Turkish Süper Lig: The Big Three’s Big Fail
Like the majority of Europe, Turkey’s footballing story began in the late 19th century, but the official start of a professional league wasn’t until 1959. Across the 63 seasons prior to 2021-22, there have only ever been six winners of the Turkish top-flight, while the opening 17 seasons only saw three winners of the competition: Fenerbahçe (8), Galatasaray (6) and Beşiktaş (3).
It was not until 1974-75 that Trabzonspor entered the Turkish top-flight, but they managed to win their first title in the following season to become Turkey’s fourth top-tier league winners. Following their maiden title, they went on to win five more in the 1970s and 80s with their last coming in 1983-84. It then took another 25 seasons for a new league title-winner in Turkey, with Bursaspor’s 2009-10 victory, before the sixth different team to win the league were İstanbul Başakşehir in 2019-20.
57 of the 63 Turkish Süper Lig champions have been one of the ‘big three’ (90%), with Galatasaray leading the way (22 titles), followed by Fenerbahçe (19) and Beşiktaş (16).
This introduction should give you enough of an overview to understand the significance of Turkey’s three biggest clubs, but in the case of 2021-22, none of those three are close to challenging for the title. Trabzonspor lead the way with a nine-point lead over second place Konyaspor, but the ‘big three’ all fall outside of the European qualification spots as it stands – the most worrying of those is 15th place Galatasaray, who find themselves 27 points off the top of the table.
Based on three points for a win, Trabszonspor’s current tally of 54 points from 23 games is their second-best performance at this season of a season, only falling short of their 1995-96 campaign (57 points) – a season that they eventually missed out on the title to Fenerbahçe by only two points.
This season, they took over the lead at the top of the table on Matchday nine and haven’t moved since – whilst there’s undoubtedly been a big slump by the three major clubs in Turkey, Trabzonspor’s feats so far shouldn’t be underplayed.
Performance on the pitch from attacking trio Anthony Nwakaeme (six goals, seven assists), Anastasios Bakasetas (eight goals, four assists) and Andreas Cornelius (11 goals, one assist) have been key to their title push, while they’ve even been able to add Edin Višća to their ranks in January following his five goals and eight assists for İstanbul Başakşehir so far in 2021-22.
At the moment, they look unstoppable, but the lack of challenge from the traditional ‘big three’ has aided this. Reigning champions Beşiktaş and Galatasaray – who only lost out last season on goal difference to Beşiktaş, have both been well below-par, while Fenerbahçe look set to complete a record eighth successive season without a league title.
How Far Have They Fallen?
Beşiktaş’s 36-point tally from 27 games so far this season is not one of the worst performances in club’s history, but it is their lowest since 2010-11 at this stage of the campaign (35 points). Back in that campaign 11 years ago, they scored more often (36-35) and conceded less frequently, however (27-31).
Galatasaray’s situation is even more dire. This season has been their worst-ever in the three points for a win era, while their minus five goal difference is the second worst in club history.
Fenerbahçe’s situation is similar to Beşiktaş’s, in that it’s not their worst season, but far enough away from being one of their best. Only in nine previous seasons have they had 37 points or fewer after 23 games (based on three points for a win).
As a collective unit, the ‘big three’ have already lost 23 matches in 2021-22, equalling the competition record after 23 matchdays of a Süper Lig season from 2010-11. The record number of defeats by these clubs in an entire top-flight season stands at 30 – set in both 2010-11 and 1980-81, and that tally is now only seven away this season.
After the broadcast fees generated by the league soared and the number of foreign players allowed increased, the competitive level of the Anatolian clubs has also been raised (all clubs except these three are often referred to as “Anatolian clubs”). The away performances of Beşiktaş, Fenerbahçe and Galatasaray are also not like what they used to be.
Beşiktaş, Fenerbahçe and Galatasaray, never had a lower points per game ratio outside Istanbul, than this season (1.04) in the three points per game era.
The current campaign has also witnessed another negative record for the ‘big three’, as they have conceded a combined 92 goals after 23 games each, something that has never happened before and eclipses the previous high of 86 in 2018-19.
This overall terrible performance by the ‘big three’ has led to them all sacking their managers during the season. Even by their well-known impatience with managers, this is a rare occurrence – this is only the second time that all three have changed their manager within the same season after 1975-76. Trabzonspor won the league title that season, which is more than a coincidence.
All three clubs have been hindered by a lack of consistency on the pitch. The ‘big three’ are the only three clubs to have made over 80 changes to their starting XI across the Turkish top-flight this season.
Fenerbahçe have made 86 changes across 23 matches – an average of nearly four per game (3.9) and just 10 fewer than they made in the whole of last season (96), while Besiktas (83 changes) and Galatasaray (81) follow close behind. It is Galatasaray that have used the most players of the ‘big three’ with 31 different players making a Süper Lig appearance in 2021-22 – a tally that only Fatih Karagümrük (34) can beat.
A Lack of Ability, or Luck?
Galatasaray’s awful season can be partly explained by their under-performance both in attack and defence. They have scored 28 goals from an xG of 39.8 and have conceded 33 goals from an xG conceded of 31 – and are the worst team in both categories for xG under-performance across the entire Süper Lig.
Only Alanyaspor (42.2 xG) have accumulated better goalscoring chances this season in the Süper Lig than Galatasaray, with their xG total of 39.8 above that of league-leaders Trabzonspor (38.5). The worrying issue for the 22-time Turkish champions is that their shot conversion rate (8%) has fallen below 11% for the first time in recorded history since detailed Opta analysis began on the league in 2014-15.
Whilst their poor performance in front of goal is one major issue, losing points from leading positions is another. Galatasaray have dropped a league-high 21 points from winning in the Süper Lig this season so far – one more than Kayserispor (20) and only one fewer than the top three sides combined, with Trabzonspor, Alanyaspor and Konyaspor dropping just 22 between them.
Of these 21 points lost, nine have come in their last three matches, with all three seeing Galatasaray lose from a winning position. In fact, across the whole 2021-22 season so far, they have spent a higher proportion of ball-in-play time in a winning position (22%) than they have a losing one (21%).
Fenerbahçe’s record from winning positions isn’t much better – losing 14 points from leads themselves. Their relationship with goal scoring has been quite a story for too long now.
Since 2014-15, only seven players have exceeded 10 goals in a league season for the club, with just two of those – Robin van Persie (16) in 2015-16 and Vedat Muriqi (15) in 2019-20 scoring at least 15 goals in a single campaign.
Finishing chances has been a longer-term issue for the club in the league, with this their fourth successive season in which they have scored fewer non-penalty goals than their non-penalty expected goals total suggests they should have.
Since 2018-19, Fenerbahçe have underperformed their non-penalty xG by an astonishing 33.7, scoring 184 goals (excluding penalties) from shots totalling 217.7 xG. This season’s performance is, however, is slightly better than the previous three seasons (-2.2). Considering this difference, this can still go either way with 15 more games to play this season.
Beşiktaş’s xG performance, meanwhile, is causing them problems in front of their own goal more than it is in front of the opposition’s.
Despite having faced just 225 non-penalty shots in the league this season – the second-lowest tally – Beşiktaş have conceded 28 times excluding penalty goals, a tally that is double that of league-leaders Trabzonspor.
Opposition sides have converted a league-high 12.4% of their non-penalty shots against the reigning champions, which is exactly on the expected conversion rate of these chances based on the average xG of each shot faced (0.124). Only Hatayspor (0.13) and Altay (0.13) have given their opponents better quality non-penalty shots this season on average.
So, it looks as if Trabzonspor will end their 38-year wait for a top-flight Turkish title, at the end of this season, with their head coach Abdullah Avcı previously coming so close with Istanbul Başakşehir on more than one occasion.
For now, the battle the ‘big three’ face is one for European football in 2022-23, a battle that Galatasaray look to have already lost. Their focus is now more on surviving another season in the top-flight, with just a three-point cushion between them and 17th place Antalyaspor – a team that they have to face away on the final day of the season.
Lessons from 2021-22 need to be learnt by all three clubs, as unless they are, Trabzonspor could be building a squad to dominate for longer than just this season.
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