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Definitely Maybe: Forecasting Breakout Teams For 2021

We crunched the numbers, and these are the sides that stood out.

Few things in sports are as difficult as predicting results of future games. According to Chris Anderson and David Sally, authors of The Numbers Game, soccer is 50 percent luck and 50 percent skill. Add in an overwhelming number of professional leagues and players and the low-scoring nature of matches, soccer is one of the most unpredictable sports. 

But we have managed to control all of these variables and devise a system that will reasonably forecast how teams will perform in the future, and we used our proprietary methods to predict which sleeper teams will impress this year.

After weeks of statistical modeling, in-person scouting and interviews with inside sources, our team here at The18 has concluded that these clubs are poised for breakout years in 2021. 


2021 Breakout Teams

England: Barnsley

Gerhard Struber took over in November 2019 with the club dead last and seven points from safety. But even after a rebound in form, the Austrian manager still needed Wigan's financial woes and multiple injury time miracles, including one on the final day, for Barnsley to avoid relegation. Struber now coaches for New York Red Bulls and new boss Valérien Ismaël has led the Tykes to 11 wins in his 17 games in charge, guiding them to 10th in the Championship.

Barnsley is part-owned by Billy Beane, the man responsible for baseball's "Moneyball" revolution, and the Tykes are run using those same principles. The club exploits transfer market inefficiencies, building the squad through cheap players from smaller European leagues.

Mads Juel Anderson and Michal Helik, imported from Poland and Denmark, have been one of the league's top center back pairings, while Callum Styles matches their defensive intensity in the midfield. Brentford is a more fashionable breakout pick among Championship sides, but Barnsley boasts a similar club model and could soon be on the international radar like the Bees. 

France: Strasbourg 

Les Coureurs (The Racers) earned consecutive promotions in 15/16 and 16/17 to gain a spot in Ligue 1, and have since improved their league position in each of their three top flight seasons, moving up to 10th last season. Located on the French border with Germany, the club has fallen to 13th this year but still has a talented squad. 

Mohamed Simakan is currently injured but is one of the most promising defenders in the league, and his center back partner Alexander Djiku is also an immensely talented player. The club also has a skilled strikeforce, with Ludovic Ajorque and Habib Diallo recording eight and seven league goals, respectively. The team has rued the loss of goalkeeper Matz Sels though, who will miss the entire season with a ruptured achilles, as subpar goalkeeping has hurt the team.

Expected goals shows that Strasbourg should have about five more points, which would move the team up to eighth. A top half finish might be tough to attain this year, but with a healthy squad next season, Strasbourg could be a dark horse in Ligue 1.

Germany: Eintracht Frankfurt

Frankfurt has quietly been one of Europe's most efficient clubs in the transfer market over recent years, all while still managing a DFB-Pokal title, a Europa League final, and three consecutive top half finishes in the Bundesliga. Now it's time for one of the Bundesliga's founding members to have a breakout campaign.

Strikers Luka Jovic and Sébastien Haller were sold for a combined $120 million prior to last season — which the club smartly invested in half a dozen key first team players (while still leaving a cool $40 million left over). Their replacement, André Silva (23 goals in 39 league matches), is the leading scorer in the Bundesliga this season not named Lewandowski or Halaand. Plus the club also managed to bring back Jovic on loan from Real Madrid. 

The club also bagged bargains on stalwart Austrian defender Martin Hinteregger and creative Serbian winger Filip Kostic (combined $16.5 million and 85 international caps), two of the most underrated players in the league. Frankfurt has aced Transfer Market 101 and still has enough money left over to weather the pandemic. If Jovic can provide goals to take the pressure off of Silva and the defense tightens up a bit, Frankfurt will be a Champions League-level side.

Spain: Real Sociedad

More of a breakthrough rather than breakout candidate, Real Sociedad is a club that I have been high on for a few years now, but it has never quite been able to put it all together. After a disappointing 13th place finish in 2017/18, the Basque side has improved its league standing each of the last two seasons, and the club currently resides in fifth. 

Real Sociedad has the fourth highest player market value in LaLiga despite spending around just $25 million in the transfer market each year and having the second highest transfer profit of any LaLiga club over the last five seasons. The key is an elite academy system that consistently produces stars. Mikel Oyarzabal is one of Spain's top wingers, right back Andoni Gorosabel and talented center back Robin Le Normand are just a few of the Real Sociedad youth products currently starring in the first team.

Mikel Merino, a $13 million steal from Newcastle in 2018, is Real Sociedad's maestro in the midfield, and he has formed a fantastic pairing with new free agent signing David Silva. The side has been solid defensively but could use a clinical striker, as no center forward for the club has more than four goals. With Real Madrid and Barcelona both experiencing somewhat transitional spells, now is the time for the talent of Real Sociedad to prove itself.

Italy: Bologna

My knowledgeable Italian sources tell me that Bologna is an under-the-radar side poised to have a break-out year, and a quick look at the Serie A side's roster justifies that assertion. Seven of the club's eight most valuable players are under 25, leading to the fourth-youngest roster in the league, but one that has no shortage of talent.

Riccardo Orsolini is the most promising of the bunch. The 23-year-old winger has appeared in 90 percent of Bologna's matches over the past three seasons, to the tune of 19 goals and 14 assists. The lefty is a set piece specialist but is just as capable of picking out a teammate or finding the back of the net from open play.

Musa Barrow is another creative attacking player, while the midfield pairing of Jerry Schouten and Mattias Svanberg is equally adept, as the defensive-minded duo provides physicality in the center of the pitch.

A dip in form saw the side go eight matches winless, including five draws in a row, but a developing squad means that Bologna should soon rise from mid-table obscurity.

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