesake of intense, swift play. Gasperini utilizes diamonds and rotating overloads, as well as immense pressure with high defensive lines. The goal of his tactics is to overwhelm and tire opponents, as well as lead to plenty of goals. Comprised of savvy veterans Papu Gomez, Zapata, Ilicic, and newcomer Luis Muriel, La Dea has scored an astounding seventy goals. They have parlayed this breathless style of play into a surprise Champions League run. Most surprising is seeing Valencia off to the tune of eight goals over two legs. Come to see some great players plying their trade, stay for Gasperini’s tactical wonders.
Similar to the Bundesliga and Serie A, the big European giants of hoard the La Liga titles. However, not just one team dominates in La Liga—two do. And they are the two biggest clubs in the world: Barcelona and Real Madrid. Atletico Madrid, Valencia, and Sevilla can often peck their way into contention. Atletico even pipped the two Spanish goliaths for a title in 2013-14 and Valencia did twice ten years prior. However, it is a big feat for other, smaller clubs to find their footing in the Top 4. Real Sociedad are staking a claim for now and the years to come.
The Basque club boasts dynamic Real Madrid loanee Martin Ødegaard, coveted prospect Oyarzabal, and top scorer, nineteen-year-old Alexander Isak. Combined with savvy veterans like Illarramendi and Willian José, they are the highest-scoring team outside the top two. Also, the prospect of an all-Basque Copa Del Rey final against Athletic Bilbao looms. Their current success could keep going with former player and legend Xabi Alonso currently in charge of Real Sociedad B. This team is fun to watch and their future looks incredibly bright. Start watching now and say you were there almost from the beginning.
Is this their year? Could the “fallen giants” of English football finally head back to the top flight? Fans and pundits sure seem to think this is finally Leeds year. With nine games left, the Whites sit top of the EFL Championship table. They are one point ahead of second-place West Bromwich Albion and seven points clear of third-place Fulham. Those seven points give them a cushion to achieve automatic promotion and avoid the promotion playoffs. However, last season they lost three of their final four matches and missed out on automatic promotion. Disappointment followed in the contentious playoffs and forced Leeds to wait another season. All because of one bad run of form.
Despite last year’s disappointment, this squad remains a likable, fun, energetic squad to watch. Known for his demanding and obsessive management style, Manager Marcelo Bielsa has the nickname “Loco”. He is also a lauded mentor to many of his current and former players and coaches. His tactical style employs diamonds and rotating overloads similar to the aforementioned Gasperini. Yet his tactics often draw comparisons to Pep Guardiola’s attack-heavy tactical setups at Manchester City. Bielsa’s squad also contains an amusing cast of characters out on the pitch. These factors combine to make Leeds United a riveting team to watch over the season’s final nine games. Plus, it’d make a great second season of their Amazon Studios documentary, Take Us Home, an absolute must-watch.