At the start of the year, I did a video looking at the 7 most improved teams of the decade, and clearly that must have whetted some people’s appetite for some similar content. Frankie Didio’s idea to look at the 7 most improved teams this season was the second most liked comment on my video looking at 7 surprisingly low release clauses, so I thank you for sending in your suggestion Frankie, and today I’m going to give it a go.
This seven will naturally focus on the upper echelons of the game and those performing miracles at the highest level, but feel free to share any more obscure rises this season in the comments perhaps from your part of the world. The inclusions are based on the teams performances and results last season in comparison to this season, and I’ll try to do some super quick honourable mentions between first and second place.
Here are the 7 most improved/overachieving football teams this season:
We kick off this seven in the Bundesliga, with a team currently fighting for a Champions League spot. We have become pretty used to seeing Schalke up at the top end of the Bundesliga table over the last 20 years, but they certainly weren’t last season. The Royal Blues slumped to a 14th place finish, which was the clubs joint worst league finish since winning promotion to the Bundesliga in 1991. Two different managers, namely Domenico Tedesco and later Huub Stevens, both failed to get results at the Veltins-Arena, although no defeats in their last four league games did at least ensure that they retained their Bundesliga status.
In the summer, Schalke replaced Stevens with former Huddersfield Town boss David Wagner, in what was a pretty bold appointment. Breel Embolo was sold for €10 million, while Ozan Kabak was signed for €15 million from relegated Stuttgart. Benit Raman was also brought in from Fortuna Dusseldorf, whilst youngster Jonjoe Kenny joined on-loan from Everton. The biggest revelations for Schalke though have been Suat Serdar who has now been capped three times by Germany, Morrocan international Amine Harit and Salif Sane at centre-back.
The end result is that Schalke have gone from relegation candidates to top four candidates, currently occupying fifth place in the Bundesliga table. With just over half the season gone, they have already won more games than they did last season, and have lost only three times – compared to seventeen times last season. That’s thanks in no small part to a huge improvement in their defence, which is currently the joint second tightest in the division. The club is tied on points with Borussia Dortmund in fifth place and two ahead of Borussia Monchengladbach in sixth at the time of recording.
Nantes had a 2018-19 season to forget, in a campaign which ended with a bottom half finish and will be most vividly remembered for the tragic loss of Emiliano Sala and the legal wranglings between Cardiff and Nantes which followed, leaving a bitter taste in the mouth. On the pitch, Sala was still Nantes’ top scorer come the end of the season. The first three months of 2019 saw some incredibly miserable performances, and only a run of five consecutive victories in April meant that there were at least no relegation concerns towards the end of the campaign.
Club legend Vahid Halilhodžić was dismissed in the summer following a single season in charge, and the vastly experienced Christian Gourcuff took his place, just as he had with the Algerian national team in 2014. Nantes made a net profit of more than €20 million in the summer transfer window, which ought to have made Gourcuff’s job even tougher, but it hasn’t panned out that way.
Nantes made a sensational start to the season, and kept pace with PSG up until a tricky run towards the back end of October. The Nantes side still desperately lacks a goal scorer, and like Schalke, their impressive campaign is built upon a solid defence. Having finished 12th last season, Nantes are currently up in fourth place, ahead of the likes of Lille, Lyon and Monaco and on course for their best league finish since winning the Ligue 1 title back in 2001.
5. Inter Milan
Some of these improvements come as bigger shocks than others, and I must admit I’m not enormously surprised to see Inter Milan competing with Juventus for the Serie A title this season. That is because I hold Antonio Conte’s talents in such high regard though, and not because what he is doing isn’t impressive by any means. It has been a pretty rocky decade for Inter Milan ever since their historic treble in 2010 under Jose Mourinho. The club hasn’t finished in the top three in the Serie A table since 2011, and have finished as low as 7th, 8th and 9th. They finished fourth under Luciano Spalletti last season, three points worse off than the previous season, 21 points behind the title winners Juventus and only one point clear of rivals AC Milan in fifth.
This season has been a total transformation. Significant investment was made in the summer, most notably with the arrival of Romelu Lukaku, and the Belgian hitman has since bagged 14 goals in 20 league games. Following a season bedding into life in Milan, young Lautaro Martinez has also been brilliant, scoring 10 in 19 himself and ensuring Inter haven’t missed Mauro Icardi too much. Diego Godin has strengthened the Nerazzurri’s backline, as you would expect, and they currently have the best defence in the division. Inter lost nine games last season, but after more than half of the current campaign gone, they have lost only once. Unfortunately that defeat came against title rivals Juventus, who have a five point lead over Inter at the time of recording. The fact that Conte’s men are already 12 points clear of 5th and 19 ahead of rivals AC Milan is testament to the huge strides they have made this season though.
We head back to France in fourth place, with a seasonal improvement that is perhaps just marginally more impressive than Nantes’. Rennes finished four points ahead of Nantes in tenth place in the Ligue 1 table last season, and they’re now four points ahead of them in third place this season. Unlike the other three clubs in this seven, Rennes didn’t have a change of management over the summer, sticking with their young boss Julien Stephan. Although Stade de Rennes didn’t have a barnstorming league campaign last season, they did win the Coupe de France for just the third time in their history, and the faith they’ve shown in Stephan is being repaid in the league this season.
Rennes had significant incomings and outgoings over the summer, losing Ismaila Sarr to Watford for £27 million, but bringing in the likes of Raphinha from Sporting and M’Baye Niang from Torino. Both players have made immediate impacts, and Rennes have won 11 games at the half-way stage this season, having won just 13 during the entirety of last season. Their defence, which was among the most porous in the top half of the division last season, is now among the best. Rennes have won eight of their last ten games, and consequently find themselves third in the Ligue 1 table, five points behind Marseille in second and five points above Lille in fifth.
3. Leicester City
Leicester City took a risk when they sacked Claude Puel last season, but it was a calculated risk, and one which is now paying dividends. The Foxes 2018-19 campaign, like Nantes’, was marred by tragedy following that helicopter crash at the King Power Stadium. On the pitch, the club went on a horrible run at the start of 2019, prompting the Leicester board to act fast and lure Brendan Rodgers back to the Premier League from Celtic. That now looks to have been a really shrewd appointment, and Leicester lost just 2 of their opening 17 games this season, beating Newcastle 5-0 and Southampton 9-0 in a record away win in the top flight of English football.
They have been less consistent since the start of the festive period, but still find themselves in a position they could only have dreamt of in the summer. The Foxes have already won as many games this season as they during all of last season, they’ve already scored more goals than they did last season, and they could exceed their points tally from last season in their next two games. Summer signing Youri Tielemans and Ayoze Perez have played their part, Caglar Soyuncu has more than filled the void vacated by Harry Maguire and Jamie Vardy is the Premier League’s top scorer despite a couple of injuries. Leicester are third in the Premier League right now, just three points behind Man City in second and a whopping 14 points ahead of Manchester United in fifth, virtually guaranteeing that they will play Champions League football next season – an impressive achievement having finished ninth last season.
There are a lot of similarities to be drawn between Rennes and Lazio this season. Both teams have ambitious young managers who finished mid-table but won a domestic trophy last season, and have now set their sights on league success. In the case of Lazio, they are managed by their former striker Simone Inzaghi, who has been in the top job since 2016. Following two fifth place finishes, Lazio slipped to eighth last season, but a seventh Coppa Italia to add to the clubs trophy cabinet meant Inzaghi’s job was safe. Modest business was done over the summer as Lazio looked to cut their cloth, but results this season have been enormously improved.
The club from Rome finished ninth in Serie A last season, 31 points behind the title winners Juventus, 10 points off the top four and 21 points above the bottom three. They are now the form team in Serie A this season, and should they win their game in hand, they would leap-frog Inter Milan into second place and would trail Juventus by only three points. Even if they lost their game in hand, Lazio are still 10 points clear of Atalanta in fifth after only 20 games. They’ve now won a remarkable nine games on the bounce, a run which has included inflicting Juventus’ only defeat of the season, and as things stand they’re unfortunate not to top this seven. The primary factor in Lazio’s remarkable rise, if we’re honest, has been the unbelievable output of their top scorer Ciro Immobile. The Italian has long been prolific, but he’s now scored 23 goals in 19 league games this season, and with a record like that it’s little wonder Lazio are flying high.
0. Honourable Mentions
I won’t dwell on the honourable mentions for too long, but some of the other clubs who made my shortlist included Freiburg, who finished 13th in the Bundesliga last season but are up in 7th now, Real Sociedad, who’ve gone from a mid-table side to contenders for a Champions League spot, Borussia Monchengladbach, who are just one point behind Bundesliga runners-up Bayern Munich having finished fifth last season, RB Leipzig, who currently top the Bundesliga table off the back of a third place finish last season, Wolves, who are only one place higher than they finished last season, but have been mightily impressive given that they’ve also had the Europa League to contend with, and lastly Santos, who finished as runners-up in the 2019 Campeonato Brasileiro having finished way down in tenth place in 2018.
1. Sheffield United
In top spot, it can be difficult to weigh-up Sheffield United for a seven like this. On the one hand, they were excellent last season, winning promotion from the Championship, but on the other, they only narrowly pipped Leeds United to second place and finished behind Norwich, meaning few expected them to be fighting for a European place in the Premier League this season. In fact, many people wrote off Chris Wilder’s team before a ball had even been kicked in the Premier League, given their modest wage budget and lack of major investment in the summer. Wilder is a wily operator though, and he has once again got his team wildly overachieving. If this were a seven based on overachievement, Sheffield United would comfortably top it, but even based on improvement versus last season I think they deserve to.
The Premier League new boys lost just four of their opening 19 games this season, which is an outstanding record for a promoted side. They’ve had a bit of a comedown since Christmas, with just one win in six, but that run has included games against Liverpool, Arsenal and Manchester City twice. It has seen them drop from fifth in the Premier League down to eighth, but they’re still very much in the mix in terms of Europa League qualification. The Blades are just one point behind Manchester United in fifth, Tottenham in sixth and Wolves in seventh, in addition to being three points ahead of Arsenal in 10th. It’s one of the finest performances by a newly-promoted team in recent times, and due to that twinned with the limited resources at their disposal, I think the Blades deserve to top this seven.