Over-Performing Underdogs: The "Burnleys" of European Football
Every league has that one team that isn't really all that good but just seems to hang around for far longer than they should. They don't spend much, they don't play entertaining football, and they never really win any big games. Yet when the season ends, they are always mid-table.
In the 2010s, that team in England was Wigan Athletic, as Roberto Martínez's brand of "Guerilla Soccer" kept an underfunded Latics side in the Premier League for eight years.
Then came Bournemouth, who under Eddie Howe earned one of the more unexpected EPL promotions in recent years just six seasons after nearly falling out of the Football League altogether.
Now, the crown has been taken by Burnley, a rugged, stable side that has seemingly put out the same XI every week for the past six seasons. In a league known for its flowing passing football, Burnley's long-ball barrages are a noticeable divergence.
These three sides, while different in many ways, share one common thread: the sense that they didn't belong in the Premier League. Yet all three succeeded (for a period of time) despite their lack of resources, overcoming the odds every year to secure another season of top-flight football.
Burnley is the only underdog left standing in the Premier League, but who are some of the underappreciated, overperforming sides still surviving in other major European Leagues?
The "Burnleys" of European Football
Cádiz might not have as long of a top-flight run as Burnley (just two seasons as we speak), but Los Piratas' commitment to anti-football is a sight to behold.
For the second season in a row, Cádiz is averaging: the lowest possession percentage, the lowest pass completion percentage, and fewest short passes per game of any team in LaLiga. The only two teams from "Big 5" European leagues averaging less than 40 percent possession and completing 70 percent or less of their passes this season? Burnley and Cádiz.
Los Piratas average just 35.8 percent possession per game, the lowest mark among all 18 divisions that WhoScored? covers in detail. Yet the club finished 12th in LaLiga last season despite the second-lowest squad value in the league, securing back-to-back top-flight seasons for the first time since the early 1990s.
In terms of transfer spending, Cádiz follows the Burnley model of abstaining from opening the checkbook unless entirely necessary. The club has spent just under $18 million on new players since gaining promotion in 2020, with the highest fee being $2.97 million.
Two other Spanish sides deserving of mention here are CA Osasuna and SD Eibar. Osasuna had by far the greatest ratio of long passes to short passes of any team in Europe last year, while Eibar — another penny-pinching, long ball-heavy side — survived in LaLiga for seven seasons before succumbing to relegation last year.
When you have a team that's finished at or near the bottom of the league for pass completion percentage and possession percentage for more than half a decade running, you would assume that they've had a few run-ins with the relegation zone.
Augsburg finished 13th, 15th, and 15th over the last three seasons (out of 18 teams, remember), yet has only played five matches during this stretch while in the relegation zone. This season is actually the first time in a decade that Augsburg has been in serious danger of relegation.
In 2011-12 the club was bottom of the table in late January, and the following season the Bavarian side survived after defeating Greuther Fürth on the last day — the first time the club had been out of the relegation zone since the first match of the season.
One more overlap between Augsburg and Burnley — both clubs spent relatively large sums on foreign strikers during the January transfer window (Wout Weghorst for Burnley, Ricardo Pepi for Augsburg).
A tough decision to be made here; the defensive stoutness of Stade de Reims or the prolonged mid-table buoyancy of Angers SCO? So we did the wise thing and chose both. Here's how both clubs compare to Burnley:
Stade de Reims
The typical draw rate for a professional side is around 25 percent — for Reims, that rate this season is currently at 40 percent. That's not an outlier to the club either; over the past four seasons, Stade de Reims has drawn 51 of its 127 Ligue 1 matches, again, a 40 percent draw rate.
Reims has become masters of the stalemate through solid defense, finishing eighth-place or better in Ligue 1 in terms of goals allowed during this period (including the stoutest defense in the league during the COVID-shortened 19-20 campaign). Like Burnely, the club has been anchored at the back by an uncommonly talent group of goalkeepers.
Burnley has benefited from the services of the experienced and underrated Tom Heaton and now has a fringe English international in Nick Pope. As for Reims, they benefited from 14 clean sheets from current Chelsea keeper Edouard Mendy in 18-19. Then, after selling the Senegal star for $8 million, the club brought in Serbian international Predrag Rajkovic from Maccabi Tel Aviv — who has been nothing less than solid.
Angers' first Ligue 1 season in two decades ended with a ninth-place finish in 2015-16. In the six years since Angers has finished every campaign sitting between 11th and 14th-place in the league table. Now that's a team you can set your watch to.
Speaking of consistency, Angers spent almost exactly as many matchweeks in the top three as they have during the bottom three during this period (13 and 14 weeks, respectively). It's not quite Burnley territory in terms of relegation scares, but not everyone can be as much of a statistical outlier as Sean Dyche's side.
Has any football team in Europe been as consistently mediocre in the 21st century as Cagliari? First the good part: the Islanders have spent 17 of the past 18 seasons in the Italian top flight.
On the other hand, only once has Cagliari finished in the top half (9th place in 08-09), and the Sardinian side has finished in 14th, 15th, or 16th an astounding 10 times during this period while never making it past the Round of 16 in the Coppa Italia.
Even seasons surrounding the club's relegation in 2014-15 were typical Cagliari; 11th place, 15th place, dead last (R), league champs (P), 11th place, 16th place. They got relegated, got promoted right away, and it was back to business as usual. You have to appreciate a club that understands its role in the league.