Galatasaray endured a miserable 2021-22 season, finishing 13th and setting a new club record for their lowest finish in the Turkish top flight. Enter, Okan Buruk.
This is the story of how they wrapped up the 2022-23 Süper Lig title.
Back-to-back Süper Lig titles in 2018 and 2019 saw Galatasaray return to the top of Turkish football after a three-season title drought. However, another three years without a title followed, with their 13th place finish in 2021-22 their lowest ever across any Turkish top-flight campaign.
After the dismissal of Domènec Torrent halfway through June, Galatasaray had even less time that usual to find a replacement and shape their squad with the 2022-23 season kicking off earlier due to the mid-season World Cup in Qatar. The omens weren’t positive.
The 23-time Turkish top-flight champions had a rich history of success of ex-players becoming managers at the club. All Turkish managers to have won the league with them as a coach also played for the club, amounting to 12 championships in total. The most famous and successful of those, Fatih Terim, had been first choice in many of these situations, but wasn’t really an option following his mid-season exit in 2021-22. Step forward, Okan Buruk.
Buruk won seven Süper Lig titles with Galatasaray as a player as well as the UEFA Cup, UEFA Super Cup and multiple domestic cup trophies, becoming one of the most decorated players in the club’s history.
After becoming a coach, he would soon add to these honours, guiding Akhisarspor to their first ever major trophy (2018 Turkish Cup) and İstanbul Başakşehir to their first ever Süper Lig title in 2019-20. After that title, he’d been victorious as a player or coach in eight different Süper Lig seasons, putting him level with Terim’s tally (all as a manager). On paper, this was a match made in heaven.
After appointing Buruk in June 2022, the prospect of overhauling a weak playing squad was a daunting task. There was still quality in the ranks, with players such as Kerem Aktürkoğlu, Victor Nelsson and long-time captain Fernando Muslera being kept on, but additions were needed.
Key acquisitions were made in midfield, with the new trio of Lucas Torreira, Sergio Oliveira and Dries Mertens acquired. They also brought in ball-playing central defender Abdülkerim Bardakcı to partner Nelsson in an attempt to shore up a defence that had leaked 53 goals in 38 games across the previous season. Forward Haris Seferovic also arrived on loan from Benfica, but the real difference maker in attack came later that summer.
Mauro Icardi had proven himself as a prolific scorer, netting 144 goals in 283 appearances across his career in the top five European leagues. After six seasons at Inter Milan, where he scored 111 times in Serie A – only Gonzalo Higuaín (117) scored more across that period – he endured a frustrating time in France at Paris Saint-Germain, playing just 36% of possible minutes in Ligue 1 across three seasons.
A season-long loan deal was agreed on 8 September by Galatasaray, and the Turkish giants had their star striker for the 2022-23 campaign.
Having a striker who can score 20 goals is usually a must for a team with aspirations of winning a league title, and the Argentinian forward didn’t disappoint. Only two players would go on to score more league goals than Icardi’s 22 – Enner Valencia (29) and Mbaye Diagne (23), with only Valencia managing more goal involvements (34) than Icardi’s 29. Of the 20 players to score at least nine league goals in 2022-23, Valencia (78 mins) was also the only player with a superior minutes-per-goal record than the Galatasaray striker (86 mins).
Icardi scored in each of his last eight starts en route to crucial wins in the final matches. His 22 goals secured 17 points for Galatasaray, with six of those points coming in the last five games.
Of course, Icardi didn’t single-handedly lead his side to the title. The main help came from Kerem Aktürkoğlu, who assisted five of Icardi’s goals – the highest number of assists to a single teammate in the competition across 2022-23.
Kerem was one of the players to remain at Galatasaray following their poor 2021-22 season, in which he finished as their top scorer with 10 goals. With Buruk coming in as coach, Kerem’s role in the side was redefined, helping to improve both his threat to opponents and his contribution to the team overall.
With the arrival of Icardi, he no longer had to shoulder the burden of goalscoring for Galatasaray, although he did still score nine times across this title-winning campaign. Along with his five assists for his new teammate, he assisted six further goals and finished with the league’s best tally of 11 assists and the top total from open play, too (nine).
Across the campaign, Kerem was a creative monster. He tallied the most chances created from open play (65) and led the entire league for xG assisted for teammates (10.2). He was a player that understood the ball needed to be fed into dangerous areas for players like Icardi to thrive off. Nobody in the Süper Lig last season sent more open-play passes into the opposition penalty box (157), with a league-high 66 of those successfully finding a Galatasaray player.
Naturally, being predominantly right-footed but playing wide on the left, the 24-year-old would cut inside to devastating effect. It was rare to see him create chances with open-play crosses, inside preferring to carry the ball inside and thread passes through central areas. Across the 2022-23 season, only Nathan Redmond (25) created more chances from ball carries than he did (22) in the Süper Lig.
The fantastic campaigns that Icardi and Kerem both enjoyed were only made possible by the defensive work put in behind them. A key player in stopping the flow of the opposition and regaining possession was another new arrival from last summer, the diminutive Lucas Torreira.
After successive seasons on loan at Atlético Madrid and Fiorentina, Arsenal fans could have been forgiven if they’d forgotten he was at the club. Galatasaray were able to pick up a steal, paying a reported fee of €6 million for the then 26-year-old.
Across the 2022-23 campaign, he was involved in 137 shot-ending open play sequences for the champions – only three players were more integral to attacking moves. Torreira’s role was often harder to see, however, with a team-high 98 of those involvements seeing him play a part deeper in the move, not as the creator or the shot taker.
His role was to win the ball back and begin possession sequences – a job he did to maximum effect. No player started as many open-play passing sequences than Torreira across the season (34), while he was one of only seven Süper Lig players to reach double-figures for actively winning possession back from opponents and starting passing moves (10). In fact, no player in the competition last season won possession from opponents more frequently than the Uruguayan (8.6 per 90 – minimum 1,500 mins), with 67% of these coming in the crucial middle third of the pitch that he patrolled.
With Torreira in front of them, the newly formed central defence of Nelsson and Bardakcı were well protected, and the trio became a solid triangle that proved almost impenetrable at times.
Across the season, Galatasaray allowed their opponents a league-low average of 0.83 non-penalty xG per game, while the shots that they did allow the opposition to have had the lowest quality, with an average non-penalty xG per shot of 0.079. To put it in simpler terms, the expected shot conversion rate of these shots (based on the quality of chance) was 7.9% – for context, that’s lower than each of the champions from across the top five European leagues in 2022-23. The season before, when they conceded 53 goals, Galatasaray’s averages were 1.14 per game and 10% expected shot conversion from non-penalty shots: a huge improvement from one season to the next.
Of course, the formidable defence was a collective effort, with Sacha Boey establishing himself as another star after previously being little more than an afterthought. Boey and Milot Rashica – the winger in front of him – formed a defensively strong right flank. The left-sided defensive position was arguably Galatasaray’s only failure of the season, with five different players being deployed in that role across the season and nobody staking a consistent claim to be the preferred name in the starting line-up.
Goalkeeper Muslera is reaching the twilight years of his career, with the now 36-year-old playing in his 12th season at the club. He was as consistent as he’d ever been, with his 16 league clean sheets only bettered in his first season at the club in 2011-12 (19). His saves prevented just over two goals (2.1) from being scored by opponents, based on Opta’s xGOT model – one of only 10 goals keepers to prevent as many.
Buruk managed to not only integrate new players into his side and make Galatasaray successful again, but he also elevated the performances of existing stars who underperformed in the dire 2021-22 campaign.
With a win ratio of 76% and an average of 2.4 points per game collected, he owns the all-time Galatasaray records for both categories. He led his side on a 14-game winning streak (including one awarded victory) between 28 October and 11 March, setting a new Turkish top-flight record in the process. The 36-point difference between 2021-22 and 2022-23 was the second largest positive change between two Turkish top-flight seasons, too – only Terim’s 40-point positive change between 2010-11 and 2011-12 (also at Galatasaray) has ever topped that.
So, how can Galatasaray build on this in 2023-24? UEFA Champions League football would be a good start.
They enter the competition at the second qualifying round as one of the 10 seeded teams, meaning that if they do make it through, they’ll be in the group stage for the first time since 2019-20. In 2013-14, they made it through the groups, only to come up short against Chelsea in the round of 16. Now, a decade later, they’ve got to battle through three rounds and six games of qualifying to even reach the group stage, but it would be foolish to write them off. Galatasaray believe again.